Stones (by Kevin Whitehead and Irving Stone)

This page is in three parts:

1) A memorial essay by Kevin Whitehead

2) Recollections of Irving Stone as told to Kevin Whitehead (first published in slightly different form in the liner notes to Tzadik 6711-2, Irving Stone Memorial Concert)

3) A note about Hank Mobley and Billy Higgins written by Irving Stone

In Memoriam 

(by Kevin Whitehead)

The passing of Stephanie Stone at 93, on April 10, marked the end of a particular era in the annals of jazz fandom: the Stones era. Anyone who frequented (mostly outward bound) jazz gigs in New York in the 1980s or ’90s saw plenty of Steph and her husband whose given name was Irving but you had better address only as Stone. They were out hearing music more nights of the week than they stayed home in far Brooklyn, and they were easy to spot, being 20 years older than almost anyone else in the room. The late ’70s, when the downtown scene was just getting off the ground? If there were four people in the audience at a John Zorn or Eugene Chadbourne show, they’d’ve been half of them.

They were connoisseurs in the best sense. At a memorial service for Stone in 2003, there was lots of talk of how he/they ‘supported the musicians’ by coming out. But in truth they were less interested in supporting the musicians than just hearing good music. (Stone in ’91: “I’m looking to get knocked out. I’m a thrill seeker.”) But that hedonistic attitude didn’t stop Stone from quietly subsidizing at least one musician-owned record label. They were polite folks who could get badgered into attending somebody’s gig, even when they were less than optimistic about its prospects. Even so I never heard them offer insincere praise—if they told you they liked your music, they meant it.

They were superfans, but not the kind who sit front row center and leap up to lead the cheers, precluding even the possibility of a spontaneous standing ovation. They’d freely tout their favorites, and their recommendations carried weight. But you could tell who they loved just by observing who they always came out to see—a list too long and diverse for me to even start. But certainly they never missed a gig by (say) singer Shelley Hirsch, or tenor Charles Gayle—or Sonny Rollins, who they saw on their first date.

In the early ’90s when I got to know them, the Stones were fixtures at the original Knitting Factory, but were known at Lincoln Center too. As pianist and instrument maker Cooper-Moore wrote to Stephanie when Stone passed in 2003, “The two of you being at an event meant that was the event to be at.” A number of musicians have testified, the first time the Stones came to see me I figured I was getting somewhere.

They were very much a couple, both sorta short and round and slow afoot; they traveled by subway. It was a rare occasion when one showed up without the other. Folks looked out for them in a familial way, not least poets Steve Dalachinsky and Yuko Otomo. The Stones were fond of many musicians, who returned the favor, but he was especially close to trumpeter Roy Campbell, having been friends with his father, and he and Steph all but adopted trumpeter Lesli Dalaba.

Stephanie was the enforcer. Pity the young new music enthusiast who made the mistake of talking behind her during a set, when that cute grandmotherly lady would turn and scowl: “This is a concert!”

Stone had ways to mute his criticism when a musician pressed him for an opinion. But he told this one on himself: in the late ’80s a well-respected young drummer assembled a mixed band of neo-cons and M-BASE types to play his tunes. He invited Stone to hear the band and then asked what he thought. Stone said, “Thelonious Monk wrote 70 compositions, any one of which is better than all of yours. So why don’t you play his music instead?”

He had heard Monk and Coltrane at the Five Spot dozens of times in 1957 (and tried to convince the Termini Brothers to book Herbie Nichols next). After all that exposure Stone knew exactly how Monk’s tunes went, and I never heard him more critical than during intermissions at Monk repertory concerts. I sat with them once as Steve Lacy played Monk, solo. After every phrase Stone would mutter under his breath. “Wrong.” “Wrong.” “Right.” “Good, got one.”

He and Steph took a long view. Dave Douglas’s sound reminded him of Billy Butterfield. Stephanie said Bobby Previte carried himself on stage like a star swing-era drummer such as Gene Krupa.

The Stones came to each other late, marrying in 1975, when both were in their 50s. They really started making the rounds after Stone retired from the NY Housing Authority in 1977. They both had long histories with the music, but they’d followed different paths. It was a perpetual wonderment to Stephanie he had been asleep on Charlie Parker. Stone said, the only person who knew them both before they hooked up was composer John Benson Brooks. “He saw us together at a Wayne Horvitz gig and said, ‘I know you, and I know you, but it is all wrong somehow.’”

