Sunday, September 14, 2008


At Bert’s Marketplace, a jazz club in Detroit's Eastern Market district, Saturday night alto saxophonist Larry Smith was visibly shaken by the odd behavior of his longtime running buddy bassist Rodney Hicks. Saturday was Smith's second gig in five years. In 2003, a mild stroke sidelined him. His fans wondered if he’d recover. Smith did, and last weekend Smith returned to active duty.

The alto saxophonist was missed dearly. Fortunately, Smith left us with two fine albums Larry Smith & Company Live at the Slovak Philharmonic, and Estate'. I played those albums whenever I need an extra strength dose of Smith's alto medicine. I'm sure those albums kept me as well as other Larry Smith loyalists company until he got healthy. Five years is a long time to be away, but Saturday Smith sounded as if he spent that time practicing instead of rehabbing.

Known to his peers as be bop icon Charlie Parker’s heir apparent Smith's horn swore, cried, and swung. Smith climbed up and down the chord changes to the classics such as Seven Steps to Heaven, and he whisked through Estate’, a tone that's been a part of Smith's repertoire for decades. Sadly, Hicks messed up big time, which upset Smith.
For years, Hicks has been Smith’s bassist of choice. Hicks can walk the bass for miles. I watched the guy handle the huge instrument like it was a feather. But last night he could barely function. Last night it was unseasonably humid. When Hick showed up for work dressed in a black leather suit, a black turtleneck sweater, and his unkempt dreadlocks stuffed under a baseball cap made from African Kente cloth, Smith should’ve known mentally Hicks wasn’t right. Detroit is filled to capacity with great bass players. Hicks always stood out. It hurt to watch Hick embarrass himself.

Planted on a chair the entire first set, Hicks nodded off like a junkie. In fact, I wondered if Hicks had a rough day, and should’ve called in sick. After the first set, I asked drummer George Davidson, who was also mad at Hicks, if the bassist was took so medicine that made him woozy. Davidson flat out said Hicks was stoned. I never seen a Detroit jazz musician so stoned he couldn’t function.

I felt bad for Smith. After he closed the set, he unhooked his sax from its neck strap, lit a cigarette, and downed a Heineken. Davidson went outside to calm down. Hicks stayed on the bandstand. He wrestled with his instrument. When he finally managed to pack it, he told Smith goodbye. Then Hicks nearly toppled on the bandstand. Smith never chastised Hicks, but it’ll probably be the last time they perform together.
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