There were few customers in the men's clothing store on Rockville Pike on a warm afternoon recently, so Steve Jordan, salesman, talked about his favorite subject, jazz.
Jordan plays rhythm guitar, has played with some of the best. But being a jazzman in Washington usually means working two jobs. Twenty years ago, the jazz business was healthy. But veteran local jazzmen, whose roots can be traced to the big bands of the '40s and cool jazz of the '50s, have been hurt for a number of reasons, including fewer clubs, fewer entertainment dollars and shifting tastes among audiences.
"The last big band I played with was Benny Goodman," said the tall, lean Jordan, who speaks quickly and with a leftover trace of a New York accent. "We went on tour in Southeast Asia -- Bankok, Phnom Penh, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Rangoon. All to sellout crowds."
Jordan has played with Will Bradley, Artie Shaw, Gene Krupa and Stan Kenton, to name a few. But he thinks the glamor probably is behind him.
Jordan, white-haired now, said "I'm 62 1/2 years old and may soon go for Social Security. I'm working on a book and hope it sells. Maybe I can pick up a gig here and there to help out."
Jazz musicians in the Washington area wanting to play and keep their music alive have it tough finding clubs and places to play to earn a living, and most have taken full-time day jobs to keep going, as their first love becomes a moonlight gig.
They deliver mail, sell real estate, work in music stores or in government jobs. One is a U.S. marshal, another an accountant.
Angelo Tompros, who plays tenor sax and clarinet and has traveled with Buddy Rich, drives a delivery truck for the Montgomery County school system. Trumpet player Wild Bill Whalen's real job is map-maker at the Defense Mapping Agency in Maryland. Van Perry, who plays bass and is Mr. Jazz" around Washington, has just retired as an accountant for the Small Business Administration. Trumphet player Joe Bovello teaches at a studio. Roger "Buck" Hill, saxophonist, delivers mail.
Most have national, even worldwide, reputations with jazz fans. Out of town, they pull in crowds. But one-night stands and the long trips are for the young. They'll do it, but not often. And their roots are here.
"Unless they want to do a lot of traveling, there is no way to make a living playing jazz here," says musicians' agent Hill Herwood. "Few places in town feature jazz, and if so, it's only toward the weekend. Yet there are at least 100 or more musicians around Washington able to play jazz. Younger musicians are coming into jazz."
Ira Sabin, who publishes the monthly Jazz Times, said, "There are a lot of musicians around but very few playing jazz full time. Some are very good, but there aren't enough gigs. The people playing jazz full time for a living number maybe six or 10 at the most."
Most of the surviving clubs have limited seating and are cautious about jazz, never a great moneymaker. Also, out-of-town entertainers reduce locals' opportunities. Ed Phyfe, a drummer who has been on the Washington scene for many years and also has traveled with the big bands, says, "The locals have always had it tough when clubs bring in an out-of-town band. The club has to pay their transportation and therefore has to keep the locals at a low level."
Whalen, 50, has been playing trumpet since he was 16. "The Washington area was riding high with jazz about 20 years ago," he said. "There were a lot of clubs. I played at the old Bayou six nights a week and took whatever else came along."
Now, says Whalen, who has his own group called "Bill Whalen and His Dixie Six," "there aren't many gigs. I'm going to Hawaii for two weeks to play there."
Van Perry is one of the best bass players in the country. His real name is Perry Vanness Vedder. He's from a musical family in Upstate New York, where he danced in vaudeville, played violin, then guitar, finally bass. y
Describing his first bass, Perry said, "I had a clothesline for an E-string and a hole that was patched with a wood cheese box."
Perry entered the Army in 1942 and sang with the 10th Infantry Regiment Band, whose members included Mercer Ellington. After the war, he got an accounting degree, but a job did not come with the degree. So Perry drifted to Philadelphia, played with several top groups and went on the road with vocalist Beulah Frazier. He ended up with her group in Washington in 1949. In 1951 he formed his first combo and went on to back such stars as Ethel Waters, Billie Holiday and the Four Lads. His colleagues credit him as a force in keeping jazz alive in Washington to this day, and in retirement Perry keeps busy helping friends find gigs.
Like Perry, Bovello, 51, grew up playing music, taking up the trumpet when he was 13. A man came to his door selling lessons and sold his parents a 13-week course. At the end of it he would own his own trumpet.
Bovello, an Eastern High School graduate who lives in an apartment in Langley Park, was on the road six years with top bands before he came home to stay when his wife was expecting their first child. They have two children, and his wife works.
"Jazz gigs are almost impossible to find, especially in summer," he said. "I play a lot of dances, and sometimes they allow me to play a bit of jazz rather than straight melody."
As much as anyone, Bovello symbolizes the jazzman's obscure life. He practices an hour each day. "I use the mute on the trumpet. I don't want to bother my neighbors.
"I teach at a studio. I have two students now; I had more before. Teaching is like baby-sitting.
"It's tough to get five nights a week.I enjoy music immensely, wouldn't trade it for the world. The life is my choice. There's a lot more to it than money."
"Buke" Hill, a native Washingtonian, began playing sax at local jazz clubs when he was 15. After a short Army hitch as a bandsman, he married and tried to make a go of it as a full-time jazz musician. But when his first child arrived, financial pressures forced him to become a part-time mail carrier.
Jazz picked up in the '50s, and Hill left the Postal Service. He took a part-time job driving a cab while playing with Stan Getz, Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt and Max Roach. In '58 and '59 he made his first recordings with Charlie Byrd.
But in the '60s, with five children and not much jazz around, Hill returned to the post office full time. He remains a letter carrier today, still picking up a gig here and there at night or on weekends, and occasionally traveling. "They like us a lot in Europe, and for three days I'll be playing at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Holland with everything paid for," he said.
" . . . Of the nearly 20 musicians who performed, saxophonist Buck Hill stood out most.His vibrant, full-throated tone consistently filled the theater, making it seem a lot less empty than it really was."
-- From a review of a local concert in The Washington Post, February 1980)
Buck Hill would rather play here. But too often few are listening.