Dubbed "Mr. Saturday Night" by jazz bassist Peter Washington, because for years he was unfailingly at the Village Vanguard every Saturday night, 87-year-old Super Fan, Joe France, has seenand hung out withthem all: Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Jackie McLean. Nowadays, you'll mostly run into himon Saturday nights, of course!at Smoke Jazz & Supper Club. Got a reluctant partner? Check out Joe's cunning method for turning unsuspecting ordinary citizens into jazz lovers! Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I was born and raised in Harlem. Then I moved to Queens, and now I'm in the Bronx, about a block from the Zoo. I bought a co-op there. I worked for the Port Authority as a maintenance man. Now I'm retired. I'm enjoying every bit of it. I'm 87. How did you get the name "Mr. Saturday Night"?
The bassist Peter Washington
gave me that name because I was at the Village Vanguard
every Saturday night. What is your earliest memory of music?
My parents were West Indian and I used to listen to Calypso when I was very small. Mighty Sparrow. That's my roots and I still love it. But jazz was my favorite, once I got to be a grown man. I played the violin when I was about 17, and my mother used to pay for my lessons. But once I heard Charlie Parker
, I told her I didn't want to play the violin anymore, so my mother said I'm not paying for your lessons anymore. If she was a visionary, I would have been a great saxophonist because, like most musicians I talk to, they were influenced by Charlie Parker. Once I heard him
that was it. How old were you when you got your first record?
I was in my teens, 18 or 19. That was in the Bebop era. I remember me and my brother and some friends of mine went out and bought some records together. Mine, of course, was Charlie Parker. I can't remember which record. It was on the Savoy label. His sound was what I really appreciated. Once I heard that particular sound ... you can't really describe it. Most musicians emulated him until they started to get their own style of playing. He had a unique sound; that's why they called him the Bird. He sounded like a bird. No other saxophonist sounded like that. None. He was unique in his artistry. I don't care who is imitating himI can always tell it's him. What was the first concert you ever attended?
I think it was at Carnegie Hall
and I was in my 20s. It was Ella Fitzgerald
. She's one of my favorites. And Sarah Vaughan
. Her voice was ... once you heard it ... it was beautiful. All these people [had their own sound]. No one sounds like Nat "King" Cole
. Or Billy Eckstine
. Or Charlie Parker. Or Charlie Rouse
. Thelonious Monk
. Jackie McLean
. A lot people were copying, but they were unique. I took my girlfriend at the time and she loved it, too. At first she didn't like jazz that much, but when you are around a certain type of music, after a while you learn to appreciate it. Later, when I met my wife, she was the same way. I used to take her to a lot of the concerts and I finally got her to like jazz. Was there one album or experience that was your doorway to jazz?
Charlie Parker. I was living at home and I heard it on the radio. They used to have a guy called Symphony Sid on this jazz station, WJZ, and he played them allSarah Vaughan, Charlie Parker, and all of them. One time the Port Authority had an outing. People brought food, and I brought my boom box and all of my jazz records and whatnot. When I introduce someone to jazz I don't introduce them to the hard stuff because most people can't appreciate the hard stuff. So I brought Charlie Parker with Strings
, some Ella Fitzgerald, some Sarah Vaughan, and Stephane Grappelli
. None of these people were into jazz, but they asked me, "What is this music? This is nice!" Then all of them became jazz aficionados. So I always tell people if they take their girlfriend or someone who doesn't know anything about the music for the first time, don't take them to a place that plays the hard stuff. Introduce them to the soft stuff first. That's what I did, and they really appreciated it. How long have you been going out to hear live music?
70 years. I used to go down to the Blue Note, the 5 Spot, Slugs. The old Birdland on 52nd Street, I went there a lot. That's where I met Jackie McLean. In fact, there was a girl I used to go with who was friends with Jackie McLean. The Village Vanguard
, I don't go there as often as I should now. I used to get in for free. Most of the clubs I go to it's like that. The first time I went to Dizzy's Club Coca Cola
I didn't have to pay for anything. Peter Washington had told me that I should go because, he said, they'd like me there, so I went, and I didn't have to pay for anything. I was surprised because I didn't even know these people. I'm an open guy. I'm friendly. I like to engage with people. I go to a lot of clubs and I have a really nice rapport with the owners. I used to get in free at the Blue Note, too, until the guy's girlfriend liked me too much. He was a nice guy but he stopped letting me in free after that. I haven't been there since then. How often do you go out to hear live music?
About once or twice a week. Sometimes more. I love music. What is it about live music that makes it so special for you?
