Drive uptown on Broadway in Manhattan on a Monday night. The streets are all lit up in yellow, and there are students from NYU milling about. Park the car and cross the street to the West End Cafe. When you get inside you feel like you’ve got the wrong place. This is supposed to be a jazz club. To the left is a cafeteria counter. To the right is a circular bar. You walk across a hardwood floor between the two, headed for two pinball machines and a cigarette machine, and make a quick left into the jazz room.
All of a sudden the cafeteria noise is filtered out as your eyes adjust to the darkness. There are rows of booths on either side of this room and tables scattered in the middle. At the far end is a bandstand, and there sits a baby-grand piano, and the gaudiest set of drums I’d ever seen. It’s just a bass drum, a snare, and a floor tom, covered in small, square mirrors, like a globe that hangs from the center of a dancehall ceiling, and bounces light all around the room.
This small, fragile-looking old man climbs onstage with the piano player, sits down behind the set, picks up a pair of brushes and begins to play. You’re watching history. This is a man that’s been playing jazz from the beginning. The brushes wisp across a well-worn snare head onto the large floor tom, or dust one of the two large cymbals.
This is Sonny Greer. I judge a musical performance as good if it can move me emotionally, and Sonny makes me smile. I find myself leaning forward, my elbow on my knees, my chin cupped in my hands and concentrating on his hands and his brushwork. “This guy is a master,” I’m thinking. And then there’s the vaudevillian-like showmanship. Grabbing the right lapel of his coat, accenting with his bass drum while flipping open I his coat like a flasher.
But the key to it all is the man’s eyes. The body of an old man with the eyes of a child that dance and laugh, and study the people who’ve come to see this drummer who’s been all around the world performing before kings, queens, presidents, and millions of common folk. Papa Jo Jones walks in with a newspaper folded under his arm, and struts up to just stage left of Sonny and sits in a booth. Jo puts the paper out flat before him and takes a pair of wire brushes out of his coat pocket. The next thing you know, Jo and Sonny are trading fours; Sonny on his drumset and Jo Jones on his newspaper, the table, even the wooden slats of the blinds that half cover the window behind the bandstand.
When that song is over, Sonny (over ten years Jo’s senior) sits staring at Jo. “Sonny!” says Jo. “I hope you never get as old as I am.” Sonny—expressionless— continues to stare at Jo. Finally he opens his mouth and in complete deadpan says, “Aw, you ain’t that much older than I am.”
Sonny Greer died on March 23, 1982 in New York City. He was 86. He had been with the Duke Ellington Orchestra from 1923 to 1951, and more than that he was a pioneer; an original drummer. He will be missed, but more than he should be missed he should be an inspiration for carrying on until he was 86, for his energy, for his contribution to music and drumming, and because he spent his life making a lot of people smile.