We just received this news from Donovan Stokes. It looks like the ISB was important to him:
Long time ISB member Roy Francis has passed. You may remember I wrote an article on his life about 10 years ago for the journal. (Read Donovan’s article below.) He was a beautiful soul and jazz bass player in New York for many years. He passed in Florida, where I had the pleasure of playing in the orchestra with him. I am including the funeral information from his son Juarez, where he lists the ISB as a place to donate in his memory.
Funeral details for Roy E. Francis, husband of Mary V. Francis:
Visitation: Saturday, July 16th, 2016, 10:00am – 11:00am
- Location: St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church | 22 Palm Rd. Ocala, Florida 34472
- Service: Saturday, July 16th, 2016, 11:00am
- St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church | 22 Palm Rd. Ocala, Florida 34472
- Location: Good Shepherd Memorial Gardens
- Address: 5050 SW 20th Street Ocala, FL 34474
Up to date Service details, Flower Arrangements and Condolences can be made at the following web site: http://robertsfuneralhomes.com/book-of-memories/2607367/Roy-Francis/service-details.php
Flowers are appreciated but a donation mentioning Roy E. Francis to one of the below organizations would be appreciated just as much if not more:
Roy E. Francis: Living Through History
By Donovan Stokes
If ever you find yourself in Central Florida and you hear the low-pitched strains of a bass, take look around and you might be fortunate enough to meet the soft-spoken gentleman of the bass, Roy Francis. Born into a musical family on December 1, 1920 in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, Roy grew up listening to any music his radio could pick up. Throughout his youth, he was fortunate to hear music from Puerto Rico, Norway, Sweden and from all over the world. Francis “listened to the phrases, and fell in love with music.” He fell in love with the music of Puccini, then with jazz, and ultimately the playing of Leroy “Slam” Stewart and Oscar Pettiford. Seeing his son’s love of music, Roy’s father, a bandleader, attempted to each him the trombone and tuba. Roy, however, had “no want for that at all,” and while Roy knew he wanted to play music, he had not found the instrument that would be his calling.
A pivotal moment for Francis occurred in his late teens when he went to visit friends on a nearby island. His friends played sax and guitar and Roy was so inspired by hearing them rehearse that he came and told his father, who promptly started him playing guitar. Soon, however, Francis decided that the bass was what he truly desired, so his father brought out an old bass from his belongings. Francis promptly ordered strings, a bow, and a “manual,” and started on what would be a lifelong journey. There were no music schools in the Virgin Islands at that time, so from age 18, he taught himself to play using A System of Harmony: a text book by Hugh Archibald Clarke and Otto Langey’s New and Revised Edition of Celebrated Tutors for Double Bass, a collection of etudes etc. by Simandl and others.
Soon after he received the book and started practicing, his friends came to the house announcing “We need a bass player tonight!” Despite his protestations that he still didn’t know how to play, his friends took his bass off to the job! So Roy followed, and went to his first gig. When he got to the job he was surprised to find there was no sheet music for him to read, “They just started calling tunes,” and he just started playing. Francis had begun his “on the job training,” as well as his performing career.
In 1944 Francis landed in New York. Once there, he bought a Kay bass for $75 and started playing with anyone he could find. In addition to working as a bassist, Roy was now in a place where he could find some proper teachers, which he quickly did. He was serious about learning, and he looked for the best teachers he could find. He approached Milt Hinton and was fortunate enough to study with the “Judge” for a time. However, Milt was so busy on the road, that he eventually suggested Roy also study with Milton Kestenbaum, from the NBC symphony under Toscanini, which Francis did. Later, when Kestenbaum took a job in San Francisco, Francis studied with David Walter (1945-46) and Fred Zimmermann. It is a testament to the beauty of Roy’s nature that he remained friends with Hinton, Kestenbaum and Walter to the end of their days. Roy and Mona Hinton, Milt’s widow, still maintain contact. Roy studied with these fathers of 20th century American bass at a very active time, when many other future greats were honing their skills. He studied with Zimmermann at the same time as Sam Jones, and Roy and Sam became fast friends. In fact, they would often practice together at Francis’s house. One might ask, what would they practice? Exactly what you would expect two rising jazz bassists to practice together…Simandl!
Roy wasn’t just studying, however, he was also working. Milt Hinton had Roy working Milt’s off nights at the Zanzibar and also used him as what might be termed a “gig starter.” What’s a gig starter? Well, Milt was busy working so many jobs a day that he would have Roy start one date while Milt finished the previous one. When Milt arrived, Roy would go on to the next gig. So Francis went from gig to gig, starting any dates that overlapped for the Judge.
Francis’s determination to constantly progress on his instrument, combined with his willingness to take any and every gig, paid off. He quickly became an “in-demand” player who had the opportunity to play with some of the greatest names in jazz. In a career as long and varied as Francis’, it can be difficult to pick out career highlights, but a few must not be overlooked.
Like any bassist, sometimes Francis would sub for other bass players who were sick, double booked, or just wanting the night off. So he subbed for the best in the business, including Leonard Gaskin and Joe Benjamin. He showed up to sub for Major Holley one evening only to find himself playing with the legendary Coleman Hawkins. The biggest surprise might have been when he arrived to sub for his friend George Duvivier and there onstage stood Charlie Parker. At one point in the evening, Parker turned to Roy and said: “I like that! Do that again for me.” Roy, taken by surprise, suddenly couldn’t remember, so Charlie sent him to the bar to get him a drink, where the bartended denied Roy, saying: “No more drinks for Charlie.”
