In a recent piece about early jazz singer Lee Wiley I mentioned that she’d had a short and troubled marriage to pianist/bandleader Jess Stacy, but his career makes for an interesting story too. He was a very respected veteran of the big band era who first rose to fame with Benny Goodman and played alongside him in the landmark 1938 Carnegie Hall Concert. (Although his unforgettable contribution was often missed for many years — but more later about that.)
Stacy was born and raised near the Mississippi River in Southern Missouri, and it was that legendary body of water that would furnish some of his first musical experiences as a teenager in the early 1920s — he was part of a riverboat band. He eventually moved to the Chicago area and continued to build his career for a number of years, but meeting up with Goodman in the mid-1930s proved to be his ticket to the big time.
At the time, Goodman’s band was building towards what would eventually be superstardom, and Stacy was happy to join the wild ride. For the rest of the decade he would be the band’s main pianist, and would also occasionally fill in for Teddy Wilson in Goodman’s smaller groups. Both pianists were present at the legendary Carnegie Hall event, but it was Stacy who would make a statement.
It would occur in the band’s performance of the classic instrumental, “Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing).” Although it was a piece that was already much longer than most songs of the era, in this case the band stretched it even more and kept going for over 12 minutes. One difference was that Goodman indicated to Stacy that he was to take an extended (and unexpected?) solo, and for two minutes he had the stage almost completely to himself. Combining with Gene Krupa’s driving drums, he led the band into the finale of the stunning performance.
Jess Stacy would go on to a long career, working with many of the greats and even leading his own groups from time to time, but when he died in 1995 many looked back on that solo as being his defining moment. Ironically, because the recording methods of the day were often limited, many recordings of the song’s performance exist without his solo — but you can hear it below.