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Voice of Jazz in South Floridaby Paul Sohmer
Copyright © 2001 Paul Sohmer
Howard Mandel writes:
JJA member Jack Sohmer died December 9, 2001, after suffering two strokes in less than a week. Born in Atlanta, GA in July 24, 1930, raised in North Carolina and New York City and a working reeds player, records collector, and, starting in the 1970s, freelance writer whose work appeared in Florida regional newspapers, then Down Beat, Jazz Times and The Mississippi Rag, Jack was also teaching English at Miami Dade at the time of his death. He is survived by two sons, and the younger, Paul, wrote the following appreciation.
Paul Sohmer writes:
For around twenty-four years Jack Sohmer embodied jazz in South Florida. Readers looked to his columns for concert previews and reviews, artist profiles, interviews and record reviews. His fans included several well known musicians both here and abroad. "There are very few people alive today that have his body of knowledge" said local musician Hank Bredenberg. Eric Bogart, another local musician added that " Jack always found some kind of insight when writing a review that other critics missed, and there was never anything that would harm a musician, just offer a sharp, fresh point of view."
He was born in Atlanta, Ga., but shortly after his birth he and his parents, Al and Evelyn Sohmer moved to Charlotte, NC.
Sohmer's first experience with newspapers came in an MGM talent contest held in 1934. Thousands of photographs were initially sent into the contest, which was held in Charlotte. Unbeknownst to his parents, Sohmer's Aunt Charlotte sent in photos of him. The field was weeded down after presentations on stage in front of MGM talent scouts. On December 17, 1934 Jack was one of six finalists to get a screen tryout. The tryout didn't get him to Hollywood, but the film was kept by his parents.
The family left Charlotte a few years later and moved to New York. After hearing a Bessie Smith record playing on the radio Sohmer became a jazz addict. He picked up a clarinet and taught himself how to play. He was fourteen years old at the time. Sohmer also started his initial foray into record collecting. His purchases were well thought out, and the collection slowly started to build. He formed a trio with Ray Mosca and Johnny Varro when he was sixteen, and they played together for two years. The group separated when Ray moved to Manhattan and Jack stayed in Queens.
In 1948 Sohmer came down to Florida to attend the University of Miami. He didn't take to studying and was always looking for a place to play some jazz. By this time he played the clarinet, saxophone, and flute. After two unsuccessful years there he moved back to New York and started hanging around Greenwich Village. If he wasn't sitting in somewhere he was working or grooving in the audience. Louis Armstrong and Pee Wee Russell were just some of the musicians he met during this time.
In 1950 he married a girl named Phyllis from his old high school, Forrest Hills High. They had a son they named Lee Steven. The marriage didn't work out because Jack couldn't stand the idea of working some "square" nine to five job, and loved the night life. She was upset because she wanted a husband who stayed at home more. They got an annulment in 1953 and she took custody of Lee.
For the next few years Sohmer played his music and traveled. He had gigs in Puerto Rico for a summer, and a cruise around the world. He toured across the United States with various bands for a few years, and then suffered a devastating blow. In 1958 while traveling with Ray Eberle's band Sohmer was involved in two separate auto accidents. He was a passenger in both accidents, and ironically was sleeping in the back seat for each one. Everyone else in the cars either died immediately or shortly afterward. The second accident left him in a full body cast for the good part of a year. After his recovery, he returned to New York and got involved with the club scene around town.
It was while he was at a club that he met his second wife Kay. She was into jazz nearly as much as he was, and they soon became a couple. In 1959 they married, and in 1960 he had another son. They named the boy Paul, after Sohmer's grandfather. In 1961 the family moved to Florida so that Sohmer could work in some of the hotels on Miami Beach. He had been visiting his first son Lee every few weeks while living in New York, but lost contact with him when he moved to Florida.
By 1963 the gigs were getting hard to come by for Sohmer, so he picked up an electronics degree at Miami Dade Community College. Late in 1963 his wife left him and their son. Paul was placed in a boarding school on Miami Beach, and Jack kept up with his music and set about picking up a degree in English at the University of Miami. In 1968, twenty years after he had first left the school he had his bachelor's degree, and two years later he had picked up his masters. At this time Sohmer's parents brought Paul from the school to live with them. Sohmer stopped by to see all of them every couple of weeks.
The next few years blurred by for Sohmer. He wasn't getting the gigs and alcohol was taking it's toll on him. He had several relationships with women that he met while teaching English at the University of Miami, or that happened along. By 1971 he had joined AA and became involved with a woman that he met there. In 1973 he brought Paul to live with him and he went on to his third marriage with Marilyn Ray. Although he wasn't playing he was still collecting, and jazz remained the paramount interest in his life.
