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Raising the roof for Big Jay

Joe's Great American Bar hosts a birthday party for the 87-year-old sax legend.

May 02, 2014|By Jonny Whiteside
  • Big Jay McNeely holds a 1953 copy of See Magazine with a large picture of him playing saxophone on his back in Los Angeles on Monday, August 6, 2012. McNeely's first hit album was in 1949.
Big Jay McNeely holds a 1953 copy of See Magazine with a… (Tim Berger / Staff…)

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.

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Ultimately, though, McNeely became an early rock ‘n’ roll star whose huge, mixed-race audiences were so unacceptable to Los Angeles law enforcement agencies that a countywide ban prohibiting any performance by McNeely was instituted; Johnson, after moving to Los Angeles, made history as a session player by day who, by night, abandoned R&B to became a premier hard bop prophet.

For Johnson, now 82, the opportunity to honor McNeely was irresistible. “I’ve always really liked Big Jay and his playing, I’ve been listening to him since I was a teenager — ‘Deacon’s Hop,’ all that great stuff,” Johnson said. “I moved out here in the late ’50s but I didn’t actually meet Jay for a long time. It was probably only 15 or 20 years ago that we finally did meet. KLON had put together an R&B thing with me, Jay and Red Holloway. It was a lot of fun; I’d really like to see Jay again.”

“I’m semi-retired now. I’m still playing, got a nine-piece-band... it keeps me busy. And I’m doing some writing also, but I don’t solicit engagements — I’m getting old! I’m 82. I’ve reached a time when I want to set on the porch in my rocking chair.

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