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Meet "Mr. Saturday Night" Joe France

Meet "Mr. Saturday Night" Joe France
Tessa Souter and Andrea Wolper By

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​I like talking to the artist, and sometimes we veer from music to talking about politics or world affairs. Charlie Parker was great. Not only was he nice, the guy was intelligent. He could speak a couple of languages, also.
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 seen—and hung out with—them all: Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Jackie McLean. Nowadays, you'll mostly run into him—on 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 him—I 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 all—Sarah 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.

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