Big Nick


erhaps the best thing about being a young musician was that I was utterly unburdened with the fact that I couldn't play.

Oh, I carried my share of burdens: such a burden to be such a great player. So many to convince, so many to whom the light must be shown. Yes, I was a conceited fool, at least musically speaking.

If there was any speck of benefit to this blind confidence, it was that it endowed my playing with a sort of reckless enthusiasm. My sloppy drumming was dynamic, even enjoyable, though mostly by listeners UNtrained in musical appreciation. Those folks however, make up most of the audience. They're the ones for whom the Beatles were commanded (in 1960, by their German employer) to mach shau ("make show").

Big Nick Nicholas understood this, and for that reason, gave me a chance to play in his group.

George "Big Nick" Nicholas was a man who in the course of a career spanning 56 years, played with a veritable who's-who of jazz. He was a veteran journeyman who, as a young man gigged with the greats of the big band era (Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway) and the great be-boppers (Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Charlie Mingus).

In the liner notes for his 1983 solo album Big Nick Nicholas/Big and Warm, jazz critic and social commentator Stanley Crouch aptly describes the big-hearted tenor saxophonist:

Big Nick Nicholas is one of the great crafstmen and showmen in the art and tradition of good time jazz... with his massive legato attack... gliding over the beat in a manner reminiscent of a worn ocean liner floating through a mist... there is an heroic determination inside this musician's spirit...

The most vivid proof of the man's legendary status however, is John Coltrane's Big Nick, recorded by Trane and Duke Ellington in the 1962 collaborative album Duke Ellington & John Coltrane.

I met Nick in the summer of 1979, at a recording session organized by a local singer/songwriter. Nick was working the lounge of a luxury inn and country club and was known to be difficult to coax from behind his relative anonymity. I learned later that Nick was living in Charlottesville for the same reason Kurt Kasson was: it's a great place to get a grip when the life you're leading in the place you love (which in Nick's case was New York City) is breaking apart. [The fact that the two leaders of the first two situations of my fledgling career were both in need of reconstructing disintegrating lives might have raised a red flag in my fledgling brain...]

I was excited about playing with this mysterious legend, and was shocked when after the session he turned to me and said in his booming voice "OK baby, here's what you do: Be down at the West Virginian next Tuesday by seven. Bring your drums. We're done at midnight." It turned out he was putting together a quartet was still seeking a drummer. Sitting Ducks was by no means a full time job; there were no conflicts to speak of.

The Big Nick Nicholas quartet was outfitted by two other young white guys like myself, but I was the least experienced. We played jazz and blues standards, Nick salting the evening with half instrumentals, half vocals, always exhorting the crowd to dance (via realaudio or .wav file 38k). My playing was wild and out of
control, but Nick took every musical misdeed with a grain of salt and
a laugh.Our act was a mix of music and show intended to make an audience feel good. Every night was capped off by the big voice singing the Corinna, Corinna blues (via realaudio or .wav file 273k) and Nick's warm reminder that in the show of life "everybody's a star."

In the course of the evening, Nick let me play, trading 'fours' (multiple solo breaks occurring every four bars) and letting me solo on Sweet Georgia Brown. My playing was wild and out of control, but Nick took every musical misdeed with a grain of salt and a laugh.

Once, upon completing a rousing April in Paris (via realaudio or .wav file 523k), he shouted "One more, Once!"—a universal old-school cue to launch back into the tune for one more go-round and a (ahem) big show-biz finish. Nothing happened. Nick turned around wondering why I hadn't cued the impromptu ending, and saw only my startled face staring back, frozen in cluelessness. He broke up laughing. I on the other hand, shuffled offstage, chagrined at what I knew was my own naivete.

Good hearted and gentle as he was, Nick was a character. (via realaudio or .wav file 151k) He had a penchant for drinking and occasionally would turn work into his own personal party. His infractions took the shape of harmless slacking, taking long breaks, leaving his saxophone on the bar, singing when the crowd wanted to hear him play his horn. He would spend time schmoozing with patrons when we should have been playing, which was never a problem: his dynamic presence was something people wanted to be close to, regardless of whether or not we played less music because of it. His friend Juanita, a big, sweet woman, would frequently visit from Washington DC. Juanita would take care of Nick, helping him pack up his saxophone and drive him home.

Nick's other difficulties were financial. He never had much money and would borrow from friends and associates. I believe he sincerely intended to pay-back his debts, but more often than not he found this difficult to manage. I was on the list, providing a small loan for some dental work. Nick did repay a portion, but eventually I wrote off the rest. Better than money, Juanita's Christmastime thank-you note sufficed as payment enough.

I worked with Nick for about nine months, playing parties and Tuesday nights at the West Virginian. I held genuine affection for the guy, but grew weary with his increasingly heavy drinking on the job. After one particularly difficult night I gave notice.

Believe it or not, Nick actually survived without me, ultimately moving back to New York. I last saw him in 1983, at a gig in Washington D.C. after the release of Big and Warm, his first-ever solo album. He was in great spirits. He was proud of the record, which featured young, but first-rate New York players doing many of the same tunes we'd played on Tuesday nights. He would release another two years later, this time surrounded by veteran musicians.

Nick's good heart and gentle character made him deserving of these moments in the sun. Back in Charlottesville, in what must've been difficult times, he was always gracious and supportive, even though I was a young upstart who played too loud, too raucous, too everything. This is all the more admirable given that most of his professional life was spent onstage with profoundly gifted misicians, in bands whose virtuousity shone many thousands of watts brighter than ours.

But Charlottesville in the 80's was not New York in the 40's, and Nick was making do as best he could. Another important indication of the man's character: he never indicated that he was sorry about this, and that he was anything but happy to be able to play with us. He clearly believed music to be one of God's greatest gifts, and whether it was shining modestly and imperfectly, or as the brightest supernova, light was better than darkness.

Gigging to the end, George "Big Nick" Nicholas died of natural causes on October 29th, 1997. He was seventy-five.

NEXT ...Shoot The Piano

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Introduction | Kurt's Mardi Gras Parade | Frankly, 'Poe's'... | Big Nick | Go Ahead. Shoot The Piano Player(s). | "Stormy Weather" | The Drive From Baltimore | The Hat

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