Things Ain’t What They Used to Be
The Noir Life of J. C. Higginbotham
By Scott Adlerberg
Reading time 36 Minutes
In the photograph A Great Day in Harlem, taken by Art Kane
In the photograph A Great Day in Harlem, taken by Art Kane on August 12, 1958 for Esquire magazine, you see fifty-seven jazz musicians sitting and standing outside at 17 East 126th Street between Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue in New York City. Children are in the picture also, mainly neighborhood kids who had come by while Kane tried to organize the boisterous musicians for his shot. Unruly themselves, the children complicated Kane’s job, and he wound up deciding to incorporate them in the picture with the adults.
Among the musicians there – Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus – is the trombonist, J.C. Higginbotham. He stands halfway up the apartment stoop, dead center and smiling, a white handkerchief in his breast pocket.
This man, who never in his life held a day job, who played as a professional from the 1920s until the end of the 1960s, was my mother’s uncle, my great uncle. He was a person held in the highest regard in our family.
My father tells me with a fond chuckle that I sat on J.C.’s lap one time. I had to be very young when this happened because I don’t remember it. Perhaps I did that at a family gathering. Thanksgiving dinner or Christmas Eve. I do remember meeting him, though, when I was seven or eight years old, and here’s what I recall about the occasion.
My mother, on a weekend afternoon, had driven us down from our suburban house to an apartment building in Manhattan. Later research establishes we went to Harlem, where J.C. lived, but I don’t recall knowing exactly what part of Manhattan we were visiting. I remember his apartment as having small rooms and a dilapidated air. Dullish white paint on the walls, sections where the paint had peeled. The person we’d come to see lay in bed in an austere room with his legs straight out and his back propped up by pillows. He had wrinkles and liver spots, grayish-black hair receding from his forehead. What was he wearing? Pajamas or clothes that looked like pajamas? He had a big smile and a warm demeanor and greeted my mother and me with both. I could see that he and my mother had a bond, and I liked him because what kid doesn’t like the affection that gets thrown your way merely because you’re a child. And the sole child of this man’s apparently dearest niece. But beyond the age in his face, I could see ravages there, indications of the damage he’d wrought on himself during his long musician’s life. I’m sure I knew, because nobody in the family hid it, that he was an alcoholic. He’d been one for decades. This was a man who may once have been amazing at what he did, but on that day when I stood by his bed while he and my mother conversed, he struck me as someone at the end of the line. Mid-afternoon, in pajamas and in bed, and I got the sense this was typical for him. Funny thing is he did have a wife, and she must have been there with us that day, but I don’t remember her at all. I see nobody in that rectangular room, or J.C.’s apartment, but J.C, my mother, and myself.
This man had played with Louis Armstrong? What had happened? The drinking, as I understood it, yes, but it’s hard as a kid to behold a wreck. He looked as if he would crumble into dust if you poked him with a straight pin. For all that, he kept laughing as he talked, his eyes alight. However frail he was, however old and sick, energy continued to reside in his body.
My mother, seated in a chair she’d pulled up alongside the bed, would touch his arm sometimes. She did a lot of laughing, too.
Old and dying but loved is an impression I remember having about the man.
My father told a story about J.C. I found amusing as a child.
My father told a story about J.C. I found amusing as a child. And still do find amusing, in fact.
Sometime during the fifties, well before I was born, he and J.C. were out together for a night. These two had become close since my parents’ marriage a few years earlier. Now I suppose I should say that my father’s white and that an interracial marriage, even in New York City, was uncommon at the time. My father came from Brooklyn, an only child and middle class, my mother from Harlem and later the Bronx with two sisters and six brothers. Yet they met as students at Brooklyn College, after my father saw my mother walking outside on the campus. I think this night my father is talking about with J.C. happened when my father was in law school, before he’d launched his practice as a criminal defense attorney. But regardless, among the things my father loves in life, are traditional jazz and drinking. Play swing for my father, put a glass of Jack Daniel’s on the rocks before him, and he’s going to be in a cheerful mood. When he discovered that my mother’s uncle was J.C. Higginbotham, the trombonist, man who had played in the thirties and forties with Fletcher Henderson’s band, and Louis Russell’s, and Benny Carter’s, he must have felt he’d hit the jackpot. I mean, apart from the feelings he had for my mother, he must have thought that sure as shit, he’d picked the right family to marry into. And so, despite their age difference, twenty-four years separating them, my father and J.C. became buddies.
