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Harlem Speaks
Johnnie Gary
November 29, 2007

On November 29, 2007 Johnnie Garry, who serves as the Production Director for Jazzmobile, engaged an audience of friends and admirers in two hours of reflections on his life in jazz for Harlem Speaks. He was born in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1924, and his mother, Rosalee, moved to Harlem in 1928. He grew up on 127th Street, “in back of the Apollo Theatre.” The first show he ever saw there was a performance by Don Redman. “I remember that the lights were beautiful, and the musicians sharply dressed. I was attracted to the shiny C-Melody saxophone, and later tried to play it.”

He wasn’t successful as a young musician in junior high school, but was told by a mentor that he could still find his way to be involved in the music. In fact, he would attend shows at the Apollo and the work of stagehands entranced him. He left high school to support his mother, working in the garment district. Then his chance arose.

He knew folk and blues singer Josh White, who was working at Barney Josephson’s Café Society in the village, which opened in 1938. A stagehand there was going to miss the gig that night, so White asked Garry if he would come through and handle the stage work for pianist Mary Lou Williams. He was told that he would have to position the piano and the seat for Williams. He did so with such a smooth nonchalance that a writer for the New Yorker mentioned him in an article the next week. That same night Garry also took the initiative to soften the lights for Williams, as he had seen done at the Apollo.

He kept that gig, and did stagework for others such as Lena Horne, Billie Holiday and Eddie Heywood. Meanwhile, Williams took him under her wing and he would attend social affairs at her home, where top musicians in jazz would come to party and relax. “Mary Lou would give instructions, saying, ‘your left hand!’ to people like Errol Garner and Thelonious Monk.” On another occasion she took him to a party for Gordon Parks, where entertainers like Bela Lugosi and Peter Lorry were present.

One night pianist Hazel Scott was headlining at Café Society, and the suave Adam Clayton Powell was in the audience. Powell called Garry over and gave him a note to give to Scott backstage. When Garry gave her the note, she said that she didn’t want to see anyone. But at that moment Powell “happened” to walk by, and Garry said that he was the gentleman who wrote the note. Upon seeing Powell, Scott invited him in!

After she had played piano with Earl Hines’s band, Sarah Vaughan came to the Café Society for a two-week engagement. She was such a hit that she stayed at the club for a year, during which time she and Garry became close associates. That business relationship blossomed into Garry becoming her road manager in 1945 (until 1960). Among the many tales he shared about the “divine one”, an occasion in which Sarah and Ella Fitzgerald shared a stage stood out. “I told Sassy, ‘whatever you do, don’t let her go into an uptempo song to start.’ Well, at the end of her set Ella called Sarah to the stage, and began with ‘Somewhere there’s music, it’s where you are. Somewhere there’s heaven, how near or far.’ And for the next hour they went at it! Both were swinging so hard that they were sweating. Ella would pat Sarah’s forehead with a handkerchief, and Sarah did the same for her. The audience was sitting there in amazement.”

Later that night Fitzgerald asked Garry to accompany her to a party, where, it turned out, Vaughan was at also. When Sarah asked him how it went, Garry told her: “I told you not to let her begin with an uptempo song! [The song Ella started off with was “How High the Moon.”] She kicked your ass!”

One of the most insightful aspects of Garry’s responses to questions by interviewer Greg Thomas was revelations about the art of stagecraft. On numerous occasions Garry explained in detail how he would set the lights to establish mood in relation to a particular song. He also described a unset stage as a naked lady; when the stage is set for a show, it’s like dressing a lady.

After Garry and Vaughan parted ways after her husband at the time fired the whole band, Garry was called to the Birdland club by Morris Levy. When he arrived Levy began showing him around and explaining operations to him. It soon became clear that Levy wanted him to manage the club. While there, Garry set a policy that musicians would get in for free, and have drinks at half price.

That was just one of many gestures that Garry put in place to show his love for the music and the musicians who play jazz. Another was mentioned by the great Jimmy Heath at the end of the discussion. A few years ago Heath was in recovery from a stroke and while overseas in Denmark, Garry would walk the beach every morning with Heath. Sarah McLawler and Kenny Washington also shared tales of Garry’s love.

The National Jazz Museum in Harlem is honored to have captured an unsung hero of jazz, Johnnie Garry, for its video archives.


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