Letter from Philippe Chagne

As you perhaps know, I left for New York urgently a week ago to see Frank. His wife Sara let me know not to delay. Last Sunday I went to see Frank with a sense of dread. My dear Frank was but the shadow of himself, very weak and thin. He spoke little. I gave him messages from those who had asked me to. He was in pain. He seemed very happy to see me or rather get a glimpse of me, as he had become almost completely blind. However, as usual, his mind was sharp, and it remained so until his last breath. He said what he always said to me when I called him: “Its good to hear your voice”. He had become completely dependent on Sara, who, although she was blind herself, acted as his nurse, cleaning lady and offered him a great deal of relief, 24 hours a day, until the end. During the week, I tried to help her a bit. Frank asked me to sing him “Tickle Toe” while I was taking off his socks. This will bring up memories to those who were in the “Paris Barcelona” orchestra.

New York musicians, of all esthetics, keep calling him and coming by for the last 6 months. He loved being around all these incredible people. As you might know, Frank died Wednesday at 2 pm in the back of the cab that was taking him to the hospital for his dialysis. The day before, he had temporarily regained form and surprised us all with his strength. He had his lawyer over to add a clause to his will, stipulating that he was giving all his sheet music, manuscripts and compositions to the Library of Congress.

On the walls and shelves of his apartment were all sorts of documents which bore testimony to his incredible life: a poster for the show he played in with Josephine Baker in the 1930’s (!). A nice picture of him with Frank Foster. Dozens of touching letters and birthday cards. All the prizes and incredible honors he received were displayed on a shelf. There was even a letter signed by George W. Bush on White House letterhead (although FYI, he hated Bush and mentioned that, given the choice, he would rather have voted for Lassie!). When Obama was elected, he couldn’t believe it. Twenty years ago, during several tours, he had talked in great detail about what life on the road as a black musician meant in the 40’s and 50’s.

Whenever I mentioned a musician, Frank had played with him: Coleman Hawkins, Michael Brecker, Miles, Bird, Benson, Trane, Sarah (who he loved), Ray Charles, Mingus…

I spent time with him in the clubs in New York when he was in good shape. In all the clubs (except at the Village Vanguard), he was a guest of honor. He would go out almost every night and once said to me he lived in New York because it was the only place in the world where he could hear at least one great concert every night. He had done everything: Broadway shows, combos, big bands, TV shows, studio recordings, and always with the best of the best.

Until the end, he was playing sessions in his apartment. Musicians marveled at the ultra fast tempos he could play (even at 90!), the astonishing number of standards he liked to play, the vitality of everything he played, and the desire he had to play. He would unplug his home phone so as not to be bothered during the sessions. Whenever anyone played, he listened very intently, with astonishing focus. Jam sessions at his house were amazing. He didn’t say much. Often, he just started playing (sometimes melodies that only he knew!). Everyone played one by one, and generally stuck to playing the same number of choruses as Frank had. He always played the first solo. It was an unspoken ritual that his natural authority fostered. There was no pressure, just good vibes, a desire to share and great generosity. Whenever he felt not everyone felt at ease with the song, he would keep it going to give people a second chance. Hundreds of musicians attended these sessions over the years. Sometimes we were 3 saxophonists, with bass, drums and guitar, all piled up in his small living room. His neighbors loved it. One said to me: “When Frank plays, I immediately turn off the TV or radio and I listen!”. It’s a big difference with Paris: music never seems to bother anyone.

The news of his passing spread fast. The local jazz station started playing his music immediately. I stayed that night and the following day with Sara. People called from everywhere: Japan, Germany, Spain … Every minute, Clark Terry, Lew Tabackin, Jerry Dodgion, Scott Robinson, Jimmy Owens and many others were on the phone.

A big celebration will take place on his birthday on Jan 4. The whole jazz community will be invited. Our music just lost a great and sweet man, an incredible musician whose output spans most of the 20th century. He started playing professionally in 1936, at the age of 14! He will be cremated on Nov 5. That day, if you think of it, listen to one of his records.

Philippe Chagne
Paris, France

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