This story is the third part of our Century of Sound series, tracing Detroit’s musical heritage over the last hundred years.
The Detroit piano players who enlivened the New York scene beginning in the 1950s formed a veritable keyboard aristocracy. Hank Jones, Barry Harris and the late Tommy Flanagan and Roland Hanna, in particular, have been the subjects of myriad recordings and critical acclaim.
But on par with those players — and some would say the greatest of them all — was Willie Anderson, who turned down offers to go on the road with Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins and others. His legacy can be found in only the most obscure recordings, scattered newspaper accounts, oral histories and the memories of those who heard him before he passed away here at the age of 47 in 1971.
“He was one of the greatest players in the country,” remembered Detroit saxophonist George Benson, who said his real education in improvising took place when, at age 20, he worked with Anderson’s group, the largely forgotten Willie Anderson and his Four Sharps, at the likewise forgotten Parrot Lounge. “That’s how I really learned how to play, listening to him six nights a week. Willie A. was just a natural.”
He was a shy man, low-key and unassuming, soft-spoken when he was given to speak at all. He was the eldest child in a large, supportive family that moved from Georgia a few months after Willie’s birth and settled on Detroit’s Near East Side around Paradise Valley. His father was a carpenter by trade who worked as, among other things, a night watchman; his mother bore 17 children in all, 10 of whom survived. Except for a military stint and a year when he lived with a girlfriend, Willie never left home. Some called him a “Mama’s boy.” He apparently didn’t care.
Willie’s father, Glen, played gospel on his guitar at home, and sometimes in church. At least one brother was modestly talented at music. But Willie was the standout, playing “My Blue Heaven” at age 3 without formal piano training. He learned through solitary practice and playing with others, including in church, at least into his teens.
“ We was in church all the time, Beaulah Baptist,” recalled his sister Gwen Johnson. “And I would sing and Willie would play. And one time we had a minister at church. And he made his little speech, wanted to know if everybody was baptized and all, and Willie wasn’t. He never had joined the church.
“And this minister said, ‘Well I don’t think he should be playin’ the music if he’s not baptized.’ And he asked Willie why he wasn’t, and Willie said it was because he was playing music in bars, and he would be a hypocrite. And he didn’t want to do that. It (the incident) made him feel so bad that he just kinda weaned away from the church.”
Not that there wasn’t plenty of other music to keep Anderson occupied.
Anderson attended the nearby Miller High School, which had a heavy concentration of gifted students in the late 1930s, including Art Mardigan, Yusef Lateef (then known as Bill Evans), Lucky Thompson, Milt and Alvin Jackson (AJ). The Miller musical crowd regularly dropped by the Anderson home, and felt at ease, addressing Willie’s mother as “Mama A.,” enjoying her cooking, and playing music incessantly.
“We went to sleep with music and we woke up with music. I had the kind of mother that welcomed everybody. Milt Jackson used to come over because he loved navy beans. Yusef Lateef liked hamburgers. Everything we had, we shared,” recalls Anderson’s sister Esther Thomas.
Anderson dropped out of Miller during his senior year; it was obvious music was his life and he was already playing professionally, his income helping to support his family. Anderson’s sole day job was a brief spell in a radio repair shop after school.
Anderson was drafted sometime after his 18th birthday in 1943. He was stationed at Camp Plauche, La., in the Special Services Group and played in the Colored Post band. John Hammond, known for boosting the careers of such musicians as Charlie Christian and Billie Holiday, was also in the SSG when he heard Anderson play. Hammond was so impressed that he nominated Anderson for the “All-American Jazz Band” in Esquire’s 1945 Board of Experts poll.
After his discharge, Anderson’s friends welcomed him back to a Detroit music scene in full swing.
New star of 1946
Milt Jackson, then with saxophonist Ted Buckner’s band at Club 666, left later in the year to form a quartet with Anderson, guitarist Emitt Slay and bassist Millard Glover. A local newspaper columnist named the group the Four Sharps.
Detroit radio host and promoter Bill Randle, host of “Strictly Jive” on WJLB, produced a remarkable series of jazz and political events in 1944-45. They were based at the Detroit Institute of Arts, or the Schubert Lafayette Theater when the DIA was unavailable. Randle, who lived in the thick of Detroit’s burgeoning jazz scene, was ecstatic about Anderson. “I mean, I loved Willie A.! He was the best piano player in Detroit.” Randle used the Four Sharps with drummer Art Mardigan added for a number of his concerts.
The Four Sharps played various venues around town, including the Civic Center, the Cotton Club, and Club B&C. Jackson’s departure in October 1945 to join Gillespie’s group in New York City effectively finished the band.
Randle, an early admirer of Dizzy Gillespie, brought Diz to Detroit for a concert on March 11, 1945. Gillespie, like most of the jazz world, was unaware of the wealth of talent in the Motor City, and he was apprehensive about being backed up by local musicians. But after hearing Anderson and Milt Jackson, he became ecstatic. Diz tried to snag Anderson and Jackson for his new group, but only Jackson made the move to New York.
Anderson also backed tenor giant Coleman Hawkins at Randle’s May 1945 concert. Hawkins, who developed a fondness for Detroit pianists (he later worked and/or recorded with Hank Jones, Barry Harris and Tommy Flanagan), unsuccessfully tried to hire Anderson.
By 1946 Anderson attracted regular attention from Detroit’s black press. He was referred to as the “piano find of 1946” or “new star of 1946.”
He joined vocalist-guitarist Emitt Slay’s trio at the newly opened Club Sudan, in Paradise Valley, in March 1946. A contemporary report in the Michigan Chronicle paints a picture of the downstairs club, a popular eating and dancing spot, where musicians dropped by to jam. The trio “played Nat King Cole songs … they also soon will play original compositions like ‘Big Stocking Hanna,’ ‘Good Love Bessie,’ and ‘Motor City Uproar.’”
