Cecil Payne was an alto saxophonist striving to play like Charlie Parker when Roy Eldridge convinced him to switch to the baritone sax (and thus fill an opening in the sax section of Eldridge’s big band). Cecil never switched back to his former instrument of choice, but he did switch bands: after a successful stint with Eldridge, he joined the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra and anchored that group’s reed section for many years.
Payne later worked with Illinois Jacquet, Coleman Hawkins, and - for two years in the early 1970s - the Count Basie Orchestra.
Cecil next became a mainstay in the revival of Mainstream, BeBop, and Hard Bop Jazz, a resurgence that kept him in the public eye for a quarter century. Despite losing lost most of his eyesight in his old age, Payne continued to play gigs into 2006, the year prior to his passing.
In his last years, Cecil enjoyed “blindfold” tests where friends would play him music and he would guess the performers. One day, upping the ante, a friend played him the recordings of the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra from their famous September 29, 1947 date at Carnegie Hall, a performance that included Cecil himself. Payne recognized the recording instantly; he sat right up and stated, “That’s us! At Carnegie Hall! Never have so many musicians working together, but as an individual choice, tried to play perfectly. We made it!“
Two months later, on November 27, 2007, Cecil Payne died just short of his 85th birthday, which would have taken place on December 14th.
There have been few jazz greats as sweet and gentle as Cecil Payne, who was not only an original BeBopper but also a charter member of Brooklyn BeBop, along with Max Roach and many other legends.