'From 1974 onwards, Wim and Ria Wigt booked American groups and soloists throughout Europe. They also started the label Timeless Records. The couple looks back in a three-part series on five decades in the jazz business. Episode 1 focuses on Art Blakey (1919-1990), for whom they arranged 750 performances in ten years. (Text by Bert Vuijsje for Jazz Bulletin)
Wim Wigt: 'My first tour with an American group was in early 1975: Cedar Walton's quartet, for five weeks throughout Europe. I learned from George Wein that you could agree on a weekly price, and they were. They did 28 performances in 28 days. But I didn't realise then that you also have to give them some rest.
'Clifford Jordan was completely out of himself by the end of the tour in the Netherlands. I remember him hanging out of a hotel window, his upper body completely bare, and he kept shouting out: 'hoooooo!' The other three, Cedar Walton, Sam Jones and Billy Higgins, were embarrassed. No more Clifford Jordan on tour. When the group returned in June, George Coleman was on tenor. We did concerts with him before as a soloist, so I thought that was a very good solution. In December 1975, we recorded the first Timeless LP with this line-up: "Eastern Rebellion".
'I came in contact with Art Blakey through Jack Whittemore. He had his office at 80, Park Avenue in New York, and he was the agent, the manager, of almost all the famous musicians. He was loved by everyone: Art Blakey, Horace Silver, McCoy Tyner, Betty Carter, Ahmad Jamal, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Elvin Jones and his wife Keiko. Stan Getz was off and on with him, because he always tried to arrange things by himself. Jack also had a lot of time for Helen Keane, supporting her with Bill Evans, who she looked after. Only Miles Davis was too much for him; he dismissed him as a client.
Gradually we spoke more and more with Jack Whittemore and he started to see us as the right partner for booking European tours with. The first time we were in New York negotiating a contract it concerned Art Blakey. That lasted forever. Of course, Jack had heard all about me, and in retrospect I think he wanted to check me out completely. Art was also there, but he was dozing off most of the time, because he couldn't keep his attention up for that long. 'Every subject was discussed in detail. 50% of the fee had to be paid in advance, which we did. It was the first and last contract Jack and I ever made together. For all other artists there was never a contract. I planned with Jack who I would bring to Europe, and shortly before the tour he said to me: “So Wim, what are we going to pay ?” Then I said what I thought was reasonable and we simply decided together. Most artists left everything up to Jack; he was to decide. Thanks to him, Art Blakey managed to avoid paying income tax for many years. The IRS (US tax authorities) would make an appointment with Jack and Art, because Art had not filed his tax return. Art would then act like the worst drug addict. Any conversation was impossible and after some time the IRS man left without having accomplished anything, after which a letter arrived to Jack: Investigation and possible prosecution ceased. Art was too famous to continue with this, there was no way they could imprison him. The fact that Jack Whittemore radiated the opposite of a flashy manager helped. He looked like a simple, neat office man in his modest office, with only a secretary to answer all the phone calls. In the beginning I went to New York seven times a year, and I always went straight to Jack and we would talk for hours... Sorry, I'm getting emotional. 'Ria Wigt: 'Wim regarded Jack as a kind of father, his teacher, someone who was very pleasant to be around. Everything was clear. No discussion, no nonsense. 'Wim: 'I very much regret that he was not remembered in this way after his death in 1983. There should have been more awareness about Jack Whittemore. He was a much loved, special person, who unfortunately remained too unknown.’
Wim: 'My first Art Blakey tour, in June 1976, would start in Heist-op-den-Berg with Juul Anthonissen as promoter. The group flew to Belgium via London, but when transferring at Heathrow Airport they had to go through customs where three of the five Jazz Messengers were arrested for drug possession: trumpeter Bill Hardman, pianist Mickey Tucker and bassist Chris Amburger. The only persons not arrested were tenorist David Schnitter and Blakey himself. This was because Art had a road manager, Jim Green, who always carried all the drugs for him. Of course Jim was arrested. 'So I only had a band of two people and the first performance had to take place. We had Woody Shaw around, and Cameron Brown on bass. Rob Agerbeek then joined in on piano. Those performances went well for the first two or three days, and then all the musicians were released and the normal tour could continue. 'As Rob Agerbeek says in that interview (in Jazz Bulletin 124), that Art Blakey told him: “I want you to come to the States” – I knew exactly how that went. Agerbeek was a good pianist, but it didn’t have any meaning. Art was always very good at public relations. 'He often did not understand what was happening, but he could behave very officially. Jack Whittemore used to say about him: “Art is always lying when it is not necessary to lie.” He gained a lot of people's trust, like the time he came to the Rolls Royce dealer in New York and shouted: “I'd like to take this one for a test drive.” So a call was made to Jack Whittemore's office to ask whether it was okay for them to give Art a Rolls-Royce. And so that was confirmed. “But once, when Art had no money on him, he drove the Rolls-Royce to Jack Whittemore's office, double-parked on Park Avenue, and ran inside to get a $50 bill for gasolin. After a few days the car had still not been returned to the dealer. So they called Jack Whittemore again.”
