“Is it OK if I do a slow one?,” Jimmy Mazzy shyly asked the assemblage of musicians gathered around him at an afternoon jam session he’d organized at Bemis Hall in Lincoln last fall. It was nearing the end of the event, which had so far featured mostly uptempo, toe-tapping songs that served to showcase the players’ various levels of expertise as improvising soloists, but offered little in the way of emotional complexity. This, now, was the first and only time that the 81-year-old banjo player and vocalist had called a tune all day.
The musicians seated closest to him nodded their acquiescence, but a few others were too busy chatting between numbers to have heard, and had to be shushed by their fellows. As Mazzy began quietly introducing the song he’d chosen with some rubato chords, one player was heard to say, to no one in particular, “This is important.”
It was. Mazzy is well-known in these parts, at least among a certain set. He’s been both a bandleader and sideman for the last six decades –– a mainstay on the vintage jazz scene, revered for his warm vocals, low-key demeanor, and a seemingly endless repertoire of songs and lyrics. And although he’s toured internationally with numerous ensembles, and has appeared over the years on scads of studio and live recordings, his roots are here, in the Greater Boston area. (For decades, he held down a weekly residency at the Colonial Inn in Concord.)
Today, however, was different. It was the first time that Mazzy had played out since the death of his wife and musical partner, Caroline “Carrie” Mazzanovich (“Mazzy” is shorthand), only days before. And it seemed as though most of those in attendance knew it.
Not everyone in the mishmash collection of more than a dozen musicians that afternoon knew the changes to the tune, however — Sammy Fain and Irving Kahal’s “I’ll Be Seeing You,” from 1938. But if Mazzy noticed or cared about this, he didn’t show it. Instead he seemed focused only on inhabiting the song he’d charged himself to deliver. And as he began singing of heartbreak and loss, of the memory of one who’s gone and left, and of seeing her ghost inhabiting the emptiness everywhere he turned, the performance became a moment of excruciating poignance, each word and image conjured left hanging in the air, saturated with the weight of accumulated love and tenderness. Finally, I thought to myself. This was what I’d come for.
Jimmy Mazzy has been a hero of mine for a long time. I first heard his name in the early ‘90s, when I was getting my start as a guitarist and singer, and performing with a New Orleans jazz-style outfit at a festival in Connecticut. Aware of my newfound enthusiasm for this music, the group’s pianist Jeff Barnhart gave me a cassette tape dub of two Mazzy albums, “Shake That Thing” and “That’s All There Is,” both recorded for the indie label Stomp Off. “Listen to this,” he said with some gravity. “Jimmy Mazzy is the real deal.”
The car I was driving at the time was my family’s 1979 Volkswagen Beetle, and when I inserted the tape into the car stereo, it got stuck –– literally. My mom still owns that car, which means that whenever I’ve had the chance to take it out for a drive over the last three decades, I’ve listened again (and again and again) to Jimmy Mazzy performing mostly forgotten gems like “Jelly Bean Blues,” “I Wish That I Were Twins,” and “Cabin in the Pines.” This has never been a problem. On the contrary, Mazzy’s versions of these songs, and his inimitable style, have long since become part of the fabric of my consciousness.
Mazzy’s mercurial sensibilities, both as a player and leader, are in full force on these albums. In evidence is his ability to drive a band crazy (in a good way) with his boundless enthusiasm, spurring his collaborators on with howls and scatting that can turn an ancient foxtrot like “Moonlight” into a profound celebration of the human spirit. Then, in the next moment, he can hold forth on a chestnut like Cole Porter’s “Miss Otis Regrets,” taking the story of a woman hanged by an angry mob for killing the man who’d wronged her and lifting it to the heights of Greek tragedy.
This music that Mazzy plays, today often referred to as “Trad Jazz,” came out of New Orleans over a century ago, its greatest progenitors legends like Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, and Louis Armstrong. Since then, the style has mainly been presented within a rarefied realm of revivalists and nostalgia purveyors who tend to perform an ersatz simulacrum of it, making Mazzy an outlier –– a soulful, sensitive artist who breathes new life into everything he sings and plays.
