There's a Xeroxed black-and-white picture on the wall in Huey Long's Heights retirement-home apartment that is simply astounding. On stage in the photo, there's a big band -- and what a big band it was. There's Long on guitar, seated in the back row. Standing in the front row at the other end of the band is Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet. Earl "Father" Hines is on the piano. Charlie Parker's on tenor sax. And singing is Sarah Vaughan. Now that's a supergroup.
"I was fortunate to be with heavyweights," says Long, a dapper, copper-colored man with high cheekbones and a full head of white hair. Long is turning 100 this month but remains keen as a freshly whetted blade. "That's because I honed my craft. Being from Texas, I had to work twice as hard as a lot of these guys, but if you work hard, they will come for you."
That picture occupies but a small portion of the walls in his museumlike flat, and that's fitting -- after all, it was but a small moment in his 75-year musical career. Here's another picture of him with the original Ink Spots, the R&B group that was hugely influential on Elvis Presley and every doo-wop group, all of which followed in their footsteps. Here's another of Huey fronting his own jazz trio on stage for the troops in Korea, and another of him seated on a bench in Chicago's Washington Park, a banjo on his knee. (Long may well be the last of the black banjoists in America.) Other photos preserve moments away from music. Here he is teaching a class on Baha'i in New York, and this too is only fitting -- just as Baha'i is a mélange of all the world's faiths, Long is a mélange of many different races. A genealogy chart on another wall shows him to be "part American," part black, part Mexican, part Indian and part Irish. Then there are the politicians -- Michael Jackson isn't the only pop star who's had an audience with Sheila Jackson Lee. There's also one of Bill Clinton playing sax with Arsenio Hall. Long is nowhere to be found in that photo. What gives?
"He looked like he was having a good time," Long explains, a twinkle in his hazel eyes.
Huey Long was there at the inception. The inception of what, you ask? Well, a good chunk of some of the most exciting American music of the 20th century -- Dixieland jazz, swing, bebop and the very earliest R&B. "I'm from all the eras," he likes to say.
In 1925, Long worked outside the Rice Hotel in a less glamorous profession than the one he was about to bust into. "I went down on Main Street. I saw guys shining shoes, and I needed work. This fellow says to me, 'You can have this shine box,' so I shined shoes."
Soon thereafter, Long caught a break as a banjoist in Frank Davis's Louisiana Jazz Band, Houston's hottest group at the time. Still, most of the jazz world back then was centered in Chicago, so Long moved there and found a gig at the 1933 World's Fair backing Texas Guinan at the "Century of Progress" exhibition. Since Long and band were posing as Cubans, he was forced to learn guitar. "We were playing Xavier Cugat rumbas," he recalls. "They told me, 'I'm gonna give you x days to lose that banjo, 'cause Cubans don't play banjo.' "
Long applied his trademark work ethic and soon was able to take over guitar for an early jazz orchestra called Chicago -- not to be confused with the jazz-rock group of the same name -- and later, as the Great Depression deepened, in a swing orchestra sponsored by the federal government's Works Progress Administration. He also recorded with Lil Armstrong on the Decca label. In 1942, Long joined the orchestra of Fletcher Henderson -- the most commercially successful of the early black jazz bandleaders, and a primary influence on people like Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman, and thus the entire swing era. In 1943, he joined the band of Earl "Father" Hines, which is when the star-studded photo was taken. A year later, Long started his own trio, a gig he left to join the Ink Spots.
It was one of the few gigs worth leaving your own band to join. The Ink Spots, with their songs such as "If I Didn't Care," "The Gypsy," "To Each His Own," "Java Jive" and "Maybe," were among the first black artists to gain wide acceptance across the color line, and helped pave the way for the doo-wop, rock and roll and R&B explosions to come. One of the first things Sam Phillips heard Elvis Presley sing was a demo of an Ink Spots tune the King made for his mother.
And yet it's not his time with the Ink Spots that Long remembers most fondly. Instead, it was what immediately followed: a few 1947 sessions in New York with saxophonist Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis and trumpeter Fats Navarro, a recording of which plays in the background throughout our visit. Long considers Navarro, who died at 27 in 1950 of heroin abuse and tuberculosis, to have been a better trumpeter than the infinitely more famed Dizzy Gillespie. (In that view he's not alone: Several jazz critics agree, and one musician -- Jimmy Heath -- also recalled how Navarro used to "eat up" the young Miles Davis every night.)
Long recalls the time as one of rapid change in jazz, and Navarro was at the forefront. "We wouldn't play certain things then, 'cause Fats would say, 'That sounds like 1946. This is 1947.' That was why we gave the songs such strange titles, things like 'Red Pepper,' 'Spinal,' 'Fracture' and 'Stealin' Trash.' "
Bebop was just emerging out of the after-hours joints, Long remembers. The musicians would spend the early evenings playing society dances for people Long ironically brands "the Geritol folks," and then they would head to seedy dives, places where they could go get "bad heads" (read: stoned) and play improvised music until the sun came up. This "bad head" music became bebop.
Long is rightfully proud of the sessions. No trumpeter before or since could best Navarro in peak form, which he was on these sessions. The music -- which is available today as In the Beginning, Bebop on the Savoy label -- sounds as revolutionary as it did right after World War II. Long remembers how Davis and Navarro told him not to gum up the works with too much strumming. During our conversation, he silences the room from time to time so we can hear his short solos. "They would throw me a bone every now and then and give me eight" bars, he says with a laugh.
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Long's guitar style, "chord melody," is a dying art. Most guitarists today don't use chords to carry the melody the way Long and the early jazzmen did, preferring instead to play single string solos or riffs. Long has written three instructional books on the subject, with material ranging from pop standards to classics by Tchaikovsky, Chopin and Liszt notated for guitar.
From Dixieland banjo in the Fifth Ward to classical guitar in New York City, Long has played it all. And today, at his home in the Houston Heights, he's playing a unique version of "Route 66." His fingers find their ways to the keys with a certainty that belies their century of living, as does his voice, which, though hoarse, phrases the song with Sinatra-like precision and aplomb. This version of the classic sounds as bygone as the road itself and as much an American classic. It swings, it rocks, it's steeped in the blues but it isn't blues.
Like Huey says, he's from all the eras, and this is great American music, the kind that seduced the world 50 or 60 years ago, the kind German kids listened to in defiance of the Nazis, and that Russians jammed in defiance of the communists, and, not to equate this with the first two, but the kind that Americans listened to in defiance of their parents. It's the sound of progress, painful and joyful as it can be, the musical progress of the century Huey Long has seen.
Huey Long celebrates his 100th birthday Sunday, April 25, at Sambuca Jazz Cafe, 909 Texas Avenue. For more information, call 713-224-5299.