Percy France? Sure I know Percy France. Percy was one of the tenor players that I had to compete with when I was making my reputation as a young saxophonist. He was probably the best player around at that time; I never could beat him. We were good friends, and I think of him as my brother.
We both attended Benjamin Franklin High School. Percy was a few grades ahead of me. As aspiring young tenor players, however, we were all in the same class. So I say hi and Godspeed, Percy.
- Sonny Rollins July 2021
August 15, 1928 - January 4, 1992
If you’ve heard Jimmy Smith’s acclaimed Blue Note recording Home Cookin', then you’ve heard Percy France. If you’ve heard Bill Doggett’s earliest organ + tenor recordings on King Records, you’ve heard Percy France. Or if you hung out at The West End in the 1970s – ’80s, as a Columbia University student or as a jazz fan, chances are good you heard Percy France in person and in his element: on stage at a New York City jazz club.
(If the name Percy France is new, click on the audio button above and hear his tenor sax from a 1989 audiobook. It's quite a beautiful sound, big and soulful and expressive, isn't it?)
Percy France had his brushes with jazz fame. He told friends that “Honky Tonk” first took shape while he was with Doggett’s group, but it was Clifford Scott who played on the million-selling 45, and reaped recording opportunities for years afterward. He played at Count Basie’s with Sir Charles Thompson for many months in the late 1950s and appears on Thompson’s recording And the Swing Organ (Columbia). Not long after, France recorded again for Blue Note records (Freddie Roach’s Down to Earth in 1962). But Alfred Lion never offered him the chance to record as a leader, as he did to similar “grits ‘n’ gravy” tenors Don Wilkerson, Harold Vick, and Fred Jackson around the same time.
Missing his chance to attain national attention, Percy France would remain a “local” musician. But when your locality is New York City, you better have talent. He played with peers from an earlier generation (including Coleman Hawkins, Count Basie, Buck Clayton, Sammy Price, Buddy Tate, Paul Quinichette, George Kelly, Eddie Barefield, Jabbo Smith, Doc Cheatham, and Budd Johnson), and with his own (childhood friend Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, Jackie McLean, Art Taylor, Joe Newman, Oliver Jackson and Al Grey among many others). In the 1970s & '80s he was often seen with a much younger generation, future stars who welcomed his advice and encouragement (including Mike LeDonne, Scott Hamilton, Doug Lawrence, Joe Magnarelli and Jon Gordon).
This website is dedicated to making sure that Percy France is remembered and recognized as a marvelously gifted jazz musician who, with swing and soul, uplifted bandstands across New York City. Those bandstands are long gone or quite different now – The West End Café and its short-lived successor, The West End Gate; Showmans and The Flamingo Café; Eddie Condon’s and The Village Corner. But Percy France’s music lives on, here and in the indelible grooves he lay down.
Thank you for visiting. Bio will take you to a piece adopted from WKCR's Percy France Memorial Broadcast (you can listen to Phil Schaap as well as read his words). Click the Remembrances button above for essays about Percy France from artists, writers and historians like Allen Lowe, Phil Schaap, Mike LeDonne, Doug Lawrence, Sascha Feinstein, Michael Cuscuna and many others.
The Sessionagraphy/Music/Photos link will reveal details about every known Percy France recording, arranged by time period, and will be updated monthly as new information is received. These include previously unknown gigs such as October 7, 1988 when the organist Big John Patton played piano behind Percy at the Flamingo Café in Brooklyn, or March 6, 1982 when Budd Johnson sat in with Percy and the Oliver Jackson Trio in Switzerland, and many more. Music samples document Percy's unique style, and dozens of photos, concert posters, display ads, and newspaper and magazine clips help tell the story of Percy France's career. Please review the acknowledgements - it took a lot of people to make this Memorial a reality. Please use the contact page to tell me what you think of the site. I especially welcome any communication from family members, those who knew Percy France, or those who wish to contribute their own photographs or recordings.
Photo of Percy France by Otto Flückiger.