Photo Gallery (coming soon)
Profile on Vernon Isaac
"Burnin’ with Vernon"
This article was written by trombonist Art Katona and first appeared in Jazz Ottawa’s November/December 1985 newsletter.
Mr. Jazz Ottawa. No doubt about it – that’s Vernon Isaac. Since Vernon moved here from Montreal 12 years ago, he’s been the life, blood and soul of the Ottawa jazz scene. A founding father of Jazz Ottawa ten years ago, he has done more than anyone to revitalize jazz in this city and to contribute to the popularity of live jazz music.
The Mr. Jazz Ottawa label, however, barely scratches the surface of Vernon’s life. Most of us have known Vernon only in the present and recent past. We know him from his presence everywhere around town as a jazz musician and supporter: the gregarious good nature, the twinkle in his eye, the dirty laugh, the sly humour, the expansive girth, the smelly cigar, the barely intelligible mutterings, the white hair and goatee, the hard-earned self-assurance of a patriarch, and especially the energy and dedication to his art.
Above all, we know him for his playing. We know that, in a town loaded with excellent musicians, nobody can swing like Vernon Isaac. And swing is, after all, the name of the game. Others may have more technical chops or may use the music equally well as a vehicle for self-expression. But nobody can embody the heart and soul of what jazz is all about like Vernon can. When he gets wound up, he can knock you out. He can cry, he can wail, he can groove, he can smoke, or he can just tell you a nice little story. He can pick up a sagging jam session and put it smartly on its feet with the energy and verve of a young man. He can enthral an audience when he leads his quartet, using his saxes, vibes and vocals to lay out a whole history of hot music in one set. He can ignite a crowd when he fronts his big band, which is probably the hottest jazz group in the region. The musicians he surrounds himself with know what it’s all about: burnin’ with Vernon.
But there is much more to Vernon than all that. His life and career span the history of jazz. Vernon has seen and done what the rest of us can only read about in jazz history books. He’s been there. From the highs of gigs and jam sessions with some of the greatest names in jazz, his colleagues and contemporaries, to the mundane joys and sorrows of a road musician eking out a living as best he could in the tough and often uncompromising world of black counter-culture in the United States – Vernon has done it all and back again. It’s impossible to separate his life and musical development from the life and history of the music he loves so dearly.
Vernon Clarence Isaac was born on October 21, 1912, in Pittsburg, Texas. He and his nine brothers and sisters grew up in a religious musical environment. His father was a storekeeper and farmer, and the Isaac family still owns property down in Texas. Both his father and mother played piano and organ. They were active in church music. Religious singalongs in the evenings were a feature of family life. The Isaacs were rooted in black folk music: one of Vernon’s cousins was Blind Lemon Jefferson. By today’s standards, Vernon admits, his childhood could be described as poor. But, he adds, "We never wanted for anything. It was a good life."
When Vernon was eight years old, his family moved to Oklahoma City. He already had the music bug, practising for hours on his own. Several years later, the creative environment in his high school was more than enough to set him out on a musical career. His classmates and friends at Douglas High School included the likes of Lester Young, Walter Page, Hot Lips Page, Charlie Christian, Doc Whitby and Jimmy Rushing – to name only the cream of the crop. He started playing with local groups in the late 1920s: a dance band led by tenor man Henry Bridges, a dixie/minstrel group called the Naylor Mighty Minstrels, and a 17-piece orchestra belonging to bassist (not trumpeter) Louie Armstrong (who was famous in the region for playing a gold-plated sousaphone with 12 flashing lights in the bell).
In 1928, Vernon dropped out of high school and went on the road, doing shows in theatres in Texas and Oklahoma. He played alto during the opening and closing numbers of the show, and worked as a comedian and dancer during the performance. His parents were very upset and made him come back to Oklahoma City to finish his high school degree. But it didn’t last. By 1929 the 16-year-old had left school again and was on the road for good.
Over the next several years, Vernon moved around a lot, touring with a number of groups throughout the American south and midwest: shows, theatres, carnivals, dances, steady gigs and one-night stands – anything to play music, make a little money and enjoy life. What a kaleidoscope it must have been: music day and night, women, gambling, odd jobs, good times and bad times. It was America of the late 1920s and early 1930s: the depression, racial segregation and the golden age of jazz. It was an era of great paradox. For a struggling black musician, the harsh realty of poverty and Jim Crow in an ofay world was combined with a flowering of one of the dominant art forms of the 20th century. But Vernon, like his musician buddies, was mainly concerned with day-to-day living, not with any abstract sense of a musical era: "You just had to go along with what was happening, musically and socially. Survival was the name of the game."
