Jazz Great Jess Stacy Lived the Highs, Lows of Showbiz

Twenty-First in a Series

By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Thursday, June 28, 2018

Copyright ©2018 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

By the 1950s jazzman Jess Stacy cut an inspiring but cautionary figure for the young musicians of his native southeast Missouri. The famed pianist, once headlining with the biggest bands in grand halls, had dropped to booking his own solo gigs at little bars around southern California.

Personal setbacks had affected Stacy, two failed marriages and fiscal loss as a bandleader, but the impact development was decline of “big band” swing music since World War II, for jazz players like him. A critic commiserated, noting the startling demise of such names as Jess Stacy, Harry James, Gene Krupa, Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton—their becoming “musty, forgotten” in pop culture.

The piano bars of So-Cal had become Stacy’s lot, his steady money, playing in places like Steak-Out, Sip ’n’ Surf, Parisian Room, Electra Lounge, Holiday House, Ivory Tower, and Pepy’s Roman Room. A tiny box ad in The Los Angeles Times announced: “Nightly—World’s Greatest Pianist, JESS STACY at the RADAR ROOM.” Stacy played college fraternity parties and the Motor Sport Lounge on Ventura Boulevard, a joint in Van Nuys with no cover charge.

A news columnist felt pity, watching the graying legend perform alone at a restaurant opening: “And the man at the piano, of course, is Jess Stacy, who in the ’40s reigned as the best of them all, ranking first in four straight Downbeat polls (1940-43) and a member of such remembered organizations as the bands of Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Bob Crosby. His piano solo of Sing, Sing, Sing, recorded at Goodman’s 1938 Carnegie Hall jazz concert, is an example of swing piano at its finest,” Wally Guenther reported in lament for The Los Angeles Times.

Stacy actually didn’t mind the lifestyle, for a while at least, and the story theme of fallen music giant, circulating about him, wasn’t wholly accurate. The Stacy starlight still burned nationally and abroad, retaining power through swing fans everywhere. His music continued to sell records, famous entertainers continued to cite him as role model, and he continued to work in movies, radio and the new medium, television.

Reserved, soft-spoken, Jess Stacy relished aspects of leaving the limelight, done with far-flung travel in particular. He’d finally settled into a good marriage, turning 50, and bought a nice cottage in the wooded Hollywood Hills, on high ground with space to raise fruit trees. He played music in small venues, often five to six nights a week, similar to his coming up in rural Missouri and Illinois.

Stacy dutifully learned sing-along melodies for piano-bar patrons, even if avoiding choruses and eye contact from his stool. Stacy never sang and didn’t smile often during a song, focusing instead on the piano keys, fingers rolling, and bar audiences generally left him alone those early years in southern California. The entertainer impressed locals, including a tough crowd at Motor Sport Lounge. “Magic music… Jess Stacy,” saluted Larry Lipson for Van Nuys News.

“Personally, I like playing as a single,” Stacy said during the period. “Some fellows can’t do it; gets ’em down. For me, though, it seems easier—a lot easier—than band work. I don’t do so bad, either. Been working 49 weeks out of a year.”

Jim Goldsborough was a So-Cal youth who soaked up local jazz of the Fifties and early Sixties. Goldsborough shared his father’s affinity for former big-band players both native and transplanted. “For music lovers, it’s hard to imagine the access we had in those days,” he later recalled, as columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune.

“There was a fall rushing season at UCLA when one fraternity had Hoagy Carmichael playing live in its living room, another had [Bobby] Troup by the pool, another had Bobby Short, another had Jess Stacy. None of them could have earned more than $150 for the gig, but the beer was free.”

Recently Goldsborough recounted seeing Stacy at “a joint on Highland in Manhattan Beach called Cisco’s, where I went with my dad to hear him in 1958, I believe… Cisco’s was right across the street from another joint called Pancho’s and both had piano bars. I had Benny Goodman’s ’38 Carnegie Hall album with the fantastic improvised solo by Jess on Sing, Sing, Sing, the one where Jess is so hot that Benny cries out ‘Yeah, Jess’ as he gets going, and Gene Krupa is riffing behind him all the way; a truly beautiful piano solo, legendary, really.”

“Cisco’s was not exactly the Hollywood Bowl, so Jess was just hanging on in those days, but I remember that my dad and I both loved his style of playing. He was still playing great stride and was a very engaging man.”

The music profession was souring for Stacy, however, by that date at Cisco’s. His big-time prospects were drying up and bar crowds becoming less tolerable.

Relations stood broken with powerful Benny Goodman, leader of numerous bands and talents since the 1930s, including Stacy over multiple periods. Goodman seemed the only one to make major cash among them, anymore, for all the music spanning decades. Stacy and Goodman parted acrimoniously in 1955, once again, during production of a movie on Goodman’s life. “Nobody seems to know how it started, but famed piano-pounder Jess Stacy and Benny Goodman almost came to blows over at Universal,” reported Hollywood columnist Edith Gwynn.

Meanwhile, Stacy began to dread work at piano bars. “I could see the writing on the wall when TV came in,” he later remarked. “Some guy at the bar would say: ‘Stop playing, we want to listen to the fights.’ ”

“TV began keeping the nicer people at home, and I came to feel those piano bars were snake pits. I had to walk around the block six or seven times every night to get up enough courage to go in. While I was playing, somebody would put a nickel in the jukebox…”

Stacy had been paid to make music since 1920, at age 16 in Cape Girardeau, Mo. He’d lived the dream of so many peers, yet came to question what it really meant. Now Stacy had to consider a normal job in his advancing age, without résumé and skill for much in an everyday vocation.

Back in Missouri, a longtime friend could empathize, Raymond F. “Peg” Meyer, Stacy’s first bandleader when they attended Cape Central High School. The two had entered riverboat jazz together, performing for excursion bands aboard steamers plying the Mississippi in warm weather, and they had a great time for a few seasons. Then Meyer declined the boats to stay home, get married, teach band and sell instruments; Stacy strove onward to achieve musical heights, place his name in lights, but also live the lows.

“Jess clearly reached the top of his profession,” Meyer wrote for his 1989 book, Backwoods Jazz in the Twenties. “And in spite of the fact that he has played with some of the most famous bands in American history… he never forgot his playing days with Peg Meyer’s ‘Melody Kings.’ In a recent letter he remembered all of the good times he had playing with my group, and he stated that he believed the greatest mistake in his life was in leaving Cape Girardeau.”

“Fame does not always produce happiness in an individual’s life,” Meyer noted, “but this is seldom realized until in maturity or retirement.”

Matt Chaney, writer and consultant, is compiling a book on historical song and dance in the Missouri delta, tentatively titled From River Music to Rock ‘n’ Roll. For more information, see the ChaneysBlog page “Music History and Legend of the Missouri Delta.” For information on Chaney’s previous books, visit www.fourwallspublishing.com.  Email: mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com.

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