photo by Corey Walter
Look up pianist Joe Albany in the All Music Guide to Jazz and you will discover that during his career he associated with the likes of Benny Carter, Lester Young, Joe Venuti, Warne Marsh, and even Charlie Parker, and that eight of the albums recorded under his name in the United States and Europe between 1957 and 1982 are still in print. In the short biography accompanying Albany’s critical discography, the writer Scott Yanow touches briefly on his troubled life, his drug abuse, and his many wives, and concludes that given these circumstances, “…it is miraculous that he lived to almost reach 64.”
The later years of Albany’s life were precious to his daughter Amy — raised in a seamy Hollywood hotel by her hipster father after mother Sheila abandoned her at the age of six. Amy reaches into her childhood and pulls out a magical tale called Low Down: jazz, junk and other fairy tales from childhood, in which she reflects on her imperfect world filled with down-on-their-luck Hollywood characters, junked-out musicians, late-night Naugahyde joints, and an unpredicatable, brilliant father. Low Down is a story consisting of equal parts despair and hope, recklessness and loyalty, hate and love — communicated in a near-poetic improvisation her old man could have composed a tender, punchy tune to.
Read on in the All Music Guide to Jazz and Yanow writes, “Joe Albany’s real importance is as one of the early bop pianists.” Maybe musically. But for Amy Albany, his real importance was as a grounding and loving connecting point to her impassioned, little-girl soul.
Amy joins Paul Hallaman in a November 11, 2003 Jerry Jazz Musician interview. A book excerpt precedes the conversation.
Amy Albany and father Joe in Los Angeles, 1977
A Book Excerpt
Is That All There Is?
As a child, I tried to adhere to the same simple philosophy that many children have. I did my best to find love in some form, even when it appeared to be absent, and I tried to seek out beauty, though it wasn’t often present in any traditional sense. I found that it was always best to keep my thoughts private and attempted to avoid situations that had a potential for conflict. This last credo would prove particularly challenging. It was never wise to provoke or even engage in conversation with my dad after he had fixed. If you left him alone and buried your nose in a book, he would weather his high with only a few random outbursts that he usually directed at himself. Often his ranting would manifest itself in the form of a one-sided battle with an invisible foe I always assumed was the Devil. “You’re not God – I know who you are,” he’d yell, pointing at the air before him. My book would begin to slip out of my hands from the amount of sweat I’d shed over the possibility that Satan was in the room with us.
He’d then go over to the piano and bang out some dissonant chords repeatedly, stopping at times to tell me how much he loved me or how much he hated the cold fucking world. Unfortunately, when we both lived with my grandmother, as we occasionally did, she was not able to ignore these drug interludes. Dad would emerge from the bedroom with a dull and distant, totally unfamiliar expression. As much as I warned her against it, Gram felt compelled to start in on him, tsk-tsking with her dark, agonized eyes and sad gray head. “Look at yourself. My God, my God.” I’d tug furiously on her sleeve, beseeching her silence.
“Fuck your God, and fuck you,” he’d slur, his mouth set in an ugly scowl. Things would escalate rapidly, and he’d say stuff that I understood to be totally contrary to his true nature. When straight, he was the quintessential loving, worshipful Italian son.
One night, Gram went for a full frontal assault. Dad had been peeling an apple and was still holding the knife. “Why don’t you just kill me?” she wailed at him, beating her chest.
“Maybe I should,” Dad answered, taking two steps toward her, waving the knife. That was it. I jumped in front of Gram, horrified, and prepared to die.
Gram grabbed my arm and swung me around to face her. “Amy, don’t you dare speak to your father that way!” What was this? I thought, totally mystified. I looked back and forth between the two of them, and they looked at me as though I’d had an inappropriate fit in the middle of a church picnic.
Some kids would be much better off without the added confusion of an adult point of view. It destroys the purity of their world. Perhaps Gram and Dad found some bizarre contentment in these exchanges. I walked into the bedroom and put Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” on the record player.
Joe Albany and daughter Amy, 1962
“I often thought my father was born of music — some wayward melody that took the form of a man. He heard music everywhere, in the squeaking of rusted bedsprings and the buzzing of flies. Dripping faucets were filled with rhythms to him, as was the irregular flashing of the busted neon outside our window. Some shook their heads and thought he was a nut, but I never believed that.”
– Amy Albany
PH The writer Greil Marcus wrote about your memoir, Low Down: junk, jazz, and other fairy tales from childhood: “Albany recreates a landscape of her childhood where misery is a faraway sound floating above a voice speaking in tones of affection, terror, rage, love and, most of all, a hipster’s defiance.” I would agree that it is quite an amazing read. I appreciate your participation in this interview.