On this night, they’d gotten together to shoot pool. They met at a place my father suggested, a cheap cab ride away from where each of them lived, a recreation hall on Boston Road. That’s in the Bronx, and they were not far away from the zoo and the Botanical Gardens. I don’t know where my mother was while they enjoyed themselves, perhaps home, perhaps working, perhaps out herself with a friend. J.C. showed up with his encased trombone, since he had a gig later that night, and in a paper bag, not surprisingly, an unopened bottle of Seagram’s 7, his liquor of choice.
They played for a couple of hours. My father smoked his Lucky Strike cigarettes, and they drank the whiskey from paper cups J.C. had brought. The game was eight-ball, and though my father could hold his own with a pool stick, he was reduced to watching for long stretches as J.C., over and over, ran the table. It turned out that J.C. had excelled at the game for years, the result of countless hours on the road, through the twenties, thirties, and forties, with time to kill during the day while waiting for a gig at night. Besides practicing, which was sacrosanct, done daily no matter where in the world he was, he’d shot a good deal of pool. Those had been the years of touring and recording, not like now. He’d even made the occasional buck hustling people with his secondary skill. My father said that J.C. divulged this after kicking his ass for a while, though my father, from the display J.C. put on, had been suspecting the truth before J.C.’s revelation.
My father must have smiled. And shaken his head. He probably called J.C., in a tone friends use, “a son of a bitch”. Not that they were playing for money, so no harm done. I can see my father, a skinny individual, standing by their table and waiting to shoot, pool stick upright in his hands, taking in the recreation hall, a noisy place with games in progress and people cursing and bantering, sipping their booze, their clouds of cigarette smoke rising, and at some point, he must have realized that as much as he was drinking the Seagram’s, J.C. was consuming more, pouring from the bottle into his cup after nearly every game.
“He’s getting tanked,” my father would tell me, “and I’m half in the bag myself. But he’s starting to slur his words and I’m worried about how’s he going to blow his trombone later.”
They’d finished the bottle by the time they left the rec hall, and my father estimated that J.C. had polished off three quarters of it.
“At least you didn’t drive,” I remember saying.
“I didn’t own a car yet,” my father said.
They crossed the Harlem River by the Macombs Dam Bridge, near Yankee Stadium, and went to Harlem for the gig. The band was J.C. and three or four others – my father couldn’t recollect the precise number – the venue a nightclub with a cramped bandstand. While J.C. got himself ready to play, my father settled in at the bar, and for the rest of the night he stayed away from the Seagram’s and went with his preferred drink, Jack Daniels on ice.
“How was J.C.?”
“He drank between sets. Didn’t let up. And his slurring of words got worse, if anything.”
“But nobody said his playing was bad?”
“It wasn’t bad,” my father said. “He was flawless. Note perfect. The guy might’ve been drinking water.”
“He kept drinking but got less drunk?”
“Are you kidding? When the gig ended, he came over to the bar and sat down next to me.”
“Totally bombed,” my father said. “Could barely get a word out.”
J.C. had been dead for many years when my father told me this story, and he related it with a levity that stressed the fun he’d had with the man on this night and others like it. Implied, of course, if not stated outright, was the pleasure my father had experienced listening to J.C. play.
You don’t find much biographical information about J.C. Higginbotham online. The Wikipedia entry about him tells you little, though it does have a picture of him dated 1940 and labeled as him playing at the National Press Club in Washington D.C.
