Freddy Cole and Houston Person, a Lifetime of Jazz, Cruises, and Corn

For the first time ever, Jazz St. Louis is proud to host two jazz legends at the same time to our stage. Both have decades-long careers and are regarded as two of the finest musicians of our time. And while their friendship and collaborations have spanned generations, this is the first time they have performed together on our stage. Freddy and Houston sat down with our Artistic Director, Bob Bennett (who is close friends with both) to chat about their careers, friendship, and tell a few stories from along the way.

Freddy Cole and Houston Person

Life Experience on the Road

Bob Bennett (BB): You two have been working on and off together for years. Houston, you’ve been featured on a number of Freddy’s records and produced “This is the Life” many years ago. But that record wasn’t the first time you hooked up together was it? When was the first time you worked together?

Freddy Cole (FC):  That was so long ago I forgot.

BB: You remember “This is the Life.”

Houston Person (HP): Of course I do.

BB: Had you two worked before that together?

HP:  No, but we were friends. Always had been friends and road buddies back in the day. I wouldn’t attest to that now (laughing). I live a more subdued lifestyle.

BB:  But you’re talking about road days and traveling buddies. I know there are some stories there. Houston, you used to drive everywhere before you started flying. When I met you, you had a 15-passenger van carrying only one person, Houston Person, and the whole “High Note” catalog in the back.

HP:  That’s right. Quite a while ago. Bands were more together back then than they are now. We need more groups.

FC: Come to work and you don’t know who’s playing.

BB:  You don’t see a lot of traveling quartets or quintets that are the same 4 or 5 same guys or gals playing.

HP:  Hard to keep them together.

FC:  Somebody comes along and offers them more money, and they’re gone.

BB:  That’s a time the whole band traveled together, and everybody was driving everywhere. You built up a rapport both on and off the bandstand, and that would translate to what happened on the bandstand and made the set that much hipper, because of the bond the musicians had already formed together.

FC / HP: That’s right. Yes.

HP:  You had young ones, more like a mix. The young ones traveled, and they got that experience and got ready for their own band by serving an apprenticeship.

BB: How do the younger musicians coming up develop that kind of vibe, because there was also respect that went with that for doing those kinds of things.

HP: It’s hurt the music. The way jazz is presented now it seems as if the promoters have become the band leaders. Back in the 50’s and 60’s we had Miles Davis, Coltrane, Brubeck, Cannonball… all these different groups. They all had groups. Now the leader travels and chooses guys to surround him. It got turned upside down. Sometimes the matches the promoters make don’t fit with the presentation to the audience.

BB: You have to be conscious as somebody who’s booking that if you’re going to put something like that together, you have to think about what’s going to be good together both on the bandstand and off. You can get a bunch of great musicians together, but if they’re not a cohesive unit even hanging out in the green room, it translates to the stage.

HP: We still have the Freddy Cole group, and I still have a group. But our groups are working groups.

BB: And you have guys in certain cities you’ve worked with over 10 or 20 years that you’ll use.

HP/FC: Yep. That’s right.

The Music Is Always Hip

BB: I always know when I hear the two of you together. When I hear one of you, it’s always hip, but when I hear the two of you together, you can make anything hip. Case in point, I never thought in my wildest dreams that I’d be running around humming “Ma, She’s Making Eyes at Me.” <Laughter>

For folks who aren’t aware of what we’re talking about, Freddy’s “Mr. B” record, the tribute to Billy Eckstein, Freddy does an amazing version of “Ma, She’s Making Eyes at Me” with Houston on tenor sax. Who brought that into the session?

HP: With us there’s no tune that’s sacred that you can’t touch. I think Fred and I are the only two people who have done the song “Sing” from Sesame Street that Karen Carpenter recorded. If there’s a melody there, we got it. Doesn’t matter.

BB:  And you both swing crazy on “Sing.” I’ve heard both of you do it live and on record.

HP: But Fred is underrated as a pianist. I love his piano playing. Course, I’m just saying that because you’re here (smiling).

FC: At least somebody likes me. <Laughter>

BB: But you brought “Ma, She’s Making Eyes At Me” into the session. Had you been doing that for years?

FC: No. Some kinda way we were talking, and he says “Why don’t you do that tune that B does about Ma?” I knew the music but had to learn the lyrics out of the gate. That’s how we pulled it off. I think we did it in two takes.

Music from the Mississippi to the Sea

BB: (Regarding Freddy Cole) He’s forgotten more about music than I’ll ever know. I remember 15 years ago we were all hanging out after the show about 1 o’clock in the morning. Freddy decides to get up on stage and says, “Mr. Bennett, you remember this, don’t you?” And for an hour proceeds to play tunes I had never heard before.

I remember a story you told about Bill Withers calling you when you did “Lovely Day,” I never even thought to do the tune that way.

