Recently I happened to catch one of my favorite old movies on TV — The Hustler, starring Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason — and it made me reminisce a little about the first time I saw it and how it affected me. The simple fact is that even though Gleason’s Minnesota Fats ended up being the most memorable character in the film, for a time in those days I wanted to be Newman’s Fast Eddie Felson.
When the movie came out in 1961 it helped fuel a boom in billiards, leading to a higher, more respectable profile for a sport that had previously been found mostly in smoky pool halls. At that time in my life I’d already spent a little time in a few of those places, so when fancy new billiard facilities began showing up everywhere I felt like I already had a leg up.
I practiced all the time, and even bought my own personal two-piece cue stick — which was a risky move because having your own stick could open you up to a lot of teasing if you couldn’t back it up. I began playing with friends as often as I could, and found that I was holding my own, so — guys being guys — we began playing for money.
But a funny thing happened on my way to pool shark-hood. I self-destructed whenever money was involved. It wasn’t that the other guys were better, but rather that I just kept missing easy shots. After learning the lesson again and again — and tolerating a lot of snickers about my personal cue stick — I retired from playing for money.
So I was no Fast Eddie — or Minnesota Fats for that matter — but as I thought about those days my mind eventually turned to music, as it usually does. I don’t remember any musical Fast Eddies, but there have always been a lot of guys named Fats in the music world, some better known than others. R&B legend Fats Domino is probably the first that comes to mind, with early jazz great Fats Waller a close second. The most unusual might have been Harmonica Fats (Harvey Blackston), a Louisiana native who took up the mouth-harp in the 1950s for therapy after a car wreck and ended up building a nice career, mostly in the Los Angeles area.
But leaving aside Fats Domino’s recent Katrina-related travails, the most tragic Fats in the music world might have been early jazz trumpeter Fats Navarro, who had a very short career that ended in his death at the tender age of 26.
Although he’s remembered as one of the best ever on the trumpet, Navarro actually started on the piano and tenor sax. By the time he began appearing professionally, he’d learned trumpet and it became his main focus from then on as he built a career in the big band era.
Appearing with Andy Kirk’s band led to a chance to replace Dizzy Gillespie when Diz left Billy Eckstine’s outfit, and over the next few years Navarro built a reputation as one of the best trumpeters around. He spent some time in Lionel Hampton’s band and also played for Benny Goodman, but it was in the smaller groups that he was most noticed.
One of the leading lights of the bebop movement, he made a lot of strong recordings in the post-war years, playing with the likes of Coleman Hawkins, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Charles Mingus, and Charlie Parker. One of his best from those days was “Everything’s Cool,” which featured Navarro dueling fellow trumpeter Kenny Dorham, backed by saxman Sonny Stitt and others.
Unfortunately, Navarro fought many of the same drug problems as other jazz musicians of the era, and when he became ill with tuberculosis his heroin addiction just made things worse. He died in 1950, and although his career was very short, he’s considered to have influenced many who came later, including Clifford Brown. Fats Navarro was special.