Harry "The Hipster" Gibson, 1915-1991. Autobiography. www.hyzercreek.com/harry.htm
THE HIPSTER STORY
My parents told me I could pick out melodies, one finger style, by the time I was three years old. When I got to be five my grandfather, who was a piano teacher, began to give me lessons. The whole family was in the music business; my father played the violin, his brother played the piano and they all repaired player pianos down in the cellar. I kept on playing by ear and by the time I was eight I could play all the popular songs of the day. I learned from Victrola records and the old player pianos in the basement. After the sixth grade in grammar school, P.S. 12 in the Bronx, I became the accompanist of the principal who played violin by ear. He taught me all the Irish ballads, jigs and reels. His name was J.F. Condon, the famous Jafsie, who got himself involved in the Lindberg kidnapping case during the Thirties.
When I was thirteen I joined a band called the Westchester Ramblers. We played the Saturday night dances at Starlight Park which were broadcast over the local radio station, WBNX. A couple of years later, I picked up a job in a speakeasy owned by big time mobster Dutch Schultz, beer baron of the Bronx, playing for the singing waiters on a rollout 77-key piano. For dancing, the club featured a six-piece black Dixieland band called the Chocolate Bars. When their piano player split I joined the band. They brought me over to the Rhythm Club in Harlem which was the black musicians' hangout and union hall combined, the place where the cats could hook a job. There was an old upright piano and we all took turns playing. I learned to play a lot of jazz from those guys.
I used to walk around Harlem, stand outside the speakeasies and listen to the black piano players. I rapped with these cats when they came out and they told me who to listen to and whose records to buy. After repeal, I ran across the best piano player I had ever heard in person, a cat called Marlowe. When I got to know him he would let me sit next to the piano and watch his hands. One night he asked me to play. I had been digging Fats Waller's records and, when I sat down, did a pretty good imitation of his singing and piano style. Marlowe thought it was pretty funny for a skinny blond kid to come on like the great Fats and told everyone around the bar that I was studying with Waller and was his star protégé. After that, Marlowe let me play the gig whenever he wanted to take time off.
One night a big guy came over, put five dollars in the kitty and asked for "Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter." I could almost play that tune, note for note, like the Waller recording. The big man laughed and asked how I learned to play that way. I went into the high jive about how I was Fats' star pupil. The guy just about broke up, stuck out his hand and said, "Sonny, say hello to your old professor, Thomas Waller." What a gas! He got me to play all his original songs and filled the kitty with five dollar bills. At the end of the night he asked if I wanted to work downtown in a 52nd Street club he was playing called the Yacht Club.
He got me the gig as intermission piano player in between shows and had me play a rollout piano right at his table. Fats would be sitting around with a gang of chicks and guys, drinking straight shots one after another, calling out his original records and songs, filling the kitty with five dollar bills every set. It wasn't till quite a few years later that I ever made that kind of bread again. By that time I was a jazz headliner myself and had my own records on the market. I went down to Greenwich Village to listen to Ronnie Graham, who later became Mr. Clean in the TV ads, do his imitations of me. He made an album, TAKE FIVE, with a hit number in it called "Harry the Hipster.''' I also got a kick out of the pantomime acts who would put my records on a phonograph backstage and then, dressed in wild zoot suits, would lip sync and act out the part of a guy who stood up to play the piano and did some far out dancing at the same time.
While we were still at the Yacht Club, after finishing his last show, Fats would sometimes invite me to go out to Harlem to listen to the famous jazz piano players of the era. The "Piano Battles" were held in an after-hours joint called Grant's and only the best piano players, and their guests, were allowed in - cats like Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson, Count Basie, Claude Hopkins, Pete Johnson, Clarence Prophet (the originator of the style Erroll Garner used), Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis, Marlowe, Art Tatum and Fats Waller, to name only some of the greats. Everybody sat around, drinking gin out of coffee cups and digging the music played on an old beat-up upright. Pete Johnson would play and, on finishing, would introduce Fats as his protégé; then Fats would do a stint and introduce Tatum as the greatest. After Tatum, nobody wanted to play.
To get things going again, Fats would get up and introduce me as his pupil. In those days solo piano meant playing stride style; just like it says, you stride that left hand over the bottom of the keyboard from the bass to the chord change. My hands were a little too small to hit all the tenths hard; instead I substituted fifths, sixths, sevenths and octaves and rolled the tenths I couldn't reach. I also played a trombone line of the single notes with my left hand which gave me a sound difference from most piano players. Whenever I played with a rhythm section I used chords and runs on a four beat, like a guitar or banjo. Sure was scary playing with those cats but somehow I got away with it.
