Junior Mance: Eighty Years Young
“ Miles Davis said, "Anyone who plays with Dizzy and doesn't improve didn't have it to begin with." ”
AAJ: You spent some time at Roosevelt College.
JM: My mother didn't want me to go on the road, but she gave in after something happened. I got caught playing jazz in one of the practice rooms, along with a friend, so they put us on suspension for a week. I had already been playing with Gene Ammons locally; coincidentally, he had a call to go to New York for two weeks. He asked me to go and I said yes. I told my father first, my mother had this doctor thing in her head.
JM: I was drafted in 1951 and late reporting because I was on the road with Ammons, learning so much and having fun. I wanted to get into the band but they wouldn't let me because I didn't play a marching instrument. I took infantry basic training for about ten weeks. I had guard duty one night, with an empty rifle, at Fort Knox; on duty two hours then rest for one. I walked around this service club where soldiers hung out after duty hours. I heard music and thought it was records, Charlie Parker or Sonny Stitt [the latter with whom Mance had worked]. There was a big band on the stage and a big roly-poly guy, Cannonball, leading it. I was the only one in uniform and a field helmet, I ran up to the stage and asked to sit in. The pianist was a clarinetist who only knew a few basic 'church' chords, so he told me to come up and he pulled me up and disappeared; he had a date in Louisville. Cannonball looked at me with a frown and asked me what did I want to play. I said, "How about something out of your book?" He picked a sort-of Count Basie-ish blues, the band came in shouting and he told me to take the first solo. I played the first chorus and Cannonball told me to take another one and then kept encouraging me. I peeked at the brass section and their heads were nodding to the beat. I played until my arms almost dropped off and I finally said, "Please, my arms are tired!"
I finished my rest period with them and when they asked if I was joining the band, I told them I was going to Korea at the end of training. The next day, when I was due to crawl through an infiltration course under battle conditions, I spotted this jeep approaching with Cannonball. He spoke to my first sergeant, who told me, "Mance, they want to see you at headquarters." I jumped in the jeep and asked Cannonball about it. He told me to be quiet. After we drove off, he told me the orders were fake. He wanted the band commander to hear me so he could find a way to get me into the band. The band commander was called to the barracks, where I auditioned with the bassist and drummer. All the commander knew was marches, so he said, "You must be good, they think you are." He asked me a few questions, including what was my second instrument. I couldn't lie, so he said, "That presents a problem." He arranged for me to sit in with the band every night, with my first sergeant in the infantry company, working the service club.
After two weeks of that, they were all down because their drummer got orders to ship out for Germany. When I asked what else he did, they said he was company clerk, doing administrative work and typing. When I asked what I had to do to get that gig, they told me you have to type. I said, "I know how to type, I learned in high school." Cannonball told the commander that we can have an in-house company clerk. I got out of infantry training and took six weeks of clerk-typist school. My old infantry outfit got sent to Korea after training. They got caught in an ambush and of the two hundred in the company, only a half-dozen survived. I became Cannonball's roommate and we were best friends. The day I got home after my discharge, I got the call from the Bee Hive and started that same night.
JM: The house trio included me, the late [bassist] Israel Crosby and a local drummer Buddy Smith. The gig lasted two years; they brought in singles and gave each one four weeks. Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, who I had played with in 1949Lester was generous with the solos.
AAJ: I'm sure you picked up a lot from Dizzy Gillespie, too.
JM: That was my music school. I stayed with him two to three years. I lived near him in New Jersey. Dizzy had a studio in his basement and invited me over any time to show me anything I wanted to know. I was over there almost every day. He was a teacher without trying to be; I don't think he realized how much he was teaching people. He would show you more than you asked for. Miles Davis said, "Anyone who plays with Dizzy and doesn't improve didn't have it to begin with."
AAJ: How did you put a band together?
JM: Dizzy was responsible. He had a record date with Norman Granz. Halfway through it, Norman asked me if I'd like to make my own record. Norman told me, "I hope you don't mind using Ray Brown." I stammered before I said, "Yes!" Ray was his house bassist for recording; everybody wanted to play with Ray. The LP was Junior and the drummer was Lex Humphries. That record went for about a year and got good reviews. I was able to get some gigs when Dizzy was off, then when I wanted to try leading a trio, I did it with his blessing. I did a lot of trios with Riverside and also backed up "Lockjaw" Davis and Johnny Griffin.
AAJ: You began teaching at the Manhattan New School in 1988.
JM: I just celebrated my 20th year there. I had never taught before and was passing by a bar one night when Chico Hamilton and Arnie Lawrence, the two founders of the [jazz program at the] school, saw me and called me in for a drink and asked me to teach. They finally convinced me to come to Arnie's class the next morning and I had a ball doing it. Martin Mueller, the administrator of the school, invited me to teach blues. They asked me to try it for a week and I loved it. I had Larry Goldings, Brad Mehldau and Jesse Davis as students in my first year.
AAJ: Is the 100 Gold Fingers (featuring various combinations of ten jazz pianists plus a rhythm section) tour of Japan still ongoing?
JM: Every other year. It was offered to a producer here, but it was turned down. We play to packed houses, though only a few of us who started with it in 1989 are still with itmyself and Kenny Barron. They've put out a lot of recordings, though not all of them have reached the U.S.
AAJ: What projects are completed?
JM: There are several CDs in the can in Japan. My recent Café Loup CD features one of my students, singer José James, on two tracks.
Junior Mance Trio, Live at Café Loup (JunGlo Music, 2007)
Cannonball Adderley, Sophisticated Swing: The Emarcy Small Group Sessions (Emarcy/Verve, 1995)
Junior Mance, Special (Sackville, 1986)
Gene Ammons/Sonny Stitt, Together Again for the Last Time (Prestige, 1973)
Junior Mance Trio, At The Village Vanguard (Jazzland-OJC, 1961)