Bandleader at bay

Arranger-conductor Onzy Matthews proves that only the strong survive

Onzy Matthews is in high dudgeon. His mellifluous voice can't hide the fact that he's wire-taut. His triumphs, he'll barely discuss. His woes, he'll chronicle so minutely that it interrupts the flow of whatever tale he's telling, a narrative tack that's quite at odds with Matthews' measured, linear style as an arranger and conductor.

In May, in the sanctuary of the First Presbyterian Church in downtown Dallas, the City of Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs funded a show set up by Ken Cooper, First Presbyterian's director of worship and music, that staged selections from Duke Ellington's uncompleted songwriting project Sacred Concerts. Matthews conducted, and under his baton the music had all the flow and elegance we associate with Ellington. Which makes sense--Matthews and Ellington were collaborators in the last years of Ellington's life. Matthews has also conducted and arranged for Della Reese, Lou Rawls, and Ray Charles; cut LPs for Capitol; and done a slew of good things for a man so presently embittered.

Born in Fort Worth, he was raised for a while in East Dallas, where his main contact with music was in church. He was about to take up mandolin when his mother moved him to Los Angeles. On a piano in a recreation facility there, he practiced with such single-mindedness that the supervisor gave him a key to the place.

Word got out about the young Texan woodshedding at the rec center and haunting rehearsal halls where L.A. guns such as Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray honed their acts. Al Jarvis, a DJ who also had a local TV show, arranged for Matthews to come on the show and sing "Makin' Whoopee" with--of all people--Betty White.

"She was married to this guy who had a lot of influence at CBS, Allen Ludden," says Matthews, explaining that it was the mid-'50s, and the new medium of TV was not ready for a biracial "Makin' Whoopee." "They were real strait-laced people, and she had concerns about singing it with me. They just couldn't do that on TV, so I sang it myself."

Matthews took music courses and eventually made the acquaintance of Dexter Gordon. Even then, the reedman was a tower of cool (somewhat literally, at six feet six inches), with a subglottal voice, jazz patois, and hooded eyes.

"Then came an interval I didn't see Dex for a few years. Maybe he was on one of his 'vacations,'" says Matthews--referring to Gordon's intermittent prison terms for dope. "When I did see him again, I'd written some arrangements, and he decided to teach me a lesson by inviting the best musicians he knew to a rehearsal. We had the hall for three hours, and after two, the band took a break. Dex didn't move. He looks up and says, 'OK, y'can tell me, who really wrote these?' I said I did, and he said, 'Hmmm, y'got a gift from God.'"

Through 1959 and 1960, Matthews fronted a hard-swinging band in which Dex played sax. In '62 Dex expatriated, but Matthews stayed in L.A., where he was scouted by Nick Venet, then a young turk among producers with Capitol. When a songwriter submitted a demo of laughably bad quality, the old guard invariably passed it on to Venet.

"They said, 'Send it to Nick--he likes this kind of shit,'" Matthews recalls with a grin. "Nick brought it to me and said it was rough, but he heard something there; he heard a big band there. The song was written by John D. Loudermilk; it was 'Tobacco Road.'"

Venet had produced a Lou Rawls LP, Stormy Monday, that sold zip back when Rawls was copying Johnny "Guitar" Watson's delivery, monologues and all. Then came Matthews' killer version of "Tobacco Road." Two versions of Rawls singing the song circulate: One is with a combo, purportedly cut live in a nightclub, though it is in fact a studio recording. Matthews' original is the cut with the big band, and the one that put Rawls on the map.

Now in good graces with Capitol, Matthews cut two albums of his own, Blues With A Touch of Elegance and Sounds of the Sixties. On a promotional jaunt to New York, he met Duke Ellington's son Mercer, who'd led bands of his own but was a disc jockey at that time. Through Mercer, Onzy met Ellington's nephew Michael. The two were out on the town, grooving to Roy Eldridge on 54th Street, when Michael split to visit Duke backstage at the Rainbow Grille in Rockefeller Center. He was soon back, claiming Duke wanted to see Onzy pronto.

A singer--one Frank Link--had found favor with Duke, who put him up in a hotel with the intention of using him on a recording. Link had thought Duke (at that time preoccupied with his Sacred Concerts) would be doing all the writing and arranging, and voiced disappointment that the task had fallen to Duke's ally, Wild Bill Davis. Duke drily asked Link who he'd prefer to have doing his book, and Link replied, "Onzy Matthews."

"Man, I just left Onzy!" said Michael, who at a gesture from the maestro dashed back to 54th to retrieve him.

Matthews and Link began working together that very night on a piano Duke ordered brought to Link's room. A night or so later, they were rehearsing; some friends of Link's were hanging around. Duke and his baritone saxophonist, Harry Carney, dropped by for an inspection. The tune Link and Matthews performed for them was "The Lonely Ones."

Duke sat, listening, hands together.
"'The arranger has captured the mood of the song perfectly,' he said. 'The singer has not. I think he has not because he's preoccupied with inviting friends to his room.'"

"Then there was this awful silence!" recalls Matthews.
Link's friends slunk from the room, and to break the frost Matthews started playing "Brownskin Girl in a Calico Gown," from an old Ellington show, Jump For Joy.

"What a great song!" gushed Link. "Who wrote it?"
Matthews gestured toward Duke, who stood, bowed theatrically, and left the room. At this point, Frank Link shuffles off into obscurity; as for Ellington, he phoned Matthews when he got back to his hotel. If Matthews was this fluent with Duke's material, they should cut an LP together! Matthews--not surprisingly--thought this was a fine idea. They'd start cutting the moment Duke got back from a European tour.