At one point, in Mississippi, he came close to getting lynched. His touring band was doing a series of carnivals and fairs. In one small town, another musician checked into a hotel under Vernon’s name, and then ran off in the night with some valuable stolen jewellery. The following evening, in the next town, beefy redneck Mississippi state troopers came after Vernon, who knew nothing of what was going on. It was only after a harrowing night and the intervention of friends and his band leader that he managed to come out of it unscathed.
Vernon is chock full of other stories and anecdotes. Unfortunately, many of his extra-curricular escapades "can’t be put into print."
He settled for a few years in Kansas City, where he really learned to play the sax. By Vernon’s own admission, when he first arrived in the city he was not a seasoned musician. "I could play a little, but mainly, I had a lot of guts. Jam sessions in those days were tough. If you were new, they forced you to prove yourself immediately, laying the hardest tunes on you in the hardest keys. I got run out of some sessions, but I never put my horn down." He got by at first with the help of one of his closest friends, "Kansas City" Jo Jones, a sought-after drummer who would walk into a night club with Vernon looking for a jam session but wouldn’t play unless Vernon got his turn. Vernon stuck with it and developed the style we know today: fiercely swinging, expressive, mainstream and bop-oriented, and deeply rooted in the blues.
Kansas City was a jazz mecca. Vernon was there when the city really counted. He gigged around with former school chums who were making the scene at the same time. The list of other musicians with whom Vernon played reads like a Who’s Who of jazz: Benny Moten, Count Basie, Joe Turner, Pete Johnson, Erskine Hawkins, Freddy Green, Otto Hardwick, Sonny Greer, Cootie Williams, Cab Calloway, Benny Carter, Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, Lionel Hampton, Charlie Parker, Bill Doggett, Sammy Price and Joe Oliver. Vernon worked hard at his music and was finally able to earn a good living, settling down in a club at the corner of 18th and Forest streets – earning top money at $10 a week, seven nights a week: "Those were the days! Hard days, but they made a man out of you."
Vernon had his troubles. He refused to get into the heavy booze and dope scene, and this didn’t sit well with a lot of musicians. At one point in 1933 he had to leave Count Basie’s band because he wouldn’t get involved in that lifestyle. He could see what it was starting to do to some of his greatest contemporaries: "Parker was better when I played with him in 1934 than when he later made it big in New York, when he really started to have his problems."
Vernon left Kansas City in 1934 and hit the road again, moving throughout the south and southwest. He stopped off in New Orleans for a while, where he performed in the first coloured show in the Majestic Theatre. He played for a week with Duke Ellington, at the Jefferson Theatre in Beaumont, New Mexico. He settled down on the West Coast for almost four years, playing a steady, five-piece dinner/dance gig in Belle Flower, just outside Los Angeles. He used that as a base for a series of casual jobs. He played regularly with a 17-piece band; he held forth on drums for two years (one night a week with a small combo); he tap danced in shows (look at him now – can you believe it?); he played in white clubs for the first time in his career; and he even helped make a movie with Louis Armstrong (which never saw the light of day; the sound was supposedly too bad – or perhaps it was, as Vernon suspects, a "touch of Jim Crow").
In 1939 Vernon performed at the World’s Fair in New York City. Shortly afterwards, he moved on to Philadelphia, by way of Asbury Park (where he played for the last time with Count Basie). He was very active in Philadelphia and developed a reputation that survives today in the local jazz scene. He played in a variety of pick-up bands with the likes of Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and Pete Biggs, and was associated with Pearl Bailey’s musician family. And he started up his own big band.
From the time he left home until the United States entered World War II in 1941, Vernon had come a long way. He had developed into a successful musician. But in those years, as now, it was often difficult to live by music alone. When times were lean, Vernon found himself in any number of off-beat situations. He worked briefly as a tree surgeon, a house builder, a typesetter, a car mechanic, a dancer, and a professional chef. At one point he owned a car wash in Needles, California, and at another he ran a dominoes parlour in Oklahoma City. Just before World War II he worked as a marine electrician in Philadelphia, and after the war he taught in the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music. In Ottawa, the pattern of doing odd jobs to survive is again part of Vernon’s life; he works as a part-time courier to supplement his music earnings and his pension.