In terms of footage, however, the Internet does better. You can watch J.C. in old “soundies,” the short films made in the 1940s that featured bands, orchestras, dancers, and singers. Shot in 35mm black and white, these movies were printed in 16mm and shipped around the country to be shown in something called the Panoram, the trademark name for a device that was a visual jukebox. The Panoram would project the closed-loop film reel onto a glass screen.
J.C. appears in a bunch of these playing with his friend and “ideal partner” Red Allen, the trumpeter. In these mini musicals, you can see J.C. in top form.
Wikipedia claims that after this productive forties period, J.C. “disappeared from the scene for several years.” Encyclopeida.com asserts the same thing, that “Higginbotham’s activities during the late 1940s and early 1950s are unclear.” Is it true, as Encyclopeida.com says, that a “friend” of J.C.’s during these years remembers him “traveling with two cases...one for his trombone, and the other for his bottles of whiskey?” Who is this friend? It seemed to me that the night my father shot pool with J.C. and watched him play at the Harlem bar might have been around this time, or just before J.C. slipped into the shadows. A lost period, so to speak, and as I began this piece, I wanted to learn more about it. Who could I ask who might know something? My mother was no longer alive and my father had recounted all he knew. I emailed an uncle of mine, the family archivist when it comes to J.C. and his musical life, and when we met over coffee to talk, he confirmed that before J.C.’s comeback in 1956, he had been “missing in action.” J.C. had been voted Best Trombonist in the Downbeatmagazine reader’s poll from 1941 to 1944 and had won the Esquire Gold Award, a critic’s poll, in 1945. Yet at the height of his fame and musical powers, J.C. had vanished.
“To where?” I asked. “Does anyone know?”
Stories had it that he’d hooked up with a woman in Boston, and the family would hear of his visits to Cleveland to visit his young son, who his sister in that city was raising.
“And he was making money?”
“He played small clubs,” my uncle said. “That’s the word. Small clubs. Weddings. And who knows if he wasn’t in New York at times playing. He didn’t tell us, but it wouldn’t surprise me. He always had his apartment here.”
The same apartment I’d seen him in when he was old and sick, at 152 West 118th Street in Harlem. From my own house in Brooklyn, I took a subway up to Harlem to revisit his building and look at it as an adult, and I found myself on a residential block not lacking for sidewalk trees. There were refurbished brownstones, low front gates, and wide stoops. J.C.’s building, made of brick and stone, had six floors and high windows and intricate exterior ornamentation. City records I looked up on my phone revealed that it had been constructed in 1920. It had a glass door entrance and an elevator, and I thought it must have been a nice building for J.C. to live in, on a pleasant street. Here was his center of operations, I thought, the point from which he came and went who knows where. For twenty-five years, he toured with the best. He cut records. He won polls and awards. But then came the decline, sudden obscurity. When he carried his trombone case in one hand and a case full of whiskey in the other? Sounds exaggerated, I thought, the stereotype of the jazz musician as drunk. Though he was, in truth, a drunk. J.C. had an elusive quality, and as I stood outside his building, on the sidewalk by the front door, I wondered whether I could find someone who had lived there when J.C. did. My uncle had said other residents knew him. They were aware of his stature in the jazz world and could hear him practicing every day. To his sister in New York and her kids he would complain about these practice sessions, saying he didn’t like to do them at home because his neighbors would catch his mistakes.
“They think I don’t make mistakes,” he said. “Not the great J.C. Higginbotham.”
But J.C. died in 1973, forty-six years ago, and I had to admit there couldn’t possibly be anyone in the building who would remember him.
How often in noir, films and novels, do you get the character who has bottomed out?
How often in noir, films and novels, do you get the character who has bottomed out? You know the type, the person who, despite their inner tensions, has managed well. They plied a trade or commuted to an office or could capitalize on a rare talent. That lawyer won cases. The mechanic fixed cars. The boxer was a contender. That cop took no shit and had his peers’ respect. Before, at a minimum, the person had stability in life, and maybe they reaped joys beyond that, like wealth, comfort, fame. But then misfortune happens or the self-destructive impulse takes over – the beating the boxer took damaged his brain; the police detective surrendered to drink and got fired – and down that person goes to a different realm, where they now live with the denizens of the lowest rungs.