Duke, however, was touring against doctor's orders. When he got back, he was nearly bedridden, which set the stage for Matthews to get involved with him in a way that wasn't exactly aboveboard. Duke was facing a 27-city tour, and decided to have Onzy sub for him at the piano. A minute or so before each show, it was announced that Duke wasn't present because of illness, but at no time was Onzy's name even uttered as his replacement. Matthews chafed at the subterfuge, but kept mum because he was promised a big write-up at the tour's end. He never got it.

There were other problems. He and Mercer fought constantly over tonal and tempo changes Mercer made that Onzy deemed untrue to the maestro's intent. He left Ellington's camp in 1979 and went to Paris, where he formed a band of his own. In 1984, he hung around on the set of the film 'Round Midnight with its star, his old bud Dexter Gordon. In 1993, prostate surgery devastated him financially.

Re-enter the Ellingtons. Duke died in '74, leaving his sister Ruth and Mercer in charge of the fold. They contacted Matthews about returning stateside to work on the incomplete Sacred Concerts. Although his physicians advised against it, Matthews was so strapped for cash he felt he had little choice but to make the trip. His account of what happened is typically byzantine, but the gist of it is that he was stiffed for the work he did for Mercer and Ruth, which surfaced on the Musicmaster album Only God Can Make a Tree.

This, while Matthews had returned to Texas to be with his dying father. This, while his mother died in L.A. Beleaguered and doubly bereaved, he phoned the Ellington stronghold yet again, only to be told that Mercer had flitted off to Copenhagen. Matthews got very angry. By the end of the day, he was in touch with longtime Ellington business agent Oscar Coen, who confided that Mercer was broke, in hock to the IRS. Coen paid off Mercer's debt to Matthews, speeding it from his personal account so that Matthews could get to L.A. in time to bury his mother. He also indicated that the things Matthews had said about Mercer--even though Mercer was far from blameless--had pretty much burned Matthews' bridges to the Ellington camp.

"Nobody knows the blood, sweat, and tears I put in this Ellington thing," Matthews gripes. "I never had a problem with the Maestro, never needed any contracts with him. But I did this work for Ruth without a contract--I got screwed. I did work for Mercer without a contract--I got screwed. I was tired of being screwed, and if that puts me out of the picture, out of the picture I am."

Not completely. The concert at First Presbyterian in May featured both an 18-piece band and a 30-member choir assembled under Matthews' baton. In a front pew lounged Big Al Dupree, who would do a sax solo on the Ellington composition "Heaven."

"Man, this cat's heavier'n Quincy [Jones]," said Dupree of Matthews.
At the church, the Ellington music achieved a magnificence with Matthews at the helm that it had always lacked under Mercer Ellington. (A Chicago wag once said the Ellington band was "a travesty" under Mercer, and Dallas Morning News music critic Pete Oppel once called Mercer a "jive turkey." Mercer died in 1996.) Sometimes a "ghost band" will continue after a famed bandleader or his heir has passed, but at present it seems that the Duke Ellington Orchestra is no more.

Onzy, on the other hand, is alive and ornery. He led a big band at a suburban jazz club, but that ended badly, and he will slag the club at length if offered the least bit of encouragement. He felt insufficiently recognized by the African American Museum during its Ellington exhibit, lecture, and concerts of '96, so he slags it, too. He continues to fill out grant applications to fund big band shows.

An obscure facet of Matthews' bio is that he was once employed by Sheraton hotels, singing and playing solo piano in lounges on exotic islands. If I were him, I'd get me a swank gig like that, I told him, and stop jacking with the big band thing that gives him such grief.

"But in those places, music is incidental," he responds. "If you have other goals, you can't stand it when your role is to accompany conversation. The most important thing about trying to make music is trying to make a contribution. Other guys are trying to make a living. I feel that if you make a contribution, the living will be there. I'm not the kind of guy who'll sleep under a bridge, so the living will be taken care of in some kind of way. I can't feel that people are trying to listen to you, if you're in a bar! Some guys don't care, they get a gig, pay the bills. I care about that also. But the most important thing is, your music is serving some purpose other than selling someone's liquor. And anyway, whether I'm working solo or in a trio or a small group, I'm still trying to make it sound like a big band.

"I see guys in Dallas, and they're comfortable because they have great-paying day jobs, and music has become more of a hobby," he continues. "Guys'll get together and play for beers. I used to do that. But I'd rather play for free than for beers, and since I can't afford to play for free, I just don't play. I don't just sit here; I'm busy writing, because I know eventually I'll get a fax or the phone will ring, and when it does, I'll have just the thing."

The phone rang sometime before June 2. On that day, Matthews left for three weeks of work in Germany, where he did TV shows, gigs, and jazz clinics and was featured at the sizable Freiburg Jazz Festival, where he conducted a big band partly composed of members of his Paris orchestra.

"I didn't come home with a Mercedes Benz or a pile of loot," he says, downplaying the trip, but he did make a slew of contacts that might lead to conducting gigs with orchestras on Randy Crawford and B.B. King albums. More importantly, he learned that Freiburg's symphony has plans for the future performance of the Scared Concerts with a jazz choir from Baden-Baden. Impressed by Matthews' credentials, officials are trying to get Swissair to sponsor Onzy's relocation to Germany to steer the project.

"I'd be very happy with that," he says. He also says that although offers to do the Freiburg fest next year sound inviting, he's been hearing about "next year" all his life.

"What I want now is something for next week," he says as he settles down to write, waiting for the phone to ring again.

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