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 of The Jazz Cookbook), Chuck McKinnon, Kevin Porter, Al Plank, Al Bent, Curt Moore, and our own JazzEd columnist/vocalist, Scotty Wright, performing with Noel Jewkes on some of his best compositions and arrangements. The performance, as always with Noel, was outstanding-far superior to much that has been playing in that same room, including many headliners.

Those of us who are familiar with Noel's work were not surprised. For over thirty-five years he has been part of the Bay Area music scene. A finer gentleman, humorist, scholar, and romantic cannot be found. But his multitalented musicianship, arrangements, compositions, and knowledge of music are what command our attention. He has performed with a regular who's who of talent, recording as a sideman with most everyone. As a leader he recorded Just Passin' Thru with the Dr. Legato Express and a solo album, Dr. Legato on His Own. He has also recorded American Lullaby, a duet album with 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 of dedicated musicians-parents, grandparents, and seven uncles-what else could he have done? His father was his first teacher, showing him piano chords and guitar fingerings and also exposing him to his collection of 78s. Noel recalls watching the labels spin until he was dizzy. Horns fascinated him, 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 to 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 gig was playing old songs on the back of a haywagon, for which he received a silver dollar. By age twenty, expanding his horizons, he was performing at a Fresno hotel behind strippers, female impersonators, and vaudeville acts. Asked to play vibes with another band, Noel hastily accepted without any 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," claims Noel. "That's a missing element in my resume." But the opportunity never arose. He would go now, but only with a round-trip ticket. However, he is 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 you need to sit back and smell the roses," he says. "People desiring material 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 his music.

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 has 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, he says to himself, "You are a silly shit." (It's a glimpse of that bizarre English 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 and Wes Montgomery were amongst the bebop "Happy House" guests.) Although the original band has dispersed, some of the members are still around. The current band, the Legato Special, is more of a personal dream. Noel hopes to expand it into an orchestral ensemble with strings. Liking the chemistry of 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 gravitates toward the best musicians, and even though he is an older musician himself, 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 lack the subtleties of the instrument's voicings. For Noel, acoustic music is like a breath of fresh air, not to be polluted. "Music is constantly moving. It has to be. Music is a verb, not a noun."

by Tup Lohse

Jazz Now Magazine -- November 1995 Issue

Making the Rounds February 2000