By this time he had something in the neighborhood of 12,000 LPs, with music from piano rags to big bands, and blues to avant garde. He looked for "pure" jazz in whatever form he could find. He supported the family by teaching English at various high schools. The marriage didn't work out and they divorced in 1974. He now had to support himself and his son.
In late 1976 Jack's Aunt Charlotte (who had sent his photo into the MGM screen test in 1934) made a suggestion. She said that since he loved jazz, and he loved English, he should write about jazz. The clarity of her perception hit home with Sohmer, and he set about starting a career in writing.
He started writing for the Coconut Grove Gazette, and from there went on to the Fugue, which was a classical music publication. Along the way he learned how to write for his editors, and his initial lengthy rewrites soon dwindled to almost no rewriting at all. He approached The Miami Herald and offered his services as their jazz Critic; after the arts editor read some samples of his work he became the jazz critic for the paper.
Starting in 1977 he helped to keep South Florida focused on jazz. Chubby and Duffy Jackson were just starting a long gig at the Swiss Chalet in Miami; the Travelers Lounge brought in such talents as Red Norvo, Joe Venuti, Billy Butterfield, Al Grey and Jimmy Forrest. Clark Terry, Billy Marcus, and Lew Soloff appeared at the lounge in the Airliner Motel. Other musicians like Flip Phillips, Stanley Turrrentine, Jimmy Smith, and Charlie Byrd came to town. Benny Goodman, Count Basie, and Buddy Rich brought their bands down. This was a period in time rich with the flavor of good jazz. Jack's writing was the heart of the pulse that moved to the music, and he started to expand his writing horizons. He became the South Florida Critic for Down Beat, Coda, Radio Free Jazz, and Jazz Times. He started reviewing records and wrote for The Jazz Journal, Joslin's Jazz Review, Jazziz, and The Mississippi Rag. It was also during this time that he started drinking again.
In 1978 Sohmer decided it was time to get back up on stage. He devoted an enormous amount of time to getting back his "chops." By 1979 he was playing gigs along with John Field, Bill Blackmon, John Dengler, Bob Rosen, Billy Butterfield, and Chuck D'Amanti. A series of monthly Sunday night jam sessions started to take place at the Disabled Veterans Hall in Ft. Lauderdale. The New Old Jazz Society of Everywhere was formed, and in 1980 that collapsed and became the Hot Jazz And Alligator Gumbo Society. Musicians Don Goldie, Hank Bredenberg, Harry Epp, and Bill Blackmon started coming over for a chance to jam. Sohmer still wrote record reviews, but was doing less concert reviews. He stopped writing for The Miami Herald but kept up with the other publications.
In the mid-80s Sohmer's left hand started getting numb after just a few minutes of playing; he lost the ability to properly finger the keys of his clarinet. This hit him pretty hard as he was just coming into his own again as a musician. He kept up with the reviews and added on some teaching gigs with English at the University of Miami and Miami-Dade Community College, and a Jazz History course at the then fledgling Nova University.
During the next sixteen years he boiled down the teaching to English at Miami-Dade Community College, and started writing for fewer publications. He added liner notes to his repertoire as a favor to his friend Bob Hibert (Pumpkin Records), and kept that up with Storyville Records and a few other companies. He authored some chapters for Oxford University's jazz books. In the mid-90s Sohmer's second son Paul located his first son Lee. Lee came down on a visit to Florida and the two reunited.
Jack was putting up a bookshelf when he had his stroke. It hit him hard, and fortunately for him some maintenance workers in his apartment complex came by to find out what he wanted to do with the old bookshelf. They found him laying on the floor and he was rushed to a nearby hospital. The years of alcohol abuse caught up with him while in the hospital recovering from the stroke. His body took a little bit longer to recover from that first stroke, and while getting ready to leave the hospital for a rehabilitation facility Jack had a second stroke, from which he did not regain full consciousness.
Jack Sohmer leaves behind an incredible body of work in his writings; he also leaves an extremely large collection of jazz LPs, CDs, and reel to reel tapes that he started to amass when he was fourteen years old. He is survived by his sons Lee and Paul; their wives Connie and Donna; and grandchildren Ross, Jordan, and Joshua. With his death there is a large void in the jazz community. His knowledge and insight about music from the early 1900's through the 1950's was second to none, and fans, collectors, and musicians will be very aware of his absence.
Paul Sohmer is the second son of Jack Sohmer.