There's nothing like live music in contrast to CDs or DVDs. You appreciate it more than the record. Seeing the artist. I love to hear the applause. And I like talking to the artists. Even Charlie Parker I used to talk to. I like to talk to them about the music and sometimes we veer from music to politics or world affairs. I like to talk to the audience too, to hear how people think about jazz. But mostly I like to talk to the musicians after they've finished playing. Charlie Parker was great. Not only was he nice, the guy was intelligent. He could speak a couple of languages, also. The only thing is, a lot of these musicians at the time, the drugs business ruined them. So many artists fall by the wayside through drugs. Such talented people. Not only musicians. The police, politicians, lawyers, doctors. I had a brother who used to use dope. But he and Miles Davis
were the only two people I knew who kicked the habit cold turkey. That's a hard thing to do. I saw Miles many times. He was one of my favorite players. But I told Mrs. Gordon [Lorraine Gordon, owner of The Village Vanguard] that if she had him there I wouldn't come and see him, because what I didn't like about Miles, he turned his back to the audience. To me that showed disrespect. But he was still one of my favorite musicians. What are the elements of an amazing concert?
The ambience. The audience. The musicians, the fans, they all have the same feeling. The same spontaneity. The same way of talking. Jazz is spontaneous. It's improvisational. That's the beautiful thing. What is the farthest you've traveled to get to a jazz performance?
Actually when I was living in Harlem some of the clubs were walking distance. I used to live one block from Minton's
and I used to go there a lot. Lenox Lounge
. Then I started to go downtown to the Village. Is there one concert that got away that you still regret having missed?
No, not one. I saw everything I wanted to and all the musicians that I wanted to. I love the art form so much I made it a habit, getting to see those that I had never seen before. John Coltrane
. I saw them all. Great memories. A few years ago Stanley Crouch
invited me and Ben Riley
to come to Minton's to answer questions from the audience about jazz. It was like a Q&A. I was a bit nervous but Stanley said I did really well. I enjoyed it. If you could go back in time and hear one of the jazz legends perform live, who would it be?
Charlie Parker. And of course, I would love to see Stéphane Grappelli, because I used to play the violin. I still love it. I'm kind of sorry that I gave it up. Now that I'm older I really appreciate it. What makes a great club?
First of all, the acoustics have to be nice. Certain clubs have a nice atmosphere. Actually, the first one I used to go to a lot was the Vanguard and I always sat at the back and chatted with Mr. [Max] Gordon. I like the Vanguard, Smoke Jazz & Supper Club
and Birdland. I like the pictures on the walls. I didn't care too much for Slug's, even though I went there quite a lot because my girlfriend liked it. Now Smoke is my favorite club. It's small and intimate. It reminds me of when I used to go to Slugs and the other small clubs I went to back in the day. Which clubs are you most regularly to be found at?
Smoke, Dizzy's, Birdland, and Iridium
. Is there a club that's no longer here that you miss?
I do miss Sweet Basil. It was a nice little club. They would let me in for free. Steve [the manager] was a really nice guy. I liked him. And Cho [the bar man], I miss him also. A really nice guy. He was a professional and a people person. Those are the people I miss. Do you have a favorite jazz anecdote?
Mrs. Gordon at the Village Vanguard could be tough. But never to me. She would put everyone out after the first set except me. One time, everyone had left except me and these two guys at the bar, and she told them they'd have to leave, and they said, "What about him?" She said "You go! He stays!" What are some of your best jazz memories?
My first jazz memory is Ella Fitzgerald. I met her a couple of times when she came to visit her sister, who used to live next door to me in Harlem, and we were friends. Ella was very quieta home person, like her sister. A very sweet person. I was surprised when she and Ray Brown broke up because they were two marvelous jazz artists. But, hey, that's life. What is the main difference between listening to live music and recordings?
When you go to a live concert it's the sounds that are really different. That's the main thing. It sounds completely different. You know you aren't going to get the same type of sound as you would get on a CD or record. But you can enjoy both of them in different ways. One thing about jazz is it's improvised. That's what jazz is known for. That's the beautiful thing about jazz. Vinyl, CDs, or MP3s?
I like them all. Vinyl used to have that raspy sound, and now it's just as clear as day. If you were a professional musician, which instrument would you play?
The saxophone, because I was introduced to the sax musically when I heard Charlie Parker. That's what influenced me. What do you think keeps jazz alive and thriving?
Most other art forms are one- dimensional, but the beautiful thing about jazz is it's such a multi-dimensional form of music. You can listen to Stephané Grappelli, Charlie Parker, Art Tatum
, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Thelonious Monk. When you go to the opera, opera is opera. Listen to rap, rap is rap. But jazz is improvisational music. That's what really grabs me. I can appreciate other people's music and I would go to a concert just to learn about new music. But I don't love all
jazz. Some I wouldn't go to hear or buy because I just don't like it. But I love most
jazz. You can pick and chooseI like this, I don't like this, I love this. That's the thing about jazz. Life without music would be...
Not a pleasant thing for me, because I love music. Everyone throughout the world loves music. If you never had music in this world you wouldn't miss it, but being that we have
music, that would mean a lot to me as far as life is concerned, because music is beautiful. In fact, all forms of music are beautiful, whether you embrace music or not.