After his season at the Yacht Club, Fats went on the road and I got a gig, with a girl singer, playing the afternoon cocktail session from three to nine at Leon and Eddie's across the street. When we told owner Eddie Davis that our names were Ruth Gruner and Harry Raab he yelled, "What are you - a meat market or a show biz act?" and booked us as The Gibsons, a popular gin at the time. We stayed for five years. Fats Waller who worked with the bigtime Dixieland musicians in New York, told them I was playing Leon and Eddie's and sent them down to hear me. I was studying at Julliard and could now read music. One afternoon, Eddie Condon with Pee Wee Russell, Max Kaminsky and Bobby Hackett, came into the club with some music charts. Bobby Hackett knew me a few years back when me and my partner, Billy Bauer, who later played with Woody Herman and was rated #1 guitarist by DOWNBEAT, were a duo in a midtown club called the Naughty Naught. At that time Bobby was still playing the violin and he always dropped by to jam with us. Eddie Condon handed me the music to the three-part Bix Beiderbecke piano suite and asked me to read it. After I played "In a Mist," "Candlelight" and "In the Dark," Eddie booked me to blow solo in the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Concert at Carnegie Hall the next week. I think that this concert set up by Condon and Ernie Anderson was the first jazz concert presented in a legit hall.
After that I played a lot of gigs with Condon and his band. Those guys played in a club down in Greenwich Village called Nick's. Every once in a while they would pick me up at whatever joint I was working on 52nd Street and we'd all go up to Harlem to jam at the Cotton Club. All the best black bands played the Cotton Club - Fletcher Henderson, Cab Calloway, Don Redman, Erskine Hawkins, Chick Webb, Count Basie, Earl Hines, Jimmie Lunceford and of course, Ellington. After the floor show the leader would introduce us white cats and then we'd get up on the bandstand and jam with the great black jazz musicians.
When I first got to 52nd Street, around 1939, it was called Swing Street; by the time I left in 1945 the two blocks between Fifth and Seventh Avenues were known as The Apple. All the clubs were located in the basements of the narrow brownstones that lined the streets. The customers, dressed in tuxedos or shiny gowns, had to walk down a hall flight to the entrance. The four floors upstairs were divided into single rooms and small apartments. A lot of us rented a room to crash in so we wouldn't have to take that long subway ride to the Bronx or Brooklyn every night.
When I booked into a club on The Street I would stay a year or more. I played intermission piano alongside many of the great small bands: Kelly's Stable with Coleman Hawkins; The Hickory House with Joe Marsala; The Famous Door with Count Basie; The Onyx Club with Stuff Smith; The Spotlight Club with vocalists Pearl Bailey and Billy Daniels; The Three Deuces, for a couple of years, with Billie Holiday, the Art Tatum Trio - Tiny Grimes on guitar and Slam Stewart on bass - in addition to lots of the finest musicians who stayed down at the Apple but kept switching bands including: Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet, Charlie Parker on alto sax, Sid Catlett on drums, Thelonious Monk on piano, Ben Webster on tenor sax, John Simmons on bass and many more.
During intermissions at the clubs all the musicians and entertainers congregated at the White Rose Tavern, a funky bar just around the corner on Sixth Avenue. You could get a shot of whiskey with a beer chaser for a quarter and that included all the free lunch you wanted - roast beef, ham, pastrami, liverwurst and and the delicious cold cuts, pickled herring, coleslaw, good heavy breads. We would rush out of our clubs, everybody from the top stars to the intermission musicians, bareheaded, tuxedos soaked with sweat, even in the coldest weather, to get away from the joints. This was our hangout where musicians, black, white or whatever, could relax, high jive, talk business, talk music. Sometimes squares would come in by accident - especially out-of-towners from all over the country, looking for that wild New York nightlife. Every once in a while some would jump salty at the idea of black and white mixing socially. If they got nasty about it they soon found out that musicians could play plenty rough. Every now and then there'd be a real brannigan at the White Rose.