Gerri Isaac, Vernon’s wife of 43 years, believes that the man hasn’t really changed since she first met him. He has the same attitudes and the same disposition. She describes him as having been hard to understand at first, and not too stable: "He would hop a freight in a minute." His mother was never happy about his playing music, but of his whole family Vernon was perhaps the only one who got to do what he wanted in life: "Nothing would deter Vernon. Music always came first, and everything else fell into line."
The war brought Vernon into a completely different world. In 1942, he was drafted but was too old for active service. He was assigned the job of band leader with the 37th Special Services Band, attached to the U.S. Army’s 92nd Colored Division. Sgt. Isaac was given his pick of musicians, and he put together one of the best black bands of the war years. After initial training and rehearsal in Arizona, he and his band toured North Africa (Oran and Casablanca) and Europe (mainly Italy) for 23 months. Based much of the time in Naples, his band played everywhere: theatres, opera houses, and open-air shows for servicemen near the front lines. In Vernon’s words, those were "good years, stable years." At the end, however, when he was returning to civilian life, all his big band charts, including hundreds of original arrangements, were stolen in transit.
In 1946 Vernon returned to Philadelphia. He picked up where he had left off, organizing the Vernon Isaac Paradise Club Orchestra and getting into the music scene full time. He started touring the surrounding states with a small jazz combo, Three Jacks and a Jill. He got his first taste of Canada in 1948, when the group got a gig in Montreal. After that, Three Jacks and a Jill was booked fairly regularly into Montreal and other towns in Quebec. At some point around this time, Vernon made a major decision: "I just decided to stay on in Montreal. The scene was good. Clubs were open 24 hours a day, and there was plenty of work. They were less uptight about colour there too, but the main thing was the music."
Over the next 25 years, Montreal was Vernon’s home base. Quebec and the Maritimes were his territory. He did everything imaginable on the music scene during that long period, from heavy jazz club dates in Montreal to little one-night dance jobs in the most obscure reaches of rural Quebec. Three Jacks and a Jill continued to play together off and on throughout the 1950s. In 1964 he helped organize a successful Cotton Club-type show called Ebony in Rhythm (which recorded an album with Capital, St-T6090). During those years, he regularly hosted visiting musician friends who came up from the States, and he helped bring a lot of top-level jazz to Montreal. Judging by the old newspaper clippings, Vernon’s influence on the Montreal music scene was as important as it has been in Ottawa.
In 1973 Vernon decided to leave Montreal and settle in "semi-retirement" in quiet Ottawa: "I had to get out of that rat race." He wanted to relax, get away from it all, and enjoy life a little more. Fortunately for us, he didn’t let up all that much. He made his presence felt here early on and is still going strong. His greatest sense of satisfaction now comes from his Vernon Isaac Big Band, in which he has collected some of the most talented jazzmen in the region.
Vernon has had a profound affect on those musicians. Over the years, he has taught them much about the subtle language of jazz playing and jazz singing: phrasings, attacks, inflections, harmonizations. They have learned how to put a chart together to tell an interesting story, and how to put a set together to captivate an audience. They have learned about hard work and dedication. They have learned about entertainment and showmanship. They have learned how to combine disciplined professionalism with the wild, sheer delight of playing great, hot music together. Above all, Vernon has helped them develop more depth as creative musicians, and a sense of pride in what they do. They will feel Vernon’s influence for the rest of their lives. He is universally respected for this, his legacy.
Vernon looks back at his life with a self-assured sense of satisfaction: "I’ve seen and done more than the law should allow. If I died tomorrow, I’d be perfectly happy, because there’s nothing I haven’t had – all the good and the bad. I’ve enjoyed it all."
We are fortunate that Vernon decided to make Ottawa his home. His presence will be felt here for many years to come. Do yourself a favour and go hear him play, as often as possible. He can teach us all – musicians and fans alike – more than a thing or two about jazz. He almost always holds forth during the Jazz Ottawa jam sessions on Monday nights. He is currently playing with his Quartet in the Atrium on Clarence Street in Lower Town.
Happy Birthday, Vernon!
Copyright © 2002 by Arthur Katona