An interview with V. Montgomery(1983)
Exuberant tenor sax man Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis has been a frequent visitor to Britain since his first tour of the UK as the featured soloist with Count Basie. He will return to England for three weeks in April. Jaws is never at a loss for words and will gladly speak his mind on any subject over his ubiquitous Scotch and milk.
Although Jaws always gives a good performance, he is usually at his best when pitted against another tenor man. In addition to his classic confrontations with Johnny Griffin, Jaws has recorded live or in the studio with Paul Gonsalves, Arnett Cobb, Coleman Hawkins and Buddy Tate. Jaws and Ben Webster also recorded in England during the late Sixties in the somewhat unlikely company of Eddie Miller, Bud Freeman and the late Alex Welsh. “That was a ball. We did that in’67 – there was also a tour of several towns in the Midlands. Ben wrote the charts although he wasn’t an arranger. I think the original idea was to present four different styles of tenor side by side – but it turned into combat! Every man for himself as he tried to show who had it over everybody – I came out on top, of course, but we all got along well. I learned a lot from playing with those guys. Ben Webster and Eddie Miller were going strong when I was just a kid. The album is pretty good – it’s on the Fontana label.”
Jaws also collaborated with the late Sonny Stitt on several occasions during the sixties and seventies. Their last gig together took place two weeks before Sonny died in the summer of 1981: “He looked terrible – tired. His playing sounded tired too – tired… like a sick man. He wasn’t playing badly, but he was playing as if he was homing in on radar – sticking to what he knew was safe. I asked Sonny, ” Are you drinking again?” and he said, “No.” He had this big blister or boil on his chin, and I told him he should go to the hospital to have it seen to, but he said that it was just a boil and he felt fine. He went off to Japan. Two weeks later, they sent him home – he goes into hospital. The doctors lanced the boil and found it was malignant… he had a rare form of blood cancer and it spread – there was nothing they could do for him – they couldn’t detect it before it was too late. Jimmy Forrest went the same way – just suddenly.”
As a native of New York, Jaws was able to understudy and analyze the styles of all the great tenors who were based in the Apple during the forties. “I used to hang out with Ben Webster – people used to call me ‘Little Ben.’ “I was fortunate to grow up in New York because I was able to hear all of the musicians and bands. Other cities had their own schools of jazz – Chicago, New Orleans, Kansas city – but New York was the center of it all. Musicians went there because you hadn’t really made it until you had made it in New York. People talk about West Coast jazz – but there wasn’t all the much jazz in California – Los Angeles has always been five years behind the trends in New York.”
“There use to be so many places in New York where you could hear music. There were the theatres, like the Paramount, all the clubs on 52nd Street, in the Village, in Harlem. And then you had the ballrooms, like the Savoy which had two bandstands. You could walk down 125th Street at night and not worry about your safety.”
Jaws began his professional career in Philadelphia, where it cost 25 dollars less to join the Musicians Union than in New York. As a member of the Philadelphia Local, he joined his first big band, which he played an extended engagement in Atlantic City. “so here I was, earning 28 dollars a week. I stayed in a kitchenette hotel – 7 dollars a week! You put a quarter in the gas range and got three hours of gas to work with – I saved 5 dollars a week. I went back to New York as a transfer member in New York – where I was born. Then I started working down in the Village at different joints – the Carnival, the Village this or something. I was in this group – Bud Powell was on piano, Norman Keenan on bass, Les Payne on drums, George Stovall on trumpet, Rudy Williams on baritone and tenor. Cootie Williams came around one night and hird five of us – George Stovall, Bud Powell, Les Payne, the bass player and me. We joined Cootie Williams’ band in Octoer 1943. Now I’m in New York, working at the Savoy – earning 42 dollars a week! That was the beginning.”
“Cootie was a beautiful cat – still is. I got along well with him. He had a personality problem when he was with Ellington, but his health was bothering him then – he had trouble with his liver and prostate problems. As an employer, he was good to his sidemen. Musically his band was way ahead of the others. Thelonius Monk and Tadd Dameron were arranging for him. Epistrophy was or theme song. That was part of the reason why the band wasn’t as successful as it should have been. The music was over a lot of people’s heads. The dancers would hear us and stop.”
“We played the Savoy, opposite Erskine Hawkins, Benny Carter’s band and Teddy Hill.” What about the Savoy Sultans? “Oh..we fractured them.”