By the time I got to the Deuces I was writing my own material and songs; during the lulls, when there were no customers around, I would do my own stuff to amuse the help who were sitting at the bar, drinking on the house. I would sing and scat in the new jazz style they were beginning to call "bebop." A bar full of jazz stars would call out their favorite songs on which I would ad lib crazy lyrics, jive parodies and scat riffs. They also called for my originals like "Get Your Juices at the Deuces," "Who Put the Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy's Ovaltine?" or "I Stay Brown All Year Round." Billie's favorite was a blues called, "She Knifed Her Old Man." [editor's note: this song was recorded in 1944 as "Hipster's Blues Opus 6 7/8"]. At that time musicians used jive talk among themselves and many customers were picking up on it. One of these words was hep which described someone in the know. When lots of people started using hep, musicians changed to hip. I started calling people hipsters and greeted customers who dug the kind of jazz we were playing as "all you hipsters." Musicians at the club began calling me Harry the Hipster; so I wrote a new tune called "Handsome Harry the Hipster."
One Saturday night, when the house was packed and Billie Holiday didn't show for the gig, the owner of the joint, Irving Alexander, asked me to fill in with some of that wild jive I used to lay down for the musicians. After the show, when I got back to the dressing room, three executives from Musicraft Records, a classical outfit, came In. Musicraft had decided to add some jazz to its list and these guys had come down to the club with a union contract already made up for a trio that would back up Billie. When Ben Webster's band finished their set I asked Sid Catlett and John Simmons if they wanted to play drums and bass on the record date the next morning. They said, "Sure, let's blow it, man," and we signed the contract.
My first record date for eight original songs -- that's what the contract said -- I only had seven tunes but I didn't tell them that. Irving Alexander offered us the use of the club for rehearsing the rest of the night. We went over the seven tunes I had and, while the drummer and bassman went out to the all night eatery, I came up with "Stop That Dancing Up There." I had it finished by the time John and Sid came back from breakfast; it turned out to be the hit of the album. We ran it over a couple of times and cut out for our nine o'clock appointment at the recording studio. Back in the Forties, when they recorded the master on some sort of gold plated metal, you had to get it right the first time or you blew the whole thing. We recorded the album in a couple of hours. Although I played only a few boogies, Musicraft called it BOOGIE WOOGIE IN BLUE.
The album jumped off right away. About a month later I got a call from a jazz club owner named Billy Berg out in Hollywood. He told me they had all my records on the club's jukebox and would I consider two weeks at five hundred with a thousand a week option. At the time I was making fifty-six dollars a week, union scale, as intermission piano player at the Deuces. Irving Alexander said he would let me go if I came back after the gig was over. I stayed at Billy Berg's for more than a year and when I did get back to the Apple, I was a headliner working at the Onyx Club, across the street from the Deuces.
I worked with a lot of the best musicians out on the Coast. Many of the times I played at Billy Berg's I was billed with Slim Gaillard whose song, "Cement Mixer," was a big hit. Slim was doing a guitar-bass duo with Tiny Brown and I had the great Zutty Singleton behind me on drums. Slim and I played the same club so many times, doubling on lots of numbers, we could do each other's act. Dizzy Gillespie, with Charlie Parker in his band, came out to Hollywood. Bird and I were both small skinny cats who used to hang out together. One night when we were bopping along Vine Street two narco cops picked on us. I don't know what Charlie was holding but I had a couple of sticks on me. We caught on right away and both of us took turns kicking ass with the fuzz to give the other guy a chance to dump. We were clean when we got down to the station house and called Billy Berg. He came right down and laced into the whole police department for busting his main attractions. So they let us go and never hassled us after that. Another cat who gigged a lot at Billy Berg's was the vocalist Frankie Laine who sang between sets. I first met Erroll Garner when his trio played the club. The two of us made the after-hour joints down on Central Avenue every night.
Red Nichols and his Five Pennies worked in a joint about a block away from Billy Berg's called the Hangover Club. In between my shows I used to go over there and sit in with those guys. Red was always asking me the old Dixieland question about reading charts. I said reading the notes was okay for the first chorus but after that you better have it in your hand. Another band I would sit in with was the Kid Ory group who were playing on Melrose Avenue, a few blocks from Billy Berg's. They were really old cats and I always enjoyed having a drink with them and listening to their stories about New Orleans. When Kid Ory invited me to join them in a set I would jump up, get over to the piano and sit down. Then I'd look over and they'd just be getting out of their chairs, moving in slow motion toward the bandstand. When they got all settled, which probably took at least five minutes, Kid Ory would kick off the beat; and those guys would play some of the hottest Dixieland jazz I ever heard.
