Noel Jewkes: Music Is a Verb, Not a Noun
by Tup Lohse
Recently saxophonist Noel Jewkes's septet, the Legato
Special, graced the
New Orleans Room at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. For three
consecutive Wednesdays, we were privileged to hear Jim Grantham (author
The Jazz Cookbook), Chuck McKinnon, Kevin Porter, Al Plank, Al Bent,
Moore, and our own JazzEd columnist/vocalist, Scotty Wright, performing
Noel Jewkes on some of his best compositions and arrangements. The
performance, as always with Noel, was outstanding-far superior to
has been playing in that same room, including many headliners.
Those of us who are familiar with Noel's work were not surprised.
thirty-five years he has been part of the Bay Area music scene. A
gentleman, humorist, scholar, and romantic cannot be found. But his
multitalented musicianship, arrangements, compositions, and knowledge
music are what command our attention. He has performed with a regular
who of talent, recording as a sideman with most everyone. As a leader
recorded Just Passin' Thru with the Dr. Legato Express and a solo
Legato on His Own. He has also recorded American Lullaby, a duet album
pianist Mike Greensill.
Talking with Noel about his background revealed
many interesting things
previously unknown to me. Noel was born into music. With a family
dedicated musicians-parents, grandparents, and seven uncles-what else
he have done? His father was his first teacher, showing him piano
guitar fingerings and also exposing him to his collection of 78s.
recalls watching the labels spin until he was dizzy. Horns fascinated
but he was never allowed to touch his father's trumpet (the man believed
that it would fill with bad air). So Noel's ingenious mind surfaced
create his first instrument, a funnel attached to a garden hose. Its
function was to serenade girls! It worked!
During his early career he played all the town events,
subbing with the
school band in whatever chair happened to be vacant. His first paying
was playing old songs on the back of a haywagon, for which he received
silver dollar. By age twenty, expanding his horizons, he was performing
Fresno hotel behind strippers, female impersonators, and vaudeville
Asked to play vibes with another band, Noel hastily accepted without
knowledge of the instrument. He learned on the job!
Since then he has performed mostly in Asia, Nevada,
and California. "I am
culturally deprived because I have never been to Europe or New York,"
Noel. "That's a missing element in my resume." But the opportunity
arose. He would go now, but only with a round-trip ticket. However,
much in demand here, and more in the public's eye than ever.
Inspiration comes from Noel's own life. He feels
that staying on the fast
track will make one's musical output pretty one-dimensional. "Sometimes
need to sit back and smell the roses," he says. "People
things, working three jobs, miss out on so much." Not being materialistic,
he gets by with old cars and clothes, allowing himself to focus on
Playing in different ethnic situations has had its effects on him,
too. As a
musician Noel sees and is saddened by racial barriers the human race
still to overcome. Playing for a black senior center in the Fillmore
district in San Francisco with a "bunch of old guys" teaches
him about life and humility. "When those guys are in their own
environment and not threatened, they are beautiful," he said.
"I feel like a privileged guest." (Eddie Hammond, who has
played with Lester Young and Billie Holiday, is one of those guys.)
These experiences Noel would never trade. His grandma's words still
resound through his memory: "The future is now, right now."
Asked if he would consider doing anything else, Noel claimed to be
"jaded and prejudiced" in favor of Jazz. For him the music
has always had an immediacy about it, and the players have fun despite
their problems. Given the choices, it could only be Jazz.
About his pseudonym, Dr. Legato, he says the name
came to him after a nap,
but now he has a different title for himself-Dr. Silly Shit. Often,
referring to experimental tapes he hopes no one else will ever hear,
to himself, "You are a silly shit." (It's a glimpse of that
humor he so readily embraces.)
The Legato Express originated from Noel's experiences
running Jazz workshops
at a Victorian house on Oak Street in San Francisco. (Carmen McRae
Montgomery were amongst the bebop "Happy House" guests.)
original band has dispersed, some of the members are still around.
current band, the Legato Special, is more of a personal dream. Noel
expand it into an orchestral ensemble with strings. Liking the chemistry
playing with other musicians, he hopes to have his arrangements and
compositions performed by the very best in the business.
"It's such a beautiful thing when talented
players get together and are
given a chance to express themselves," says Noel. "I wish
the whole world
could have that experience." Not liking bad music, he naturally
toward the best musicians, and even though he is an older musician
he is still learning. His greatest fear is of not growing musically.
He hopes to take his music on the road-if not with the band, at least
with the book, assured that any good musicians can perform it. As
for an album, if he can raise the finances, why not? His first album
was just luck. The studio, training a new engineer, used Noel's group
as guinea pigs, hence the free recording time.
Disliking electronic music, Noel respects its value,
especially for the
young. He has a particular abhorrence for saxophone imitations, which
the subtleties of the instrument's voicings. For Noel, acoustic music
like a breath of fresh air, not to be polluted. "Music is constantly
It has to be. Music is a verb, not a noun."