"Are you Percy France? You're
By Allen Lowe
I don’t remember exactly when I met the saxophonist Percy France, but it had to be around 1979 or so. I had moved to the West Side of New York, and started frequenting the West End Café. The music was booked by Phil Schaap, who was a human Encyclopedia of Jazz, and it was at this amazing little club – dingy and dirty with rest rooms that forced you to suffer in silence at your table – that I received an entire other level of jazz education. And I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but I was sitting there one night and heard a classically big-toned tenor player who made me not only take notice but wonder, who the hell was this guy and how come I had never heard of him?
His name was Percy France. We had some mutual friends and before long we were hanging out. He was a gentleman, unpretentious and focused on the music, very content to live his own life as he wanted to live it (“he likes to get out and prowl,” his friend Singsy Kyle, the widow of the pianist Billy Kyle, a very sweet lady who Percy lived with for a while, told me on the phone once). There were parts of his life I never really knew much about (he once referred to some time spent at the prison at Riker's) but I never pried.
And Percy had been around – he told me about Gigi Gryce and about playing in one of Miles Davis’ early big bands (apparently this was short-lived), about playing bebop dances and working with Sir Charles Thompson. I was a budding saxophonist and Percy advised me about mouthpieces and horns – I had inadvertently bought an old Conn tenor that I loved, and which turned out to be the same model played by Lester Young, as Percy pointed out.
The more I heard Percy the more I realized what a brilliant tenor saxophonist he was. He could handle any kind of material, any tempo. And his sidemen all loved him. One night he and tenor saxophonist Loren Schoenberg were working in a Sammy Price group called Two-Tenor Boogie, and Price made a remark, while making introductions, that Loren was “the ofay member of the group.” Percy was livid. I could see it on the stand, and he told me afterward how hurtful he thought this was.
I introduced several of my musician friends to Percy, one of whom, the late guitarist Joel Perry, became something of a regular in Percy’s bands. And I remember the night Joe Turner came into the West End, sat at a table near the bandstand, grabbed a mic and started to sing a blues along with Percy and the band. That was amazing. One night I was with him at the Angry Squire watching Barry Harris, and someone came up to him and said, “Are you Percy France? You’re a legend!” I don’t think I ever saw Percy happier.
Still another time I was in Boston and went to hear Sir Charles Thompson play at a hotel there. When I introduced myself and said I was a friend of Percy, he sat down with me and we had a nice conversation about Percy (he called him “the greatest saxophonist I ever worked with”) and the music business.
Another memorable gig: I lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and used to run into the drummer Leroy Williams as I was walking along Broadway. I knew Leroy from Barry Harris’ band (and he later played, with Percy, at my wedding). Percy was putting together a small band for a regular weeknight gig at the West End. The pianist was Bob Neloms, another good friend of mine, who had been in Charles Mingus’ last group. They were looking for a drummer. So one day I stopped Leroy and asked him if he wanted to do the gig. He agreed instantly, and they did a few months together. It was a lot of fun; there was no bass player so Neloms had a lot of left-hand freedom, and together it all reminded me of the old recordings Nat Cole and Buddy Rich did with Lester Young.
It was Doc Cheatham who told me that Percy had died – I knew Percy had been struggling with cancer, and I was on the phone with Doc, who was getting ready to record with my band. Doc told me that he heard Percy had been hit by a car in Manhattan and been killed, and it saddened and depressed me. I had been out of touch – had married and moved away from Manhattan – and had been planning on going to see Percy again, but to my eternal regret it was not to be.
Allen Lowe is a saxophonist, guitarist, composer and writer.
Photo of Allen Lowe & Percy France
courtesy Allen Lowe