One of the side benefits of being a gangster in Prohibition-era America was that it afforded a ringside seat to witness the white-hot development of jazz. Laurence Bergreen’s biography of Chicago mobster Al Capone, Capone: The Man and the Era, goes into detail about Scarface’s affinity for black people (an uncommon trait among Italians of his generation) and interest in jazz music. Of course, Capone being Capone, that interest could be expressed in uncomfortable ways:
More than bootlegging attracted Capone to blacks; he was also enthralled by their vital music. But as another jazz musician, Fats Waller, discovered, playing for Capone could be an experience in terror, a command performance before a volatile tyrant. A product of Harlem, Waller was a lyricist, vocalist, and pianist of immense talent; best known for his song “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” he possessed an ability to laugh, joke, leer, pun, and parody his way through the songs he played. When Capone first heard of him, the “harmful little armful,” as Waller called himself, was holding court at the piano in the Sherman House, a favorite gathering place for many of Capone’s men. One night a Capone gunman stopped the show by waving a machine gun at the crowd; he warned the audience to sit still while he searched for “a friend.” During the sweep, the Capone forces herded the audience and Waller into the men’s room, and Waller, petrified, refused to come out until the police arrived and assurred him he was safe. (Given the conditions under which the jazz musicians played, was it any wonder that Chicago jazz came to be known for its distinctive edge and bite, a nervousness never felt down in New Orleans?)
Not long after this incident, Waller himself was kidnapped at gunpoint as he left the Sherman House; four men bundled him into a waiting limousine, which sped off into the night. That Waller was black and his captors white added to his terror, and during the drive his imagination was inflamed with the horror of violent death. Instead, the limousine proceeded to Cicero and pulled up in front of the Hawthorne Inn, where the four men ordered Waller out of the car and shoved him into a lounge where a party was in progress. There they ordered him to sit down at the piano and play. Waller sensed he would live a while longer, and eventually he realized he was at a birthday party in honor of Al Capone. In fact, Waller himself was the present Capone’s men gave to their boss. Giddy with relief, Waller played on and on. Capone in turn expressed his pleasure by plying Waller with champagne and filling his pockets with bills whenever he played a request. Waller claimed this was his first taste of champagne, and once he recovered from the shock of his enforced ride to Cicero, he had a marvelous time, for Waller loved a party as much as Capone did, so much so that the party lasted for three days, after which Waller went home exhausted and hungover, his pockets bulging with thousands of dollars.
A more direct beneficiary of Capone’s largesse was bassist Milt Hinton, who briefly earned plenty of pocket money as a teenager driving trucks delivering Capone’s whiskey and alcoholic beverages to Chicago’s black neighborhoods. One night, a car plowed into Hinton’s truck; the impact threw him through the windshield and onto the street, where he lay bleeding with severe injuries and one of the fingers on his right hand nearly severed. In the hospital, Capone — who had arrived with Hinton’s mother to smooth things over with the police — stared down a doctor who wanted to amputate Hinton’s mutilated finger. Though the finger was improperly sewed back on, Hinton went on to play behind the likes of Charlie Parker, Aretha Franklin, Mahalia Jackson and Bing Crosby.
Here’s a clip of Fats Waller that will give you an idea of how he could keep a party going. And here’s a charming performance by Milt Hinton that shows off his storytelling skills along with his bass playing, and shows why we should be happy Al Capone was there to keep him from losing a finger.