Jazz was his love supreme

Dentist Jim Crawford played bebop so sweet it stopped Stan Getz in his tracks

December 3, 2006 

  • Audio: Crawford

    Hear a clip of Jim Crawford playing his tenor saxophone.

— If Jim Crawford wasn't a mama's boy, the history of modern jazz could have turned out quite different.

A college classmate at UNC-Chapel Hill leaned on him in the 1950s to go west and try to make a name for himself as a saxophonist. Crawford's talent was well-known in the area, but his mother balked at the idea of her son going cross-country.

So Crawford, who played tenor sax so melodiously that jazz great Stan Getz reportedly once chose to lose himself in Crawford's notes rather than join him onstage, became a dentist.

Children would apparently fake toothaches to come see "Doc," who dressed up on Halloween in a gorilla costume to see patients. No Muzak for Crawford; he piped in jazz through his office speakers.

It was a separate path, one undoubtedly more secure and less adventurous than the life of a professional musician. It was the right decision for him, friends and relatives say.

"He may have had regrets, but he didn't tell me," said Jim Crisp, a piano player who met Crawford in the 1950s.

Crawford never gave up his sax, though, playing with a host of bands through the years. He eagerly responded to frantic, last-minute requests from traveling jazz bands that needed a saxophonist to sit in.

When that happened, he'd jump in, read his part and nail the solos. "It's not something everyone could do," said Owen Cordle, who writes jazz reviews for The News & Observer. "Jim was the first local player I ever heard who I thought was world-class. He could play with anybody and sound like he was from a major jazz city."

Jim Crawford died Nov. 12 from congestive heart failure. He was 78 and played his instrument until a few years ago, when he realized he couldn't muster enough lung power.

He was born in Birmingham, Ala., in 1928 and picked up the sax in his teens.

Crawford's playing was smooth, more akin to a hummable, catchy melody than intricate improvisation. He didn't do fusion or pop or rock. He didn't play soul or R&B. What he did do was straight-ahead bebop, an industry phrase for middle-of-the-road jazz, nothing too wild or out of the ordinary. His sound was sweet and smooth and could calm a racing heartbeat.

He wasn't a prima donna and didn't nurse an outsized ego. Even though he and everyone else knew he was the best player on the stage, he didn't act like it. He just played his music.

Every day for several hours, he practiced his saxophone in the living room. The neighbors loved to hear him when he opened the back door in warm weather. The living room bears a framed John Coltrane poster. Stan Getz and Miles Davis were favorites of his, and their vintage videos and recordings are strewn throughout his North Raleigh condo.

There are several versions of what went down the night Stan Getz was in town.

One story has Crawford sitting in with Getz at the now defunct Frog and Nightgown, a jazz club off Dixie Trail. "He was better than Getz, and Getz knew it," is how Crawford's wife, Ebby, recalls a friend's retelling of that night.

Another rendition has Getz dropping in on a night Crawford was playing. Getz got halfway through putting his horn together when he set it back down.

It was a big deal, and word spread throughout Raleigh.

"I wasn't there, but the next day I heard about it," said Keith McClelland, who hired Crawford to play in the 1960s. " 'Weren't you there to hear Getz sit down and listen to Crawford play?' "

His last band started after he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 20 years ago. He'd had a heart attack, had to give up his dental practice and stopped playing temporarily because he was feeling depressed. His doctor handed him a prescription: Play music.

Crawford called the quintet Doctor's Orders.

Crawford endured a litany of health problems but didn't dwell on them. He had diabetes and congestive heart failure, and multiple sclerosis landed him in a wheelchair nearly 10 years ago. Still, he kept playing.

Four or five years ago, Crawford had a gig at Duffy's Restaurant and Tavern in North Raleigh. He played beautifully that night, the notes dripping rich and romantic from his instrument's bell.

"I don't have the breath to do it any more," he told his wife when he finished.

When they got home, he put his sax away for good.

* * *

Jim Crawford is survived by his wife, three sons, two stepchildren and three grandchildren.

Life Stories

Staff writer Bonnie Rochman can be reached at 829-4871 or brochman@newsobserver.com.

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