Jess Stacy’s Unforgettable Moment

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.

Jess Stacy (Solo Excerpt) – “Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing)”

Jess Stacy – “Daybreak Serenade”

6 thoughts on “Jess Stacy’s Unforgettable Moment

  1. It sounds like falling in love. It starts out playful and cute, harmonious, yes, but simple and sweet. Then it gets sincere and meaningful. It softens and becomes serious and thoughtful and profound…then it gets poignant and misty eyed..and ends, almost tragically; because you know you just heard true harmony and togetherness, perfection and life, yet it, like all good things, must come to an end.

    It is the most moving and perfect two minutes of music I’ve ever heard.

    I would love to make or at least see a movie made about Jess Stacy and his crazy life. The two minutes would NOT be covered: it would be the actual recording, with some actor playing Jess, faking it on the piano.

    The movie would look so good: the 30s and 40s were full of high political drama: The Great Depression, World War Two..the midwest, NYC, and later, Los Angeles California in 1950. His crazy, but beautiful and talented wife, the fights, the sadness of that even, then the disrespect a fading superstar has to endure, the “Beer Barrel Polka” beer in the lap scene would be particularly tough to watch, but a reminder that we all have our glory days, and we all have to endure the fading of our place in the sun and adjust to the new times, the new decade, the new feel of life, with all it’s daily, humbling moments.

    Whatever Jess had to endure in his later years, he could always remember that night, 16 January 1938: when he was a part of the greatest single night, the greatest single song, the greatest single solo in the history of American music.


  2. A sublime moment in American jazz. BG’s solo leading into Stacy’s solo ends with a barely audible high C note on his clarinet. It’s really subtle the way Stacy echos and answers that by ending his solo with a very high key on the piano. He must have been at the very last inch of the keys. Simply brilliant. One also has to wonder, and I’ve never seen it discussed on the internet, is how expectant and prepared Stacy was to be able to respond to BG’s call to take it Jess. I get the feeling it was unexpected, but then you have to wonder how Stacy could solo so spontaneously and so perfectly blended in to Sing Sing Sing. Blended in and yet hauntingly different. Really eerie


  3. So the SME Corporation blocked the video. Oh my God, they would not want a little extra publicity for their Benny Goodman products. That would be terrible (according to their lawyer who probably has no interest in music)


  4. Thanks for alerting me to that, Kevin. Yeah, I gave up a long time ago trying to figure out what is and isn’t acceptable to various sources. I usually just do what I’ve done here — replaced the video with a different one; a live performance that also features Stacy and maybe will be acceptable.


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