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8/20/09

When Miss Ida Came To Town

In March of 1961, I flew to Knoxville, Tennessee, in search of Ida Cox. Her name was one of the magic ones that I had so often seen spinning into a blur at 78 rounds per minute. Always the romanticist, I was excited at the thought of possibly meeting this legendary blues diva face to face. Ida had initiated her recording career in 1923, singing into an ominous horn in Paramount's studio, and she had ended it in 1940.
Seventeen years is not a long time, but jazz was still evolving, and doing so rather rapidly, so 17 years represented quite an idiomatic and technical jump. Ida finally decided to retire from show business when she read her own obituary in a trade magazine.

She was, of course, very much alive when I called her from my hotel room and she invited me to her home, a house she shared with her daughter, Helen Goode, a school teacher. The purpose of my visit was to see if I could persuade Ida Cox to step into a recording studio after 21 years of not having done so. Unlike so many of her contemporaries, she did not jump at the chance. In fact, she turned me down, explaining that she hadn't sung in many years, except "a little bit in church" and that the obituary had actually given her a good idea. "If they think I'm dead, I thought to myself, I might as well not disappoint them," she told me with a smile.

I brought up some old names from her past: Lovie Austin and Tommy Ladnier, who had given her great accompaniments, and the famous 1939 Carnegie Hall concert,
From Spirituals to Swing, that put her on stage with some of the greatest names in jazz. The memories I evoked, as we sat there and sipped our coffee, were obviously fond ones—Ida rarely brought up the past, her daughter told me,because most people she met knew little or nothing of it.

After thinking it over, Ida finally said that she would come to New York and record what she called "a final statement." I was delighted. No, she didn't board the plane with me, for there were medical considerations. Ida had health problems, nothing serious,but something that had to be considered before she made the trip. Once back in my New York office at Riverside Records, I stayed in touch with her doctor until he gave us the go-ahead. I also asked my boss, Bill Grauer, to send Ida her check in advance, along with the ticket. After all, she really didn't know me, someone who suddenly popped into her life from a city full of con artists.

And so, in the first week of April, 1961, Ida Cox checked into the Paramount Hotel, where Riverside's offices were located. The irony that lay in the hotel's name did not escape her. I had spent many hours transcribing the lyrics from those old, surface-noise-infested Paramount sides, because Ida told me that she had forgotten them. She had, but only momentarily. Once she was ready to record, she held up the lyrics, took a quick look at the first verse, and sang from memory.

Sitting in a hotel room and watching an old western on a black and white TV with this wonderful old lady was simply unreal.

I scheduled sessions on two consecutive days, gathered a stellar band comprising Coleman Hawkins, the leader, Roy Eldridge, and a rhythm section with Sammy Price at the piano, Milt Hinton on bass, and Jo Jones.

Ida and Jo Jones at the April 11 session.

Ida had worked with Jo at Carnegie Hall 22 years earlier and he was clearly excited to see her again. I had originally wanted Jesse Crump on piano, but he couldn't make it—Sammy was probably a better musician, but I was intrigued by the idea of reuniting Ida with her old love.

Ida's visit to New York was all too brief for me, but I think she was happy to return home. My good friend and coworker, Sarah Cassey took her to Fifth Avenue, where she bought a dress for her daughter, and I took her backstage at the Apollo, where Count Basie was appearing. When we walked into Basie's dressing room, his back was to the door, but he could see us in the mirror. I will never forget his facial expression as he turned around, nor the brief exchange that followed:

"Ida? Is that you?"
"Yes, honey."
"Didn't you die?"
"Yes, honey."

4 comments:

  1. What a wonderful story. Thanks for sharing it.

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  2. I love Ida, she's perennial: thanks. Best wishes Per Oldaeus Stockholm

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  3. Chris, I just love the way you write - not to mention, your loving attention to some very important, nearly forgotten voices. The exchange between Basie and Ida is priceless, and I had never heard that she retired because she had read her own (eroneous) obituary!
    Pamela Rose

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