OBITUARIES : Jess Stacy
Wednesday 04 January 1995
The music at the sell-out concert was of a pretty high level but, tucked away amongst it, was one of the most effective moments of improvisation in jazz up to that date. As the concert came to its close Goodman drove the band into one of its lumbering flag-wavers, ``Sing, Sing, Sing''. This 12-minute spectacular involved thunderous riffs from the brass, James's trumpet, Gene Krupa's relentless drumming (which Stacy referred to as ``Krupa's banging'') and piquant clarinet from Goodman. As Go
o dman finished his solo on a high C he turned on a whim and motioned to Stacy to take an unplanned solo. Stacy responded with two minutes of gentle and reflective piano which created an enchanted backwater in the middle of the piece. It was a radiant and brilliantly conceived solo, one of the most graceful in jazz. It sparkled with shards from Debussy, and was only barely taken in by the audience. Those who did absorb its beauty thought it, like so many great jazz improvisations, to be a passing delight gone for ever.
``Benny generally hogged the solo space, and why he let me go on that way l still don't know," Stacy said. "I figured, `Good Lord, what with all the circus-band trumpet-playing we've heard tonight and all the Krupa banging, I might as well change the mood and come on real quiet.' So I took the A- minor chord `Sing, Sing, Sing' is built around and turned it this way and that.''
Fortunately, and unusually for the time, Stacy's solo was preserved on some discs of the concert which Goodman had arranged to have cut as a personal souvenir. Many years later Goodman came across the long-forgotten discs in his attic and handed them to the CBS record company. The subsequent double-LP album which finally emerged in 1950 soon sold a million copies. It is still in the catalogue. For many younger people the album made Stacy's reputation but veteran jazz fans already revered him for the solo records he had made during the Thirties and for the inestimable contribution he had made to the success of the Goodman band over the years. Stacy's efforts brought him little reward from Goodman (whom Stacy referred to as ``Shirley Temp
l e''). Impressed by the arrangements which Fletcher Henderson, an inferior pianist, could write for his band, Benny casually eased Stacy out of the band so that he could hire Henderson in 1939. ``I never want to play with Benny Goodman's band again,'' Sta cy said. ``It was too much of a strain. You never knew where you were with Benny and I feel terribly relieved that it's all over.'' He returned to play with Goodman at several later periods.
Stacy was born in Bird's Point, Missouri, a train layover where his impoverished family lived in a box car. His father, Fred Stacy, was a railroad engineer who, in 1898, had driven the first high-speed express train, touching 85mph. Listening to a child student playing her piano lessons, Jess Stacy was able to repeat them by ear, and on the strength of such talent, his parents managed to pay for him to have piano lessons.
In 1918 the family moved to Cape Girardeau on the Mississippi. Stacy was fascinated by the music he heard played on the visiting riverboats from New Orleans by then unknown players like Louis Armstrong, Johnny Dodds and Fate Marable. Eventually Stacy became a pianist on the boats and had to play the steam calliope, a monstrous instrument based on the top deck which operated with 150 pounds per inch of steam pressure and could easily scald a pianist's hands. The keys were made of copper, which b ecame very hot, and Stacy had to tape his fingers to protect them. The instrument which he played on the SS Capitol was nicknamed ``The Whooper'' and could be heard 30 miles away.
Stacy first met and played with Bix Beiderbecke on the riverboats and later, when he moved to Chicago, played in bands with legendary jazz figures like Muggsy Spanier, Eddie Lang and Frank Teschemacher. Stacy's employers in Chicago were Al Capone and Bugs Moran. Later, whilst with Goodman, he became an associate of the Eddie Condon school of jazz.
Stacy managed to draw an individual tone from the piano and his unique tremolo at the end of each phrase and his habit of following an emphasised note with one which seemed almost to be tucked underneath the stressed one, resulted from his acute sense ofdynamics. His Harlem-style rolling left hand harked back to the stride players of the Twenties but the strongest influence came from the pianists Earl Hines and Teddy Wilson.
After leaving Goodman in 1939 Stacy joined Bob Crosby, where he distinguished himself in many ways, not least with his gentle recording of ``Ec-Stacy''. After another spell with Goodman (``He fired Jimmy Rowles to hire me!'') he joined Tommy Dorsey for afew months.
Stacy married the celebrated singer Lee Wiley in 1943. ``She had million-dollar tastes and I didn't have any money. She got me to form a big band, but it was a disaster, what with the bum wartime bookings and so many good musicians being in the services.'' The marriage lasted two and a half years. A folio of transcriptions of his recorded piano solos was published in 1944.
Moving to the West Coast, Stacy began a new life, which he hated, playing in piano bars. He stuck it as long as he could and then took a job with Max Factor, walking 10 miles a day to deliver company mail. He retired from that job at 65, but continued toplay jazz festivals and to make sporadic recordings. He and his wife Pat, whom he had married in 1950, lived in an idyllic house on the hills behind Los Angeles where they grew their own fruit. ``We've learnt to live on practically nothing,'' Stacy said. ``I may give lessons on how to do it.''
Later he wrote: ``A few evenings ago Pat and I took a walk way up the mountain and all of a sudden this big police dog appeared and bit me in the rear, right through my trousers and all. I think that dog was trying to tell me something, trying to say `You may be a big shot when you're in New York, making records and playing Carnegie Hall and all that, but round here you're nothing.' ''
Steve Voce Jess Alexandria Stacy, pianist, born Bird's Point, Missouri 11 August 1904; twice married; died Los Angeles 1 January 1995.
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