AA Thank you for inviting me.
PH The book in particular covers your life with your father, the great jazz pianist Joe Albany. Prior to your birth, the Albany family moved from New Jersey to California in the forties.
AA Yes. My grandfather wanted to come to California for work, so they drove out here in a very old car of his. Besides his interest in moving for work, he wasn’t pleased with a relationship my father was in at the time.
PH The woman he was involved with was referred to by your grandfather as a “tainted she-devil.”
AA That’s right. She was a Jewish girl, and my grandfather had a lot of terrible notions about anyone who wasn’t like him. He was an Italian Catholic and was pretty extreme about wanting to break that relationship up, which turned out alright in the end because my dad ended up out here in California. That was a good thing at the time.
PH Your father had been playing as a professional musician since he was a teenager, first as an accordionist. Soon after he arrived in Los Angeles, he discovered the Central Avenue jazz scene.
AA Yes, he spent a lot of time there, and while there he took part in a Lester Young recording, which was of course a great experience for him. It was also during this time that he met Charlie Parker.
PH He made numerous trips between New York and Los Angeles. Why?
AA He was probably doing that to stay one step ahead of trouble. By going back and forth he was making efforts to avoid the law. It is interesting because critics would talk about him being either an East coast or West coast jazz musician. I remember asking him about that once, and he said he felt more of a kinship with the East coast players and their sound, although he certainly had friends out here — Art Pepper and Chet Baker among them. But he was more partial to the East coast, where he came from.
PH You call your mother the “Belle of Salt Lake City.” How did she and your father get together?
AA They met in Los Angeles at a party in Errol Garner’s home, who my father was close friends with. He was just getting over his second wife having committed suicide, so he wasn’t in very good shape at the time. My mom was a big fan of his. The only recording out at the time that featured my father on it was The Right Combination, with the saxophonist Warne Marsh. She absolutely loved that album, and I remember her telling me that she wore it out. She said it was very exciting to meet him. They were both very brilliant in their own way but were probably not a particularly good combination. Both were very troubled, but their being together was fate.
PH He was a very intelligent person.
AA Yes, he was very well read, and into the poet Allen Ginsberg. Coincidentally, in a letter to Jack Kerouac, Ginsberg wrote about meeting a young woman — my mother, as it turned out — who was very much into jazz and literature. He was quite impressed by her, so my father obviously wasn’t the only one interested. He always said she was the big love of his life. Neither of my parents were on a very good path, and they wound up dragging each other down into a pretty dreadful addiction scene. Her addiction was probably more drinking than my dad — whose thing was drugs — but it didn’t make for a good combination.
PH Your mother left when you were six?
AA Permanently, yes. My dad told me she actually left a couple of times earlier, but the first time I remember her leaving was when I was about five or six. She had a lot of potential, and did many things incredibly well, but she didn’t do the mother thing very well. I guess you can’t do well at everything.
PH In the introduction to the book, you wrote, “If he wasn’t in jail or rehab, we were together.” What shines through some of the real darkness in your book is the love you have for your father — how much he meant to you, and how the two of you were very cohesive partners.
AA That is true. It was important to me to communicate that. It’s funny, because I got a lot of flack from some of the critics who reviewed my book. One of the women — a writer in the Bay area — accused me of being a Pollyanna for not taking a stronger stand against my parents, or for not recognizing what an awful situation I grew up in. She wanted me to call my folks “bad parents,” basically. But, we are all so complicated, and I think creative people like artists and musicians possess even more complications than normal. The fact is that my parents were truly battling demons all their lives, and I give them a lot of credit for doing the best they could. My father in particular was phenomenal in so many ways, and I learned so much from him. Sure he was flawed, as everyone is, but in spite of that he was such a warm, friendly person. You have to learn to take the bad with the good, and I wouldn’t have traded him for an upstanding, boring father.
PH Right. Let’s face it, while Ward Cleaver had his merits, he didn’t have the melodic genius or creative persona that your father did.
AA I received so many gifts from just being near him. It was an honor to grow up around him and to be able to sit by him and listen to him play. It was an extraordinary experience. All his musical talent passed over me, unfortunately, but it was wonderful to just be around.
PH Your childhood memories include friendships with an amazing cast of characters, most of whom you got to know while living at the Saint Francis Hotel on Hollywood and Western.
