REMEMBERING AL HAIG
I knew and loved Al Haig's music before I came to New York. I had the records he made with Herbie Steward, Charlie Parker and Stan Getz. I heard him play in person at Birdland several times, but didn't get to meet him until I was called to do a record date with him in 1954. Henri Renaud thought it was disgraceful that Al hadn't been recorded for several years, and had come from Paris to find him and record him. He called Lee Abrams and me to play drums and bass on the date. Henri knew my name from the recordings I had done a year earlier with Stan Getz.
We recorded at Jerry Newman's studio in the Village. Jerry liked what we recorded for Henri, and had us do another album the same night for his Esoteric label. We recorded every tune in one take, with no rehearsal. As a result, some of the bass notes I chose weren't the ones I would have used if I had known the chord progressions Al was going to use. But he played beautifully, and I was proud to be there.
I ran into Al again a few years later, in Detroit. I was in town for a week with Marian McPartland's trio, playing at Baker's Keyboard Lounge. About an hour after I checked into the Wolverine Hotel there was a tap at my door, and there stood Al. He told me he was broke and stranded in Detroit. He had gone there with Chet Baker's group, but Chet had blown the gig somehow, and there was no pay. Unable to find work in Detroit, Al had run out of money. He asked if I could let him sleep on the floor in my room that night.
I could help him out that much, and buy him dinner and breakfast. I didn't have much spare cash, but I loaned him a few bucks and let him wear my raincoat for a few days. It was early autumn, and the weather had turned chilly. The raincoat wasn't very warm, but it was better than nothing.
At dinner, Al ate very little and drank a lot. I tried talking about music, but he said some bitter things about not being a jazz player any more. I think he felt the jazz world had betrayed him somehow. He also went on at great length about the breakup of his marriage. He sounded so irrationally angry and resentful that I assumed it was a very fresh wound, but I was later told that his marriage had ended quite a long time before that.
When I went to my job that night I left Al in my room and he slept for a few hours on the bed. When I came back, he made a pallet on the floor with some blankets and went back to sleep. I got the impression that he hadn't had a place to lie down for a couple of days.
In the morning we had breakfast at the hotel coffee shop, and then he led me into the cocktail lounge where there was a pretty decent piano. There were no customers at that hour, but the bartender was on duty. Al was on a first name basis with him, and I realized that he had established a regular routine there.
Al sat down at the keyboard and began to play along with the Muzak that was being piped softly into the room. The bartender immediately brought him a scotch and soda. The canned music was just pleasant fluff played by a string section, but Al used it as a background for really lovely improvisations. One hour and four drinks later, he got up from the piano bench, said goodbye to the bartender and led me back out to the lobby.
"The bartender's my only fan in Detroit," he said wryly.
The hotel manager was hovering nearby. He beckoned to me and asked if he could have a word with me in private. I followed him into his office, wondering what was up. He said,
"Ordinarily I wouldn't say anything about Mr. Haig staying in your room last night, since you're a regular customer. But he already owes us a sizeable bill, and we aren't eager to extend him any courtesies. I'm sure you understand."
I apologized, and went out to tell Al the bad news.
"That's okay," he said. "I didn't think they'd notice so soon, but I knew they wouldn't let me stay. Can you lay ten bucks on me?"
I did, and I asked him to come by for breakfast the next morning.
I bought him breakfast every morning for the rest of the week, and heard an hour of his lovely music afterwards in the cocktail lounge. I have no idea where he was sleeping at night. He came to say goodbye on the day I left for New York. I hated to take back my raincoat, but I couldn't afford another one. Al assured me he'd be okay.
I didn't see Al again until several years later. We met on the street in New York one day. He was playing at One Fifth Avenue, but I didn't get to hear him. I was always working somewhere myself on the nights he played there. After that I heard about him from time to time on the musicians' grapevine, but I never saw him again. There was a story that he had married again, and that his wife died from a fall down the stairs at their home. He was suspected of having caused her fall, but successfully defended himself.
[Al Haig died in New York in November 1982.]