So from the late forties till his re-emergence in 1956, J.C. is off the radar. He’s outside the jazz scene he moved in since the twenties. To add to his difficulties, the type of jazz he plays has become passé to aficionados, with bebop and the styles it led to ascendant. J.C., a straight up traditional jazz man, a swing and blues guy, never took to modern jazz. During this phase, he couldn’t have had a reason to presume he would ever be in any sort of spotlight again. He had his booze, a woman he may have been living with in Boston (when he was there and if she existed), and he made his money performing in clubs I imagine as dim and smoky, patronized by night owls and lushes like himself, desperate people dreaming of better things in their lives as they listen to J.C. and his bandmates play. And who are his bandmates? Some must have been local to Boston or Cleveland or New York, some itinerant. They’re people you know were damn good on their instruments, whether they achieved stardom or not. They take whatever substances they need to get through, or they don’t. You figure they’re excited to be gigging with J.C.. He may have fallen somewhat low, out of the limelight, but as part of a tight-knit community, they know what J.C. has contributed to the music. It’s not hyperbole to say that J.C. basically founded a whole school of jazz trombone playing. In the development of the instrument, he’s considered the foremost exponent of the extrovert style, a style characterized by a forceful tone and what has been described, in jazz resource books, as a “savage” attack. The word savage here is meant as a compliment, not as an insult. To quote a current jazz trombonist, Dan Weinstein, who I wrote to for information about J.C., “what Higgy brought could best be described as the trombone equivalent of a brilliant jazz trumpeter: facility and imagination at any speed, coupled with strong high range and a deep down blues feeling in both tone and intonation. Though he could play “faster, higher, louder” than most others, he also had all the attributes of the 1920’s professional trombonist, who could play sweet as well as hot and could sight read music well. However, what set J.C. apart was his immediately recognizable individuality and expertise.” That’s another musician talking, so you’d expect the appreciation, the knowledge of J.C.’s place in jazz music history, to run high, but what would the customers in the clubs he was playing in during his “vanished” phase have thought? They see a guy who drinks from his arrival at the club to his departure, whose night ends with him staggering out the club’s doors. Are they thinking, sad, look at the poor guy? Or do they simply not care?
When I think about it, why would they care, these customers? They have come to escape into booze and music themselves, not to concern their minds with others’ problems. They’re not in the club to be tested on the performers’ biographies. They can’t be counted on to know that J.C. had thirteen siblings and came from a dot on the Georgia map named Social Circle, population fifteen hundred. When he was a child, one of his brothers taught him how to play the bugle, and later a sister bought him a trombone. He has an older brother, Garnet, who went to university, became a journalist, and ended up teaching at Morris Brown College, a historically black school in Atlanta. He has a nephew who became a chemist and worked for the federal government. His niece Irene is another one accomplished, a pianist and composer who entered a field dominated by men – songwriting. Among the numerous songs she wrote, “Good Morning, Midnight”, recorded in the forties by Billie Holiday. So J.C. is no familial anomaly, that’s clear; of that large group, which owned a restaurant in Georgia when he was growing up, a number of the members had substantial drive.