“Now we came out of there and went on the RKO theatre circuit with Ella Fitzgerald, the Four Ink Spots, a dancer, Ralph Brown and a comedian. It was a 6 month tour – 3 months north and 3 months south.”
“When we got to LA I left the band and caught the train. It took 72 hours to get back to New York. I was a seasoned pro. I’d played with big bands, small bands, and Cootie Williams – and work was easy to find because a lot of other musicians were in the army.”
Having convinced his draft board that he was unfit for any branch of the service, Jaws forged ahead with his career, gaining additional experience in bands around New York. He also had an uneventful brief stint in Louis Armstrong’s big band. Jaws feels his work as a sideman in small clubs and in jam sessions was an even better experience. Older musicians leading the sessions would admonish younger musicians to avoid the usal nightclub vices such as booze and dope. “I used to hear things like – don’t let me catch you smoking no reefer – don’t drink in here.” I didn’t have my first scotch until I was 25! It was a drag at the time, but now I’m thankful because some other guys who I started out with couldn’t handle success when they got a taste of it – started drinking – sniffing – Finis!”
Jaws is very astute about the technical qualities of his horn, and has modified his present sax to suit his needs. “I’ve got a Super Action 80(Selmer), with a Mark VI neck. Last year, I was playing a Mark VII, but it was unsatisfactory – I didn’t get enough sound out of it. The hook on the neck was too big – all the sound got lost in it. I went over Selmer’s in Paris and tried out the Super 80 – it’s a good horn, but it has the same problem with the neck.”
“I started out on no-name saxes when I was young. Then I got a Martin, then a King, Buescher, Conn, and finally a Selmer. The Buescher had a good tone, and I could get a lot of volume out to the Conn, but Selmer horns have the best of all worlds.”
How does a Berg Larson metal mouthpiece compare with an Otto Link?
“I find the Link keeps its pitch – the Berg tends to go sharp on the high notes. I’ve always used an Otto Link mouthpiece. I now use one with a Number 10 facing, and a medium-hard reed.”
“For the first year or so, I was playing with a cheap stock mouthpiece. The one day an old-time saxophone player called Ike Quebec said, “What are you doing with that thing?” He went and got me my first metal mouthpiece. Ike Quebec had a beautiful big tone. He could fill this room with his tone without using a mike. He didn’t get enough recognition while he lived. People are becoming interested in him over in Europe. Blue Note put out an album of stuff he recorded but was never issued. Today, people are asking, “who’s Ike Quebec?” – he’s dead!
“They’ve issued an album over in Europe of all the solos he played with Cab Calloway. He had a tone which still sounds contemporary – hasn’t dated like that of some other players of that era.”
“If you want to play fast, you’ve got to sacrifice some of your tone. Don Byas told me that you have to cheat on the notes ot play fast. I remember Charlie Parker when he was playing tenor with Earl Hines. He thought he could never get over the horn until I told him what Don Byas had told me. Coleman Hawkins could never play really fast – his tone was just too big.”
Jaws is on the road for most of the year. When he has a few weeks off, he relaxes at his home in Las Vegas – an unlikely place to call home. “It’s cheap – and that’s the only reason. There are no state taxes because of the gambling. There’s no jazz either. Jazz is a music for listening. Casino managers don’t want that because it takes the customers’ minds off gambling. They just present shows which are a lot of crap, which won’t interfere with the gambling. James Moody worked for years backing Vegas shows until he quit last year.”
Does Jaws mind the incessant travel? “It’s not too bad if you can break it up. For example, on August 12th I flew from Vegas to Amsterdam to do a gig with Sweets, Moody and the Hank Jones Trio. I was supposed to play two and a half hours – but instead I got 30 minutes. Then I flew back to Vegas. It took 36 hours altogether – that was the longest one-nighter I’ve ever played. I could write a book about some of the jumps I’ve made.”
More jumps are in store for Jaws in the foreseeable future. He is booked solid for 8 months in advance, at venues as far apart as Barcelona and Tulsa, Oklahoma – Paris and Tokyo. He believes the current demand for his services is due to the fact that manhy of his mentors and contemporaries have died. “Let’s see this guy before he goes.” However, most people go to hear Jaws because his gigs are fun. Everything he does reflects his good-humoured personality. Although his playing is heavily influenced by the swing era legends, his style, like his personality, is distinctive.