At 102, a ‘Triple-Digit’ Jazzman Plays On
By COREY KILGANNON JUNE 29, 2017
The tenor saxophonist Fred Staton playing at the Penn Club in Manhattan, with Bertha Hope on the piano. Will Glaser/The New York Times
During the cocktail portion of a dinner for tax experts in Midtown Manhattan on Monday evening, the jazz saxophonist Fred Staton sat off to the side and played through a set of standards as the guests mingled and scouted their tables.
“They don’t know they’re hearing the oldest working jazz musician in the world,” said Phil Stern, a jazz fan who slipped in specifically to hear Mr. Staton, who still performs regularly. “I mean, how many triple-digit musician are still gigging?”
Mr. Staton played in a relaxed, uncluttered style that recalled later Lester Young recordings, reeling off song after song.
“I’ve been playing them all my life,” said Mr. Staton, who before starting on Monday night, discarded five different saxophone reeds before selecting one that suited him.
“I have to go through a half a box of reeds before I find one I like,” he said.
His pianist for the engagement was Bertha Hope, 80, the widow of the jazz pianist and composer Elmo Hope.
“He’s still very meticulous about his sound,” she said. “He just amazes and inspires me. I learn something new every time I play with him. He just swings.”
Mr. Staton started into “Satin Doll,” the staple Duke Ellington wrote with Billy Strayhorn, who attended high school with Mr. Staton in Pittsburgh.
Mr. Staton is a walking history of jazz, having known and played with jazz greats who shared his Pittsburgh roots, such as Art Blakey, Roy Eldridge, Erroll Garner and Earl Hines.
These days, he plays with the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band, a group of veteran sidemen assembled in 1973 by Al Vollmer, 88, a Westchester County orthodontist and jazz fan. The band includes Zeke Mullins, 91, on piano and Jackie Williams, 84, on drums.
Last week, Mr. Staton sat in an easy chair in his apartment, his alto saxophone by his side and the radio tuned to the jazz station WBGO.
A widower who has outlived his siblings and several of his five children, Mr. Staton said he was born on Valentine’s Day in 1915, and grew up in a poor family with no money for music lessons and no radio in the house.
Mr. Staton’s younger sister, Dakota Staton, became a prominent jazz and blues singer. She died in 2007, at 76.
Mr. Staton said he began singing in a church gospel group and initially took up the drums but found them frustrating to deal with while his bandmates dashed off to socialize.
“I was 17 and I was girl-crazy — the other guys were out getting the girls while I’m still packing up the drums,” he recalled, adding that one day, he picked up a silver Buescher tenor saxophone that had been left behind, and began fooling around with it. “I said, ‘The heck with this,’ and I took up the sax.”
Enamored of saxophonists such as Mr. Young, Coleman Hawkins and, especially, Ben Webster, he began leading jazz combos such as the Three Tempos. During World War II, he worked as a welder in a military shipyard.
Mr. Staton always had a day job at various restaurants, even after moving to New York in 1952. The restaurant work helped support his family, but also kept him from flourishing as a jazz musician until later in life, when he retired.
“I didn’t wait — it just happened,” said Mr. Staton who in recent decades has led groups such as the Jazz Gents, and a gospel-tinged combo called Sounds of Deliverance that played gospel brunches at Copeland’s in Harlem.
Mr. Staton never became a jazz headliner. When the music grew more modern, he adhered to a traditional swing style that remains respected by colleagues.
“I love his playing,” said the saxophonist Jimmy Heath, who at a comparatively youthful 90 is still playing a busy schedule. “He stuck with his same style, and he just keeps going.”
Mr. Staton said of Mr. Heath, “When I see Jimmy, he tells me, ‘When I grow up, I want to be you.’”
Unable to explain his longevity — he drank for much of his life and was a smoker until he was 60 — Mr. Staton said he just kept playing, even with arthritic hands and barely enough strength to practice.
“I’m grateful and blessed that I can do it,” said Mr. Staton, who is scheduled to play on Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Central Library on Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn; and on July 10 at 7 p.m. at Local 802 of the Associated Musicians of New York on 322 West 48th Street for Mr. Mullins’s 92nd birthday.
At the Monday night gig, a dinner organized by Louis Feinstein, an accountant and jazz fan, for the New York Tax Study Group, Mr. Staton bent forward with emotion as he soloed on “Mood Indigo” and then played “Perdido” and “C Jam Blues.”
Afterward, his grandson Richard Staton eased him carefully into a yellow cab.