It was this drive, in a way, J.C.’s dedication to music, that led him to forgo raising the son he had under mysterious circumstances. That child had been born in 1943. As my uncle tells it, the woman he was dating and then got pregnant was married, and J.C.’s family, including the sister who was my grandmother, believed the woman to be the wife of a famous doctor. That was the story, the rumor, at first. But then everyone learned something different; the doctor was actually Doc Cheatham, a renowned trumpeter in his own right and someone J.C. must have known from the road. They were musical contemporaries, four years apart in age, jazz men who toured the same clubs across the country. J.C. impregnated Cheatham’s wife, who was white, and because of a desire for secrecy by all involved, the three of them arranged for her to have the baby at a hospital known for its discretion. This was Doctor’s Hospital in Manhattan, located on the Upper East Side opposite Gracie Mansion, the official mayoral residence in New York City. Doctor’s Hospital no longer exists – it was torn down in 2005 – but if you look up its name, you’ll find that it had a treatment center for the fashionable and affluent. People needing help and with the right connections could use this center to repair themselves without damaging their reputations. Either J.C. or Doc Cheatham’s wife somehow contacted the hospital about the birth to come, and when that child was born, no birth certificate was issued. A healthy male baby entered the world, and that was it. Within a night or two, with the mother’s consent, somebody in J.C.’s family whisked the baby away from the hospital (unless J.C. did it himself), and that person brought J.C.’s son to live with my grandmother in the Bronx.
Nana, as I called her, loved her younger brother, and it’s possible she’d agreed to take the infant. But after nine children, she could not handle another kid. Arrangements were made to take him by train to Nana and J.C.’s sister, Eutrice, the one who years before had brought J.C. his first trombone. So overnight, none other than my mother, then seventeen and the oldest of the girl siblings in the house, took the swaddled Cricket to Cleveland, which is where he would grow up. Eutrice raised Cricket as if he were her own child, and through the years, J.C. would visit him. Or, when he was older, after J.C. had returned to visibility in New York, Cricket would come to him during the summer. They had a relationship. They did spend time together, and that’s more than what Cricket did with his mother, who he never met. No one thought J.C. would change his life, drop his career, to raise a child, and he could not have dragged a kid around with him on the road. But I wonder (as a father myself): what did he think of the Cricket situation? When sober, when drunk, what went through his mind regarding his son? Did he ever wish that he and his son could have been closer? Was he checking in with Eutrice from the road and asking about the kid’s grades? Cricket played flute and piano, and well, and I’d like to know whether he and J.C. ever talked music. Would J.C. have been encouraging to him, or lukewarm to someone less talented than himself? Cricket died recently, in his mid-seventies, and it’s not like he didn’t have his own ordeals. He carried a wound around inside him, created at his very birth, at his conception you could say. During the 1970s, much of what he earned went into his arm. He was living in New York City and heroin was easy to find on the streets. Once, he got caught shooting up while on his job at Penn Station. J.C. was dead by then, but is it conceivable that his noir energy had been passed to his son? How much did Cricket blame J.C. for his struggles? “You’d see me when it suited you, when it fit your schedule.” My father’s the lawyer who defended Cricket in court for his drug arrest, and he worked the trick of getting Cricket probation with mandated treatment though a court officer had caught Cricket with a needle in his arm in the court bathroom during a recess. The son of my father’s old buddy. Cricket had cousins galore, with whom he was close, and they were all raised by their birth parents. You could understand his resentments in life. My father had a soft spot for him. Cordial through my father and Cricket might have been, they didn’t have the kind of rapport where they’d get together to play pool.
Noir stories with happy endings can present a challenge. In film, the uplift that comes after ninety or so minutes of neurosis and darkness can seem contrived. Does anyone believe that Rita Hayworth’s Gilda and Glenn Ford’s Johnny Farrell, after all the emotional distress they put each other through, would make peace, everything forgiven, at Gilda’s conclusion? Fritz Lang goes out of his way to let the audience know the Production Code forced an upbeat finale on him; the nightmare that grips Edward G. Robinson through The Woman in the Window’s narrative, that should lead to his death, is revealed to have been a dream he had. It’s a coda you don’t buy, and Lang doesn’t attempt to sell it. In Guilty Bystander, you want Zachary Scott to redeem his time as an alcoholic and absent father by finding his kidnapped son, and you’re glad when he and wife, because of his investigation, get their kid back. What would be the film’s rationale, you could ask, if it wraps up with their son dead, murdered by the abductors? Still, that last scene, glaringly sunlit, set against a picket fence, coming after sequence after sequence shot at night or in murky interiors, jars. “Where the hell did that come from?” you mutter to yourself. And now we’re supposed to believe that Zachary Scott and his estranged wife will reconcile, that Scott will get his life in order, stop drinking to excess? Come on.
