By Jim Gallert
Phelbert Quincy Lasley III, (1940-2018) came of age during the 1950s. The 1950s were Detroit’s Golden Age of jazz, and he heard many great musicians like Barry Harris and Yusef Lateef before they left town. His family came to Detroit from Kentucky during the 1920s looking for work. When Phil was born they lived on Superior Street on the near East side. Their neighborhood was adjacent to Paradise Valley, Detroit’s Black business/entertainment area, which was steeped in music. Phil became one of Detroit’s stalwarts, keeping the music top drawer. He taught saxophone at Center for Creative Studies, and also privately. Phil’s buoyant personality was welcomed at every jazz joint in town. He loved to sit-in, and would regale his friends with war stories from his years in Manhattan.
Phil Lasley, c1996
Courtesy Phil Lasley
Musicians generally fall in love with music at an early age. While still children they realize, or sense, that music is their companion, best friend and the medium through which they communicate most effectively.
In many household’s becoming a “musician” is considered an undesirable occupation, one which parents hope their children will avoid. In Phelbert Quincy “Phil” Lasley III’s home everyone created music. His sister Nettie played piano and sang, and his brother Larry and stepbrother Ben played piano; Larry also played alto sax. Ben played professionally, was a sharp dresser, and carried himself with dignity and confidence, traits which made a strong impression on young Phil. Phil’s parents encouraged their children’s interest in music.
“I wanted to be a musician from the time I was four or five years old,” Phil recalls. “At first, I wanted to be a piano player because my mother played. She could really play the blues. She worked at after-hour joints around Detroit.”
Phil’s dad owned an alto sax, and on Saturdays he and his cousin Robert would sit around the kitchen and play their horns. Phil was seduced by the sound of the saxophone and decided it was the instrument he most wanted to play. Phil ‘borrowed’ his dad’s horn after school and practiced on the sly for several months before being caught. His dad was impressed by Phil’s obvious talent and arranged for lessons. Lasley started selling Jet magazine door-to-door and delivering newspapers in his ‘hood and earned enough money to buy his first alto.
Lasley ushers a visitor into his small, comfortable apartment located near the Wayne State University campus in midtown Detroit. He gestures around the living room. “Reminds you of New York, don’t it?” There are pictures and paintings on the walls. Some of the paintings are Lasley originals – soft-toned watercolors with lines of Black ink that twist and turn over the paper. Phil’s Selmer saxophone lies atop a pile of manuscript paper on a nearby table, assembled and ready to play. He spends most of his day practicing and, sometimes, recycling notes and ideas into fresh melodies (which defines Jazz, almost).
Phil began composing music during his first stay in Manhattan (1958). “I wrote a song for Hank Mobley. Hank and I hung out, and he gave me the music to a number he had recorded with Charles Davis and Cedar Walton, “Early Morning Stroll.” So, I wrote “Henry Earl Spirit” for him.”
Two of Phil’s compositions, Nkenge’s Blues, dedicated to the late community activist/radio artist Nkenge Zola, and Lady T Diana, written for his then-partner, Trudy, were in the Teddy Harris Quartet band book. Another number, Maman Pov’re, reflects his disgust with Michigan’s then-current (1992) political leaders. “This piece is about suffering,” he says. “This woman is twenty-seven, homeless, with two kids. She and one of the kids have muscular dystrophy. I really feel her pain. If (then-Governor John) Engler had any decency at all, he would’ve waited until warmer weather to cut off her payments.” Lasley slowly shakes his head. “During Engler’s next life, he’ll probably come back as a poor Black guy living in the Brewster Projects.” Phil throws his head back and laughs, relishing the thought.
A compact man of average height and build, Lasley always looks sharp on the bandstand. He has a lot of presence and projects a royal aura, as though he had been a knight or Lord in a previous life. His face is animated, and he smiles easily. Lasley is part American Indian and he’s an Aries. Phil has the maniacal Aries personality, and is subject to sudden bursts of energy. This is most noticeable when he plays, but he’s always overflowing with stories, gossip and warmth – a regular guy with extraordinary talent.
