By Joel Francis
A smile beams from Rusty Tucker’s face. Conversation has just shifted to jazz, his favorite topic and lifelong passion. Tucker can’t disguise his delight. In fact, he can’t get more than a couple sentences without breaking into laughter or pausing to effuse happiness.
“I met all the people who are great now, when they were just starting out, Little Richard, Ray Charles,” Tucker said. “When I met Ray he was singin’ like Nat King Cole.”
When one of Charles’ musicians was sick, Tucker filled in for a one-night stand in Wichita, Kan.
“He (Ray) always said he was going to drive the first 100 miles,” Tucker said with a laugh. “Several years later when I saw him and went backstage to say hello he told me, ‘I knew I’d seen you before.'”
If stories were touchdown passes, Tucker would be Joe Montana.
“One of the biggest pleasures I had was playing with Dizzy (Gillespie),” Tucker said. “Teddy Stewart, my drummer, used to play with Diz and when Dizzy learned that, he couldn’t believe it. He said, why don’t we do a number together with both bands. So we did ‘A Night In Tunisia.’ The house went wild and I had to play a solo in front of Diz. The people just went crazy.”
Don’t worry, there’s more.
“One night we were at Tootie Mayfair’s club on U.S. 40. Bird (Charlie Parker) was playing on 18th Street, then he was going to meet up with us. We’d had no rehearsal or nothing, and about midnight Bird walks in,” Tucker said. “He said we’ll do things everybody knows like blues, ‘How High the Moon,’ ‘What is This Thing Called Love,’ and ‘Perdido.’
“The blues went all right, but when we did ‘What Is This Thing Called Love,’ our piano player was an accordion player learning piano, see,” said Tucker, interrupting himself.
The apprentice pianist botched a couple chords, drawing Parker’s ire.
“Bird called us together and said it ain’t no sin not to know a tune, but to say you know a tune and not know, you (messed up) those chords,” Parker yelled at the pianist.
Bird sent word out to bring in a new keyboard player, but none were to be found at 1 a.m.
“They got in a big argument and finally Bird just told the piano player, ‘you just lay out.’ ”
Tucker grew up in Birmingham, Ala. where he took trumpet lessons from W.C. Handy Jr. It wasn’t unusual to see the elder Handy, a veteran bluesman and writer of many songs including “St. Louis Blues,” wandering the halls of and speaking to his son’s music school.
“He would always give lectures,” Tucker said. “He told us how to write tunes and get them copyrighted. He said he was getting $30,000 a year off that one tune (“St. Louis Blues”) so to always copyright your tunes.”
One day the Punch Miller Band came to town and announced they were auditioning trumpet players. Tucker tried out and got a job to play with them at the state fair.
“He (Punch) looked like Louis (Armstrong) and played like Louis and said ‘That’s why I can’t make any money,’ ” Tucker said. “I played with them at the state fair then for four or five weeks we’d go around. Then they told me they wanted me to go on the road with them. I was 18 and ran away from home to go with them. They called me ‘school boy.’ ”
He was in love with both the music and several of the dancers.
“I fell in love and ran away. My parents didn’t know where I was,” Tucker said. “I fell in love with a lot of the dancers. That was my problem; that’s why I’ve been married three times.”
Tucker toured with Punch for three years.
“We played the state fair in Sedalia and my first wife got sick,” Tucker said. “She lived in Kansas and her folks were going to come and take her back. I was supposed to meet the show in New Orleans and during the time I was here (in Kansas City) I met The Scamps and other musicians. At that time they were starting shows at the Orchid Room down at 12th and Vine and needed a trumpet player.”
Tucker decided to stay in town and take the Orchid Room gig. That was 1947 or ’48, he can’t remember the exact year, and Tucker has been here ever since. These days he plays most Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at the Phoenix Club as a member of either Tim Whitmer’s KC Express or The Scamps, which he joined 25 years ago.
“Sometimes the Scamps play from 4 to 8 Saturday, then I play 9 to 1 with Tim. It’s long but I got used to it,” Tucker said. “The Scamps usually play for an older crowd. We do the Ink Spots and Mills Brothers. Tim does more jazz tunes. When I was on the carnivals with Punch we used to play all day so I’m used to playing long hours.”
Tucker may be a veteran of the KC jazz scene, but he still performs like he has something to prove, said Rudy Massingale, pianist and only original member of the Scamps still performing with the group.
“I think Mr. Tucker is still reaching for his goal,” Massingale said. “It seems like he’s just starting out and has to make a big impression.”
Independence has been Tucker’s home for 30 years now. He lives just off Noland Road with his wife, Diane. His children, daughters DuJuan and Carla, and son Lynn, live in Kansas City.
“It’s quiet and I don’t get any noise,” Tucker said. “Everything is so convenient. We were looking at a place in Vegas but the stores were so far away and there are so many people it’s crowded out there.”
By stretching his talent, Tucker today counts drums and piano among the instruments he can play.
“He’s a good showman,” Massingale said. “The main thing is getting the crowd’s emotions into it and he has that gift.”