Ria: 'Jim Green was constantly present. He had to arrange everything that was difficult for Art. When it comes to drugs, we have always pretended to be dummies. There have been many attempts to trick us, to blackmail us: “We won't do the concert if we don't get such and such.” That is why Wim and I eventually made the rule that Mr. Wigt would not be available after three or four o'clock in the afternoon, on the day of a concert that night. Then I was on the phone and of course I pretended not to know anything, because I was just a silly girl, you understand?' Wim: 'Archie Shepp was good at that too.’ Ria: 'Not like Chet Baker. Shepp was really trying to blackmail the whole time: There had to be drugs now, otherwise he wouldn't perform. Then we often called the club owner or the promoter at the concert and said: This is the problem, do you know someone who could arrange something? Could he possibly come to the venue?’
Wim: 'I remember that the Jazz Messengers spent a few days in Amsterdam and then flew to Italy for a festival in Ravenna. Everyone had stocked up on supplies; the whole band was high as a kite. So they were on stage, and at one point I thought: oh God, Art is falling asleep behind the drums. Then his head went lower and lower until he realised his situation, and then his tongue would immediately come out. Then Jim Green, who was also quite high, suddenly came on stage and flew back and forth in front of the band like a bird. I thought: this is going to be the end of the concert. But no, the entire audience thought it was part of the act. A new kind of act from Art Blakey. So the band played very poorly, but they had a blast. 'Jim Green was also good at other things. We once had a concert in Antibes/Juan-les-Pins and, due to his forgetfulness, Art had made arrangements with two different women at the same time. I can still envision how it went: Art placed the two women opposite each other, he stood between them and looked very seriously and officially from one to the other, and then... I don't know how the conversation went, but in the end one of the two ladies was parked at Jim Green's.’
Wim: 'I never noticed Art Blakey saying: I don't like white people. Not in his band either. He was very much looking for good musicians, but he didn't always know who the good ones were. He did have his informants, who told him exactly who was good and bad, and he would respond accordingly. Of course he always had a musical director, usually the pianist, who determined the program: the old songs and then the new songs in between. After a while it was pianist James Williams with saxophonist Bobby Watson. But as a band leader, Art always had a good time.’
Ria: 'The musicians were very fond of Art.’
Wim: 'It happened twice that he ran out of money to pay the band. The first time was at the end of the first tour in Norway. I then lent him what he needed, on the condition that he would pay it back on the next tour, which he did.
'Years later we were in San Remo. There was one more concert the next day in Middlesbrough and then they were going home. Art didn't have any money then in order to pay the band. He didn't want to ask me again - or he didn't dare. That's why he held an all night meeting with his musicians.’
Ria: 'We were there. There was a large bed in Art's room, almost a canopy bed, in a glitzy hotel. And the gentleman lies in his bed and the musicians standing around him, and then he had to tell the story, but he couldn't.’
Wim: 'And they all had to say how much they loved him.’
Ria: 'Almost crying. Oh, I'm loving you so much. Bobby Watson in tears.”
Wim: 'Some had more difficulty than others in saying: “But what about our money?” They couldn't get that across their lips. So Art stayed with the musicians all night. And finally the band left for Middlesbrough at five or half past six in the morning.”