Phil’s solos are energetic, intense and full of feeling. His tone is round and full, sometimes slightly sharp (like Jackie McLean’s, another influence), other times tender and yearning. During his most animated flights, the tone is coarser and thick, reminiscent of the great “Jump” alto players of the forties who were Phil’s early heroes: Tab Smith, Earl Bostic, and Louis Jordan. “Those guys had a lot of ‘balls’ to their sound. And, each guy had his individual sound and style.” Once Phil heard Charlie Parker, he forsook all others and followed Bird: “Bird had it all!”
The Lasley family moved frequently during Phil’s youth. He attended schools on both the east and west sides of the city, including McMichael and Grisel Junior high schools. At Grisel, he met future Detroit jazz stars pianist Kenny Cox and drummers Ike Daney and George Davidson. They, too, had decided jazz was their way, and they were eager to learn. “We used to hang out at Joe Brazil’s house[i],” Phil recalls. “We’d sit on the front porch and bug the older musicians.”
Older musicians’ helping younger musicians is the Detroit way, and Phil learned many valuable lessons from the established players. Phil’s friend Donald Walden, two years his senior, pulled his coat to an important fact. “I thought Bird was reading everything he played,” Lasley chuckles. Walden, then studying with bebop doyen Barry Harris and already a good improviser, told Phil what was happening with Bird and schooled him on chords.
Phil progressed rapidly and soon got his first gig, at age fifteen, for the Pingree Mother’s Club. Shortly after graduating high school, he began working full time as a musician with the Ralph Kirk Quartet, made up of Phil and three friends. “We had a gig at the Spot Bar[ii], near Klein’s Show Bar[iii] on Twelfth Street,” he recalled. “They had what seemed like the highest bandstand in the world. From there, we went to the Garfield Lounge. We also worked after hours at the Stinson Hotel.” One night at the Stinson, pianist Billy Taylor and his trio came in after their gig. The guys liked Phil’s sound, and encouraged him to “try New York, man.”
Never one to shy away from a challenge, Lasley and the quartet’s drummer pooled their resources, got two Greyhound bus tickets, and left within a week. “I was eighteen years old, and had more heart than brains,” Phil recalls with a grin. Manhattan was teeming with musical energy and Lasley sampled the rich fare, (or as much of it as he could with his remaining $10). He established a toehold in the loft scene, performing with younger musicians who played “edge stuff”, like pianist Cecil Taylor and drummer Sonny Murray – demanding music which many listeners find difficult to understand. Lasley heard, admired, and became friendly with John Coltrane, too. Phil attempted to capture ‘Trane’s concept on his alto.
One memorable job found Phil in an all-star band that included bassist Wendell Marshall, trombonist Al Grey, french horn player (and fellow Detroiter) Julius Watkins, cornetist Thad Jones, and tenor saxophonist Ben Webster. “I was in over my head,” Lasley recalls with a smile, “and, I had to ride on the bus from New York to Pittsburgh seated next to Ben Webster!” Webster was nicknamed “The Brute.” There was an aggressive side to his personality which could unnerve those who didn’t know him well. Their conversation went something like this:
Ben: What are you doing here, boy?
Phil: I’m a musician
Ben: (loudly) Hey! You fellows hear that? He’s a MUSICIAN! What do you play, boy??
Ben:(loudly) you fellows hear that?? He plays SAXOPHONE! You play.
TENOR SAXOPHONE, boy???
Phil: (loudly) NO! NO! NO!
Once Webster heard Lasley play, he lightened up a bit. Ben could play decent stride piano, and he showed Phil how to improvise on the changes to American popular tunes of the 1920s and 1930s.
Jobs such as this were the exceptions. Most of the gigs, like much of the music in New York, were aimed at a general audience, not jazz aficionados. Phil worked mainly with back-up bands used to accompany pop acts. He joined vocalist Chuck Jackson’s band, led by tenor saxophonist Bobby Scott, in 1962 and remained nearly six years. Lasley got his first taste of life on the road, and he learned much from it. “We lived out of suitcases,” he remembers. “Nine months a year in the States, and winters in the Caribbean.” Lest one think that it was a boring gig, Phil is quick to point out that he was given many solo spots. The band was featured each set, and there was new music to learn every week for the various acts which toured with the show, acts which today seem surreal.
