The death of saxophonist Big Jay McNeely, felled by cancer at age 91 on Sunday, Sept. 16, shuts the door on Los Angeles’ world-changing postwar R&B explosion. McNeely was the sole surviving artist from that profoundly revolutionary era, and he epitomized it with an elegantly aggressive musicality — known as honking — which laid the foundation for rock & roll and kicked off a national craze via a horde of sound-alike responses to his electrifying 1948 debut “Deacon’s Hop.”
An unrivaled showman whose delirium-inducing shenanigans — blowing his tenor sax laid out flat on his back, prowling across the dance floor midsong, walking along the bar or out to the street — represented a perfected methodology which he executed with an almost surgical precision that reliably overstimulated listeners to a shocking degree.
In May 1953, Ebony magazine reported, “A young white lad got so hepped up over Big Jay's music that he jumped out of a balcony onto the main floor, where he miraculously landed without hurting himself and went into a riotous dance. In Redondo Beach … last summer, a teen-aged white girl was sent into raging hysterics by the violent sounds of Big Jay's horn. She did not recover her balance until her boyfriend had slapped her face vigorously about a dozen times.”
Born in Los Angeles on April 29, 1927, McNeely was playing jazz alongside Sonny Criss as a teenager, studied with RKO Studios’ first-chair reed man Joseph Cadaly (“a little bit of theory, harmonics … got so legit I felt like I was playing cello on the saxophone”), partook deeply in Charlie Parker’s legendary seven-week run at Vine Street joint Billy Berg’s in 1946 but soon realized that bop wasn’t reaping him the long green. Los Angeles was the epicenter of a feverish outbreak of R&B and McNeely’s mutant, mesmerizing brand of the style — sustaining a single note for 50 bars of music, playing one song for an hour straight, bedeviling listeners with crafty employ of repetitive notes and figures — quickly established him as one of the genre’s key forces.
After “Deacon’s Hop” topped the R&B chart, McNeely unleashed a barrage of stupefying singles with such gone titles as “The Goof,” “Strip Tease Swing,” “Nervous Man Nervous,” “Teen Age Hop,” “Let's Work” and the most savage, souped-up dose of frantic sax ever perpetrated, the flat-out flabbergasting “3-D.” The press called him “Big Jay McSquealy,” “the Go Go Go Man,” “the Deacon of Tenor Sax” and “King of the Honkers.” After he began to draw huge, racially mixed crowds (a big fat no-no in the early 1950s), the police and sheriff’s departments effectively banned him from performing anywhere in L.A. County. Clad in mohair tuxedos or loud Technicolor suits so gaudy they “glowed in the dark,” McNeely roared out of the Shrine Auditorium all the way to Birdland, flipping teen wigs and outraging jazz purists at every stop.
While McNeely’s pace was hobbled by rock & roll’s rise, he managed to shake loose one more monster hit, 1959's “There Is Something on Your Mind,” the forlorn vocal ballad that remains a staple fave of the ELA dusties set. Nonetheless, his place in history remains as unshakeable as his music was irresistible and he continued recording, releasing a solid new album in 2016; he worked internationally right up until June of this year.
For Big Jay, the maestro of tumult, it was both art and science, always equal parts music and psychology. As he told me in 1997, “I watch people's clothes, the way they dress, their shoes. If I see a person in a $200 suit, I'm not gonna scream and holler, I'll play it lower — to meet their characteristics, to make that cat groovy. Then if I get somebody dressed a bit different, then bam! I throw in high notes and low notes, and it creates excitement with them, and the other people sitting around them who maybe won't even move, they get this radiation and they begin to move. So you get everybody in the house movin' — this is what you have to do. People don't know what it is, but when they hear it, they know. To me, it's soul.”