[Written for Allegro, the newspaper of Local 802 AFM, New York]
Local 802 has a number of octegenarian members who are still active in the music world. Their ranks were recently joined by a fine guitarist, member Al Casey, who has been playing jazz in New York for over sixty years. He was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on September 15, 1915, and was adopted into a musical family. One of his adoptive cousins played the guitar and ukelele, and as a young boy, Al picked up both instruments from him, by ear.
The Casey family knew Fats Waller well, some of them having worked with him in Cincinnati. So it was natural that, after the Caseys moved to New York City around 1930, Al's guitar playing eventually came to the famous pianist's attention.
"Fats was living in Harlem then, and they took me over and had me play for him," said Al. Waller must have liked what he heard. In 1934 he hired Casey to play rhythm guitar on the record dates he was beginning to do for RCA Victor. These were Al's first jobs as a professional musician, and they took place before he had finished high school. The records were successful, and Al Casey began to be known among jazz musicians and aficionados. He said, "Fats made sure I went to music school. I went for about two years, and learned what I didn't know."
Every spring, in those days, Fats Waller put together a touring band. Young Al wanted to go on the road with him, but Waller insisted that he complete his high school education first. Al got his diploma in 1935, and early in 1936 he joined Local 802 and hit the road with Fats. Except for the year 1939, when Al took off to tour with Teddy Wilson's short-lived big band, Casey stayed with Waller until the pianist's untimely death in 1943. Waller had encouraged him to join Wilson. "You go ahead," Fats told him, "and if anything happens, you can always come back here." When the Teddy Wilson band broke up in 1940, Al went back with Waller.
It was Waller who got Casey to switch from acoustic guitar to the new electric model. "I was using an acoustic, with the big band," said Al. "We were working at a theater in Chicago. I was playing into a microphone, but Fats said I couldn't be heard well enough, so he took me around to that big Chicago music store, and he bought me my first electric guitar. That was a Gibson. I'm still a Gibson person."
After Waller's death, Casey took his own trio into a club in Greenwich Village. "It was just a little tiny joint," he said. "Clarence Profit, the piano player, had a trio in there, and when he left, he put me in charge of the trio. That's how I got my own group. We played there, and at the Village Vanguard, and then up on 52nd Street. I had a bass player named Al Matthews, and Teacho Wilshire was on piano."
In 1944 Casey won the Esquire Magazine Gold Award in jazz, and appeared at that year's Esquire jazz concert at the old Metropolitan Opera House. He became a popular free-lancer in New York recording studios, and in the 1950s spent a couple of years playing and recording with the King Curtis band. "I was playing me, instead of rock and roll," said Al. "So he got a friend from Texas to replace me. I didn't mind."
For the past thirteen years, Casey has been a member of the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band. When he isn't touring with that group, he can be heard on Saturday nights at the Louisiana Club, on Broadway near Houston Street, with the Harlem All-Stars, a group whose cumulative experience in jazz probably totals about three hundred years. Casey is a beautiful soloist, and still produces the solid rhythm section work that made him famous sixty years ago.
Casey said, "I still get enough work to keep me from losing my chops. And I'm still trying to learn...to figure out how to do new things, you know, to keep up with the times. I've been lucky. Some of my friends are sitting around waiting for something to happen. I mean good musicians...better than me! I'm just glad I'm still around."
[Al Casey died in September 2005.]