“We had all kinds of acts with us. Little dogs in dresses, dance teams, stuff like that. (Comic) Flip Wilson toured with us once. One of the funniest acts was a female impersonator named Chickie Horne. Wore an evening gown, tennis shoes, and a huge bra. He would bounce basketballs and catch them in the bra while he sang “Everyday I Have The Blues.” Just imagine…Everyday….WHOP! Everyday…WHOP!“
Once, at the Apollo Theater in New York, one of Chickie’s balls took a bad bounce and he missed the catch. He misjudged the stage while chasing the ball and ran into a wall. Broke his ankle. Trooper that he was, Chickie finished the number before he collapsed and yelled for help.” Phil chuckles at the memory. “Like they say, ‘there’s no business, like show business’”.
This is a lighter moment of what was often a hard and at times dangerous livelihood. The pressure was especially intense for people of color in the early 1960s. The civil rights movement was in full swing and the south became a focal point for confrontations with the KKK and local constabularies. Beatings and murder of Black folks were common. Touring bands were easy targets for violence and overt racism. Phil hadn’t spent any time down south, and he was shocked by the raw hatred he encountered.
“Young white girls at dances would ask for our autographs. Their boyfriends would wait for us outside and try to run us down with their cars. It’s one thing to read about that shit, but to experience it…” Phil’s voice trails off and he winces. “Another time, we were staying at the Atlanta Hilton. My roommate and I went to use the pool, which was crowded. We had the whole thing to ourselves before we’d swum one lap. That’s a strange feeling, man. How can you deal with that shit and stay sober?”
The experiences elevated Lasley’s political consciousness, and he decided that “art and music are political statements: You play what you experience.”
Many musicians took narcotics to counteract the stress, and Phi fell into the habit around 1961. “Dope was cheap, easy to get, and it was part of the scene,” Lasley recalls. “We tried anything that would keep us playing….almost everybody was using drugs.” He fell afoul of the law in Manhattan and did a year on Riker’s Island. Locked up, separated from his music, surrounded by violent felons, Phil vowed he’d never again use narcotics. Sticking by such a decision takes mettle, but Lasley’s resolve has never wavered.
Around 1967, Phil wanted a change of musical scene and he left the Jackson band. Motown Records was actively courting them, and finally made a generous offer to Phil and two colleagues, which they accepted; their acceptance effectively broke up the band. Soon after arriving in Detroit, Phil realized that the Motown deal wasn’t as sweet as he’d thought. “They had some very funny business practices at Motown that I didn’t like at all. Nobody got any money, not even the stars.” Lasley hung on for a year and a bit, then joined Aretha Franklin’s band, which was bound for New York.
Lasley found a very different scene compared to his first visit in 1958. The entertainers with whom Phil had worked were inactive. Some had died. The “Chitlin’ Circuit”, that venerable string of clubs and theaters which supported much of the Black entertainment industry, had vanished. “The days of show bands had come and gone,” Phil recalled. “I worked with Sam Rivers, Tommy Turrentine, Walter Bishop, and various Latin bands.”
Phil working out on his tenor, with Hakim Jami, bass and Daoud A. Haroon, trombone, NYC, 1970s courtesy mancebomosaic.com
Phil started the Jazz Studies department and taught at the Greenwich House of Music. He and Trudy (who’d moved from Detroit) managed Omar’s, a jazz club in Greenwich Village. Lasley worked steadily but they scuffled to survive in Manhattan. He was a member of Manifestation in the early 1970s, a band that (judging by their write-up) played covers. He adopted a Muslim name – Hanif Abdu Shahid. The band included Phil’s longtime friend, Hakim Jami on bass.
Phil and Trudy returned to Detroit in 1981. Things weren’t much better in his hometown, but the tempo was slower – “more relaxed”, Phil thought. Lasley gigged around town using his entire arsenal of instruments: alto, tenor and soprano saxes and flute. He toyed with the idea of playing the sopranino – he dug the sound – but realized his hands were full with the other four instruments. In order to support his family (now including a daughter, Nagira), Phil took day jobs and played at night. “I worked as a janitor for $5.00 an hour,” he snorts. “$195 a week, before taxes! Who can live on that? If I play jazz, at least I’m happy. And if I make $195, it’s in one night, not one week!”
