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Tom Reney’s writings delve into the history and mystery of jazz, blues, and beyond. The Jazz à la Mode Blog has plenty to stimulate your interest and curiosity in American music.

Joe Albany

[Ed. note: This post was originally published on September 14, 2015]

{This post relates to the 1980 documentary, Joe Albany: A Jazz Life. On September 28, 2015 the Jazz a la Mode Film Series presented a screening of Low Down, a narrative film about Albany and his daughter Amy Jo. It’s based on Amy Jo’s critically-acclaimed memoir. Low Down was directed by Jeff Preiss with John Hawkes portraying Albany and Elle Fanning as Amy Jo.}

Joe Albany wasn’t the first seeker to find his true voice in jazz, but he was among the more forthright about what the music meant to him. In the 1980 documentary, Joe Albany: A Jazz Life, he puts it in both spiritual and psychological terms. After describing his Italian-born father’s alienation from the Church, Albany says, “I looked for God in church, but I couldn’t find him. A lot of people say that jazz is the voice of, the spirit of God, that it’s the closest to it… Jazz is the ideal state for any repressed person to express themselves, because they’re improvising.” Albany hastens to add that man, unlike God, is prey to all manner of temptation, and that artists, “being sensual,” are especially so.

Albany certainly bit from the “all manner” apple, and as a result his career as a pianist was overwhelmed by drug addiction, crime, multiple marriages, and prison and hospital sentences. In the liner notes to the posthumous release of a 1966 session, Portrait of a Legend, Albany is quoted as saying, “I was torn between the criminal code and being an artist. From Florida to Chicago to L.A., I got busted on drugs and thrown into one jail and nuthouse after another.” But Albany had the good fortune of being granted a second act, and after 25 years of near total obscurity, he re-emerged in the seventies, playing throughout Europe while living in Holland, Denmark, and England, and playing extended engagements in his old haunts of New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

The Atlantic City native is essentially the sole voice relating his life’s story in A Jazz Life, but he sounds humble and reliable, and his recollections of Charlie Parker, Lester Young, and Billie Holiday are appreciative and insightful. Albany came to prominence in the mid-forties, holding down the coveted piano chair in bands led by Georgie Auld and Benny Carter, where he was the only white member. He jumped from coast to coast, working at the Famous Door on 52nd Street with Charlie Parker and tap dancer Baby Laurence, and playing and recording with Lester Young in Los Angeles in 1946. The film shows him with jazz deejay Phil Schaap at WKCR listening to a playback of his solo on “New Lester Leaps In.” It’s a good example of how befitting the title Proto-Bopper was on one of Albany’s latter day recordings.

Albany says it was especially challenging trying to swing with Parker. “You had to follow him…I could play with Prez because I could feel him, but with Bird a lot of it was in the mind, and he wouldn’t let that barrier down.” He also knew Lady Day, whom he called an “original with a great jazz concept,” and recognized as “lonely.” He wonders but that if she were alive [in 1979] he’d be able to “communicate with her, because I’ve reached that state of maturity where I know what counts.”

Joe Albany…A Jazz Life was produced and directed by Carole Langer. Albany is seen throughout the film at the West End Café in New York, where he’s in great form playing Bird’s originals “Confirmation,” “My Little Suede Shoes,” and “Billie’s Bounce,” as well as “Over the Rainbow,” “There Will Never Be Another You,” “Lush Life,” and “Round Midnight.” Chris Berg is the bassist; the rarely seen Lee Abrams is on drums.

Albany also figures prominently in his daughter Amy Jo’s memoir Low Down: Junk, Jazz and Other Fairy Tales from Childhood. Read a 2003 interview with Amy Jo here. You’ll find her candid and compassionate, refreshingly free of resentment toward her father and mother, who left when Amy was six. Here’s an excerpt: “I often thought my father was born of music — some wayward melody that took the form of a man. He heard music everywhere, in the squeaking of rusted bedsprings and the buzzing of flies. Dripping faucets were filled with rhythms to him, as was the irregular flashing of the busted neon outside our window. Some shook their heads and thought he was a nut, but I never believed that.

Tom was honored by the Jazz Journalists Association with the Willis Conover-Marian McPartland Award for Career Excellence in Broadcasting in 2019. In addition to hosting Jazz à la Mode since 1984, Tom writes the jazz blog and produces the Jazz Beat podcast at NEPM. He began working in jazz radio in 1977 at WCUW, a community-licensed radio station in Worcester, Massachusetts. Tom holds a bachelor's degree from UMass Amherst, where he majored in English and African American Studies.

Email Tom at tom_reney@nepm.org.
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