Submitted on behalf of Warren Smith
After two or three brief visits, I came to New York City to stay in the fall of 1957. I had been born into a fabulous era on Chicago's South Side about five years after the great Depression. Things were not yet back to normal. We shared a lot: living spaces, food, entertainment, transportation, money and any other necessities. But there was a feeling that the President (FDR) cared and was trying sincerely to do something for the people.
My parents and my relatives on both sides were into music seriously. So when I showed an early interest, I was treated like a little Prince. I was privileged to see the inside of Club DeLisa, the Grand Terrace, Rhumboogie, Tony's, and other fabled nightspots, holding my mothers' coattails, because my Pops, Uncles and Cousins were in the Band. The Regal Theater, Savoy Ballroom, Bacons' Casino and the theaters downtown gave us kids legitimate exposure to Duke, Basie, Hamp, Pops and all the up and coming young beboppers.
As teenagers our social lives were framed by live music. I remember being at a dance where Charlie Parker was in the band. Our parents were there also both as functionaries and socially. This was security and supervision organically. No one is going to act a fool in front of their family and the neighbors. So even though the South Side had a reputation, there was no real danger under normal circumstances. I don't mean to say that violence and corruption was completely absent. It just didn't seem to be as in your face as it seems to be now.
Before I left Chicago, I had seen live Bird, Dizzy, Miles, Trane, Max and Clifford, Blakey's Jazz Messengers with Horace Silver, Donald Byrd, Hank Mobley and Doug Watkins, older masters like Tatum and Ben Webster and locals like Ahmad Jamal, Gene Ammons and Johnny Griffin.
However, very early the seed had been planted in my mind to leave Chitown and go to the "Apple" where opportunity, especially for a talented black musician, was far greater. As it worked out there were negative aspects to this advice. There was a tradition of excellent Chicago musicians who left to come here and that trend has continued to the present. The deceptive aspect was that I didn't leave racism and bigotry back in Chicago. It was here waiting for me. But for the network of big brothers and new friends I fell into, I may not have survived. They were there for me however, from my first day at Manhattan School of Music.
The New York scene then, perhaps even now, was extremely cliqueish and difficult to crack. As I had back home and in undergrad school, I accepted any opportunity to perform that came forth. My first gigs were playing tympani at school or Church or with amateur orchestras or accompanying dancers. I did a lot of original works by contemporary composers. I fell into associations with people involved with free improvisation in the Village and the Lower East Side. Very quickly the years passed. Birdland (the original location) and all of 52nd street was lost to gentrification. The clubs relocated or went under with only a few survivors. New places for live music opened up and the whole scene shifted around but something was still happening.
There comes a time of life when one begins to look back. All you have to do is stay around and be somewhat healthy long enough. Before that everything is a blur of activity. When I first started doing performances at "Studio WIS", my loft in Chelsea, when we printed up flyers to announce the events we put the date and neglected to include the year. When we tried to sort it all out after the first 15 years or so, it was a quagmire. As it turned out, this was about halfway through the lifespan of that studio and towards the end of the "Loft Jazz" era. No one could remember accurately what event fitted into what year. So in the '80s we started being more meticulous with our documentation.