Our Man in Paris: Flying High with Saxophonist Hal Singer
by Gregory Tozian
Hal Singer has played with jazz legends Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington and Coleman Hawkins. At 78, he calls the “city of lights” home, but he’ll still travel down the street or around the world for his next gig.
Sitting on an airplane bound for Tulsa, Oklahoma, I see an older man nearby with a horn case and ask him if he’s a musician. Is he a musician? He’s Hal Singer, jazz hall of fame member, who had a monster hit with the R&B record “Cornbread” in 1949, and who played in a lot of America’s most famous jazz bands. He’s sitting with his French wife, Arlette, with whom Hal has lived in Paris since 1965. Arlette kindly hands over one of the press kits she’s prepared for Hal’s one-day gig at the annual jazz and blues festival in Tulsa (where this American expatriate sax player was born 78 years ago). And our interview begins.
ORGANICA: How did you get started in music? Was it in high school, in Tulsa?
We had a high school band in 1931, in Tulsa, playing John Philip Sousa, and marching in football games. We didn’t do the formations and stage shows they do today. I started out on clarinet. You got whatever instrument the bandleader gave you in those days. Didn’t matter if I didn’t want the clarinet. But I switched to alto (saxophone) when my parents got a little money to get me an instrument that I liked.
ORGANICA: What was the jazz scene in Tulsa like in the 1930s?
Well, we had several guys who knew something more about music than I did. We formed a little band. We were greatly influenced by Count Basie. Basie had a band called the Oklahoma City Blue Devils. We tried to copy them. That was about as much imagination as we had in those days. Finally, I went away to college. When I came back I played in what we called a “territorial band,” which was just the best jazz band in whatever region you lived in in America at that time.
ORGANICA: Who’d you play with in a territorial band?
Well, Ernie Fields had the best territorial band in Oklahoma and Kansas City, so I played with him. When I left Ernie around 1941, I went to Omaha to play in two bands there. And that’s where I met (trumpeter, pianist, composer) Neal Hefti. He was a kid in high school, and was already writing beautiful arrangements.
ORGANICA: And then you finally went to Kansas City?
Right. And there I played with a great saxophone player named Tommy Douglas. But he would never leave Kansas City. He wouldn’t go anywhere.
ORGANICA: Well, Kansas City was jumping then, wasn’t it?
Oh, yeah. But I got in on the end of it. Jay McShann had already left there and went to New York and had a hit and everything. But when he came back (to Kansas City), I got with Jay McShann. And with Tommy Douglas I switched to tenor.
ORGANICA: What were those band days like, with people like McShann?
Oh, I enjoyed all the bands. And the leaders were very nice to me. I learned how to drink then, of course. But nobody was trying to put you on dope, or none of that. And they had what we don’t have today. It was like you were in a family when you were in a band. If you got sick, or somebody in your family got sick, everybody in the band chipped in and loaned you money. We cared for each other. I think guys care for each other today. But it’s such a competitive world, sometimes they can’t show it.
ORGANICA: How did you go to New York?
I went in 1943. I started working up in Harlem, with a wonderful fellow named Chris Columbus who had a band. He’s still alive, 92 or 93 now. And then I ran into a couple of guys from the Tulsa area, (alto saxophonist) Earl Bostic, and (tenor saxophonist) Don Byas. And I worked with Don on 52nd Street. On 52nd Street, I also worked with Tommy Young, and (drummer) Big Sid Catlett, (trumpeter) Henry “Red” Allen, a lot of guys. Uptown and in Harlem. I worked with (bandleader) Lucky Millinder, and then the big band of (trumpeter) Roy Eldridge, right after he quit (drummer Gene) Krupa.
ORGANICA: You were with Catlett?
Yeah, I took (saxophonist) Dexter Gordon’s place in the band. My homeboy, John Simmons, he was the bass player in that band. He was from Oklahoma.
ORGANICA: Well, Dex, he moved to Paris too.
Yes. But then he moved to Copenhagen. And he was like a god that man. Just like a god.
ORGANICA: You worked with Billie Holiday, too?
Yeah, when I was with Big Sid Catlett. She was the attraction. When I was a kid, and I’d see Louis Armstrong and all those great people, I idolized them. And when I grew up and got to play on the same stage, I still had a great love and respect for them. And I tell young players today they’ve got to give the respect and the credit due to some of the older players. Because without them they wouldn’t know what to do.
ORGANICA: When did you record “Cornbread?” Was that before you were in Ellington’s band?
Yes. In ’48. There was a record-band set up. Little combos could go in and record pretty easy then. So I recorded eight tunes. And one of them was “Cornbread.” And I didn’t think much of it. To me, it was just a rhythm and blues date.
ORGANICA: And what’s your opinion of “Cornbread?” It was such a big hit.
I never liked the song.
ORGANICA: Really? That’s still a rocking instrumental. But you’re glad it happened, right?
Hell, yeah. I’m stupid, but I ain’t a fool. “Cornbread” gave me an opportunity that I never would have had otherwise. When you have the number one (R&B) record, and it stays there for months, well, it opened so many doors that wouldn’t have happened for me. But the thing that I was probably most happy for at the time was I was the one to get (pianist) Wynton Kelly his first record date on that one. And so, after that recording session, before the record came out or anything, I went to work for Ellington.
ORGANICA: What was Duke like?
I could tell you after I got out the band what he was like. After I had some success on my own. While I was in the band, I only said hello and goodbye to him. I was so awed by the man, I never had a real conversation with him. After I came to Paris, in ’65, and Duke would come over with the orchestra, then I could speak to him. I just felt more comfortable then.
ORGANICA: But it was the success of “Cornbread” that allowed you to leave the Ellington band?
