(August 12, 1937 – November 8, 2011)
I wrote this when Jimmy died on November 8, 2011:
Every day I have the opportunity to go out into the world and do something special, to touch people’s hearts. To take them for a ride, in the moment, the Now. You were a huge teacher for me in how to do this. In each moment that I share with an audience, you are there with me with that gracious smile of yours. Reminding me of that elusive ‘it’ that you managed to embody. I will take that with me wherever I go, for the rest of my days. It is a goal of my own now that someday there will be a someone who feels as I do now, so thankful. You were a blessing. I will miss you.
* * *
Back when Mike Kissel was still alive, we had a jam session at his KMA Studio every Monday. It started out on the ninth floor of 1650 Broadway and moved with him to the Brill Building. We recorded everything and jammed in headphones. We never knew who would come by: Sun Ra Arkestra, George Clinton, Carlos Alomar, Miki Howard, Bernard Purdie, Oli Rockberger, Scott Sherrard… All sorts of young up and coming cats, singers, songwriters… It was called the Songwriters Studio. We’d work on tunes, that was the whole thing. Mike had a few standards he liked to do for fun, but most of it was stop and start, develop parts, build songs… For fun! We’d work towards getting one good take then move on. Sometimes it got stupid when some vain chick singer came by and it was just all about her, but we’d politely find our way back to the music, the magic, to the craft of building songs sooner or later.
The magic night when Jimmy Norman came in was one I’ll never forget. I knew nothing about him at all but was instantly electrified. He sang, we jammed, he went with us wherever we went and had something for us at every turn! He wasn’t about pulling focus, he improved it. We all knew we were in the presence of someone special without even hearing a story. That came later – something about the Coasters, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, some old hit song the Stones did, whatever. Those things were secondary. He was just It. We were all jazzed. Everyone had a plan to do something special with him, and many did. He hit jackpot for himself that day, looking to get back into it as he was. I just sat back and watched; continuing my job of making sure everyone had a chart.
This went on for a year or more. Periodically we’d do a show in public with our core rhythm section and some of Mike’s favorite singers and do Mike’s original tunes with our arrangements. The Cutting Room, a chartered boat, the Triad, even a karaoke joint in Times Square. Jimmy would become the headliner. It seemed to be a thrill for him too. Once in a while we’d go by and cheer him on when he would sit in with Jonny Rosch’s band with Kerryn Tollhurst downstairs at Penang.
Then one day Jimmy pulled me aside and asked if I would put a band together for him to do shows at Penang and another place uptown called Roth’s Steakhouse. I was honored. Then I started working on it… I put together a list of the hottest players I had access to, went though all his CDs and made charts of the tunes that I thought would work with a trio, booked rehearsals, and away we went.
Penang closed after a spell, but we carried on at Roth’s for the better part of four years every Saturday might. After some natural selection of schedules and personalities we ended up with the core group of Freddie Simpson on bass and Steve Loecher on drums. Every so often we’d have Paully Tillotsen on piano when he was on town. Sometimes the piano player from the first set would stay and play with us. Other musicians and singers would come by to sit in.
Freddie and Steve put their entire heart and soul into the gig. We developed our own signature arrangements of Jimmy’s tunes. We had a show. It was good. There was a lot of laughter on the bandstand, strong and wrong backing vocals, volume complaints… But always respect and love. All the way around.
Jimmy’s health was getting slowly but steadily worse. He would sit on a stool every time, and after a while, he would only sing three or four tunes and take a break. But let me tell you, even when he had no energy and could barely lift his head he still had more charisma and connectivity with an audience than anyone else I know.
The management and the JFA people would express concern for Jimmy’s health and suggest he take it easy, maybe not sing… It was the singing that kept him alive! Stop it and stop him! He would look at me pleading as if to say don’t let them do it! I gotta’ sing! So we played.
We also did a whole bunch of daytime shows at schools and nursing homes and libraries and community centers for the JFA. He got ‘em every time. People always appreciated what was happening as it was happening. Young and old. Rich and poor. They all got it.
We went to Florida once, to Sanibel Island. Did a few shows at Ellington’s Jazz Club with some great players down there. I gotta say it’s great to fly with an old black man in a wheelchair. TSA treats you like royalty. Anyway, this is where my favorite Jimmy Norman memory happened. Mark Roth, Jimmy, and I sat around on the beach for a couple hours having a smoke and just talking. We each shared a bit, but Jimmy got to telling stories and Mark and I go to listening and asking… I could have sat there forever. Early on, I saw what was happening and I went upstairs to grab my little recorder. I just put it on record, threw it under my chair, and let him keep going, unaware. He kept going when we got back up to the room to prepare for the show.
He said he wanted to write a book. I put those recordings, indexed, onto a CD for him and gave it to him one night at Roth’s. Here, write it! Don’t know if he ever started. It would be well worth reading.
The Jazz Foundation of America was a very important element in his later years and his gratitude was palpable. At one point Jimmy co-wrote a song with guitarist Joel Fass called “Foundation” to express his thanks to the JFA. To start the production I brought in my A Team with Freddie and Steve, Ron Allaire engineering at Kampo studio. We had Georgia Brown, Valerie Capes, Anette St. John, Danny Mixon singing on it, Davell Crawford on keys, and Mark Roth as executive producer. It played at a big JFA event with video and all.
He came to visit Taka and I a few times, we would go with him to Harlem for soul food or visit Showman’s, or Sylvias, or St Nick’s. He loved the night life. We did try to encourage him to not smoke, drink, etc… He’d say “why stop now?” He knew my father and his wife. He knew Taka’s mother and father and friends that would come visit from Japan. Anyone that came to visit from out of town got a Jimmy Norman experience, if they were lucky.
He had a funny way of saying things sometimes. Whenever he’d hang up the phone he’d say, “me and you”. Instead of saying “thank you for doing that thoughtful thing”, he’d say “good lookin’ out”. Whenever he’d ask about my wife he’d say “how’s my girl?”… When something wonderful happened, musically or otherwise, he would exclaim, “that’s what I’m talkin’ about!”. I would summon my whitest speaking voice and reply, “I’m glad you say that Mr. Norman, because I hadn’t the slightest idea what the %@#& you were talking about”.
He was quite comfortable with asking for help. He’d ask anyone for whatever he needed, and somehow whoever he asked felt it was an honor to be doing something for him. He’d call about charts or a song to add to the show and he’d start with “now look here…” I was always waiting for the “boy” to follow, but never did. Meanwhile I could hear in the background that someone was there in his house helping with his computer or something.
Ah, Jimmy’s minions. We were all Jimmy’s minions. Happily.
I loved the man. I miss him already. But the time I spent with him is a treasure I get to keep.