Behind The 8 Ball


Journalist Bobby Tanzilo published an extensive and thoroughly researched biographical sketch of the life and career of organist Baby Face Willette on on September 11. Willette periodically resided in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

September 11 is the date of birth of Baby Face Willette.

Baby Face Willette is the much-admired but enigmatic organist who released two albums on Blue Note in 1961 – Face To Face and Stop And Listen and two albums on Argo in 1964 – Mo’ Rock and Behind The 8 Ball. He was also featured on Lou Donaldson’s Here ‘Tis and Grant Green’s Grant’s First Stand in 1961. Willette was rooted in gospel and r&b and loved Charlie Parker, a combination that resulted in a unique, groovin’ and single-line style most everybody just feels from the first beats is the real thing.

(Baby Face Willette’s legacy as a jazz artist: six records.)

Like a mine digger with the eye on diamonds, Tanzilo put together Willette’s story from various sources, including Willette’s son Steven. Yes, Willette resided in Milwaukee but the sharp-dressed cat with the youthful demeanor was all over the place, traveling the country in spells that led him from his gospel-infused youth, career as r&b-artist to the famous Blue Note headquarters and, finally, to the obscurity of Mid-Western clubs and his early demise in 1971. The article’s design is a treat and includes fantastic previously unreleased picture material.

Do yourself a favor. Stop and read.

Grant Green Grant’s First Stand (Blue Note 1961)

By January, 1961, when Grant Green’s debut as a leader Grant’s First Stand was released, Green was 26 years old and already a seasoned player. His debut is confident and chock full of suave blues.

Grant Green - Grant's First Stand


Grant Green (guitar), Baby Face Willette (organ), Ben Dixon (drums)


on January 28, 1961 at Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey


as BLP 4064 in 1961

Track listing

Side A:
Miss Ann’s Tempo
Lullaby Of The Leaves
Blues For Willareen
Side B:
Baby’s Minor Lope
’Tain’t Nobody’s Bizniss If I Do
A Wee Bit O’Green

Some colleagues and friends from the guitarist’s hometown, St. Louis, have said that before the time alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson secured him a deal at New York’s Blue Note headquarters in 1960, Green’s unique style was already intact. Musicians who traveled through the jazz and r&b-friendly East St. Louis also were enamoured of Green’s approach. Said drummer Al Harewood: “(…) before he got there, the club was packed. So Grant must have been doing something right. Oh, boy, it was swinging, swinging, swinging. He was fresh. (…) It was like a revival meeting. They well appreciated him, too. So did the fellas in New York, once they heard him.

But was Green’s style really already fully-formed? Well, almost. It was mature, soulful, had a unique ring to it. But Green’s playing certainly underwent a few changes in the sixties. Playing in a variety of settings, with a roster of world-class young (and some older) lions, inspired Green to reach beyond his basic style in straight ahead as well as modal hard bop. Generally unbeatable and highly inventive, this period included career heights as Grandstand and Idle Moments. His funk period from the late sixties represented a direction into deep grooves and more percussive phrasing.

What they meant was that the core of Green’s style remained the same, whether the guitarist tackled gospel, Latin, modern jazz or blues music. Green’s unique assets are a lucid and round tone, fiery approach, melodic elan and abundant blues feeling. What those people who knew or met Green meant, was that Green was a man of the blues. Green felt very comfortable within the organ combo genre and made many fine recordings in it. After Green’s debut and initial side dates Green would become the most prolific musician in the Blue Note roster up to 1965. By 1962 Green had earned Downbeat Magazine’s New Star victory in the guitar category.

The trio of Grant’s First Stand had a nice rapport. It had worked together on Lou Donaldson’s Here ‘Tis a week earlier and would re-unite for Baby Face Willette’s debut as a leader, Face To Face, two days later. Not surprisingly, the three albums bear the mark and feeling of live r&b. Perhaps Grant’s First Stand is the most blues-drenched of the threesome.

Miss Ann’s Tempo is an example of excellent trio work. The playful theme of ascending and descending notes stated by Green is supported well through answering chords by Willette and effective cymbal and tom work by Ben Dixon. Green’s solo has a natural flow and logical structure. Baby Face Willette’s statements consist of probing, funky lines and poignant, short notes stabbed at the keyboard with the infectious joy of a bird let loose from his cage.

In building the solo of Baby’s Minor Lope – as the title states and suggests, a minor key blues that runs steadily on – Green uses his trademark sustained tremelos that work as a breath of fresh air before traveling on vigorously. In between the beforementioned and other like-minded mid to uptempo tunes are two slow blues songs. One of the most popular and recorded blues standards, Ain’t Nobody’s Business, has a solid but a bit subdued Green solo. It might’ve something to do with Baby Face Willette, who burns through an in-your-face solo that is hard to surpass. Wee Bit O’Green fares better. The slight change of beat creates a loose and down-home atmosphere Green relishes.

