By David McKay Wilson
When jazz bassist Paul West ’58 arrived at Wagner College in the fall of 1954, he was a very busy man, with what seemed like an attainable goal.
Years before he would play with Dizzy Gillespie or Carmen McRae, and 63 years before his latest recording was released this fall, West wanted to major in music education, intent on launching a teaching career in New York City’s public schools. That would provide the financial security to raise a family, and evenings free to pursue his artistic dreams in the world of jazz.
He arrived on Grymes Hill with a basketball scholarship, courtesy of the connection he made with Coach Herb Sutter through his brother, Lonnie West ’58, one of Wagner’s all-time basketball greats.
West had a full-time job for three months during his freshman year, playing four sets nightly with a quartet at a Harlem club called The Baby Grand.
“I’d play until 4 a.m., take the subway to the ferry, get to Wagner, and nap in my brother’s dorm room,” recalls West, a trim octogenarian who lives with his wife, Mariko, in an 11th-floor Bronx apartment that overlooks the Hudson River. “I’d have classes from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., then go to basketball practice at 3. I’d squeeze in some homework, and then it was back up to Harlem to play.”
He juggled his way through two years at Wagner. But in September 1956, as he prepared for his junior year, the telephone rang.
It was Dizzy Gillespie, the bebop trumpet virtuoso who was going on the road with his big band.
Was Paul West, the 22-year-old classically trained violinist, who first picked up the bass in his senior year of high school, available? Would he join the band with 18-year-old trumpet wunderkind Lee Morgan?
The decision came quickly.
“Dizzy was the king,” says West.
He had a plan. He’d take a leave from Wagner, tour with Dizzy, resume his studies, and land that teaching job in a few years.
“I knew that the life of a musician did not necessarily mean steady employment,” he says. “Sure, musicians can make money, but you are always traveling, and the money’s not reliable for a family.”
West’s life didn’t go exactly according to his plan. It took West until 2001 to finally obtain his Wagner diploma. Nevertheless, he enjoyed a top-flight career in performance and music education, just as he’d contemplated in the early 1950s. He performed with the icons of 20th-century jazz and emerged as a stalwart in New York’s music education community.
West has accompanied a pantheon of jazz luminaries. There were the singers: Billie Holiday, Carmen McRae, Dinah Washington, Betty Carter, and Abbey Lincoln. There were the pianists: Randy Weston, Tommy Flanagan, Kenny Barron, and Erroll Garner. And there were the band leaders: Lester Young, Milt Jackson, and Max Roach.
Jazz singers in particular wanted West backing them.
“You are there to support the artist, not to demonstrate how capable you are, playing all over the instrument with a lot of notes,” he says. “You need to play the right notes, at the right time, to the right beat. You need to support the singer, both harmonically and rhythmically.”
He was a music educator too, though he never received his teaching certificate. Instead, he was an arts administrator, serving as executive director of New York City’s Jazzmobile program from 1969 to 1973. That’s when he befriended Mayor John Lindsay, who believed in the power of music to transform lives and build communities.
In 1973, he took charge as director of the Henry Street Settlement Music School in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Until 2000, he created the programs and atmosphere to educate a generation of New York musicians.
No college diploma was required to work at the school, part of the Henry Street Settlement non-profit, founded in 1893. It provides a wide range of social services to more than 60,000 New Yorkers each year.
“It ended up working out better for me,” says West. “I became an administrator of the arts. I wasn’t a teacher. I hired them.”
At Henry Street, West developed programs in jazz, opera, choral, and symphonic music. He produced fundraising events as well, which featured some of the jazz world’s top artists.
West, who had produced almost 300 concerts at Jazzmobile, had a tendency to dream big. In the early 1980s, Henry Street built the Louis Abrons Arts for Living Center, a facility for its multi-disciplinary programs in music, dance, theater, and the visual arts. But it didn’t have the budget to operate it. West suggested bringing jazz royalty to Lincoln Center to raise operating funds for the facility.
He laid out his vision to the Henry Street board for a benefit concert at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. West would conduct the Henry Street Orchestra, featuring singer Carmen McRae. Then Tony Bennett would sing with the Count Basie Orchestra.
“Some people doubted I could do it, but the board backed me, and we filled Lincoln Center,” says West, pointing to the concert’s poster, which hangs in his Riverdale living room. “We received millions in publicity and awareness. That concert was the pinnacle.”
At Henry Street, he met jazz pianist Randy Weston, the composer, educator, and band leader who melded African rhythms with Western jazz. Weston needed rehearsal space for his band. West found a practice room for him at Henry Street. Weston later called on West to conduct orchestras in Manhattan and Montreal.
Last fall, West participated in Weston’s jazz history program at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn.
“Paul has a wonderful touch as a conductor,” says Weston. “He’s very calm, and knows the feelings of the jazz musicians.”
