Jazz, the Devil, and Jess Stacy

Something odd and beautiful happened to Jess Stacy that night in 1938. It is easy to have the impression he never experienced anything quite like it again.

Stacy had played piano for the Benny Goodman orchestra since 1935 and was on stage the night they (with other musicians) played the Carnegie Hall concert of January 16, 1938, an event that “Historians now look to … as the moment when jazz gained validity from the music establishment.”

Stacy grew up in Bird’s Point and Cape Girardeau, Missouri, two hours south of St. Louis, on the river. “The first band I ever heard that amazed me was Fate Marable’s on the steamboat Capitol,” he said. “He played good solid dance band piano, and in 1921, when he came to Cape Girardeau he had a kid trumpeter named Louis Armstrong—this was before Louis had been to Chicago or even made any records, and it was like nothing I had heard in my life. That was how you learned in those days—by comparison, by listening. There were no teachers. Bix Beiderbecke taught me in the same informal way.”

Stacy, whose family lived in a decommissioned rail car, began to play piano on the boats too at a young age. “The only thing I hated about working the boats was playing that steam calliope, with all the cinders from the smokestack and 150 pounds of steam pressure,” he said. “As we were coming into a town somewhere on the Mississippi, even if it was 5 am I’d have to get up and play the damn calliope to let people know the boat was there.” The instrument’s range was less than two octaves, and its copper keys got so hot he had to tape his fingers. He wore a raincoat and rain hat to protect himself from the cinders.

Scholar William Howland Kenney writes that young white musicians of that time and place were, “Largely unaware of the historical forces that created the jazz age, [and] only superficially acquainted at best with black American life and history … Beiderbecke and Stacy were budding creative artists who invented from popular music original solo instrumental styles that filled the interstice between white middle-class (and middle-aged) social dance music and black blues and jazz.

“[These] two leading white jazz musicians of the Mississippi valley, like Louis Armstrong, had had tenuous and conflicted relations with their fathers. A sense of sadness, as well as Roaring Twenties abandon, drew them into jazz. In addition to helping them create for themselves a rich world of sound, their music, like African Americans [sic], became a shield of optimism and an emotional solace that made reference to something missing in their lives.”

Stacy spent a few years, from 1926, playing gigs in and around Chicago, including mob speakeasies. He got tapped for the Goodman orchestra in 1935. “Benny was a terrific leader,” Stacy said late in life, “but I took a lot of guff off him. If I’d had any spunk, instead of being the naive, easygoing young man I was, I’d probably have thrown the piano at him.”

At Carnegie Hall, stakes were high. (Duke Ellington was watching from his box.) Goodman peevishly believed Harry James, Lionel Hampton, and Teddy Wilson “were leading the band” that night, Stacy said. (The incredible lineup also included Count Basie and Lester Young.) “And this was burning Benny up. I think Benny liked what I played behind his solo [near the end of “Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing)], you know, and all of a sudden he says, ‘Take it, Jess.’”

“Sing, Sing, Sing” was written by Louis Prima, but arranger Jimmy Mundy turned it into a musical novel. Gene Krupa thumps his tom-toms throughout, in a syncopation impossible for a non-drummer to recreate. This unifies the song’s three sections “and arouses people for some reason or other,” as musician Turk Van Lake, who was in the audience that night, says.

In the first section the band introduces the motif and sets up the drama. The second section is solos telling individual stories within the context of the whole. The third is prologue that ends at maximum volume. In those twelve minutes of drums, menacing brass, and wailing/wise-guy clarinet, I can hear the brutality of the Depression; suffering Europe already bookended with war; and the confidence of a brash, burgeoning American century. The whole thing sounds like a demonic celebration, the favorite number of the best dancehall band in hell, which plays as events in the world spin out of control. But Stacy’s solo, which he had not expected or planned, is tender, wistful, and hopeful. It serves as respite and reminder of softer emotions.

In the recording of that night, he begins by plunking with one finger then uses one hand to noodle a few bars. Somebody in the background, maybe pianist Teddy Wilson, says encouragingly but comically, “Yeah, Jess!” The audience boils up with laughter.

Stacy begins to search for what he wants. His rolling right hand starts with the tremolo of the brothel barroom, but he shifts quickly and often—to classical inflections, hints of dreamy sonatas that diminish and come back up as honky-tonk or boogie-woogie, then echoes of the tarantella-like rhythms the trumpets played earlier. He closes with an impossibly gentle set of chords that fade to silence. The stunned audience takes a second then bursts into applause and cries of pleasure, and Krupa has to use cowbell to get the song restarted and count the others in.

“I’d had four scotch-and-sodas and was flyin’ high,” Stacy said. “I don’t remember what I played or anything about it. I just played.” He said he had been listening to records of Ravel, Debussy, and Edward McDowell.

Goodman “just let me play,” Stacy said a little wonderingly. “I think it was three minutes. It was just as much a surprise to me as anything.” He said his solo was built on “an old A-minor chord,” and “if it had been rehearsed I would have lost it up.”

Over the next decade Stacy won Down Beat polls and worked for Tommy Dorsey and Bob Crosby. (“Bob was easy to work for, but he was always feeling sorry for himself because he had a brother named Bing. And Bob couldn’t sing and he knew it.”) But the era of swing and big bands was done. By 1961 Stacy was playing two nights a week in a neighborhood bar and walking ten miles a day delivering mail for Max Factor.

“I was embarrassed by the clientele [at the bars]; the piano was horrible,” he said. Drunks were asking him to play “Down by the Old Mill Stream” and “Beer Barrel Polka” over and over. TV was new to the bars, and guys were telling him to stop playing so they could listen to the fights. “I thought, who needs this? So I quit.”

He didn’t play professionally again until 1974, when he worked on the soundtrack for The Great Gatsby and was invited to the Newport Jazz Festival. He even cut an album. But he retired again in the late 1970s. He died in 1995, at 90. Sixteen more albums were released posthumously.

As with many creative people, Stacy worked decades to make himself ready for that solo. There is something uncanny in the final combination of preparation, opportunity, and brilliance that yielded it. That line from A River Runs Through It comes to mind: “To him, all good things … come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.” Stacy not only achieved grace, but it was improbably recorded. (The recording was lost for a dozen years but found.) Yet he was not present for his three minutes, and he had no memory of them later. His renown for that moment was such that the rest of his career could be seen as anticlimax. How to feel about all this?

Personally, I think the voice in Carnegie Hall that night—Yeah, Jess!—did not belong to Teddy Wilson or Count Basie. It was the Devil himself, amused and surprised, as the metronome ticked and the audience laughed in oblivion.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.