I met them on April 28, 1989. I had been a New Yorker for all of three weeks, and was at a Rob Brown session for Silkheart I was writing album notes for. An hour or two along, after everyone had settled in, in the booth and on the floor, these chatty old-timers made their bustling, disruptive entrance. (In the notes I dismissively referred to “kibitzers” who dropped by the studio.) I didn’t know who they were—someone’s parents?—but remembered having seen them a couple years before, deep in conversation with William Parker outside a Cecil Taylor concert on the Lower East Side.

We were soon bumping into each other all the time at the old Knit, and we quickly grew close. Stone’s warmth pulled me in, and his frequently hilarious stories. He had dozens, involving musicians he had known and followed, a bewildering array of talent. Who else was friends with Bunk Johnson and Misha Mengelberg, with Danny Barker and Derek Bailey? (Misha and Derek didn’t agree on much, but both dug Stephanie too.)

Stone had been tight with Ornette Coleman in the early ’60s, and had quietly financed his 1962 Town Hall concert. He was happy not to get credit for it, knowing if word got out, he’d be besieged by supplicants. He used to hear the Coleman/David Izenzon/Charles Moffett trio rehearse at Izenzon’s place. (Moffett lived in the same building.)

Stone was hanging out at Ornette’s one night, along with another fan who’d brought a tape recorder, when John Coltrane dropped by, wanting some insight into Ornette’s free method. The saxophonists stood with their horns around their necks, fingering, and talking. “Turn the tape recorder on!” Stone hissed at the other fan. “But they’re not playing anything,” the fool replied.

Some stories reached further back. He told of getting lectured on the evils of marijuana by trombonist George Brunies in front of Nick’s in 1942. (Stone failed to heed the warning—late in life he’d roll old-school joints with multiple papers, then stick them in a back pocket from which they’d emerge flat as a flounder.)

After a couple of years of hearing his stories, we resolved to try to get some in print, and I edited a few (from my own notes and some of his own) into an article we hoped to make the first in a series for some publication or other. It finally turned up in the booklet for the star-studded Irving Stone Memorial Concert on Tzadik. A lightly revised version appears below.

I didn’t see them so much after I left New York for Amsterdam in 1995 (though they were my first friends who came to visit). Even after I landed in Chicago in 2000, Stone would send me newsy, gossipy, sometimes hard to cipher letters about people on the scene we both knew.

When he died suddenly in 2003, musician friends were among those who helped Stephanie through; she often mentioned her gratitude to (among others) Mark Feldman and Sylvie Courvoisier, Tony Malaby and Angie Sanchez, Ned Rothenberg, and Oscar Noriega. And then in 2005 Zorn named his new East Village club after Stone.

In some odd way, Stephanie came into sharper focus after he was gone. He told better tales, but she had quite a story too. She was also from Brooklyn, growing up in Borough Park. Her father was a landlord and millinery supervisor. The family was well off—had a car and a phone, and summered in the country—until the Depression wiped dad out; after that he blocked hats, and mom sold dresses out the door. Both parents sang a little; Steph played piano, got into jazz, collected sheet music and learned a bunch of songs. She moved to Manhattan, started doing odd jobs at clubs to be close to the music. (I crib here from Martin Johnson’s 2010 Wall Street Journal profile—where however he places the Stones’ first date 15 years too early.)

In the fall of 1943 she was working at Kelly’s Stable on 52nd Street as a camera girl. Coleman Hawkins was headlining, supported by Clarence Profit’s trio. One night Profit’s singer was sick and Steph was pressed into service; the first song she sang was “Tangerine.” When Hawkins paid her a compliment she was over the moon.

She turned professional, singing and playing intermission piano at clubs in Manhattan and across the Hudson (and sometimes way out of town) as Stephanie Stuart. She got into bebop when it was new, and hung out some with Bird, who she said was always fun to be around. (She detested the maudlin Clint Eastwood biopic.) She was tight with tenor Brew Moore, got that twinkle in her eye whenever she’d mention their friendship 45 years later. Like other folks on the scene she got into hard drugs for a spell; she once reported seeing a scrap of film, where William Burroughs and Herbert Huncke mention her by first name while discussing the old gang.

Then she got married, had her daughter Julie, lived the straight life for quite awhile, and got divorced. By and by she and Stone met through friends, and her second life began.

Stephanie once estimated she knew about 2000 songs, and seemed to know at least one verse of lyrics to any of them. Who wrote them, or when, or for what purpose—she didn’t know or care about any of that. She had a fat little volume of compact lead sheets, printed two or three songs to a page, which she kept on the spinet at home. Every once in awhile, she’d sit to play and sing for visitors. I tried to stump her more than once, calling for tunes few younger players remember, but she wasn’t easy to trip up. Her vocal style was relaxed and conversational—like a heavier, lower Blossom Dearie—as she chorded smoothly behind, in syncopated time. You got the impression she was channeling her younger self at those moments, opening a window on a time when jazzy songs were show business. There are a couple of good examples of her moody rubato piano on that Stone memorial concert album.