Yeah. And it was really the only way to quit Ellington: if you had your own band. Because once you were with his band, why would you quit to go to somebody else’s band? It was while I was with Ellington, after “Cornbread” hit, that talent agents started calling me up and telling me to get my own band and be a bandleader. So I did. I had a six-piece R&B group: trumpet, trombone, tenor sax, piano, bass and drums. And we’d carry a girl singer to break the monotony.
ORGANICA: That was ’49?
ORGANICA: You played all the big New York spots then?
Yeah, the Apollo Theater, and such. But also all the other great theaters, the Regal (in Chicago), the Howard (in Washington, D.C.) The circuit, you know? These were the places that black acts could play in those days with rhythm and blues. I did that until 1958.
ORGANICA: Didn’t you play with people like (pop idol) Johnny Ace at the Apollo?
Yeah. First time Johnny Ace came to New York to play the Apollo he appeared on the same bill with me. Also, the first time Ray Charles played there he was with (blues great) Lowell Fulsom. And I’ve still got the program back home in Paris. Ray’s identified as “The Blind Pianist.” A little tiny (reference) thing. I played with so many people, Wilson Pickett, Jackie Wilson, Little Esther, Big Maybelle Thornton, T. Bone Walker.
ORGANICA: What happened in ’58? You gave up the band and touring. Why?
I got tired of running. I was doing from 65,000 to 85,000 miles a year on tour. Sometimes I’d do a 90-day tour, spend 10 days in New York, and go do 90 more days on the road with another attraction.
ORGANICA: And so, you moved back to New York to get into a more traditional jazz bag?
Yeah. I knew a lot of people in the city that I could play with. And (tenor saxophonist) Coleman Hawkins went to Europe with (famed jazz impresario and Verve Records founder) Norman Granz. And they wanted (saxophonist) Ben Webster to fill in for him in New York. But Ben didn’t want to play for the money the man was offering. So, Roy (Eldridge) called me, and I got the job. When Hawk came back, they put me with (trumpeter) Charlie Shavers and his band at the Metropole. I stayed there three years. I tell kids today that kind of scene doesn’t exist anymore, where you can go into a club and stay playing steady for years. Now I go in a club and stay six days. That’s a holiday!
ORGANICA: That’s funny, and true! But in the ’60s I know there were a lot of jazz cats moving to France, because the scene was lame in the U.S.
The jazz thing in America was kind of slow. You know, rock ‘n’ roll was the thing. But I appreciated what all those rock groups did to keep black music alive in their way. Like when the Rolling Stones appeared on TV and insisted that if they were going to be on the program, then (legendary blues shouter) Howlin’ Wolf had to be on the same show. That was a great thing to help preserve the blues music. And those boys didn’t have to do that.
ORGANICA: How did you end up in Europe?
Well, I made a record, “Blue Stompin’,” with Charlie Shavers, and a lot of people liked it. And these guys in Copenhagen were putting something together. I went over and stayed there six months. And everything in Europe was so different for a musician, till I couldn’t believe it. And I came back to New York and I was there maybe five months. And (blues piano singing legend) Memphis Slim came over to New York, and when I saw him he said, “I’m in this club in Paris (it would have been either Les Trois Mailletz, or the Mars Club). I run it. And when I go out I need somebody I can trust. You interested?” And I just went over.
ORGANICA: That was ’65?
That was ’65, September. And the first week I was there I met the woman who became my wife (Arlette). And I’ve been there ever since.
ORGANICA: I assume the French were supportive of your music.
Yes. One difference between Europeans and Americans—the Europeans, they get your records, they listen to them, and they know every player on every song, and they study them like they were in school or something. They really appreciate the music.
ORGANICA: What’s happened to the Paris scene over the years?
Well, a lot of guys have retired, and clubs have closed. But the people still have an appreciation for the music.
ORGANICA: What about your autobiography, Jazz Roads? That was published in France in 1990, but it hasn’t found an American publisher.
No. We haven’t found a publisher in America yet.
ORGANICA: You were also in a movie, the Russian film Taxi Blues.
That was the first co-production between France and Russia, during Glasnost.
ORGANICA: You went to Moscow for that?
Yes. They treated us royally.
ORGANICA: What was it like acting in the film?
It was like real life. I was playing a jazz sax player. Me. The thing about music is, whether you talk the same language or not, the music’s universal. And the saxophone player who wrote the music for the film was an extraordinary player. And the film won a prize at the Cannes Film Festival. The guy from that film and I toured France.
ORGANICA: And you still play a lot in France, and enjoy it?
I enjoy playing anywhere. But I do play in Paris, still.
ORGANICA: What’s the quality of the French players like?
Today, with all the schools and all the books they have, it’s very hard to go anywhere and not find good players. Today there’s just an abundance of good players. A lot more so than the old days.
ORGANICA: Who do you listen to the most now in jazz?
Well, I don’t buy a lot of records because they’re too damn expensive in France. But the young guys, the Americans I like, are like (altoist) Antonio Hart, (pianist) Jacky Terrasson, (tenor saxophonists) Josh Redman and Dave Sanchez. I don’t keep up like I should, because I don’t get the magazines and things. But I’m thankful for all the players there are today, and that jazz is healthy. These players are just coming out of the woodwork. It’s a much different scene than when I was getting started. There are so many hot players today. I think it’s great.
There are two Hal Singer CDs that have become available recently, his classic collaboration with Charlie Shavers, Blue Stompin’, and a compilation of his R&B hits called Rent Party (which includes the tune “Cornbread”). When in Paris, check the local weekly Pariscope magazine for the chance to catch Hal’s appearances at one of the jazz clubs there.