Whether it’s rock ‘n’ roll, pop, R&B or jazz, the tenor saxophone has played an absolutely critical role in the advancement of vernacular American music. The contributions of such long-gone players as Lester Young, John Coltrane and Coleman Hawkins still echo through contemporary recordings, and come Sunday, two of the most important sax survivors will blow the roof off Burbank’s Joe’s Great American Bar.
The occasion, an 87th birthday celebration for Los Angeles R&B spearhead Big Jay McNeely, who will perform a set of his incendiary honking sax classics, also features an appearance by the New Orleans-bred master Plas Johnson, the prolific, cherished saxist best known for his unforgettable soloing on Henry Mancini’s “The Pink Panther Theme.”
McNeely and Johnson make for a highly significant pairing, one that brings together two musicians with oddly similar backgrounds and very divergent career paths. While Johnson started as a teenager in New Orleans accompanying numerous blues and R&B stars, McNeely came up in Los Angeles a teenage journeyman whose romance with jazz and bebop seemed unquenchable.