"... and Percy France leaned
Johnson at the
By Sascha Feinstein
In my first memoir, Black Pearls: Improvisations on a Lost Year, I talk at length about the way jazz guided my life in high school, and in the opening chapter, I mention Percy France rather prominently:
Now defunct, the West End used to be located on 113th and Broadway, and throughout the 1970s and early ’80s it mainly featured outstanding sidemen who never attained the fame of their leaders but who almost always provided an evening of lasting music. Many knew the club as the hangout for Columbia students because of its proximity to the university and because it sold reasonable grad-school grub . . .
One evening in 1981, I found enough courage to bring my tenor saxophone and ask Percy France, a sideman that night for Sammy Price, if I could sit in with the band. He checked it out with Price and said he’d give me the nod in the second set. Peck Morrison was on bass; Billy Hart on drums. When France motioned for me to join them, I felt so sick I didn’t think I’d be able to blow a single note, but we played a blues, my choice of key, and when we traded fours, France didn’t bother to cut me up. He knew that would be too easy. I can’t imagine that I played very well, but when we finished, Sammy Price leaned into the microphone and said, “Let’s give a hand for Youngblood.” Even now, their generosity makes me grin and shake my head . . .
[W]hat I learned most from sitting in with Percy France and Sammy Price was not so much the act itself—that I could and did play—but that they accepted what I was able to do at that time. At the West End, the famous people were not so famous (even if they seemed mythic to me) and anyone who wanted to remain anonymous could slouch within a booth or drink at the deep end of the bar. Who knows what I wanted to be, or even become, but I went regularly to hear the music. Nobody knew me, but it was enough—much more than enough—to feel the need to be there.
It’s telling that I chose to sit in with Percy France as opposed to the scores of other saxophonists I heard at the time. He made his generosity of spirit tangible to every audience (which I sometimes doubled by my presence). He was also very modest, at least in my company; he seemed much more comfortable praising bandmates than hearing accolades about his own, essential contributions. He came across, in short, as kind and welcoming.
I wish I could convey his wonderful answers to wonderful questions, but I didn’t offer any substantial inquiries. Like most teenagers, and despite being raised in Manhattan by very hip parents, I was trenchantly ignorant about the world, including the labyrinthine history of jazz. Sometimes, between sets, I asked him naïve questions about craft. I vaguely recall, for example, wanting to know what mouthpiece he used. Scintillating I was not.
But it was profoundly important to me that he knew my gratitude and respect. Percy France performed with an irresistible combination of integrity, confidence, swing, and soul. Invariably, his sets leaned very heavily on the blues, and he inhabited the spirit of each number for its individual, emotional essence: mist, downpour, sunshine. I admired his rustic, Gene Ammons-like tone, and he helped me understand that complexity is often not the hallmark of excellence. It seems fitting, with that in mind, that his best-known recording—a 1959 date led by Jimmy Smith—is titled Home Cookin’.
Was he on fire every night? Of course not, and sometimes he could sound a bit tired, especially on a weekday with sparse attendance. But with a welcoming crowd and/or exciting band members, he could play with rollicking, infectious verve. One night, for example, Big Joe Turner stopped by and sat in with France’s quartet for a couple of numbers (in exchange for a pizza and beer). France played with tact and taste behind the blues legend, and when Big Joe returned to his booth to eat, the tenor saxophonist seemed to be ignited, squealing in the highest registers of the horn and popping dark, robust accents in the lowest. Yes, Big Joe Turner was in the house, and Percy France leaned into the blues like Robert Johnson at the crossroads.
Sascha Feinstein’s 12 books include Jazz Poetry: From the 1920s to the Present, Ask Me Now: Conversations on Jazz & Literature, two memoirs, and two poetry collections. In 1996, he founded Brilliant Corners: A Journal of Jazz & Literature, which he still edits. He is the Robert L. & Charlene Shangraw Professor of English at Lycoming College and hosts Jazz Standards on WVIA-FM.