Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series
Part 82 - Pianist Bobby Few
He was one of Cleveland’s leading jazz pianists in the 1950s and ‘60s, and later, Bobby Few became one of the most respected and busiest pianists in Europe. After moving to Paris in the late 1960s, Few has performed on more than 50 jazz albums.
The son of the maitre d’ at The Country Club in Pepper Pike, Few grew up on East 84th Street between Quincy and Central. He recalled, "I was very fond of baseball, but my mother was more interested in getting me started in music. I wanted to play flute but she wanted me to play piano. They bought a piano. There was an old Polish family that lived on the street that had a piano and my father and my uncle had to roll the piano down the street to bring it into the house. It was really a spectacle."
Few studied classical music for 12 years. At his first recital, he played Chopin’s "Polonaise." "Everyone would always pass by our house and hear me playing the piano," said Few, "and they would stop outside for a while and just listen. The kids were outside playing baseball, but I had to stay in and play the piano. And now, I’m glad I did!"
While studying classical music, the young musician was also exposed to jazz. "My dad had these Jazz at the Philharmonic records with Illinois Jacquet and Ella Fitzgerald. I began to listen to those records. Also he had a lot of Art Tatum and Erroll Garner and I became influenced by them and decided to learn how to play boogie-woogie. I would go to my classical music lessons and while the teacher was preparing herself, I would play boogie-woogie and she would tell me, ‘No, no! Don’t play that stuff! You must play the classical music first!’"
Bobby got an opportunity in his own neighborhood to hear some live jazz piano by perhaps the all-time greatest jazz pianist. "I remember, as a little kid, hearing Art Tatum on Cedar Avenue at a little tavern ( Val’s in the Alley) at 86th and Cedar. I just sat on the steps there and was amazed! That really influenced me to continue in the path of jazz."
Few began listening to records of other jazz pianists. He bought more records by Garner. "I loved his music," said Few, "because I had been studying Claude Debussy and Erroll was so ‘Water Music.’ I just seemed to take to that flavor of water-type-flowing music. He really started me on the way, playing in that style." That style remained an important part of Few’s playing.
He was also influenced by the harmonic explorations of Thelonious Monk and recalled, "People were actually calling me ‘Thelonious Monk, Junior’ because I was trying to copy his licks and the things that he would do. I hadn’t quite found my own style yet. I was searching for a style."
Few never played in school bands, but he did play jazz concerts at Rawlings Junior High School and later at East Tech High School.
In 1950, Cleveland’s East Tech was an almost all-white school. Teenager Few was involved in a bitter protest demonstration that finally opened the school to blacks. "We had a club called ‘The Young Nobles,’" said Few, "and we were responsible for East Tech to be integrated. We blocked the school for almost the whole week. Even the principal and the teachers couldn’t get in and the police took us away many days. We just kept coming back and blocking the entrance. Finally, they decided, ‘Well, we better let them in.’ But, at the same time, they moved all the equipment out and all the whites left and went to another school."
While he was at East Tech, Few tried to listen to as much jazz as possible. He saw and heard Charlie Parker in Cleveland. "I met him at the Loop Lounge down on Prospect. I was young, 16 or 17, and I walked in the door. He was playing with a pianist named Jimmy Saunders. Few remembered speaking with Parker. "He was very encouraging to me. He told me to continue to stick to the music and if I wanted to do my own songs, to continue to try to do that."
Few started playing with a group that included Cleveland’s top saxophonist of the period, Joe Alexander, trumpeters Bill Hardman and Carl Fields, bassist Richard Mitchell, drummer Lawrence "Jacktown" Jackson, and singer Gene Jordan.
"We were playing places like Smitty’s Tavern, Tia Juana, the Mirror Show Bar, Club 100, the Safari Club, the Alhambra Tavern – all the clubs that are not existing now. At that time, Cleveland was booming with jazz."
Few played in Cleveland for 20 years. He formed a trio called the East Jazz Trio with drummer Raymond Farris and bassist Cevera Jeffries, the older brother of Dewey Jeffries. It was perhaps the most popular jazz group in Cleveland at the time.