Wim: 'In My Prime' was the first record I recorded for Timeless Records with Art, in December 1977 in the C.I. Studio in New York. The Jazz Messengers were then a sextet: Valery Ponomarev trumpet, Bobby Watson alto, David Schnitter tenor, James Williams piano, Dennis Irwin bass, Art Blakey drums. But suddenly I saw trombonist Curtis Fuller, whom I knew, walking into the studio. And another musician, whom I didn't know yet; that was percussionist Ray Mantilla. 'I still had the courage to say to Art: "How about doing a recording with a sextet?” Art said: “Don't worry about it, we'll arrange this.” I had planned to play an active role as a producer, but nothing came of it. I just had to wait and see what it would be.” Ria: 'In fact, that is the Wim Wigt style.’ Wim: 'I didn't want to do certain songs, but it went on all day. I honestly couldn't control it, I didn't get to say a damn thing about it. Because they played so enthusiastically, there ultimately was too much material for one LP. In certain intros and later parts you can hear that things didn't go exactly harmonious, but the enthusiasm overcame it all. 'I was happy that I had managed to get Art to the studio at all. Financially everything had been agreed, but in the end I had to pay double. I was then able to make two volumes of 'In My Prime'. However, it was just not enough music for two LPs. That is why, at my request, 'Free For All' was also recorded at our next Messengers session, 'Reflections In Blue', December 1978 in Loenen aan de Vecht (NL), to be included on 'In My Prime Volume 2.’ Ria: 'In July 1980 we had The Jazz Messengers Big Band. That was a big event, with Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Robin and Kevin Eubanks, and John Ramsay as second drummer. Everyone was already talking about Wynton Marsalis at that time and he immediately behaved as such.’ Wim: 'I was at those concerts in Montreux and North Sea, and we looked at what the best recordings were. We saw that none of them were very good, but of course there was a lot of enthusiasm, and the musicians all loved that it was there, that album 'Live At Montreux And Northsea’. 'The following year we were very enthusiastic about the Paris recordings for 'Album Of The Year'. We actually wanted to continue mixing them, but the studio time was already up. And that has become the most successful LP. It was the only studio recording of Wynton available at the time. I remember that we were exporting 500 of those LPs a week to the US.’
Ria: 'Everyone loved it.’
Wim: 'Wynton already had a contract with CBS, and CBS arranged publicity and interviews everywhere, but his first album had still not been recorded.
'That was an advantage for the sales of our records, but on the other side, I thought Wynton had a bad influence on Art Blakey. He had no experience at all, he knew nothing, but he got involved in the business, as he thought everything had to be changed.
'I got really angry with him once when we had a gig in Tromsø in Norway, north of the Arctic Circle. They were in the best hotel and Wynton called to say it wasn't good enough, speaking on behalf of the band. I said, “You're in the best hotel in that place, what do you want?” Everything we did was bad and wrong, he said.
Ria: 'The mentality became more and more businesslike. The enthusiasm of the past had changed: they were less concerned with music and more with nonsense.’
Wim: 'And so he got involved in things he knew nothing about. I got to resent Wynton so much that when I was driving the bus and as he was approaching, I would drive a bit further, just as he was about to get on. 'After that he started his own band and then I was, let's say, so influential that you could hardly ignore me in Europe if you wanted to do a bebop tour. Nominally, Brian Theobald of Ronnie Scott's club did Wynton's tour, but I actually did it. No one was supposed to know along the way that the tour was mine, but by the end Wynton had figured it out. As a punishment, he only played two sets of half an hour at the Meervaart (Amsterdam), the last concert.’
Ria: ''We eventually noticed that Art Blakey was becoming deaf. He didn't hear everything, had a hearing aid in, which sometimes didn't work very well.’
Wim: 'He also lost his hearing aid regularly.’
Ria: 'He always needed a large speaker near his right ear to hear the bass.’
Wim: 'Art was already very deaf when Chippin' In was recorded, his last album for us. That was in February 1990 with Rudy Van Gelder in Englewood Cliffs, ten months before his death.’
Ria: 'Look, Blakey was an icon, and you try as much as possible... When people want to perform and they are asked to do so, you just do it. If it doesn't work at all, then it won't work anymore, but in principle we thought it was all fine.’
Wim: 'Art always wanted to be on the road. He really came alive when he was among people.’
Ria: 'On stage and also in his hotel he acted important, he thought it's all beautiful. I think it was essential for him, because what did he have to do at home?’
Wim: 'When was the time he slept at our place? Because he just slept here on the couch.”
Ria: 'I don't remember, but it did happen. If he just had to do it, he just did it.”
Wim: 'It was difficult to get really through to his real feelings. For him, it was always just good, it was never bad.’
Ria: 'We respected each other. I think we saw Art for who he was.”
Wim: 'The fact that Wynton had such a great influence on him for a while is probably also because Art thought by himself: "I have not been treated with the most respect, I should be rated a little higher." That started to play in his head.’
Ria: 'This made him sensitive to people like Wynton, who could then organise that upgrade. You have to realise: Art Blakey was a worker and not a luxury horse, but who wanted to be a luxury horse.
'We had a lot of bands on tour, and those musicians all had fun making music. And being celebrated is also a nice aspect, but not everyone was so actively occupied with that. It was often – how should I put this – just clubs where you would play. Many concerts in a row. A regular day job for a fixed salary.
'But Blakey himself thought it was very important as he was seen primarily as an icon in jazz.
Click here for Art Blakey albums on Timeless Records.