FC: I’d never seen so many hip musicians asking me about that song.

BB: Now, I don’t think of the Bill Withers version, I think of the Freddy Cole version.

Both of you have been coming to this city for decades. Hundreds and hundreds of shows between the two of you in St. Louis. Any performances stick out? You played Gaslight Square right down the street here. A mutual friend, the late Leo Chears, telling me guys would come in and play a week and stick around and play another week just to make everything right.

HP: St. Louis was good to me. It gave me a chance to really grow and develop because I got a lot of chances to play around people who knew what was happening. When you go through the Mississippi river thing from Chicago to Memphis, you really have to have your thing, or you will know very soon.

BB: Have you seen anyone not have their thing?

HP: They’d never get this far.

FC: Bob you’re not the first person I’ve heard say that. In certain cities with St. Louis being one of them, you better have your stuff together. You better be able to swing, and you better play the blues.

HP: I used to call them the jury.

FC: The jazz police.

HP: They sit there and judge you and know within a couple of songs if you’re gonna survive that week.

BB: Well the two of you, both of you, your music always made people feel good. So you never had to worry about that. They’re out there tapping their toes or snapping their fingers, humming the songs. You guys both throughout the years played music out of the great American song book. You’re still able to make that work, and we’re seeing a resurgence in things. We’re seeing younger people coming out to the shows and playing that kind of music. What are you seeing now that you’re traveling all over and how these songs, which were written 50, 60, 70 years ago, are still being received well everywhere you go?

FC: I can say this much… if you can play it for them enough, they will understand it. I see younger people coming out to play and the promoters, who call themselves jazz promoters, but you don’t see any jazz people on the bill. That’s not right. If you’re ashamed of what you do, Billy Taylor used to say, then why do you play it?

BB: I always enjoy the music speaking to the people, even the way you count off a tune. You never hear Houston say “1, 2, 3, 4.” You hear the foot and know something’s coming. It communicates to the band, “we’re gonna throw down.” And everybody in the house is moving along and digging that.

FC: Oh we play that toe-tapping music. You outta see him when we’re out on the cruises.

BB:  Yeah I’ve heard about that. I know what you’re like on land. I can’t imagine what you’re like at sea.

FC: I won’t say nothing about that (laughing).

BB: Well you both been doing jazz cruises since they’ve been doing jazz cruises. You’re like the honorary captains of the cruise.

FC: Houston is responsible for my career in a lot of different ways. But that’s one of the ways. He got me in with Muse Records and Joe Fields. The next thing you know I got a couple of gigs, and then he got me on the cruise.  We had a good time on those cruises.

BB: Well you know Houston always has something in his pocket. He’s always hipping people to me saying, “You should check this out.”

FC: Yeah, he’ll never be without a gig. He’d find a gig in the jungle. <Laughter>

BB:  And he’s always had a recording contract. A lot of guys would go years without making a record. You always look for that Houston Person record. Same with you, Freddy. You always knew there’d be another Freddy Cole record dropping. And both working for the same label, High Note.

Learn the Melody

BB: With all of your traveling around, what musicians are out there now that excite you?

FC: I hate to call names, because I can’t remember (smiling). But there are a lot of good young musicians who can really play.

HP: I just say it’s just gratifying to see so many young people coming into jazz. And they are trying to find their direction as we had to do. I’d like to see more intergenerational bands but without calling names, I just see a lot of guys and gals who have direction and know where they’re going and a lot who don’t have it. And I’d say this is, I wish they would, as far as education is concerned, teach singers to sing in the vocal range and how to choose repertoire.

BB: Since you mentioned that we have one of the finest singers on the planet right here (referring to Freddy Cole). And a lot of young singers come to you for guidance and help. Can you expand on that because you might hear a singer out there that’s singing a standard, but you wouldn’t know it because there isn’t any melody.

HP: Well I will say this, you have to word these things carefully, but a lot of music curricula, and I feel for the singers, but in order for them to qualify for the programs, they have to scat, and it has nothing to do with singing. (Freddy nods). And I see them trying so hard to scat to get into these programs, and I tell them they’ll never get a job. You’ll never work. And the reality of this thing is you got to be gainfully employed. You want to have an audience. I think the programs that do that should look at that and require a singer to actually sing. When we listen to the singers who we consider as singers, who tell stories, like Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, Nat Cole… all these guys weren’t even singers. They played instruments. Some of the greatest singers around. It’s about telling stories. Even Jimmy Durante, singing “As time goes by.” He’s telling a story.

BB: Freddy, what do you think? Up and coming singers who want to make it in this type of music. What advice do you have?

