Off-Ramp's jazz correspondent Sean J. O'Connell talks with the irrepressible showman and sax master Big Jay McNeely, who'll be honored May 17 at The Grammy Museum in Downtown LA. He's also playing May 26 at Suzie’s Bar & Grill, 1141 Aviation Blvd, Hermosa Beach.
McNeely is a true original and the last of a generation of blues/R&B musicians who inspired the early rock pioneers, and are still around to remind us where popular music came from.
-- The Grammy Museum
The scene is a small house in South LA. Big Jay McNeely is attired in immaculate black Dickies, a perfectly pressed royal blue dress shirt, and a carefully chosen silk necktie. As he talks, you start to think this 90-year-old jazz legend is going to climb off his mobility scooter, grab his sax, and blow like he did one day in 1951 .
As Sean J. O'Connell puts it: "Big Jay McNeely was etched into pop music immortality in 1951. Photographer Bob Willoughby captured McNeely at a concert at Los Angeles's Olympic Auditorium 1951. In the photo, the Watts native is blasting his tenor sax on his back, the camera capturing the raised fists of post-war teenage hysteria seething in undershirts and pompadours at the foot of the stage. From Central Avenue with Charlie Parker and Art Tatum in the 1940s to the R&B circuit of the '50s and '60s, McNeely was there through a roller coaster of musical evolutions and had a good time along the way. His showmanship and soul are both youthful and timeless. He is rock & roll history, alive and well."
Big Jay McNeely can't get down on the floor anymore, but he can still get down: he performed two concerts for his 90th birthday, and has two more scheduled this month.
Big Jay was born in Watts on April 29, 1927, given name Cecil James McNeely. Back then, Watts was country ... Cecil chopped wood for his mom's stove, they had livestock at the house, and the actual iceman cometh. He played with Little Richard, Junior Wells, B.B. King, and Etta James, and had his biggest hit in 1949, with "The Deacon's Hop," which hit #1 on Billboard's R&B chart. He played through the 40s, 50s, and 60s, retired from music in the 1970s, then returned to music in the 1980s.
McNeely is a showman, the last of a particular type of sax player called a "honker," who integrated showmanship with musicianship. "It wasn't really part of my program to lay on the floor (and play)," he says. "But I was working in a little town called Clarksville, Tennessee. We were working upstairs, blowing out brains out, but nothing happened. So I got on my knees. Nothing happened. So I laid down on the floor, and man, they went crazy. Everybody from downstairs would come up because they heard all this noise."
Then there was the time he had a gig with Lionel Hampton in LA's old Wrigley Stadium. He started playing up in the bleachers, moved all around the stadium, and wound up crawling across the infield. He also painted his sax fluorescent colors and used black lights to heighten the visual experience. And when he plays, he concentrates on engaging the audience ... with repeated notes, dramatic pauses, "overblowing" the horn, and other techniques he talks about in his interview with Off-Ramp jazz correspondent Sean J. O'Connell.
The reaction he got from teenagers in the city of LA, he says, worried officials here, who apparently thought he was some sort of Pied Piper. "The kids were responding to the music," he says, "and they didn't know why were responding in that way. They'd take pictures, I guess they'd try to analyze it, and they couldn't find out what's happening." So they wouldn't give him a permit to perform.
McNeely attributes at least part of his longevity to "living a clean life" as a Jehovah's Witness. "I was in Germany and was walking around saying, 'Man, I'm 75. I haven't got much longer to live,' cuz the Bible says 80, you know. I got baptized as a Jehovah when I was 12, and my hope is for the Kingdom of God where you can live forever and ever. And that's what has kept me from getting involved ..." (in drugs or in focusing on success over happiness). "When you put your whole life into a career, and it don't happen, it affects some people. But to me the Kingdom is the only hope, so I'm still looking for that. That's all that matters."
Special thanks to the estate of Bob Willoughby for allowing us to use his truly astounding photo.