Stephanie got a lot of encouragement to take her act public—had a standing offer to record with Greg Cohen and Joey Baron, same rhythm section Misha sometimes used in New York. Engineer James McLean, a friend from Knitting Factory days, set up a tape recorder next to her piano, showed her how to activate it whenever she was in a mood to document her stuff. And she started playing occasional sets of her own in Village clubs, often appearing with old friends like poets Steve and Yuko and Eve Packer, or saxophonist Dave Sewelson.

But she was far from confident in her abilities or her memory, and her songbook sets could be nerve-wracking. She’d introduce a tune by disparaging her talents, then break it off midway through, after hitting a clam or blanking on the bridge. But then there were nights when everything clicked, and she showed you the magic.

There was one standard most everyone she knew heard her sing and play once a year, over the phone, in a characteristically hip and halting version: “Happy Birthday.” She kept track of hundreds of birthdates, placed who knows how many such calls annually. In years when she lost track of my movements, I was sure to get an email from her the day before mine: WHAT NUMBER CAN I REACH YOU AT?

She never did make that trio date, or record herself at home much, if at all. But I bet there are still a few answering machine cassettes around where she’s singing that song.

Stephanie had her black moods, but in recent years those mostly lifted. At 90, she told Lesli Dalaba, “I’m getting wise in my old age. I can speak my mind. I don’t envy anyone anything. I’m a happy camper. I’ve come to terms with myself.” Playing shows at her neighborhood senior center sharpened her presentation; she couldn’t let songs trail off in front of her peers.

In December I was in New York for a day, and our friend Hope Carr and I made the pilgrimage to Homecrest near Sheepshead Bay for the afternoon. Stephanie was in the mood to play after lunch. She took a few requests, sounded good, and finished every song.

Update: Postscript

After this was posted, Lesli Dalaba wrote to say:

“Dave Sewelson was a super important music pal to Stephanie in her last couple years. He visited and jammed with her regularly, up to four days before she died. The two of them had a Burns and Allen type of camaraderie when they played the occasional gig at Cornelia Street Cafe.

“It was astonishing to watch her transform in front of a piano and audience. She could barely get dressed, in grave doubt whether she could make it there, exhausted, frail. Once she sat down and started playing, the banter would start up, her energy returned and would buoy her up for another 24 hours.

“Oh, and the claim she and Stone were often 20 years older than anyone else in the audience? More like 30.”

Ladies and Gentlemen, Irving Stone

By Irving Stone (as told to Kevin Whitehead)

I was born in the Bronx, New York, in 1922. Somewhat short of my second birthday, we moved to Brooklyn, where I have had an abode ever since. As far as music goes, we had a windup Victrola and my father pushed Enrico Caruso, Amelita Galli-Curci and the rest of the Victor Red Seal opera gang pretty damned hard. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, it didn’t take.

I got into what can loosely be called jazz in my mid-teens. Like most people I started out with what was on the charts—Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw. Then some elitists—I’m especially indebted to a Saturday Evening Post article by Shaw—hipped me to black orchestras like Ellington, Lunceford and Basie, and I was off on a 55 year trip to Ragoonyville.

It appears to me most people start listening to popular music in their mid-teens and stick with what’s happening until their marriage and/or the birth of their first offspring—like my friend Herskowitz, who only listens to Duke Ellington and to his Commodore records. In 1940 I was a moldy fig and proud of it. I got quite involved in the New Orleans, Dixieland and Nicksieland subdivisions of jazz. This detour took quite some time but by 1949 or 1950 I was headed forward. Ultimately I caught up. I started out by listening to the great swing solo players (Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, Earl Hines et al). I got into bebop quite late in that game although I did hear Brownie, Chet Baker, Bud Powell, Dizzy and such.

By 1957, I was by my capricious standards “caught up” to the happenings. I heard Monk and Coltrane three or four nights a week at the Five Spot. When Ornette Coleman came to the Five Spot in 1959 I had been forewarned by some California friends. I came, I listened, and I was smitten.

I have followed the music through its post-Ayler, post-modern phases and have been listening to European and Japanese free improvisers.

I never married until 1975, which allowed me the leisure of extensive music listening. My wife, who used to sing and play piano on 52nd Street as Stephanie Stuart, is as music mad as I am, so these days we rarely miss a Charles Gayle or John Zorn gig.

