"Charlie was Something"
An Interview with Jerry Jerome
The following interview with tenor sax veteran Jerry Jerome was conducted by guitarist and Charlie
Christian researcher Kevin Centlivre in 1993. As a key member of the Benny Goodman Orchestra from 1938 to June 1940, Jerome witnessed the introduction and meteoric rise of the young electric guitarist from Oklahoma. Jerome's amazing extended jam with Charlie at the Breakfast Club in Minneapolis on 24 September 1939, recorded by an amateur enthusiast, has achieved legendary status.
After a long and distinguished career, Jerry Jerome retired to Florida, where he continued to perform
regularly until his death on November 17, 2001.
The original audio recording of Kevin's phone interview with Jerome was transcribed and edited by
Garry Hansen specifically for the use of this site. It is used with permission but remains the copyright of Kevin Centlivre and should not be reproduced in any form without explicit permission from the copyright owner. - GH
Benny went crazy when he heard him...
KC: How did you get the job with Benny Goodman?
JJ: Benny Goodman? Well I started off with a band called Harry Reser and his Clicquot Club Eskimos, and then I went from him to Red Norvo, from Red Norvo to the WNEW staff band in New York, and from there to Benny Goodman. Oh, Glenn Miller after Harry Reser. After Glenn's first band, I went from him to Red Norvo. And then from Benny Goodman I went to Artie Shaw. And then I decided to leave the name bands, you know, big bands, and settle down in New York and do my own thing. So I did.
25 videos of Charlie Christian.
KC: When did you first meet Charlie Christian?
JJ: When I was with the band. He didn't have that kind of guitar player with the band prior to that, just regular rhythm guitar.
KC: He had Allan Reuss?
JJ: He was in the beginning.
KC: And Arnold Covarrubias?
JJ: Arnold Covarrubias was in the band when I was with the band. Benny Heller, he was the guitar player. They had great bassmen and rhythm players, but none of them ever did a solo, because guitars
were not solo instruments in those days. And then John Hammond prevailed upon Benny to give Charlie Christian a hearing, and Benny went crazy when he heard him, because he'd never heard a guitar player that could sound like a tenor saxophone. And it was great. The solo work was wonderful.
KC: There's a story about opening night, where they snuck his stuff on stage.
JJ: Yeah, they had to put his amplifier on stage, and Benny was teed off because he was forced to hear him.
KC: Were you there that night?
JJ: Yeah, sure. The Coconut Grove.
KC: The whole band was playing?
JJ: Oh yeah.
KC: And they were just going to feature the quartet?
JJ: Yeah, and all of a sudden John Hammond took a well-calculated risk. If he'd confronted Benny he
wouldn't get by, which he did.
KC: What kind of guy was Hammond?
JJ: Very nice. He gave the appearance of being aloof, but he came from a society background -- sort of talking through his teeth kind of thing -- and very well read. Obviously a society guy. You know,
Hammond was raised on Park Avenue, but he was very much into the cause of poor people, and giving blacks a chance to move up in the ladder of success.
They'd just find how to do their own thing...
KC: So nonetheless, Charlie got the job after that night. What was that? The Camel Caravan Show?
JJ: Well we were doing a Camel Caravan all through that period. It was a weekly show. And so Charlie got the job. He started working with us. He worked the Coconut Grove with us and then we did a tour of the Pacific Northwest. Meanwhile the Camel show was going on all this time.
KC: Was that done in a studio?
JJ: No, remote. We never went to a studio except in New York.
KC: How did you travel through the Northwest?
JJ: Bus, because there was no other way of going. Ordinarily we would go by train.
KC: Where would you all stay?
JJ: We stayed in hotels, you know, things like that.
KC: Did the black members have to stay in separate hotels?
JJ: Yes, at that time they were segregated.
KC: Where would they have to eat?
JJ: Same thing.
KC: Did they have to eat in the kitchen, or just different hotels?
JJ: They'd just find how to do their own thing. It was unfortunate, but in those days it wasn't a question of us saying "What can we do?" That's the way it was.
KC: How did Charlie react to this kind of thing? Did he just accept it, or did he ever express any....?
JJ: He accepted it, totally.
KC: He really didn't have much choice in those days.
JJ: Not much choice. And also, he came from Oklahoma, I believe, wasn't it? How could you go from
Oklahoma to up North and suddenly have everything change? The whole country was racist.
He just blew like hell...
KC: So the radio shows were all remotes? You never did any in a studio anywhere?
JJ: Not on the road. But truthfully I don't think the studio facilities were that much better unless you got to the big cities.
KC: How many mics would they have on one of those remotes?
JJ: On remotes? Not many. They'd have one for the brass, one for the saxes, one for piano, one for
rhythm. That's four mics. You'd never multi-mic the drums.
KC: Was Charlie really familiar with his equipment? Did he experiment with it any, or did you ever hear him do things that weren't allowed, so to speak?
JJ: No. He just had that one guitar, I think it was a Gibson, and he just blew like hell out of it.
KC: Was he loud?
JJ: No. Very tasteful, very wonderful. I don't think the amplifiers in those days were very loud. I think
they were very self-contained.
KC: The "Spirituals to Swing" concert, 1939 at Carnegie Hall -- were you at that?
JJ: In '39? Yeah.
KC: How did that go over?
JJ: It went very well. People loved it. It was very entertaining.
KC: John Hammond wrote something about him and Benny having a little problem with John
introducing Charlie with Count Basie's group.
JJ: Well, you know. Benny and John very often... not ever came to blows, but they really came nose-to-nose. John had very, very strong feelings about musicians, and I don't think that Hammond cared for any white musicians other than Benny. Really, he thought you had to be black to know how to swing.
KC: How did Charlie get along with guys like Hampton and Henderson?
JJ: Charlie got along beautifully with everybody.
KC: Hampton just had a biography come out a few years ago, and I think he mentions Charlie once.
Dizzy Gillespie has done the same thing. Somehow he's overlooked. Surprisingly, one of the people in their biography who gives Charlie the most credit is Miles Davis. The two never even met, and Miles credits him with getting him started in playing, that he was just so turned on by the music that he wanted to play.
JJ: I don't know, but from what you tell me it almost sounds like an ego problem more than anything
else. They probably were jealous of Charlie's great musicianship and just didn't want to dwell on it.
KC: How did Charlie handle all that? All of a sudden here he is, he's number one in Downbeat and
Metronome. Did it go to his head?
JJ: Not at all. He was just lovely. He played baseball on the team, you know. Just one of the guys. Very sweet. Never overbearing, never pushy. He was great, lovely. Very much like Teddy Wilson. Very laid-back.