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Baby Face Willette

There is an air of mystique, an alluring attraction in jazz circles, to those highly talented musicians who shone brilliantly for a short duration, then slipped into obscurity. Jazz organist Baby Face Willette is certainly one of those figures.

Roosevelt Willette, born on September 11, 1933, was the son of a minister who was introduced to the organ, as many others, in church, an influence which would define his style and direction. In the early 50’s he played with various gospel and R&B groups, and reportedly put out a couple of singles around this time. He worked his way to Chicago in the late ‘50’s and eventually went to New York and got involved with the jazz scene there.

We pick up on his trail with the Blue Note releases in 1961 of Lou Donaldson, “Here ‘Tis,” and guitarist Grant Green’s “First Stand.” This would prove to be his definitive and prodigious period, as he in the same month, put out his now collectable “Face to Face.” He would go back into the studio a few months later and recorded “Stop and Listen.” This session was again with Grant Green, and is a stellar set. Considering Blue Note’s musician roster and reputation, this record was right on the groove for the period, and is recommended still.

By 1963 he had formed his own trio, and after signing with the Argo label in 1964, he released “Mo-Roc,” and “Behind the 8 Ball.”

He apparently resurfaced in Chicago, playing local gigs from the late ‘60’s into the early ‘70’s, then seemed to vanish, leaving only his few recordings as an enduring legacy.Even his death remains a mystery.

There seems to be a revitalized interest in the gospel tinged music of Baby Face Willette, and all four of his recordings are now available on compact disc. His work with Grant Green stands out, and remains vital in a contemporary light.

Baby Face Willette, a jazz enigma!

Source: James Nadal


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