And yet reversals, or partial reversals, do happen. Just like that, without warning, J.C. Higginbotham reappeared in New York City in 1956, and thus began his comeback, a decade and more of reinvigoration after the years spent off the jazz world grid. His return coincided with the Dixieland revival, a boon for musicians who had languished during bebop’s rise. J.C. became a fixture in New York clubs like the Stuyvesant Casino in the East Village and the Metropole Café in Midtown. For adherents of traditional jazz, fans and players, these clubs were havens.
There was a caveat, though, as there must be. In an article printed in 1947 in The New Masses magazine, J.C. had written, “If some of us diehards are not crazy about Dixieland music, that feeling derives from the music itself.” And he had said, “Let us say that some men make better music than others—that some have remained honest and others have turned phony—that some have stuck close to the true earthiness of the first blues, and others have over-commercialized whatever talents and feelings they have.”
So was J.C. conflicted during his comeback and the newfound fame it brought him? He had regular gigs, appeared on television – the series Jazz Party, in 1958 – went on European tours, and was featured at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1963. He recorded again, leading sessions with bands he had put together. I envision him as pleased, mingling again with his musician pals, appreciative of the new audience. But as someone who’d advanced trombone playing, who had innovated, who had pushed what it was considered possible to do on the instrument, he might not have been ecstatic inside. To most people listening to him, all but the cognoscenti, he was J.C. Higginbotham the old Dixieland guy, blowing those familiar tunes.
But there were, and are, cognoscenti. You never know where a J.C. reference might pop up. My favorite is this one, from a writer who knew both jazz and noir. It’s Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer on a case, in The Far Side of the Dollar, from 1965. Archer questions a musician who has information the private eye wants.
His voice was sincere, and his eyes filled up with compunction. But he and I could talk for a year, and he would still be holding something back. Among the things he was holding back was the fact that he didn’t believe me.
“Why don’t you believe me, Sam?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You don’t have to. You’re acting it out, by sitting on the information you have.”
“I ain’t sittin on nothin’, ‘ceptin this here old raunchy bed,” he said in broad angry parody.
“Now I know you are. I’ve got an ear for certain things, the way you’ve got an ear for music. You play the trombone, don’t you?”
“Yeah.” He looked surprised.
“I hear you blow well.”
“Don’t flatter me. I ain’t no J.C. Higginbotham.”
“And I ain’t no Sherlock Holmes…”
The last footage of J.C. playing is from 1969, a clip from a TV series called Art Hodes: Jazz Alley. It doesn’t look effortless to my eyes, and I have to remind myself that he’s only 63. But does any of that stuff matter? As J.C. wrote in his New Masses piece: “The important things about a jazz musician are how he is thinking, the emotions that compel him to play, his attitude toward music, musicians and people in general.”
He was something of a sphinx, J.C., but when he played, he gave a hint of what was going on in his mind.
I have no recollection of J.C.’s funeral, so I assume that my parents, since I was ten years old, did not take me to it.
Scott Adlerberg grew up in the Bronx and a wooded suburb just outside New York City. He is the author of four books. They include Graveyard Love (2016), a psychological thriller that takes place in the dead of winter in upstate New York, and Jack Waters (2018), a story of revenge and revolution on a Caribbean island in the early twentieth century. His pieces have appeared in Criminal Element, LitHub, CrimeReads, and The Los Angeles Review of Books, and each summer he hosts the Word for Word Reel Talks film series in Bryant Park in Manhattan. Most recently, his essay on Chester Himes had a place in the book Sticking It to the Man: Revolution and Counterculture in Pulp and Popular Fiction from 1950 to 1980. He lives in Brooklyn.