FC: They get on my nerves. You can’t tell them anything. I used to do a master class. We were at North Carolina College. Had a good little band. 17-piece band. Guy was playing solos pretty well, but one of the girls who had a nice voice was just raising holy hell, because they didn’t let her scat. I said, “What is this young man supposed to be doing while you’re scatting?” Trumpet player, sax player, piano and all that and you don’t even know the melody. I tell them to first learn the melody. Once you learn the melody then you can go off on it if you like. If you learn the melody at least it puts you in the ballpark.

BB:  That can go to horn players too. Dexter Gordon once said he stopped playing a ballad because he forgot the words. You both have a beautifully lyrical way of playing and are excellent with ballads. Instrumentalists who know the words and phrasing like a vocalist can communicate what they want to on a horn even better.

Baseball, Barbecue, and a Can of Corn

<Bob puts on a Dodgers cap.> We were hoping to have a world series here when you came. We tried.

FC:  Been a hard time. I was there at Dodgers Stadium when they were banging out the home runs all year. They’ll swim in the ocean and die on the beach, as they say. <Laughter.>

BC:  You both follow every sport there is. Are either one of you pulling for someone in the world series?

FC:  I forgot it was on. I don’t particularly care for the way baseball is cut up. They build you up to a certain point to try and make the playoffs, which is exciting. I live in Atlanta and the Braves with a young team.

BB: They almost got there.

FC: They almost made it.

BB: Almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.

HP: Well there are so many teams in contention you don’t know who to follow.

BB: St louis is famous for jazz, baseball, and a couple of other things.

HP: Barbecue

BB: (Laughing) I was gonna say it and he jumped right in! The worst kept secret in jazz is that this man (Houston) is a connoisseur of barbecue.

HP: No I’m not.

BB: Among other things. But in all the years you’ve been coming to St. Louis, and I know your favorite joint now, but what’s the best ribs you ever have had in St Louis?

HP: Everything. All of it. But there’s one place I miss. I can’t recall what it was, but they made a pork sausage sandwich that was delicious.

BB: I would love to know what that was and I’m sure everybody else would too. And speaking of food, I have other images here and I’m curious to get Mr. Cole’s reaction to this (pulling up a can of corn)… What can you tells us about this can of corn?

FC: (Laughing) As the story goes, Al Hibbler was singing and Billy Eckstine, who was a prankster, got a can of corn, and when the song was over “B” rolled the can of corn onto the stage, and everyone broke out laughing. Al kept slinging his cane around, and B kept ducking. So, one day I say Mr. Pizzarelli.

BB:  John Pizzarelli

The infamous can of corn

FC: MR. Pizzarelli. Where was he? London? Well I go to the show. I rolled the can of corn on stage. So every chance he gets he tries to get me with the can of corn.

BB: Well you’ve been going back and forth with the can of corn at Birdland and now it’s coming back here.  This can of corn is signed, “Enjoy Dinner – Freddy Cole.” He left this here for John so when John was here earlier this year he comes in and this is sitting on his guitar amp, and John left it all week long. People were saying “what’s the can of corn sitting on the guitar amp all about?” Well you’ll have to ask John. And John told the story about how it’s been going back and forth. So, John signed the can of corn, “Enjoy dinner!” Now, the can of corn is in your court.

FC: (Laughing) I refuse to let my name be drug through the mud by John Pizzarelli. Even though he called me the other day on my birthday. He’s thoughtful in those ways.

BB:  You just had a birthday last week.  And Houston, you got a birthday coming up in a couple of weeks. So what kind of cake would we have for birthdays?

FC: I like chocolate cake

BB: And maybe a rack of ribs.

HP: No, I’m trying to catch up, because my calorie count is getting out of hand.

FC: As long as they’ve got chicken (smiling).

HP: Watch it… you just watch it…

FC: He gets hungry when he gets off work. Stops off in New York City to a place called Dinosaur.

BB:  I’m not hip to that place.

HP: We’ll introduce you next time you’re in New York.

BB: Well I told Freddy’s grandson, Tracy, “if you’re coming out here this week with Houston and Freddy, you better bring your boots. <Laughter.>

FC: I got to tell this. I was in Idaho at the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival.

HP:  When you happened to run into me? You’ll never get over that.

FC: You was trying to be slick.

BB: How so?

FC:  Everyone in the room was jamming and having a good time, and Houston slips out and goes across the street to a chicken joint. One of the 24-hour ones. He tries to come back in the back door, not the front door. He tries to ease up the steps with his chicken, and I caught him.  

BB: Did he share?

FC: Did he what?!

HP: I told him where he could go.

BB: Now I wonder where THAT was.

FC: He did it on cruises too. He was next door to me, and I happened to smell some chicken. I knock on his door and he tries to hide it. I started calling him “Chicken Man.”

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And that’s how a lifelong friendship comes full circle. We are inspired, humbled and honored to host these two giants of jazz to our stage.

Tickets are still available for 10/26 and 10/27!