Eventually, an old childhood friend, Albert Ayler, persuaded Few to go to New York. "I moved there and suffered for about seven years, but the suffering was well worth it because I earned my stripes that way." In New York, Few played with Jackie McLean, Roland Kirk, and Brook Benton. In 1962, he toured Jamaica and Europe with Booker Ervin, Few’s cousin Bob Cunningham, and LeRoy Williams.
In 1969, Few decided to go to Europe. "I was playing with a tenor saxophonist named Frank Wright; drummer Muhammad Ali; bassist Alan Silva; and Arthur Jones, a saxophonist from Cleveland; and we decided we needed to move. We said, ‘What about Paris?’ Everybody said, ‘That sounds exciting.’ So we took our resources, packed our bags and left, and never came back."
It was a period of protest, not only in the United States, but in France. "When we got there, there was a revolution of students and Paris was really on fire. Automobiles were on fire and there was tear gas in the streets. They were fighting for better schooling and money. We were walking down the street and all these policemen were running after the students, so we ran into a club, and the guy locked the door behind us. We found out it was the leading jazz club of Paris, called the Cat and Fish. The owner asked us, ‘Who are you guys?’ We said we came in from New York. He asked us, ‘Would you like to play in the club?’ We said, ‘Yeah, when can we start?’ He said, ‘What about tomorrow night?’ We said, ‘Yeah!’
"And from that point on, we began to be recognized as something new and fresh there." They wanted to do more. "We rented a van." said Few, "and started going around to major festivals in Belgium, Holland and Spain, and just kind of sat in on the festivals. The next thing we knew, the organizers were hollering for us to do the next festival."
Few had been playing in Europe for more than a decade when he met master avant garde soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy. "Lacy heard me playing in Belgium and wanted to know, ‘Who was that pianist?’ Lacy was thinking about going back to New York, but when he heard me, he decided to stay. He asked me would I like to play with him. I said, ‘Sure would!’ So, I started playing with Lacy in 1982."
With Few at the piano, the Steve Lacy Sextet became a pioneering force in Paris. The group made its only appearance in Cleveland in July of 1986, playing a Northeast Ohio Jazz Society concert at Case Western Reserve University. Few remained with the Lacy Sextet for ten years, until 1992.
While best known for his work with Lacy, Few also continued performing with his own group as a soloist and with various other groups. He made dozens of records in addition to 1960s albums with Ayler. "I have 54 albums to my credit now. I recorded with Archie Shepp, Booker Ervin, I recorded with Albert. I recorded many under my name. We formed our own record production company called ‘ Center of the World,’ and we produced our own records with Frank Wright, Mu hammad Ali, Alan Silva and Noah Howard."
"I began by playing basically what they call ‘free jazz,’ which is musical improvisation or black classical music, but now, I am more into mainstream, playing basically my compositions, my own songs. So far, I have more than 500 songs that I have written, many of them with words, and I have been able to several albums under my name with my music."
"I’ve also started singing. I’m not really a singer, but I sing anyway and it works. My songs are being recognized over there more and more so that people don’t always come and say, ‘Hey, can you play "Misty?" Instead they say, ‘Hey, Bobby, can you play that song of yours?’ I say, ‘Sure,’ and I do it."
Few always tried to target his music to his audience. "In Europe, there are certain festivals where you can really just go as you like musically and there are some clubs where you have to play your music in a fashionable beat or in a funky manner and be more commercial, but there is more opportunity in the festivals, live concerts, and radio shows to do what you really want. You can play your theme and then, go to the Moon and Jupiter. They don’t care. They love it! The more far-out you get, the more they become enthusiastic."
Copyright 2004 Joe Mosbrook
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You can hear radio versions of Cleveland Jazz History on WCPN/90.3 Monday nights at 9:30 and Friday afternoons at 12:30. The greatly-expanded second edition of Mosbrook’s Cleveland Jazz History book is available from the Northeast Ohio Jazz Society, 4614 Prospect Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio 44193.