By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
The face on the cover of Cafe Noir's album The Waltz King was perfect for the eclectic classicist/jazzbo aggregation: lined and weathered, it bespoke not only many miles and countless rooms, but also wisdom; sadness too, yes, but leavened with the peace that comes from experience. From that countenance--the kind of face you'd expect to find behind a bottle of rouge and a pack of Galouises at some sidewalk bistro--a mixture of Old World resignation, acceptance, and self-determination fairly radiated.
The face belonged to drummer/percussionist/vibraphonist Ed Hagan, longtime Dallas jazz fixture and one of the last of America's true musical originals. The Old World he represented wasn't Europe--although he had style enough for several continents--but a hepcat jazz reality that recalled cool tunes, snap-brim fedoras, double-breasted suits, and Packard 8s. His death after a long battle with cancer on Christmas Eve didn't necessarily usher in an end of an era, but it did cut yet another cord: "He really was one of the last guys [from that hipster era] that was there, that you could talk to," says Cafe Noir's Norbert Gerl, who knew and worked with Hagan. Echoing nearly everyone who came in contact with him, Gerl observed that the musician "was totally unique, quite a character."
"He was an excellent player," notes Mark Elliot, owner and operator of Leaning House Jazz, a local record label, and a friend of Hagan's. "But even more than his playing, his character is what established him. People just liked to be around him."
Hagan was a friend of Gene Krupa's, a player with Benny Goodman, and familiar with most of the globe's capital cities. Born in Greenville, Texas, he went to SMU after attending Bryan's Allen Military Academy on a drum scholarship. After SMU and a stint with WFAA radio, Hagan joined the band of left-handed fiddler Johnny Long; while with Long he appeared in the 1943 Abbott and Costello movie Hit the Ice. Hagan appears at the film's end, riding with other band members as they accompany the movie's two lovebirds in an enormous sleigh, on their way to a train station where the hapless Costello will realize that he was not included in the heroine's wedding plans. He appears sitting in the back, first shaking some sleigh bells; a few seconds later, he has a quick snare drum solo, where he reveals one of his personal quirks of expression: a huge grin followed by a tongue that emerges whenever he's working particularly hard.
After a tour of Army duty (Wichita Falls, New Orleans), he found himself back in Dallas. In 1947, then playing drums with Dirwood Cline's popular SMU dance band, he met Al Wesar and later Donnie Gilliland, who formed one of his first local trios.
"He was very intelligent, very talented," Wesar recalls. "He kept up with a lot of things. He was a real sharp guy and people just gravitated toward him." After gigging around town for a few years in the late '40s and early '50s, Wesar and Hagan parted company for almost 30 years, coming back together at the club 8.0 in the '80s. Like that bottle of rouge, Hagan had only improved with age.
"He was definitely one of a kind," Wesar maintains. "A real individual, which is kind of hard to come by these days."
After playing with Wesard and Gilliland, Hagan quickly went from club musician to DSO percussionist, where he vexed management by appearing in tails and mocassins or sneakers, and worked with Igor Stravinsky, Leontyne Price, and Cab Calloway.
Following that, he hooked up with Olympic ice-skating champion Sonja Henie. "He had to conduct the band as they played along with a pre-recorded vocal track," Leaning House's Elliott remembers. "There weren't any of the synchronizing features that you can count on nowadays--you just had to follow the tape, and that's what he did...he had an uncanny ability to know--given the length that a song had to be--how fast it had to move to fill that space, which is a remarkable talent."
Indeed, "remarkable talent" may well be the cliche that defines Hagan. He was renowned for the rapidity of his playing. "He had two speeds," Wesar says, "fast and faster."
But it was more than just technical accomplishment. "Somehow, he had another mode that he got into when he was playing," Wesar explains. "I never heard anyone like him; there was no one who could compare...it wasn't just being fast, it was his feeling, especially for all that scale-based improvisation. He really pushed the envelope."
Norbert Gerl agrees. "His approach was hard to explain," Gerl says, "but if you knew him, it made sense."
Like most artists, Hagan had a day gig: cooking. In fact, after touring with Henie, in 1955 Hagan relocated to the Virgin Islands, where he had several restaurants. In 1973 he came back to Dallas (the reason he gave the Observer's Robin Myrick in 1991 was that he "had an ex-wife on each island"); by this time the drummer and percussionist had chosen to focus on marimba, xylophone, a hybrid called the xylomarimba, and vibes.