After Green’s debut, there would be no question of a ‘Wee Bit O’Green”. ‘A Whole Lot O’Green” is more appropriate. In 1961 alone, Green would not only appear as leader or sideman on a staggering number of seventeen (including five posthumously released) Blue Note recordings, but also record as a sideman for Jazztime, Jazzland and Prestige.

Baby Face Willette Face To Face (Blue Note 1961)

It was a busy week for organist Baby Face Willette, the last week of January, 1961. In fact, the three sessions Willette was involved in – sessions for Lou Donaldson and Grant Green and the leadership date of Face to Face – account for half of the organist’s discography. One may conclude Willette is something of a footnote in jazz history. As his best album, Face To Face, however, proofs footnotes usually don’t come that exciting.



Baby Face Willette (organ), Fred Jackson (tenor saxophone), Grant Green (guitar), Ben Dixon (drums)


on January 30, 1961 at Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, NJ


as BST 84068 in 1961

Track listing

Side A:
Swingin’ At Sugar Ray’s
Goin’ Down
Whatever Lola Wants
Side B:
Face To Face
Something Strange
High ‘N’ Low

Lou Donaldson certainly was of that opinion. In reference to the session for Donaldson’s Here ’Tis, the popular alto saxophonist is quoted as saying (he also mentioned accompanists Grant Green and drummer Ben Dixon): “These guys have all played a lot of rhythm and blues and they know what it’s about.” Lou Donaldson brought Grant Green to the attention of Blue Note’s Alfred Lion in 1960. Green was steeped in r&b and influenced by Charlie Christian. Together they met Willette in New York. Before turning to jazz, Willette had worked in a variety of r&b settings. Tenor saxophonist Fred Jackson worked with Little Richard, B.B. King and had been part of r&b-singer Lloyd Price’s outfit. Drummer Ben Dixon also played in that group.

Here ’Tis stems from January 23, Grant Green’s Grant’s First Stand (also including Ben Dixon) was recorded on January 28 and the Face To Face-session took place on January 30. It indeed is about the blues or has a blues-based format. Willette penned five catchy originals. Willette’s edgy sound, a combination of a plucky percussion-setting and slight vibrato, is mesmerising. Style-wise Willette uses a number of tricks from Jimmy Smith’s bag. Putting heat into a solo, stretching over bars by way of a suspended left hand chord and freewheeling right hand, is one of them. He uses it in Whatever Lola Wants and Swingin’ At Sugar Ray’s. The latter is a sassy tune on which Grant Green gets into the picture with some trademark, throat-grabbing blues licks. His sound is unusually distorted on this tune, which unfortunately draws the attention away from the rest of his statements.

Willette does a great job of avoiding blues clichés. His lines are jumpy and fresh. Rarely at a dead end, one can hear the pleasure Willette takes in putting something surprising and funky in each new chorus. Willette carefully builds momentum on the slow, down & dirty blues Goin’ Down. Tenor saxophonist Fred Jackson delivers a juicy and humorous piece of rock ‘n’ jazz. His solo is lively, direct and consists of long wails that alternate with short, breathy puffs, valve effects and speedy, big-toned figures that bear the mark of Coleman Hawkins and Gene Ammons.

The title track, Face To Face, is an uptempo, stop-time tune cleanly executed by the rhythm section. (including the bass Willette provides) Ben Dixon lays down a driving shuffle in the middle section that finds all soloists in fine form. Whatever Lola Wants is the only non-Willette composition. It has a very danceable, exotic rhythm. Willette cooks, Jackson variates nicely on the theme; the element of surprise inherent in Jackson’s work is a strong asset of Face To Face. Green doesn’t really break out of his routine phrasing. Clearly, on Whatever Lola Wants, Fred Jackson’s got the better of him.

The album ends on a satisfying note. Something Strange and High ‘N’ Low aren’t standout tracks, but fine blues cuts. In the second part of his recording career – the 1964 albums Behind The 8-Ball and Mo-Roc for the Argo label – gospel and Carribean themes were highlighted more than on his Blue Note recordings. The albums show a full-grown identity and have their moments, but are inferior to Face To Face. They lack drive and the abilities of the high-quality personel that was present on Face To Face and his other Blue Note recording from 1961, Stop And Listen.

The liner notes of Face To Face refer to the wanderlust that had been characteristic of Willette’s personality ever since he was a kid. This penchant for traveling also accounted for his occasional disappearance from the scene and obscurity from the public eye after 1964. Ultimately, failing health led to his decease in 1971. Could Willette have been a new organ star contending with Jimmy Smith and Jimmy McGriff? No doubt. Baby Face Willette had the chops, and the looks. Face To Face was a promising start. It, however, was also very short to the finish.