Other than Eddie Condon and Marian McPartland, who both lived in Manhattan, the first musicians I visited in their home were Cliff Jackson and Maxine Sullivan, who lived at 818 Ritter Place, in The Bronx. I went by subway, my first trip outside Manhattan, and somehow managed to get there and back for thirty cents. It was early evening, the summer of 1967, and it was still light enough to find my way.
Cliff and Maxine lived in a wonderful, old detached stucco house. I remember it was full of photographs and other memorabilia. By 1967, Cliff had been playing piano for nearly fifty years, playing it with the best guys in town, and the pictures were testament to a long and fruitful career. Then there was the piano. It was one of the turn-of-the-century Steinway’s, with fancy carved legs and decorated with paintings of cherubs.
The piano was always locked, unless Cliff wanted to play for or with friends. Access to the keys was gained using a small key on a chain that was always carefully attached to his belt. I don’t know whether or not he slept with the key under his pillow, but Maxine once told me that he didn’t even allow her to play the piano, which, I guess is why when she wasn’t singing very much in those days; her instrument was valve trombone or pocket trumpet and she had a union card to prove it.
I first met Cliff at Blues Alley, in Washington, D.C. about 1965. He was frequently featured as an intermission pianist, probably because Johnson McRee enjoyed the way he played, and because Johnson had a financial interest in Blues Alley, he could influence the booking policy. It was exciting to hear Cliff at the club; he was the first of the New York stride school pianists I ever heard in person. He played few originals, preferring to stick to jazz standards that were suited to his striding style. My favorite tune among his vast repertoire was Linger Awhile and he was happy to work out a new version of it anytime I asked him to play it. He was only in his early 60s, and still had stamina and all the right stride moves. He’d start the song at a medium tempo introduction; then he’d tear it apart. He told me that Linger Awhile was favored by many of the older stride pianists, particularly Donald Lambert.
There’s a muffled recording of Cliff from Blues Alley that dates from 1965. He plays very well, the piano is in adequate shape, the audience is enthusiastic, but it sounds a bit under water, or maybe the microphone was in the alley. The next year, Johnson McRee launched his Manassas Jazz Festival and Cliff was one of the first people he booked. I was charged with recording him and there was a well-tuned Steinway D and Squirrel Ashcraft’s Ampex F-44 was on hand, and the sound is somewhat better than the Blues Alley date. The results, four tracks, mixed in with other performances, were issued on George Buck’s Jazzology label, and this was the first thing I’d ever recorded that was commercially released. The highlight of Cliff’s performance was a spirited Carolina Shout. This is a tough tune, but there’s not a mistake, until a very energetic flurry of notes led to a cluttered ending. There were no second takes.
A couple of years later, when I was in New York, Johnson wanted to have his own Cliff Jackson record. He talked to Cliff and I talked to Sherman Fairchild. A date was set, November 12, 1968, a time was arranged, Cliff arrived at 17 East 65th, took off his coat, tried both pianos, picked out the one that faced north, away from the courtyard, put a big pillow on the bench and played for the next four or five hours. There were twenty complete takes and half a dozen alternates, more than enough for an album. I took one picture of Cliff that day, the negative is long lost, but I made one print that survived. It is my only picture of Cliff. I don’t know why I didn’t take more that day, but I didn’t in 1966 because I was running the recorder. There was always a distraction.
Johnson left the tapes in my care; I picked out sixteen good takes and assembled them at Sherman’s studio. I listen to the record the other day, and there are a couple of flaws. A couple of keys in the bass are not in perfect tune, which is surprising, but Cliff is also a little weaker than when he recorded the other albums. He’d suffered a heart attack by then. He was still very good, but not as good as just a few years earlier. I also looked at the cover I designed, which was all done by hand, with India ink, rulers and press-type. I wasn’t very good. I stopped doing covers in the early 1970s, but I should have stopped earlier. The best thing about the album jacket was Maxine’s notes. They were short and to the point. This is what she wrote:
The called it “stride piano” in 1920. Cliff’s been playing it for 50 years. Good wine doesn’t age in the bottle. There’s something special about it before it’s bottled. The wine doesn’t change. The palate must be cultivated. The wine of this vintage is scarce. Drink heartily!
Cliff was one of the better Harlem-based stride pianists. He was far better than some with bigger reputations. He didn’t make many recordings, but the handful he made in the 1920s and early 1930s are good for the times and his Black & White and Disc recordings in the mid-1940s are exceptional. The few he made at the end of his life were not his best, but they were pretty good, but better heard in person, when you could see him doing the tricks, with his left hand striding back and forth.
He played some tunes for me the first night I visited him, where I was about two feet away from that ornate piano. I asked him to play Linger Awhile, and he did. It grew late, I had to be up early for work the next day and though I’d like to have lingered awhile, I knew I shouldn’t linger any longer. As I got ready to walk to the subway, Cliff told me to wait a minute, and he grabbed his coat. I asked him what was wrong. He put on his coat, put a little bottle of some mace-like liquid in his pocket and said it wasn’t a good idea for me to be out on the street by myself in his neighborhood.
It was a lot different in 1967 than 2010 and I was green as grass. He walked me to the subway. There were no incidents. A train finally arrived, and as I headed south, I wondered if sixty-five year old Cliff Jackson, a tiny man with a bushy Santa Claus-like white beard, should be out by himself late at night in his neighborhood, even if he did have a bottle of mugger repellant in his pocket.
Cliff Jackson, Sherman Fairchild's Studio, 17 East 65th Street, New York City, November 12, 1968
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Posted in on June 16, 2010 by