Big Jay McNeely: Drop Everything and Blow
Cecil “Big Jay” McNeely passed away Sunday from prostate cancer. The last surviving link to Los Angeles’ thriving Central Avenue jazz and R&B lifeforce was 91.
McNeely was born in Watts in 1927, when it was rural and milk was delivered by horse and buggy. Known then as “Mudtown,” Watts was an unincorporated outpost on the southern edge of Los Angeles where immigrants and migrants settled, and where art and music flourished.
Jazz innovators like Jelly Roll Morton and Kid Ory played hot jazz dances till dawn in Watts in the late teens and early 1920s. Many of McNeely’s childhood neighbors grew up to become important jazz musicians, such as Charles Mingus, Buddy Collette, and the Woodman family, who ran a music studio and filling station on their land in Watts. McNeely, Mingus and their peers grew up watching their eccentric Italian immigrant neighbor, a tile layer named Sabato Rodia, building what would be later known as the Watts Towers. As children, they collected bottles and broken bits of glass which Rodia repurposed into his vision of the world in his Watts yard. “It was a mixed community, all nationalities were there,” McNeely recalled in the book Central Avenue Sounds. “Watts was a beautiful place.”
McNeely attended Jordan High School, then Los Angeles Polytechnic High, where he met another native Angeleno jazz prodigy, pianist Hampton Hawes. (In his autobiography, Raise Up Off Me, Hawes recalled performing at his high school graduation ceremony and then immediately heading to a Central Avenue gig with McNeely’s band.) McNeely then transferred to Jefferson High School in South Los Angeles’ Eastside, where he studied with the legendary music teacher Sam Browne, who taught and inspired countless native Angeleno jazz musicians as teenagers, including Sonny Criss, Dexter Gordon, Frank Morgan, Don Cherry, Chico Hamilton, Clora Bryant, and Eric Dolphy. Browne took his high school music students to the many nightclubs and jam sessions that were flowering all over Central Avenue.
Central Avenue was a mecca for jazz, blues, and R&B, and McNeely and his peers took full advantage of its bounty. Established elders, young apprentices, and touring stars made music side by side, sharing concepts and ideas at the legendary after hours clubs and jam sessions that lasted until well past sunup. Genres, generations, and races intermingled into one bright and beautiful sound that blew like a hot wind down Central, from Washington Blvd to Watts.
McNeely was a gifted jazz musician, and formed one of the earliest bebop bands in Los Angeles, with classmates Hampton Hawes and Sonny Criss. Then one day in 1948, he was given a copy of a Glenn Miller record by a friend in a Watts record store. Glenn Miller wasn’t exactly the kind of artist bebop musicians took seriously, but there was something in the simple, honest groove that spoke to McNeely. Bebop wasn’t paying the bills, and unlike other native sons like Charles Mingus and Dexter Gordon, McNeely didn’t make the move to New York to make his name on 52nd Street.
McNeely reworked Miller’s riff into his 1949 instrumental, “The Deacon’s Hop,” launching a honking saxophone R&B craze throughout Southern California that would lead directly to the emerging music soon to be called rock and roll. (It should also be noted that McNeely’s neighbor in Watts, Dootsie Williams, would go on to record and release “Earth Angel” in 1954 by a group of high school students from South Los Angeles called the Penguins. Two of rock and roll’s essential precursory records — the honking sax of “The Deacon’s Hop” and the triplet doo wop balladry of “Earth Angel” — have their origins in Watts.)
McNeely quickly became known for his riotous performances at places like the Rendezvous Ballroom in Orange County (where Dick Dale would help invent instrumental surf music a decade later) and Los Angeles’ Olympic Auditorium, a popular boxing venue that hosted R&B shows in the early 1950s for integrated audiences, where Big Jay blew impassioned one-note tenor solos till the wee hours, laying on his back, whipping up the black, white and Mexican teenagers into an ecstatic frenzy.
His shows became so mixed and wild that McNeely was banned briefly from playing in Los Angeles County. At a San Diego gig he was arrested for disturbing the peace. In a review of a 1952 concert at the Shrine Auditorium, the Los Angeles Times observed that McNeely “turned the event into a veritable hepcat jive orgy when he came off the stage into the audience.”
A 1953 Ebony magazine profile of McNeely captured the excitement of the racially tolerant and curious teenagers in pre-rock and roll Los Angeles:
“A young white lad got so hepped up over Big Jay’s music that he jumped out of a balcony onto the main floor where he miraculously landed without hurting himself and went into a riotous dance. In Redondo Beach . . . last summer, a teen-aged white girl was sent into raging hysterics by the violent sounds of Big Jay’s horn. She did not recover her balance until her boy friend had slapped her face vigorously about a dozen times.”
In the 1940s and 1950s, McNeely played all up and down Central Avenue, and recorded for the many independent R&B labels that sprouted up all over post-war Los Angeles, like Aladin, Modern, and Exclusive. He worked with the cream of Angeleno R&B artists like Johnny Otis, with whom he made his first recording and later accompanied at the Monterey Jazz festival, and the great Jesse Belvin, who was tragically killed just as his star was rising. McNeely toured the country, backing up artists like Chuck Berry and Bobby Darin, and sharing bills with B.B. King.
When he played Birdland in New York, after his transition from bebop to simple R&B, the east coast jazz cats couldn’t understand why Charlie Parker, who McNeely got to know during Bird’s tenure in Los Angeles during the war, gave such a warm reception to the honking sax player from the Coast. He recounted this anecdote to Jonny Whiteside in a 2000 LA Weekly article:
“Charlie Parker, who I was very close to, would come up and talk. I knew them all very well — when I was a kid I was just bopping my way through everything. And the other jazz guys would look at me and all they could think was, ‘Why are they talking to this guy? All he is, is a honker, playing one note!’ But Sonny Criss, all the L.A. guys, had respect for me, even though I was doing something else. But they knew me — I grew up with them.”
In the 1970s, McNeely worked as a mailman — a coveted job at the time in South Los Angeles, but a far cry from the thunderous ecstasy he once conjured. A newfound interest in roots music in the 1980s, especially in Europe, brought McNeely and his horn out of retirement and back to the stage.
In his interview for Central Avenue Sounds, McNeely identified the musical philosophy that led him from complex jazz voicings to primal wails: “Soul. One note. Don’t try to play a lot of notes. Just play some soul. And it worked.”
The moment of discovery came at the “Deacon’s Hop” recording session. At his first session as a band leader, McNeely contemplated the rich musical resources of Watts and Central Avenue.
“I went into the studio, and I said, ‘I’m going to forget everything I’ve learned,’ because I learned a lot of things. . .But this time I just said, ‘Let’s just drop everything and just blow.’”