Randle had a business affiliation with the owner and broadcast his WJLB-AM “Strictly Jive” shows live from the club. “I had jam sessions. We used to broadcast them live for four hours at a time,” he recalled.
Following an altercation at the club one summer night, Slay left the group and Anderson took over. He brought in guitarist Billy Burrell, elder brother of jazz star Kenny, to replace Slay. Kenny, then 16 years old, had many opportunities to sit in with the trio. Interviewed years later, Kenny recalled a group that had the same instrumentation as the popular Nat King Cole Trio but had its own sound because Anderson’s piano style was nothing like Cole’s. In fact, listeners seem split on exactly how Anderson’s sound related to his antecedents and contemporaries. Some swear he sounded like Cole, for instance, some thought Errol Garner or Art Tatum. What they agree on is the quality of the Anderson sound.
“Willie A. was phenomenal,” Burrell said.
Metronome was then one of the nation’s top jazz journals, and when its writer Barry Ulanov visited Detroit in 1946, he singled out the Club Sudan and Anderson in his write-up. Ulanov returned 10 years later and praised Anderson in depth in a Down Beat article.
“I had forgotten what a wit Willie is … he’s a Count Basie with 10 fingers, filling in with more notes and ideas than you or I ever thought could be sandwiched in-between the familiar measures of a ‘Billy Boy’ or ‘Caravan’ or anything else. … Not streams of meaningless notes, mind you, but delicate little phrases, counter-melodies in miniature, notes that are more like comments if you know what I mean. And Willie’s right hand … has a looseness which only the great concert pianists usually possess or an Art Tatum may have. And with it, always the steady beat, not pounded but insistently propelled by his left hand. Quite a musician.”
Anderson, alone or with his trio, was in demand, and he stayed in demand the rest of his life. He worked with vocalist-guitarist Dave Wilborn (formerly with the seminal jazz band McKinney’s Cotton Pickers), his old boss Emitt Slay and future tenor sax star Billy Mitchell, to name just a few. He was sought after for jam sessions as well. His quick ear, good sense of time and creativity were assets in any rhythm section.
Nationally known musicians who came to Detroit were usually aware of Anderson via the musician’s grapevine and he got many job offers. He got firm offers from Benny Goodman and Al Hibbler (who, when he was in town, stopped by Anderson’s house), Billy Eckstine as well as the aforementioned offers from Coleman Hawkins and Dizzy Gillespie. Gillespie tried to hire Anderson a second time, in the early 1950s. His sister Mary Level said that he turned down Diz again because he didn’t like the showy music Diz was playing, which she referred to as “rock ’n’ roll.”
Tommy Flanagan once suggested that Anderson’s reluctance to leave town stemmed from his insecurities as a self-taught artist who couldn’t read music.
Anderson’s feelings about the offers notwithstanding, it seemed that everything he wanted from life — family and music — was in Detroit.
The Detroit way
Anderson exemplified what’s come to be known as the Detroit way: older musicians helping younger musicians. He taught many a beginner how to navigate the tricky waters of improvisation.
Pianist Charles Boles said, “Pianists like Willie Anderson and Bu Bu Turner put the fear of God into you, especially if you were just starting out. They were amazing musicians.”
The late baritone sax man Thomas H. “Beans” Bowles encountered Anderson at a jam session. Bowles, then in his early 20s, was, by his own admission, a “bad player.” Musicians would leave the bandstand when he approached, but Willie Anderson stayed.
“He said, ‘Slim, play B-flat, then E-flat,’ and he took me through two, three songs on stage and said, ‘Go home and practice.’ Best thing ever happened to me.”
At 15 years old, pianist Kenn Cox heard Anderson, was “fascinated with his playing,” and wanted to take lessons.
“The guys told me to go over to his house and take a bottle of his favorite wine … I spent the afternoon with him. Being a holdover from the swing era, he thought of the left hand a lot differently from the latter-day pianists. He showed me some things about stride piano, a “cheat” guide. He wasn’t quite Tatum-ish, more like Garner. I actually thought of him more like Nat King Cole.”
Anderson continued with trios into 1960s, although he shifted from piano, bass and guitar — the Cole format — to the more typical piano, bass and drum format. In keeping with the times, Billy Burrell eventually switched to electric bass and Anderson occasionally played electric piano.
Anderson suffered from an unidentified illness that kept him off the scene in the mid-1960s. When veteran jazz DJ and promoter Ed Love sponsored a tribute to Anderson in the late 1960s, Detroit’s jazz community turned out in force. Anderson played and impressed all of the musicians present with his silvery swinging improvisations.
A regular smoker who also drank strong spirits or wine everyday, Anderson felt ill the last year of his life. Never one to complain, he put up with the sickness as long as he could before seeking medical attention. His doctor put him in the hospital immediately but it was too late; Anderson soon succumbed to cancer of the tongue on April 15, 1971.
When Willie Anderson died Detroit lost one of its greatest musicians, one whose talent remained largely hidden from the outside world during his lifetime.
Read about Willie Anderson on record
Jim Gallert and Lars Bjorn are Detroit-area jazz historians and authors of Before Motown: A History of Jazz in Detroit, 1920-1960, published by University of Michigan Press. They are also the co-producers of Detroit Jazz Before Motown, 1945-53: Rare and previously unissued recordings featuring Wardell Gray, Barry Harris, Tommy Flanagan, Kenny Burrell, Willie Anderson and others, slated for release in early 2005 on the Uptown label. Jim Gallert and Lars Bjorn maintain an extensive Web site at www.detroitmusichistory.com.Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org