Roy also had his share of first call work, and was one of 20 bass players who auditioned for a 2-week job with Buddy Rich. Francis was chosen to tour with Rich who offered the advice: “Just play one, two, three, four.” Roy heeded and was spared the nightly lectures that Rich gave the saxophonist and trumpeter. From 1960-62 Roy was part of the Reuben Phillips Orchestra, which was the house band at the Apollo Theater and here he had the privilege of backing any number of greats, from the Ink Spots and the Platters to “Pigmeat” Markham and Gladys Night. From 1970–77 he played at Rodney Dangerfield’s backing Dangerfield (of course!), Nell Carter and Ben Vereen, among others. Roy is quick to recognize the helping hands he got along the way from other bassists, and during our conversation he made a special effort to thank the many colleagues and friends who assisted him, in particular: Al Lucas, Lloyd Trotman, Gene Ramey, Al hall, Bill Pemberton, George Tucker, Sam Jones, George Duvivier, Joe Benjamin, Walter Page, (who among other things gave him the tip to use a tincture of Benzone Compound to prevent blisters), Whitey Mitchell (Red’s brother), Peck Morrison and Beverley Peer.
Of course, like most performing musicians, Roy also did a lot of touring. Sometimes the travel arrangements would be comfortable, and at other times the entire band would tour in the same small vehicle, and more than once he was forced to travel with the bass on top of the car! Why not travel with an electric, one might ask? When asked about our little brother the electric bass, Francis indicated that he had been against it for a long time. However, he says, “Once I saw Art Davis, Milt Hinton, and Ray Brown playing electric bass on television I asked myself ‘Who am I to be against it?’” Although Roy still prefers the upright bass, he now doubles on electric bass whenever it is called for.
Francis’ early years as a professional bassist were at a time when the U.S. was still confined by de jure racial segregation. Francis recalls playing segregated dances in Pittsburg and elsewhere: blacks on one side of the dance floor, and whites on the other. At numerous venues, blacks were only allowed upstairs, while whites danced below. As a touring performer, life could be inconvenient. He and his band mates would be forced to eat from the side windows of restaurants and often they were denied use of the restroom at gas stations. It was common for the entire band to be ignored when they entered a store. Once, in Lima, Ohio, the band’s vehicle broke down and a local gas station attendant called a hotel to make reservations for the band. When the band arrived at the hotel, however, the desk clerk claimed that all the rooms were booked. When the band protested that they had just made reservations, they were told that the rooms were for white’s only. The front desk clerk at the hotel then called the sheriff, who took them around town to other black families willing to take them in for the evening.
Coming from the Virgin Islands where there was no segregation, this type of racial prejudice was foreign to Francis. As he describes it, life in the Virgin Islands was based on a class system determined by economic status (much like current day U.S). Of course, he had heard about segregation and racial discrimination, but he was had never been subjected to it directly. But Francis was perennially optimistic and chose not to obsess about the unattractive nature of such events. He says, “Although prejudice was rampant throughout the country at the time even in New York, and you still see it today, you just have to deal with it and move on.”
Roy just kept on playing. Not every gig pays top dollar of course, and in his early days Roy occasionally had to have work outside of music. As another sign of the times, Roy, despite having been trained as a cabinetmaker in Virgin Islands, was unable to get a job in New York as a woodworker. Because of the color of his skin, he was unable to ply his trade as a cabinetmaker and found himself working factory jobs. He recalls sometimes being “half asleep” at his factory work, mainly a result of his gigging each night. At one factory job involving plastics, he was particularly sleep-deprived. He lost his concentration and got one of his fingers caught between the pulley and the belt of the machine. It took months for this finger to recover, but as soon as he could, he started up again. Roy kept playing. Roy’s advice: don’t fall asleep at the factory!
Francis has always had a quest for knowledge. He has kept this trait throughout his life and in 1977, in an inspiring move, at age 47 he decided to attend Queens College to pursue his first collegiate degree. Roy was successful and graduated in 1982 with a BA in Early Childhood Elementary Education, after which he taught for a time in NYC schools. During this time he also expanded his musical training to include orchestral work. He became a member of the National Orchestral Society (a symphonic training orchestra) and played in several other orchestras including the Rockaway Five-Towne Symphony, the Borough Park Y Symphony, the Jamaica (NY) Symphony and, of course, the Queens College Orchestra.
Discrimination, old age, and injury haven’t kept Roy from pursuing his loves: music and the bass. Roy plays often in Central Florida and continues to practice regularly. Although he qualifies: “I don’t practice like I used to. I used to practice 7 -8 hours a day. I would go on the road and I would take my bass, my books and I would practice every chance I got.” Now he just practices for the upcoming gig. “Practicing is a hard chore at 84, and there are so many other things to do.” With characteristic humility he says he will “keep doing it until I get it right.”
Since moving to Ocala, FL with his wife Mary, in 1991, Roy has remained extremely active. Seldom without his AFM Local 802 ball cap, Roy Francis is still working several jobs a week, sometimes several a day. When I had the privilege of playing in the Central Florida Symphony Orchestra with Roy, he had to quickly pack up from our evening concert to run to another gig! As he says, he is only “semi-retired.” He currently plays in the Central Florida Symphony Orchestra, the Kingdom of the Sun Concert Band as well as musical productions, jazz gigs throughout central Florida, festivals and society events. He even fronts his own Roy Francis Quartet. In fact, in June of 2005, Roy and his trio were featured artists at the 12th annual Florida Bass Bash. When asked what keeps him going, Roy says simply “I love music, I love to play, I wish I could do better and that’s that. I love to play, I want to play better, and that’s it.” With unbreakable spirit, it seems likely that Roy will “keep doing it” for the rest of his life.
(Special thanks to Roy Francis for our conversations and to Inez Wyrick who helped with the interview.)
Donovan Stokes is on the board of the ISB and teaches at Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, VA. Visit him on the web at www.donovanstokes.com.