Now 83, West has outlived many of his contemporaries, several of whom succumbed to alcoholism or substance abuse. West, the son of a Wagner-educated Lutheran minister, credits his Harlem upbringing for keeping him on the straight-and-narrow.
“I was a strong-minded Christian,” says West. “I knew my limitations. Thank God I was able to repel a lot of activity that surrounded me. I had my family strength. I had to be strong enough to keep away from it, and I did. Here I am, I’m 83, and I’m still playing.”
The Standards, Revisited
This fall, West has been in demand on bandstands around the New York metropolitan area, riding the wave following the release of the Mike Longo Trio’s album, Only Time Will Tell. Longo and West go back to the early 1960s, when they played at the Playboy Club on East 59th Street.
In September, Longo and West performed as a duo at Mezzrow in Greenwich Village. Two weeks later, they played at the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens. By month’s end, they were at Maureen’s Jazz Cellar in Nyack, interpreting some of the same standards they played more than five decades ago, like Jerome Kern’s 1930s ballad, “Yesterdays.”
“What I like about Paul is his bass line, his musicality, and his taste,” says Longo. “He plays so tastefully. And he’s got one of the swinging-est grooves around.”
On stage at Maureen’s, West perches on a stool, his argyle socks showing above his shoes, which tap to keep the beat. West strolls through “The Shadow of Your Smile,” one of the tunes Longo and West played with Dizzy Gillespie’s quintet in the late 1960s. He’s really swinging when they launch into Duke Ellington’s “Love You Madly,” venturing all the way down the neck of the bass to hit a high note.
By the time they play “Summertime” from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, West slows it down, as the seasoned jazz masters improvise, with West’s bass laying down the sultry melody. His eyes are closed as his hands dance along the strings.
“I like playing in a duo because it reveals the essence and importance of the bass,” says West. “It plays a dominant role, taking the role of both the bass and the drums – both rhythmic and melodic.”
He enjoys reworking the standards, which afford opportunities for improvisation as the tune unfolds.
“Every time you play, it’s different,” he says. “That’s the uniqueness of jazz. How do you feel that day? Are you sad? Are you happy? Do you want to be intellectual? It’s all about the music, and how you hear it that day.”
Growing Up in Harlem
West’s appreciation of music started young — both at home and at the church his father led in Harlem.
His father, the Reverend Paul West ’25, who was born in St. Croix, Virgin Islands, spent much of his youth in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. He moved to New York, and later enrolled at Wagner, where he studied religion.
After the senior West’s graduation, he went to the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He was ordained and was called to lead the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Transfiguration at West 126th Street and Lenox Avenue, in a neighborhood where immigrants from the West Indies had flocked in the early 20th century. Rev. West served as pastor there until 1955.
Paul West grew up in his father’s church, where music was a central part of its worship. His mother was a piano teacher. West began his violin studies at age 6, with his uncle.
By the time he’d graduated from the High School of Music & Art, he’d performed at Carnegie Hall and conducted the high school’s senior symphony orchestra. At church, he organized a youth orchestra and chorus for teens throughout Harlem.
“There was no jazz at home,” West says. “All I heard was classical music.”
He discovered the bass during his senior year of high school. One afternoon, when the jazz band was rehearsing swing tunes from the Count Basie charts, West decided to explore the closet that stored the basses. He picked one up, and started plucking along with the band.
When it stopped, he kept playing. The teacher heard him. He was busted.
“The teacher told me if I wanted to play, to move up to the stand,” he recalls. “I didn’t know anything about the bass. But I knew the violin, and I applied what I knew.”
That set him in motion. He had a pianist friend who played jazz, and they started collaborating. He wasn’t ready for college, so he worked at Melody Music in Midtown Manhattan, where he came in touch with the 1950s music scene.
Three years later, after enrolling in Wagner, he had his first recording date, with Ray Charles, the up-and-coming pianist and singer, on what became the smash hit, “Drown in My Own Tears.”
West’s work in the studio and clubs caught the ear of Gillespie, who invited him to join his 17-piece big band in 1956. West was married to his first wife, Carlotta; and, by the time the band broke up in early 1958, they had a daughter, Lera, and a second, Deborah, was on the way.
Another call came from Dinah Washington, the singer they called “Queen of the Blues,” who needed a bass player for her trio.
West wasn’t returning to Wagner just yet.
The band hit the road, with West driving a Chrysler station wagon and Washington riding in her Chrysler Imperial. Reality hit home one night, away from his baby girls, when Washington sang the slow ballad, “I Thought About You.”
The lyrics touched his lonely heart.
“Tears came out of my eyes,” he recalls. “Dinah turned around, and says, ‘I got you!’ The second night we played the song again. The same thing happened. I felt such loneliness. I wanted to be with my babies and wife.”
He stopped touring and moved his family to upstate New York. In the mid-1950s, his parents had built a retirement home in the Catskills. His mother stayed after his father’s death in 1957, and West moved his family to a bungalow next door. He landed a teaching job at the Otisville Training School for Boys during the day and played a steady jazz gig at night at the Concord Hotel.