One memorable gig, in 1993, had Phil working at BoMac’s Lounge[iv] with the Teddy Harris Quartet on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, and in the New Breed Be Bop Society Orchestra on Sunday evenings. Harris (1934 – 2005) was a veteran Motown musician who had a strong vision of jazz in Detroit. Harris was a gifted teacher. Countless younger musicians cycled through his New Breed orchestra, picking up tips and guidance from Teddy on a range of music related subjects. Harris was a good pianist and saxophonist. He’d “made his bones” on tenor, back in the day, but now focused solely on piano & soprano sax. Rod Hicks played bass, his warm sound anchoring the band. Like Harris, Hicks worked with bluesman Paul Butterfield in the late sixties. Drummer Lawrence Williams (1937 – 2006) was simply amazing. A composer, painter and Gemini, every lick Lawrence hit flavored and propelled the music, often to stellar places. Several of Lawrence’s more ambitious pieces, like Number 9 were in the bandbook. When that group started cookin’ people stopped drinkin’. They stared and listened. Teddy’s group transformed the BoMac’s dynamic from “have a few drinks, listen to the band, talk” into a visceral, spiritual experience…serious jazz followers filtered in, gradually displacing the regulars; the owners grumbled about the reduced bar tariffs – too much listening, not enough drinking. It was a hell of a gig while it lasted, and it lasted most of a year.
After BoMac’s ended, Phil spent a summer doing landscaping work with his longtime friend, bassist Ray McKinney, who was also scuffling. He’d always liked gardening, which made landscaping (or “landscraping” as McKinney called it) tolerable. Phil had the occasional saxophone student but found to his chagrin that younger folks were often unwilling to put forth the necessary time and effort to come to grips with the saxophone.
Lasley’s goal has always been simple: earn a living playing music – his music. He’s led various groups since his return from New York, among them, Fire!, his five-piece band that appeared regularly at the Montreux-Detroit Jazz Festival (now the Detroit Jazz Festival) during the mid-1980s. Most bands at the Jazz Festival work about once a year…at the jazz festival, a fact which makes Phil shake his head and reiterate what most jazz followers know: European and Japanese audiences support jazz far more than their American counterparts. Phil occasionally works in Amsterdam with pianist Rein de Graf and marvels at the reception – a crowd of jazz fans met him at the airport during his last visit. It’s events like that which prove to Lasley that the road to steady employment leads abroad. “All I need,” he insists, “is a piece of land to grow my own food, some privacy, and the opportunity to send my kids to college. That’s all I want.” It takes some effort to picture Phil tending a row of corn, but, hey, Bird went through a similar phase.
The phone rings, and it’s a call for Lasley’s daughter Nagira, who isn’t home. “Boy, I’m glad I’m not growing up now,” says Lasley as he lights a cigarette. “Kids today don’t know what it’s like to grow up without drugs and guns in their schools. When I grew up, if you had a beef with someone, you fought, and the next day you were friends. Nowadays, you blow the other guy away. Kid’s don’t think they have a worthwhile future. I had a kid tell me, ‘I can do ten years and be out by the time I’m twenty-seven.’ That scares me.” Phil leans back in his chair and exhales deeply.
Now sixty-six, Phil Lasley has mellowed somewhat. He’s thicker around the waist and has less hair. He’s come to grips with Diabetes and sporadic age-related aches & pains. He practices for hours every day, honing his chops, pushing his creativity, infrequently sitting in around town or snagging an infrequent gig in the private sector. In the meantime, he works in the Detroit Public School System with drummer George Davidson, trying his best to interest pre-teen students in the art of making music. It’s often frustrating, but Phil, ever the optimist, relishes the small successes he’s had.
The conversation turns to Hollywood, and the seemingly permanent stereotype of A Jazz Musician: Drugs, suffering for His Art, unable to form permanent attachments. “Just once I’d like to see them make a movie about the real life of a jazz musician, like the French did with Round Midnight. Not a guy who chases women and does drugs, but a guy with a family who’s trying to make it every day. The sacrifices he makes. The integrity he has. That’s what jazz is all about: integrity. Integrity and love.”
He smiles, yawns and stretches; the interview is over. As Lasley shows his visitor to the door, they walk past the artwork-covered walls. Phil looks around and smiles. “Kinda reminds you of New York, don’t it?” (1998)
ADDENDUM – 2020
Phil met and married Carmen Argüelles (?1945-2008) in 1993. She was a gifted painter, sculptor, and photographer from Vancouver, B.C., Canada. They were simpatico, and fell in love. During the several years they were together, Carmen helped manage Phil’s career, often at the expense of her own, which finally separated them.