AA My memory is a little strange that way. For me, home is a wide area, so there are completely dark, large spaces where I don’t remember things at all, but there are also vivid snapshots of people who made indelible impressions on me that I have carried around forever. These are the people I write about, like Kitty Goldstein, the ex-stripper who worked at the Pussycat Theater in Hollywood; Mr. Wumplebottom, who was one of my father’s probation officers; and Ralph, the hotel’s resident bookie. But either I remember something very vividly or not at all.
PH You have quite vivid memories of meeting Louis Armstrong.
AA Oh yes, that is easy to remember. It was a fantastic experience. He was larger than life to me, and so incredibly alive — almost like an animated person. It was really something for me because I loved his music so much at the time I met him. And to have had the experience of meeting him makes his music seem even that much more phenomenal when I listen to it now.
PH He sang “Once in Love with Amy” to you and even autographed a picture for you?
AA Yes, that’s right. Because my dad was a musician, there were always other musicians around, many of whom would play “Once in Love with Amy” for me. And while they were all very special in their own way, to have Louis Armstrong sing it to me really stood out.
PH Some of the other characters you have vivid impressions of, like Koko the clown and Blind Danny are not exactly heart-warming.
AA Well, those are the things that make vivid impressions. You learn to take the good with the bad. Perhaps I don’t have the best memories of them, but I tried to get something positive for myself from them by writing about them. On the surface these characters would seem negative, but once I dug deep I was able to find some empathy for them because they lived very hard lives. It was hard to just completely write them off, and I didn’t see them merely as creeps or losers. We all sort of have to deal with what is handed to us.
PH Yes, not everybody in life is dealt the same hand
AA That is why I have trouble with people who whine about their circumstances. I like to think people can deal with them. If I was able to deal with what I had to as a child, then others can also. Maybe I am not as sympathetic in that way as I should be, but everything is relative, and it is all from your own perspective. This book is my perspective, which is more extreme than many other people’s, I guess.
PH It is a great story because as a young child you were surrounded by brilliant musicians who were also brilliantly flawed. When reading Low DownI couldn’t help but compare it to the writing of people like Charles Bukowski and John Fante, particularly in the way you describe Los Angeles. The part of Fante that peels back the veneer protecting Los Angeles comes through in your writing as well. Yes, there are sunshine and orange trees there, but there is another aspect to it that his writing — and yours — communicates.
AA That is a wonderful compliment. Thank you. I hope that aspect gets communicated to the reader. I have to say that I really feel for Los Angeles. I think it has gotten a bad rap because it is sort of subtle — you have to look for things. People see it, as you said, as a place coated in a shiny veneer and shallowness, but it really isn’t. There is so much complexity here, covered in a thousand layers. It is an absolutely unique place, and I almost feel that it is my duty, as someone who was born and raised here, to show people as many of these layers as I can.
PH The book is divided into sections, “Trio,” for when it was you and both parents, “Duet,” for when it was just you and your father, and “Solo,” for after your father left to go to Europe. Why did he leave?
AA It was a great opportunity for him. While jazz began falling out of favor in America, the music and its musicians continued to be held in high esteem in Europe. He wasn’t able to make a living playing jazz here, but he was there. It was a great experience for him. He cleaned up his act and really got his head down to playing. By going to Europe, he was able to get away from a lot of the negative influences and riff-raff here. It wasn’t like that in Europe for him at all — or if it was, it was on a much smaller scale.
PH He stayed in Europe for quite some time
AA Yes, he was in Holland for probably the longest time, and he was in Denmark and England for a couple of years each. He also did quite a bit of traveling throughout France, Belgium and Germany. It seemed like no matter where he went, he could find an audience. One of the things that always struck him was that jazz had an enthusiastic following among all age groups in Europe. College students, young people, old people, men, women — they all loved jazz. During the time he lived there — unlike American culture — European culture wasn’t necessarily divvied up according to trends or age. So, his art was acknowledged there and consequently he was very happy in Europe, where he recorded a lot for Steeplechase and other labels. In a way I wish he would have stayed, but there is always the pull to come back and try to make it in your own hometown.
PH And while he was there, you were a teenager, living with your grandmother. It was just the two of you, right?
AA Yes, pretty much. I was trying to grow up as best I could, and not in a nice part of Hollywood — not that there is a nice part of Hollywood. My grandmother was wonderful. I was a handful for her, so it probably didn’t make her life very easy.
PH It seems as if you both did your best given the circumstances.
AA I am my father’s daughter, and I am sure that was part of the problem.
