A Biography of Percy France
By Phil Schaap
Text adopted from WKCR's Percy France Memorial Broadcast (January 11, 1992)
Original Phil Schaap segment:
Percy France was born August 15th, 1928, he died January 4th, 1992. Percy was actually hit by a car as a pedestrian and that is how he lost his life but as many of those who were following his condition in the last couple of years knew, he was fighting a very valiant but difficult battle with cancer.
He was raised in New York City and lived in both of the prominent black communities of San Juan Hill and Sugar Hill. He studied the clarinet and the piano, the piano first then very strenuous studies on clarinet and emerged as a fluid reed player, buying his own tenor saxophone at the age of 13, and admiring players like Don Byas in particular.
He had a relative, a cousin named Jimmy Powell, who got him into many big-time jazz events and got him on the bandstand with the great Fats Waller where Percy sat in on clarinet. Percy also had a friend in high school of his own age, a colleague named Rollins. Sonny is how we know him now, Sonny Rollins. They worked together, played together in the school band, and they remained lifelong friends.
Following his high school years, Percy emerged as a tenor player doubling clarinet at the tail end of the Uptown dance band scene. He worked with Betty Mays and went on the road for the first time with Elaine Kirby.
Percy France ... became a regular in those legendary uptown haunts, often jamming but frequently gigging. ... (At Minton’s Playhouse, Percy) really got to absorb the lessons of Charlie Parker first hand in jam sessions up there, when Bird returned from California in 1947.
Percy France worked a lot with Sonny Rollins during the period when Sonny forged a dance band that worked at the Audubon Ballroom. He also worked with Sonny Payne, with Michael Silva, another drummer, and in a little of a foreshadowing of the two-tenor combines he would work in, he would work quite often with Morris Lane.
He was recommended by a musician, not remembered by name but remembered for his enthusiasm, to Bill Doggett when the legendary organist brought Percy France into his band to give it a flavor, really a distinctiveness, so it would sound different than the other organ groups that didn't have a horn. And this clicked. Bill Doggett became the most successful in the early organ-sax combo groups. ... Percy France stayed for several years, including tours, some concert activity, a lot of nightclub work and some theater work. He also was on all of the early King records.
Following his years with Bill Doggett, Percy France gravitated, perhaps by opportunity rather than preference, to continued action in organ-sax combines. He worked with Jimmy Smith, with Freddie Roach, and for the longest stay, with Sir Charles Thompson. The Sir Charles Thompson period was at Count Basie’s own night spot and Count loved organ, and occasionally took a little turn there, with Basie and Percy - Count & France.
From there came the years of decline. Percy had a variety of personal problems that are reflective of his generation of musicians. But he came back so strongly, so confidently in the early 70s. He decided, and this was a difficult time to try to do it, to become a full-time musician again.
And he joined the semi-uptown scene of the West End, eventually being hired by Sammy Price to join the Two Tenor Boogie, replacing Buddy Tate. And there he built up a new following while working in the Two Tenor combine, often with Eddie Barefield and others. He renewed his career and even had enough of a following that occasionally he would get work with his own group, which for the Doggett hit single, was called Honky Tonk Part 3.
Percy also worked in a bebop setting with pianist Joe Albany, Joe Albany's New Yorkers, and worked a great deal with a gentleman by the name of Oliver Jackson, who like Bill Doggett before him, added Percy's tenor to make a trio sound more distinctive. They were the darlings of the European jazz scene in the years of '82 and '83, even recording an album for the French Black and Blue Label.
Since Percy replaced Buddy Tate in Sammy Price’s Two Tenor Boogie, it's interesting that they recorded together under Lance Hayward’s leadership on the Town Crier label on October 28, 1984. This was Percy's second outing in the studio. He did quite a bit of work and a lot more sitting in with Lance Hayward at The Village Corner, but they gigged at Eddie Condon’s and were recorded there live on March 11 of 1984, shortly before the club closed.
One dimension of Percy France’s career that I was vaguely aware of, I introduced him to some people who were looking for someone like Percy – soft-spoken, but well-spoken, husky tone, but not a prima donna and Percy became involved in providing musical backdrops to audiobooks. Two that I can tell you specifically contain his tenor saxophone: The Ragman’s Son, Kirk Douglas’ autobiography, and one of the Mickey Spillane "Mike Hammer" adventures called Vengeance is Mine. They sort of renew the emphasis of the radio orchestra and the radio sound effects to give a little context, and Percy is the musician who offers the context to these two audiobooks.
And finally, when I mentioned that Percy had a band, I should also make sure that you know he had a bandstand beyond the West End, he eventually emerged even into this decade of the 1990s at a club called Showmans, where he worked in an organ trio with Tootsie Bean on drums and Bobby Forester on organ and Percy's tenor, and tried to set the clock back and re-energize a new generation of musicians by encouraging them to take a stab at blowing a few choruses on the blues and maybe learning some tunes and doing some things. And I know that this is one of his greatest legacies, because in his last year of life, many people sounding a lot like a young Percy France have emerged on the scene. And it's one of the greatest things that we can say about this great man.
He played the way he spoke, which was heartfelt and soulful. He was warm and soulful and emotional. He was philosophical in a very warm and human sense. He wasn't overly spiritual or religious but he was very, very, very soulful and straightforward. And he could kind of convert you to whatever he was trying to impart to you just by saying it, or by playing it.
Phil Schaap is a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master and has broadcast jazz
on WKCR for over 50 years.
Used by permission of Mr. Schaap.
Photo of Percy France by Otto Flückiger.