While I was doing the Billy Berg's gig in Hollywood I was also booked into the vaudeville theatres downtown. I played the Orpheum Theatre with Benny Carter's band and the Million Dollar Theatre with Cab Calloway's; when I was held over at the Million Dollar Theatre I played with Earl Hines big band. Fatha Hines remembered, when I was a teenager, the times I would stand next to the piano and watch his fingers and his technique whenever he played the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. During one of Cab Calloway's shows, when he was doing "Minnie the Moocher," I came onstage with a waterpipe full of grass, lit it up and handed it to him. He wasn't expecting the real stuff but alter he took a puff he laughed and jumped around in his strutting style. When we started handing it around the band, the audience went crazy.
I got to like working onstage; and, during my last week at the Million Dollar Theatre when Mae West and J.J. Schubert came backstage to offer me a role in Miss West's latest play COME ON UP, RING TWICE, I signed a contract to play the Schubert circuit. It was all about foreign spies and American sailors. I played the part of a sailor and sang ''The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B," and I did a duo with Mae. We were on the road for about a year; when we came East I quit the show and went back to the Apple. I booked into the Onyx Club with the Stuff Smith band. Someone from DOWNBEAT Magazine came around to interview me and take pictures. The next month they had my picture on the cover.
That Winter, General Artist booked me into the Five O' Clock Club in Miami Beach. While there I recorded several tapes with Lord Buckley, an ex-vaudevillian and entertainer who became an underground cult figure many years after he died. Later Buckley and I leased a club in a beach hotel. He might have been one of the first members of Alcoholics Anonymous; anyway, every once in a while, instead of doing his usual jazz-oriented act, he would give an AA sermon, telling the audience that booze is the tool of the devil and a destroyer of life and health. When the customers, who came in to be entertained while they drank, realized he really meant it, they walked out on him. Every time His Lordship emptied the joint that way, we would laugh hysterically.
After the season was over, I booked into Ciro's in Philadelphia where I shared top billing with Louis Armstrong and his seven piece band including Earl Hines on piano and Sid Catlett on drums, both friends from the Street. My trio played between band sets. On opening night the house put a small piano with big collars onstage for me. In the first number I attacked the piano, as I usually do to make the act more entertaining. One of my gimmicks is a break where I hit the piano with my foot. That piano started rolling; it rolled right off the stage and crashed on the dance floor. The customers thought it was part of the act and kept requesting it all the time. The management kept a re-patched piano for crashing and the whole thing became another part of the legend that was building up.
Lots of crazy things did happen onstage. When I was playing the Tiffany Club in Los Angeles, Charlie Parker and I set up a checkers tournament between sets. While the intermission piano player, Hadda Brooks, did her thing, Bird and I played for high stakes - whoever lost had to pay for the food we ordered. Bird really played to win but he ended up with most of the tabs anyhow, which was only fair because he ate almost all the food. One night he was a couple of checkers ahead when Hadda introduced me. Even when I got on the bandstand, Charlie wouldn't stop the game. He pulled up a table next to the piano, put the board on and said, "Move, sucker." We played the whole game on the stand with the customers cheering for the guy who was ahead. Bird blew a lot of horn that night and I made up jump lyrics on the blues. The game ended in a draw and everybody was satisfied.
Another crazy: up in San Francisco I worked at the Say When Club once with Big Jay McNeely. As part of his show he took off his jacket and marched around the floor honking his tenor sax, blowing blues riffs. I picked up a second hand tenor in a hock shop and joined in once in a while. One night when we were blowing and marching in our shirtsleeves we marched right out the door. A city bus was just pulling up in front of the joint; we marched in, blowing all the time. The passengers joined in, singing and clapping. Market Street was the next stop and the last on the line. We all piled out; Jay and I were still honking and the people all crowded around. A cabby got the picture, picked us up and brought us back to the club. We marched in, blowing right on the beat.
I've been blowing a long time, in a lot of places - from The Bronx, New York to Hawaii; to the West Coast, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego; to the South, Miami, Key West, Atlanta, Savannah, New Orleans; to Havana and St. Croix; to Las Vegas, to Chicago, to Kansas City; to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, PA; to every city that has a jazz club - some small funky place where the hipsters go. I've met real groovy people and the greatest musicians of my time. And I'm still blowing.
[This autobiography was published in the CD booklet insert which came with Harry's 1986 album "Everybody's Crazy But Me," published by Progressive Records of New Orleans, USA.]