PH There is a very poignant chapter in your book called “No Academic,” in which your grandmother receives a letter from your father, and you read it. Something he wrote was quite hurtful to you. Can you talk a little about that?
AA My dad had two sides to him. On the one hand, he was very hip, and on the other he was very traditional. He was raised as a conservative Italian, and he could pull that side on me at the weirdest times, and I would think to myself, “How did that come from this hip little sad musician everyone looks up to?” The letter he wrote to my grandmother that you refer to included questions about boys. He had previously discovered that I had lost my virginity, and wrote, “It is my understanding that Amy is no longer a virgin. While she is certainly no academic, she is my daughter, and I suppose I must continue to advise her the best I can. I don’t want her to turn into a rotten kid.” Well, this was quite shocking to me. I had no idea where that had come from, and it was very hard to take. It was such a low blow, particularly his comment about my being a “no academic.” That comment inspired me to become an insatiable reader, and I tried to learn everything I possibly could in an effort to make him proud of me. I am going to sound like a cockeyed optimist, but in retrospect that letter may have done me some good. It was a wakeup call, because I was being lazy and silly, and it had the effect of stopping me in my tracks and made me realize I had to change.
PH You wrote about friendships you made in high school, and of your high school experience in the Los Angeles Unified School District as well.
AA At the time the LA Unified School District was one of the worst in the whole country, and it may still be. I remember the schools that I attended as being just horrendous. Maybe I was on the wrong side of the tracks, although you would think Hollywood High School would have offered a more quality education besides drama, which didn’t interest me much at the time.
Part of the problem I faced during high school is that I never really wanted to be a part of the “crowd.” I always felt a little out of sorts — like an oddball or a loner. I guess that had something to do with my growing up alone, without siblings, and never really having a sense of conforming to anyone else’s ideas. I was making everything up as I went along, and it continued that way in high school. And friends can be so unforgiving of those who are perceived as being a little different. For example, I liked the music of the thirties, which may as well have been music from another planet to those who follow the trends of the era they grow up in. Consequently, I felt like I was from another planet. It didn’t make for a good social situation, and the funny thing is, that didn’t particularly bother me. I didn’t want this part of my book to be a long, sad tale about being disliked and shunned in school, because it was really okay with me. I felt out of place a little because I didn’t want to be part of what the rest of the kids were doing, but I just thought that these differences were what makes the world go around.
PH Sure, it isn’t always easy for those who listen to Al Jolson while everyone else listens to Led Zeppelin.
AA Perhaps teenagers are more open now than when I was young, and maybe they are a little more resonant about things. All I know is that I would not like to be young again and have to relive that. I am just happy that I am able to appreciate the good parts of my youth. Sometimes you don’t really see that until the years give you some space from it.
PH You talk about the feelings you have for your father and a search for an all purifying love that existed in the corner of a messed up universe as if it were some sort of Quixotic quest
AA It is something that became very important for me when I had children of my own. That is hardly an original thought, but it is really true for me. Understanding who my father was and my feelings for him is extremely important to me. Maybe that is what everyone feels once they have children — a closer connection to and a better understanding of your parents because of what they went through while raising you. The experience of raising children crosses all boundaries and everything falls into place, making all that I went through during my own childhood worthwhile.
Descriptions by Amy Albany, as they appear in Low Down
Dad in L.A, 1942
Right combo: relaxing during recording of The Right Combination in engineer Ralph Garretson’s living room
Making music with Warne Marsh (sax), Bob Whitlock (bass), and Stan Dembowski (drums), 1957
Mr. and Mrs. Joe Albany, publicity shot, 1960
Father and daughter connecting, 1962
Delicate beginnings: me and Mom, 1962
A visit to Gram’s, 1963 — the only picture of the four of us
The author, 1964
Posing in big boots, 1968
“High Times” at Grant Elementary, 1969
Unhappy girl, 1970
Getting down to business, Europe, mid-seventies
Reunited: Dad back at Gram’s for a visit from Europe, 1977
Dad, older but happier for a while, around 1979
Amy Albany, 2003
About Amy Albany
PH Who was your hero?
DM Up to the age of fourteen, my hero was Atticus Finch. After that it was Philip Marlowe — together I suppose they’re my ideal man. Anyway, all my heroes are, alas, ficticious…
Amy (A.J.) Albany lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their two children, Charlie and Dylan
Joe Albany products at Amazon.com
Interview took place on November 11, 2003
If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interview with Jack Kerouac’s musical collaborator David Amram.
* Book excerpt and photos printed with the permission of the author.