The Commodore Music Shop on 42nd Street had been open only a little while when I started hanging out around 1940. I’d loiter listening to records; you took a record into the booth, played it three or four times, and then bought it if you needed to hear it a fifth time. But I was penniless, or close to it. Four or five days a week, I’d also go up to the studio where pianist Art Hodes had a daily radio show on WNYC. He was only 37 then! He’d carry on to us young-uns about being the true representative of the great black tradition. After awhile I started listening to what he was playing, and decided he was limited. He had that purist philosophy: true jazz is the one and only jazz, like Wynton carried to an idiotic extreme, from this vantage point.

So I got into Bunk Johnson. He was obviously better: darker, older, he played in that ensemble style. When I got out of the Army I first saw him in 1945 at the Stuyvesant Casino on Second Ave. around 10th Street, and pretty much hung out there whenever I could.

In 1947, right before he made those records that eventually came out on Columbia, Bunk was staying with Bill Loughborough. Someone invited me over one night. There was some food, some philosophy: Bunk talked a lot about how Kid Ory was a shit. “I’m gonna get a stick and beat him up everywhere but on his tongue, then tell him a joke and when he opens his mouth, beat him up there too.” Bunk was worth hanging out with. He was crazy.

He was sitting there with his horn in his hand and the New York Times open in front of him. He saw an ad for the movie My Wild Irish Rose, so he started playing about ten choruses of the song based on its chord changes, not the melody—something very different and more modern than his usual style. “Why don’t you do that all the time?” someone asked. Bunk said, “It’s too difficult for the people.”

Musicians are basically intelligent. Good musicians may not be educated or verbal, but they’re not stupid. Do you really know any stupid musicians? I’ve befriended or hung out with such luminaries as George Brunies, Danny Barker, Cecil Taylor, Roy Campbell, Shelley Hirsch, Bill Frisell, Matthew Shipp and John Zorn. But I hung out more with Ornette than anybody, back in the mid-1960s when he had his trio with the late David Izenzon on bass and Charles Moffett on drums.

One weekday night in 1963 David Izenzon had a gig with the Symphony of the Air. It was to be an all-Brahms program at Carnegie Hall. David had a few comps and Ornette decided he would like to attend “one of those things” as he put it. I decided to pass on the concert but rode along with them in David’s truck. As we made our way uptown Izenzon and Ornette talked about the function of the string bass in the symphony orchestra.

“Are you the first bassist in the orchestra?”

“Not really.”

“Well which one are you?”

“Well there are nine of us and I am somewhere in the middle, like four or five. But there really isn’t a first man, we all play the same thing.”

“What!” Ornette said. “When the first man plays a B-flat what does the second man play?”

“B-flat,” David answered.

“What do you play?”


“You mean all nine of you play B-flat?”

“That’s right.”

Ornette looked out the window. “Sure makes for a heavy B-flat.”

We made it without further incident from the Lower East Side to Carnegie Hall, and David went back stage to get into his symphonic garb. This left me and Ornette in the lobby where we were carrying on a conversation in our normal slightly manic fashion. After about ten minutes of this Ornette said to me, “Man, do you notice that everybody who has come into the lobby looks unhappy? There hasn’t been anyone who looks the least bit happy. But they’re coming to hear music they love or they wouldn’t be here.”

To which I replied, “What do you want from these people? Brahms is dead.”

From Irving Stone’s papers, dated 1980

One day in the 1960s I was listening to records at a friend’s house when I discovered that the Hank Mobley Quartet was appearing at the local “Y” which was just around the corner. After a short harangue about the advantages of live music over the recorded variety, we got there just as the master of ceremonies/promoter was introducing the quartet: Hank Mobley, tenor; Walter Davis, Jr., piano; John Ore, bass; Billy Higgins, drums. Each member in turn bowed low upon being introduced, and I had doubts about their physical ability to straighten up.

In any event they did manage to get the music started in an uneventful fashion. About three or five minutes into the tune, Billy Higgins started to swing very very hard. After about a minute of this, Walter Davis looked up at Billy Higgins, shouted some obscenity or other and began playing 1000% harder than he had been playing. It didn’t take long before Hank Mobley noticed how very hard his pianist and drummer were swinging and joined the party. John Ore never did acknowledge the metamorphosis that was taking place on the bandstand; nevertheless what started out as a very dull gig had in the space of a few minutes turned into a most passionate, committed and swinging occasion.

Some months later I ran into Billy Higgins in the street and I told him I had been there and about what I thought had transpired. To which Billy replied, “That just proves the monkey doesn’t have to be on the gig.”

Kevin Whitehead is jazz critic for NPR’s daily show ‘Fresh Air,’ writes for Point of Departure and Wondering Sound, and is author of Why Jazz: A Concise Guide (Oxford) and New Dutch Swing (Billboard).