New York City, however, beckoned. In 1963, he was back, playing with the house band at the Playboy Club. It was a steady job.
It brought him back to Wagner, commuting over the Verrazano Bridge in his Pontiac Bonneville from Brooklyn, intent on earning his diploma. On Grymes Hill, he found inspiration from music professor Harald Normann.
Normann instructed West to play all the instruments he’d need to teach in the New York City public schools. West also played in the college band Normann led, which performed in 1964 at the World’s Fair in Flushing, Queens, with West conducting one tune for that performance.
“Dr. Normann and his wife, Polly, were very supportive of what I wanted to do,” he recalls. “My plan was to get away from going on the road.”
That didn’t happen quite yet. The calls kept coming in. There was British singer Petula Clark, famous for the song “Downtown,” who came to tour the U.S. and Canada. There was French singer Charles Aznavour, who arrived for six weeks in North America.
He was all set to travel to Asia with a U.S. State Department-sponsored jazz band in 1968 when the Navy spy ship USS Pueblo was attacked by North Korea in the Sea of Japan. While West was in Los Angeles, awaiting his plane, the State Department canceled the trip.
Stranded briefly in L.A., he connected with the local jazz scene. One night he showed up at the Lighthouse Club to hear Dizzy Gillespie’s quintet. Gillespie motioned him up to the bandstand.
The band’s bass player had just been removed from the club by local police who were investigating a crime.
“Dizzy says to me: ‘I need a bass player. Can you play?’” recalls West.
He played that night, and joined the band, with Mike Longo on piano, and off they went for more than a year on the road, until he was tapped to become executive director of New York City’s Jazzmobile program.
Lee Morgan’s Murder
During his stint at Jazzmobile, West reconnected with Lee Morgan, the youthful trumpeter. It wasn’t pretty at first, when he came across Morgan in an alleyway, strung out on heroin. But Morgan soon found love, with a woman named Helen Moore, and recovered. West hired him for teaching and performance gigs with Jazzmobile as Morgan once again found his footing in music.
“I thought the best situation for him would be to get him involved with young musicians, who would look to him for musical and spiritual guidance, where he’d give of himself, and develop a sense of worthiness.”
That helped, but not enough.
West was a witness to the tragic incident.
One snowy night in February 1972, West went downtown to hear Morgan play at Slug’s Saloon in the East Village. Morgan was drunk. Morgan’s wife, Helen, was not happy to see another lady on Morgan’s arm.
She approached West in the bar, and asked him to intervene. West told Morgan that he needed to send the young lady home in a cab. Morgan didn’t listen. Morgan and his wife got into a verbal battle over his betrayal. Then Morgan shoved her out into the cold, without a jacket.
She returned, irate.
“I’m on my way to give Helen her coat, and she taps Lee on the shoulder,” West says. “I’m five feet away. Her hand is in her hand bag. Then, boom! The gun goes off. No dialogue. No nothing. And Lee Morgan was dead.”
West was a primary source for the 2016 documentary I Called Him Morgan, which explores the young jazz trumpeter’s all-too-short life. He was also on a Lincoln Center panel that discussed Morgan’s life — and death — at the movie’s New York Film Festival premiere.
“The movie really hit me emotionally,” says West. “I thought back on what his stature could have been, when you think of the talent he demonstrated as a youngster. In 1972, he was on his way back, to be one of the leaders of the pack.”
Finally a Wagner Graduate
After retiring from Henry Street in 2000, West again focused on his Wagner diploma. Over the years, he’d cobbled together credits from City College of New York, Pace University, and Orange County Community College, with the lion’s share of his credits from Wagner.
What he lacked was enough credits in his major — music education.
“I was possessed with finishing this thing,” he says.
The problem dated back to 1956, when he was working full time and taking three music courses. That’s when he butted heads with one of his professors over music theory, which he’d learned at the High School of Music & Art, and in jazz clubs around New York.
They disagreed over such issues as chord progressions and the development of Johann Sebastian Bach’s fugues. West recalls that his fellow students encouraged him to speak up if he disagreed, which West often did. The professor didn’t like West’s attitude one bit. He flunked West in all three courses, despite the fact that West had received an A in each class.
The professor cited West’s absenteeism — more than three per course — as grounds for the Fs.
“He was really angry with me, and I could understand that,” West says. “I was excessively absent, as I was working all those jobs and commuting to Wagner. But I’d completed the courses. I worked really hard for it. I had paid my dues. I only wanted to get what I earned.”
College officials reviewed his record. They reversed those flunking grades. In 2001, West received his Wagner diploma.
All was forgiven. In 2008, the class of 1958 — his class — gave him a plaque, honoring his time at Wagner. In 2012, West’s trio performed at Wagner College President Richard Guarasci’s 10th anniversary celebration at the Ritz-Carlton in Battery Park City.
“I deeply appreciate what Wagner gave me,” says West. “Wagner was home to me.”