Percy France, circa 1980, New Jersey
I'll never forget one night when Percy MC'd a benefit at the West End for WKCR. There was some estimable talent there, and some damned fine tenor players. They all played and Percy announced everyone. It was party time, and the only drag he alluded to was that someone stole his old lady's purse. I remember his exact words: "Whoever would do a thing like this when we're all having such a good time, I don't think much of them." When it came his time to play after waiting in the wings all night he got up and called “Sugar.” He tore the roof off that fucking joint. The other tenor players were afterthoughts.
Joel Fass is a guitarist and composer. He has performed with George Kelly, Eddie Diehl, Big Joe Turner, Chris Anderson, Hadda Brooks and many others.
I had the pleasure of catching Percy France perform many times at the West End Café in the 1970's and 80's. One could be ensured of a rousing evening that would catch you in your soul.
Percy had a deep sense of swing that would both inspire his bandmates and also envelop the audience with movement and grace. His sound on the sax was down to earth, hearty and full of meaning. Over the years at the West End he’d be in groups with Swing Era veterans, but also beboppers and hard boppers alike. Also, at times he would appear as one of the tenors in the rollicking Sammy Price “Two Tenor Boogie” presentation. Percy France fit in with all, and whatever the group, his sax would stand out with grit and individuality.
I knew from my studies of jazz history that Percy’s tenor sax sound had augmented Bill Doggett’s organ trio back in Doggett’s early days. But eventually I came to realize that this self effacing guy that I saw at a local night club was the one who graced some of my favorite organ records with Jimmy Smith, Sir Charles Thompson and Freddie Roach.
I was always distressed that the music industry left this man behind, but I'm grateful that my friend Phil Schaap made the West End a home for Percy and other musicians like him: Forgotten by the industry at a time when they were still vibrant and going strong.
Sid Gribetz is a writer and broadcaster whose work has appeared in Jazz Times and other publications. He has been a jazz DJ and program producer on WKCR-FM for over forty years.
I met Percy at Showmans jazz club around 1990, I had been working there with Jack McDuff on a regular basis at that time.
Percy was running sessions there, with Bobby Forrester playing organ, on Mondays. So I would go, since I was friendly with many people there.
Percy was beautiful, first and foremost playing his ass off, and then so welcoming to all musicians like myself. I learned from him - how to play (still learning), how to conduct yourself on the bandstand, how to interact with an audience. He was a master at all.
I dug that he had such a personal sound and language. His tone would bring chills to everyone. That’s why every Monday, Showmans was packed with his fans.
I will never forget Percy and that period of my life.
Over a 40 year career, trumpeter Joe Magnarelli has recorded over 15 times as a leader and recorded and performed with countless jazz stars.
An endearing tenor saxophonist, with a beautiful sound and full of ideas. He showed us his great qualities, inspiration, ease and endurance. Playing a full evening as a soloist, without a hitch, flawlessly and knowing how to maintain a constant interest in a very attentive and demanding audience. We will never forget this quiet, modest, relatively unknown man!
Georges E. Mathys
Georges E. Mathys was a Swiss jazz promoter. Here he describes Percy France's performance at Yverdon, Switzerland, February 5 1982.
I used to do occasional club dates with Percy and we struck up a little phone friendship. I was new to singing at that time and he used to encourage me, tell me I had my own sound and said I’d do better if I was featured in somebody’s band instead of trying to freelance. That was very sage advice and he was very supportive. I remember he sang great with a high voice, and particularly remember him singing “Honeysuckle Rose.” I think we sang “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and “Pennies From Heaven” together. His singing was adorable.
Martha (Marty) Elkins
Marty Elkins is a jazz vocalist. www.martyelkins.com
Percy was a good saxophone player, you know. He could really blow and just excite the people. And when that two-tenor boogie idea came up, then we really went to town.
Pianist Sammy Price hired Percy France to replace Buddy Tate in 1979 in his Two-Tenor Boogie group.
Percy France was one of those big-toned tenor players who blended muscle with vulnerability in his soulful performances. Like Ike Quebec and Buddy Terry and so many more, his exquisite voice did not extend beyond the New York metropolitan area, but fortunately his work was captured on a number of recordings.
Michael Cuscuna is a record producer, writer, and co-founder of Mosaic Records.
Percy France was an amazing tenor saxophonist, and an incredible person. I learned a lot from getting to play with him many times at the Sweet Basil Saturday brunch gig in the 80s and a few times at Showmans. He had an incredible sound on the horn. He also had amazing stories about hanging out with Bird, who he was good friends with. I was very blessed to get to know and be inspired by Percy.
Jon Gordon is a saxophonist, composer and educator. In 1996, he won first prize in the Thelonious Monk Saxophone Competition. His latest book is Jazz Dialogues.
Percy France was a true gentleman and that was reflected in his playing. I remember when he followed Michael Brecker to close out a night at the Blue Note. Michael told me how much he enjoyed listening to Percy. Not surprising.”
Randy Sandke is a trumpeter, guitarist, composer, writer and educator who has performed with musicians ranging from Benny Goodman to Allen Lowe.
Percy was quiet off the bandstand, but on the bandstand he unleashed a hard-edged and powerful sound, restless and urban. Yet there is a tender core to his music - the fragile vibrato he used on a melodic number. The references to Past Masters like Coleman Hawkins and Budd Johnson complimented his blues-based phrases and the dance-feel that made him popular on the Hammond Organ circuit.
Michael Hashim is a saxophonist who has led the Widespread Depression Jazz Orchestra and his own groups and recorded with Mike LeDonne, Claudio Roditi, Richard Wyands and many others.
When I began playing tenor, I became fascinated with the guys who were making what were classified then as instrumental R&B records - most were actually jazz records but you could dance to them. Some of the sax players were pretty primitive but a few were very sophisticated. Percy France, Red Prysock, Rusty Bryant, and Jimmy Forrest were my favorites.
(When I gigged with Percy at Eddie Condon’s) I remember Percy was pleased when I told him how much I had learned from his old recordings and played one of his old solos for him. Percy’s choice of notes was often unusual - some of his phrases are still in my head all the time.
Tenor Saxophonist Scott Hamilton has been leading his own groups since the 1970s.
I have really fond memories of Percy France, and I was lucky enough to work with him on different occasions. The situations were mostly at The West End, and I believe for a period he had a regular night up there. He was an idol in a way, having been part of that iconic Bill Doggett group. I also had little gigs of my own that I used Percy on, and it’s a sort of tragedy that he needed low-money gigs from a 23-yr-old kid at the time.
One sort of funny and sweet memory of Percy saving my ass on a miserable club date that we were both at: This mercenary booking agency had us out at some rural campsite place in New Jersey, no food, no drinks, etc. He gave me a couple of plugs off his flask of Martell and it gave me the will to make it through till the end!
Percy just generally treated people as equals— so it didn’t matter if you were young and green if you played well. I think it helped that I and my peers were so respectful of the tradition he came out of— that R&B feel from when it was really popular, but with this little dash of harmonic “modernism,” all delivered with that great sound.
e came out of— that R&B feel from when it was really popular, but with this little dash of harmonic “modernism,” all delivered with that great sound.
Chris Flory is a guitarist who has led five recording sessions of his own and gigged and recorded with artists including Scott Hamilton, Benny Goodman, Ruby Braff, Maxine Sullivan and many others.