Phil went through some tough times in his last ten years. One of the bright rays was his last love, Jeannie. She dug his music and is one of the nicest people around. Jeannie cared deeply for Phil. Phil made some tentative moves to reconnect with his daughter, Nagira, who had been out of his life for years, but nothing came of it. Carmen called Phil one day in early 2008 – they’d remained friends, and stayed in touch – to say she was ill. Phil flew out to Vancouver to stay with her a couple of weeks. Carmen passed in May 2008.
Phil ended up in a one-bedroom apartment in a Senior Center near Wayne State University, ironically within a block of his childhood home on Superior. Phil had sporadic medical care most of his adult life. Despite his talent, (and, Phil could play), earning enough to make ends meet was tough. Health Insurance was not on his agenda. He received medical care gratis from a couple of Doc’s who were jazz supporters, but Lasley’s health began to crumble. It was a case of too little, too late. Walking and balance were becoming a significant problem, which forced Phil to use a walker. He got a battery powered scooter, too, and became adept at driving it into the elevator. Phil liked cruising outdoors, and would whizz across the street to buy fast food.
One Fall day, out of the blue, Phil’s older brother Larry showed up. He’d “been away” for ten or more years. Larry came by Phil’s apartment nearly every day, helping with meals, cleaning, etc. They were glad for this reunion, each drawing strength from the other. This lasted most of a year, then Larry’s visits abruptly stopped. We later discovered that Larry had passed in 2012.
During a visit one afternoon, Phil collapsed, and my wife and I rushed him to Henry Ford Hospital. He was put into intensive care where he remained for weeks, fully connected to life-support machines and barely aware of his surroundings. He slowly recovered. Eventually he was transferred to a Nursing Home in Novi. He adjusted to this new life with typical aplomb. Phil’s fabled wit was untouched, but he was now bedridden. We visited him and took cans of his favorite Spaghettis. We had to roam the halls until we found someone who would heat up the Spaghetti and find utensils. Next visit, we brought cans of favored meals.
It was difficult seeing Phil stuck in a bed. His Kidneys began to fail, and Phil went on the three-times-a-week dialysis regime. A few of his friends saw him at the Dialysis Center or at the Nursing Home. All the staff seemed to like Phil. He always had that effect on folks. Jeannie kept Phil’s friends current with his location and condition. It was obvious Phil’s time as a working musician was over, and he gave his Alto to Jeannie for safe keeping. Jeannie got him a cell phone, which he used, but he never quite got the hang of voicemail.
His friends visited from time to time, and Jeannie went every other day. Through some machinations Phil Lasley was made a “Ward of the State” which is as foreboding as it sounds. Suddenly, he wasn’t permitted visitors because “The State” wasn’t sure who, if anyone, intended him harm. He was soon transferred to a different facility. No information could be provided to anyone but “family.” Several of us tried to locate him without success. Jeannie never gave up trying to locate Phil. She finally discovered that he’d passed away sometime in August 2018. Jeannie spread the word to Phil’s friends. It was a bright Summer day when I found out, but Jeannie’s news made it feel cold and grey.
Enjoy this performance by Phil and Don Mayberry!
[i] Brazil’s house, located on Fleming Street on Detroit’s northeast side, was the scene of nonstop jam sessions. Visiting musicians, like John Coltrane, would drop by to jam. [ii] 8606 12th Street. [iii] 8540 12th Street. [iv] BoMac’s, at 281 Gratiot, was a gem. It got started during the 1980s with the Ben Baber Quartet. That band COOKED. Ben on Hammond B-3, Jerome Perry on Tenor, Johnnie Bassett on guitar (replaced by Robert Lowe), and Alexander Brooks on the tubs. After Baber’s death in 1991, Harry and Mac tried different bands, music styles, and a DJ. They connected with Teddy Harris in 1993 and the good Doctor Harris managed the music until he became ill from Cancer. Harry Bolling was killed in May 2002 while driving up Gratiot after closing the club around 3:00 am. Two idiots decided to drag race; one lost control of his car at a high rate of speed and smashed Harry’s Jaguar into a light pole. Then he left Harry to die in the wreckage. James McMurray was game to continue the club, but Harry’s family nixed the deal. BoMac’s was razed in 2006. It was a beautiful piece of Detroit.
The beginning part of this article was published first in 1992 Special thanks to Rick Steiger.