There was a time when the honking tenor saxophone symbolized the decline of western civilization and Big Jay McNeely helped lead the charge. Before rock and roll introduced teenagers to the devil, a collection of jazzbos were defecting from the cerebral sounds of post-war bebop and aiming for the gut, riling up America's youth with an infectious punch that had yet to be named R&B. Now 86 years-old, McNeely is still blasting his neon saxophone for adoring crowds around the world including a daytime appearance at the Long Beach Bayou and Blues Festival this Sunday.
McNeely started out as a straight-ahead jazzer in post-war Los Angeles. He led a band with jazz legends Sonny Criss and Hampton Hawes backing him up at tiny bars dotted along Central Avenue. “The Last Word. The DownBeat. The Basket Room,” McNeely vividly recalls by telephone. “Miles Davis, Charlie Parker. All the cats would jam with us.” He was offered a recording opportunity in 1948 and his days playing small bars were traded in for auditoriums.
“Deacon's Hop” was his first single and it topped the Billboard charts in early 1949. At the suggestion of his producer, young Cecil McNeely was transformed into Big Jay McNeely. “Deacon's Hop” is a riotous, stomping jam accented by handclaps and McNeely's freighter-seized bellow. “I just played soul,” says McNeely matter-of-factly. “From that day on they called me the 'honkin' screamer.'”
It wasn't just McNeely who was screaming after that. He quickly found himself playing before thousands of suburban teenagers anxious to cut loose. McNeely had a roster of wild stage antics that included blacklights, strobe lights and a highly theatrical way of playing on his back.
In 1951, photographer Bob Willoughby immortalized McNeely's sway over America's youth with his classic shot of the tenor-man mid-solo on his back at the Olympic Auditorium as his feral sound drove the crowd into an uncontrolled state of musical ecstasy, their clenched fists and eyes testifying to the power of McNeely's sound.
And it wasn't just the teenagers who were paying attention. At an early 1950s gig in San Diego, McNeely encountered some less-than-amused law enforcement. “I got locked up in jail for playing my horn in the streets,” McNeely chuckles. “At that time I didn't have a wireless microphone so the band couldn't hear me.” The band continued to play inside as McNeely was arrested by an off-duty cop outside. After a night in jail he was fined $50 which was immediately suspended but his reputation was getting ahead of him. He was blacklisted from gigs in Los Angeles. He had become too big and eventually no one would grant him a permit to play.
By then the tidal wave of rock n' roll was underway. Singers like Elvis Presley and Bill Haley smoothed the edges and made a killing selling to those same young white teenagers with hi-fis and spending cash. After the release of several other frantic hits like “Nervous Man Nervous” and “3-D,” McNeely hung up his horn for over twenty years to focus on starting a family, taking a day job with the post office.
A throwback show in the early 1980s convinced him to get back on stage and he has been gigging regularly since then. The day after his Long Beach appearance he is packing his blacklight and wireless microphone for Milan, Italy to play at a rockabilly festival. The sharp and tireless veteran lives for an audience. “I do all the festivals now. I do rockabilly, blues festivals. I got a mix of things. I love doing the honking and screaming stuff. The key is to get the crowd singing. That's why it works. You have to get the people involved in the music,” says McNeely. “I'm 86 plus, man. You gotta come out and see what I'm doing.”