“I find other feelings in this music,” Mazzy told me by phone from his home in Billerica, a few weeks after the session I attended, “a kind of pensive, resigned sadness.” He hears it in the playing of heroes like Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, and Sidney Bechet, and in what he calls the “Faustian passages” embedded into some of Morton’s solo piano recordings –– music that evokes for him emotions similar to those produced when listening to Brahms, Mussorgsky, and Rachmaninoff. “These people played on a number of levels,” he says of the early jazz giants. “It wasn’t just who could play the most notes per stanza.”
Watching a clip of Mazzy play a standard like “She’s Funny That Way” is to understand the nuance, beauty, and melancholy that informs much of this catalog of American music –– attributes that are too often bulldozed over by less talented players.
What’s so remarkable about Mazzy is that he is not only able to locate this range of emotions within a musical style that most serious listeners ignore, but that he’s continued to be able to do so for so long, while receiving little widespread recognition. Other than being briefly mentioned in a 1986 New York Times article (it cited his “husky-voiced intensity” and “relaxed and flowing” playing), and his induction into the American Banjo Museum’s Hall of Fame in 2019, Mazzy seems little known outside of the Boston scene.
“The general public is mostly not aware of extraordinary talent,” the clarinetist Orange Kellin wrote to me in response to my bafflement as to why Mazzy is not more widely recognized. “They have to read about it first in some trusted publication to think something is out of the ordinary.” Kellin, who began performing in New Orleans in 1966 and has shared the stage with men and women who were there at the birth of jazz (including Cie Frazier, Kid Thomas, Danny Barker, Billie and De De Pierce, and Armstrong himself), could not praise Mazzy’s talents highly enough. “He is his own,” Kellin told me, recalling instances of playing shows with Mazzy when “his singing was so heartfelt, he sometimes had tears — as did we.”
For whatever reason, Mazzy does not hold his musical gifts in very high regard. Kellin cited Mazzy’s “seeming lack of concern for image and performance persona” –– qualities distinctly at odds with the “look-at-me” culture of America today –– as being another possible obstacle standing between him and a wider public.
Mazzy does not humble brag; when he refers to his banjo playing, as he did to me, as “nothing more than a hodgepodge collection of licks and voicings,” or to his artistic expression as “an adaptation of feelings of failure,” these laments seem genuine. Self-promotion is anathema to him. Perhaps due to the fact that he is what he calls “computer illiterate,” his online presence mainly consists of a subsection of a website called New England Traditional Jazz Plus, which includes his discography, his bio, and plenty of information about where he’ll be performing in 2013.
This tendency to deflect attention was in evidence at Bemis Hall, where Mazzy was game to take his solos when his turn came, and to lend his vocals to any song the band suggested (notably holding forth on the rarely heard verse to “Hindustan”), but who otherwise appeared content to stick to his knitting. His banjo playing was strong throughout if occasionally hard to hear — at one point, momentarily flummoxed by the lack of cooperation he was getting from his amp, he merely said, sotto voce, “A poor carpenter blames his tools” — and his contributions on the whole were evidence of what he would later tell me has always been his prevailing interest as a musician, namely “the total sound of a band.”
When asked what goals might yet remain for him at this stage in his career, Mazzy seemed nonplussed. “I’d just like to continue to work as long as I can,” he said.
Happily, Boston-area listeners will get the chance to see him do just that when he makes his Club Passim debut on March 16 with a 3 p.m. performance. “As a venue, we look to innovation as well as tradition,” Passim managing director Matt Smith said. “Bringing iconic performers like Jimmy Mazzy to the club continues to create a throughline of music in the space.”
Mazzy will perform in quintet format, with a band that will feature longtime collaborators Jeff Hughes on cornet, Craig Ball on clarinet, Albie Bernard on tuba, and Bob Barta on guitar. The show is a rare opportunity to see Mazzy in his element, in the sort of acoustic, listening room environment perfectly suited to experience a musician who is not only a local legend but an unvarnished national treasure hiding in plain sight.
Howard Fishman is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based musician and songwriter, and the author of “To Anyone Who Asks: The Life, Music, and Mystery of Connie Converse” (Dutton).