I just learned that Frankie Condon has passed away. Since I’m out on the road for another month I won’t be able to attend his funeral. So I guess I’ll just have to memorialize him here instead.
The first time I became aware of Frankie was when I was away at school, finishing my degree in classical piano. My friends from Montgomery College were all excited about a new jazz club which had opened up down the street in Rockville, of all places. It was called Frankie Condon’s and you could go there to hear live jazz just about any night of the week. It quickly became “the” place to go, and when I finished my degree, I soon became a regular there as well. It was great to be able to go right around the corner and hear the big bands of Frankie Condon, Bill Potts, and Mike Crotty several nights each week, along with the many “name” performers that Frank would book there. At the time, although I was merely a fan of this music, I still realized that it was an amazing thing for Rockville to have an actual jazz scene and Frankie Condon was the man who brought it all about.
A couple of years later I started playing the bass for fun in the Montgomery College Orchestra. Lenny Cuje and Frank attended our concerts fairly regularly because Lenny was dating someone in the orchestra at the time. Frank would come up to me after the concerts and say “When are you going to come sit in with my band?” I was very shy back then and didn’t think I was capable of playing jazz, so although I avoided all opportunities to sit in for about two years, I did begin to realize, because of what he had said to me, that I really did want to give playing jazz on the bass a try. I started practicing with play-along records and took some jazz classes on bass at Montgomery College.
Frank continued to ask me to play with his band, even if it was to just sit in for one tune. Finally I got up enough nerve to say yes. Although I was very concerned about the miserable time everyone else was going to have with me there barely being able to play, it was still an amazing experience to get to play with all of those other seasoned players. I was totally hooked. And even though everyone was warning me how difficult it would be to play Frankie’s bass, with those old gut strings, I really liked it in a way. There was a certain aura, like a real old school vibe or sense of history just oozing out of his bass, and I could feel that as I played it. It was cool. I played on his bass whenever I came to sit in.
When he started asking me to do the whole gig I eventually began bringing my own bass. I played regularly with his band during the late 80’s and early 90’s and occasionally after that. It was an invaluable experience and he was always very encouraging.
I learned many specific things from him about playing bass in a big band, but the most important thing I learned came from observing him playing and leading his band and that was the wonderful feeling of joy and happiness that was always there no matter how he happened to be feeling otherwise. He just loved playing the bass, and he loved playing big band music and he was the one who, more than anyone else, first opened up that whole world of joy and happiness to me. I will always be grateful for that.
Rest In Peace Frankie!