Friday, December 7, 2018

Jazz guitarist Calvin Newborn jumped and flew while his pianist brother Phineas Jr. quietly pondered, and both created magic. A Memphis jazz dynasty comes to an end.

The best thing about Beale Street in Memphis some years back was at the King’s Palace where the great jazz guitarist Calvin Newborn played regularly. He was with organist Charlie Wood’s small band at the time, and he was the highlight with his wry smile and long, mellow, perfect riffs.

Long after Calvin left his native Memphis and moved to Florida, I found a copy of his CD New Born at Shangri-La Records on Madison Avenue. For the next few months, I rarely drove in, around, into or out of Calvin’s city without having “The Streetwalker’s Stroll” or “Spirit Trane/Omnifarious” playing on my car’s CD player. Both tunes had an urban vibe that matched the scenery around me, a uniquely Memphis urban vibe that’s never too far from the same rich Delta soil that has forever fed the city musically.

Calvin died this week at the age of 85 at his home in Jacksonville, Florida. With his passing goes a Memphis jazz dynasty that included his father, bandleader Phineas Newborn Sr., and his brother Phineas Jr., whom jazz critic Leonard Feather once called “the greatest living jazz pianist.”

(To the right, Phineas Newborn Jr.)

Even in death, Calvin remained somewhat in the shadow of his more famous brother. Phineas Jr., whose troubled story was beautifully told in Memphis-based writer Stanley Booth’s classic 2000 book Rythm Oil: A Journey Through the Music of the American South, suffered mental problems his entire life—he had his first nervous breakdown before he turned 30—yet produced music of such surpassing beauty and genius that Count Basie and another Memphis jazz great, bandleader Jimmie Lunceford, became two of his biggest champions. Phineas Jr. and Charles Mingus joined to do the soundtrack for John Cassavetes’ 1959 film Shadows.

Among my vinyl treasures is a copy of Phineas Jr.’s album Solo Piano with its cover depicting the pianist as the Sphinx he truly was in life.

Calvin and Phineas grew up in the working class Orange Mound neighborhood in south Memphis, where “on nearly every block, there’s a reputed crack den covered in gang graffiti, or a few stray bullet holes from a recent drive by shooting,” writes Andria Lisle in the liner notes to New Born. “In the summer time, the kids play outside, but not too far from their own doorsteps.”

Their father was a famous bandleader who would hang out with traveling musician friends like Count Basie and Jimmie Lunceford when they came through town. When the boys got old enough, they’d play in their father’s band at Plantation Inn in West Memphis, where whites went to party at night. Then they’d cross the river back into Memphis and go to Mitchell’s on Beale Street, where they’d jam into the early morning.

Phineas Jr. was a year older than Calvin, and the two boys were as different as night and day in many ways. Phineas Jr. was quiet, cerebral, withdrawn, all he wanted to do was sit at the piano and play, play, play. Calvin was like his grandfather, who played electric guitar at the Church of God in Christ and jumped around the altar shouting the glory of God to the hand-clapping, foot-stomping congregation. Memphis writer Robert Gordon tells the story through the eyes of the boys’ mother, Mama Rose, in his recent book Memphis Rent Party.

“That’s why Calvin’s got to move,” she said about her youngest son, who never knew his grandfather. “It was just in ‘em both to move! And it was in their daddy and me, too. I used to dance and play the piano, played organ at church. Just music lovers.”

Calvin was the extrovert all right, full of antics and jumping high on stage. “I was about six feet in the air, playing the guitar” he told Robert Gordon.

Phineas Jr. just sat at his piano, the Sphinx weaving beautiful melodies or bebop magic with his gliding, sliding, jumping fingers, letting those fingers do the acting up.

By the time I got to Memphis and saw Calvin, he had slowed down a bit, no longer jumping six feet high, calm in his chair, watching his fingers glide and slide up and down the neck of his guitar. Still, he’d glance up at the audience from time to time, a little grin on his face, a glint in his eye that told you he was still his own man, and he still might jump if he had a mind to.  

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