Joe Albany wasn’t the first seeker to find his true voice in jazz, but he was among the more forthright about what the music meant to him. In the 1980 documentary, Joe Albany: A Jazz Life, he puts it in both spiritual and psychological terms. After describing his Italian-born father’s alienation from the Church, Albany says, “I looked for God in church, but I couldn’t find him. A lot of people say that jazz is the voice of, the spirit of God, that it’s the closest to it… Jazz is the ideal state for any repressed person to express themselves, because they’re improvising.” Albany hastens to add that man, unlike God, is prey to all manner of temptation, and that artists, “being sensual,” are especially so.
Albany certainly bit from the apple, and as a result his career as a pianist was completely overwhelmed by a life of drug addiction, crime, multiple marriages, and prison and hospital sentences. In the liner notes to the posthumous release of a 1966 session, Portrait of a Legend, Albany says, “I was torn between the criminal code and being an artist. From Florida to Chicago to L.A., I got busted on drugs and thrown into one jail and nuthouse after another.” But Albany had the good fortune of being granted a second act, and after 25 years of near total obscurity, he re-emerged in the ’70s, playing and traveling throughout Europe while living in Holland, Denmark, and England, as well as extended engagements in New York, L.A., and San Francisco.
The Atlantic City native is essentially the sole voice relating his life’s story in the documentary, but he sounds humble and reliable, and his recollections of Bird and Pres and Lady Day are appreciative and insightful. Albany came to prominence in the 1940’s, holding down the coveted piano chair in bands led by Georgie Auld and Benny Carter, where he was the only white member. He jumped from coast to coast in the forties, working at the Famous Door on 52nd Street with Charlie Parker and tap dancer Baby Laurence, and playing and recording with Lester Young in Los Angeles in 1946. The film shows him with jazz deejay Phil Schaap at WKCR listening to a playback of his solo on “Lester Leaps In.” It’s a good example of how befitting the title Proto Bopper was on one of Albany’s late-career recordings.
Albany says it was especially challenging trying to swing with Parker, “You had to follow him…I could play with Prez because I could feel him, but with Bird a lot of it was in the mind, and he wouldn’t let that barrier down.” He also knew Billie Holiday, whom he called an “original with a great jazz concept,” and recognized as “lonely.” He wonders but that if she were alive [in 1979] he’d be able to “communicate with her, because I’ve reached that state of maturity where I know what counts.”
Albany is seen throughout the film at the West End Café in New York, where he is in great form playing the Parker originals “My Little Suede Shoes,” “Billie’s Bounce,” and “Confirmation,” as well as “Over the Rainbow,” “There Will Never Be Another You,” “Lush Life,” and “Round Midnight.” Chris Berg is the bassist; the rarely seen Lee Abrams is on drums.
Joe Albany…A Jazz Life was produced and directed by Carole Langer. It’s now available for viewing through a partnership with YouTube. Albany also figures prominently in his daughter Amy Jo’s memoir Low Down: Junk, Jazz and Other Fairy Tales from Childhood. Read a 2003 interview with Amy Jo here. You’ll find her candid and compassionate, refreshingly free of resentment toward her father and mother, who left when Amy was six. Here’s an excerpt from Low Down:
“I often thought my father was born of music — some wayward melody that took the form of a man. He heard music everywhere, in the squeaking of rusted bedsprings and the buzzing of flies. Dripping faucets were filled with rhythms to him, as was the irregular flashing of the busted neon outside our window. Some shook their heads and thought he was a nut, but I never believed that.”
January 24th is Joe Albany’s 89th birthday anniversary. He died in 1988. Two years ago it was announced that Jeff Preiss was set to direct a film based on Low Down starring Mark Ruffalo, but the latest news is that Ruffalo’s dropped out and John Hawkes will play Albany in a production slated to begin in March.