Monday, January 11, 2016

Bandleader Percy Hughes, 1922-2015

 © Andrea Canter

Percy Hughes with Ellington Echoes, 2005

 One of the beloved legends of Minnesota jazz, bandleader and multi-reed player Percy Hughes passed away on December 30 at age 93. Most recently known as the leader of Ellington Echoes, Hughes was inducted into the Minnesota Jazz Hall of Fame in 1987 and the Minnesota Music hall of Fame in 1996. He was also well known for his skills on the tennis court as a player and teacher, and was the subject of a 2011 book, Sports and All That Jazz: The Percy Hughes Story by Twin Cities writer Jim Swanson. “He had a sweet, warm sax sound, a very classic style,” said Lowell Pickett, owner of the Dakota Jazz Club.
Percy grew up in St. Paul, surrounded by music. His father played French horn, his mother played piano. Young Percy first took up the clarinet at age 11, moving on to soprano, alto and tenor saxophone. While attending St. Paul Central High School, he was introduced to tennis, and also developed considerable talent on the baseball field. A member of the Army Ground Forces Band during World War II, Percy played with musicians from the Ellington and Basie bands, and also played infield on the regiment baseball team against pros from the Negro leagues, including Satchel Paige and Jackie Robinson. But he turned down a chance to pursue baseball because of racism he’d experienced in the South, instead pursuing music when he returned home to the Twin Cities in 1946, where he formed his first jazz ensemble and studied at the Minneapolis College of Music and MacPhail Center for Music. 

Percy led a band at the Flame for six years, then at the Point Supper Club in Golden Valley for 17 years until the club burned down, followed by a decade in the Kashmiri Room of the Ambassador Motor Lodge. He became one of the original members of Red Wolfe’s Ellington Echoes in the early 70s, taking over as bandleader when Wolfe died in 1991. “I wanted to keep Red’s name alive,” Percy said. “We were like brothers. You still hear about Glenn Miller, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Count Basie and Duke Ellington. They’re long gone but they were the giants of jazz. Red Wolfe’s name belongs right up there in my book.”

Percy Hughes, 2005
Percy's music career as big band and combo leader/arranger spanned over 50 years; he also taught private music lessons, grade school programs and jazz workshops for much of his career, and was a long-time board member of the Twin Cities Jazz Society. When inducted into the Minnesota Jazz Hall of Fame in 1987, he noted that "I have endeavored to uphold the highest standards of musicianship, leadership and professional recognition." Percy recorded a couple of albums, including I Remember Judy, dedicated to his late wife, singer Judy Perkins, who died of cancer in 1975.

Unable to support a family as a musician, and seeking work that kept nights free for music, Hughes worked as a mail carrier for 27 years. “Carrying mail was the perfect day job for me,” he said. “It was good exercise and I enjoyed the people on my route." When he discovered there was no tennis program for  employees, he started a tennis league, later becoming a volunteer and certified instructor for the Senior Tennis Players Club and for the Inner City Tennis program. But “his first love was music,” said his son, Percy Hughes III of Maplewood. “Then tennis. And he loved fishing. We went to Lake Mille Lacs so much that he would call it Percy Mille Lacs.” And despite hip replacements, Percy continued to play both music and tennis until about age 90. 

In addition to the Minnesota Jazz Hall of Fame and Music Hall of Fame, Percy Hughes received the second annual Minnesota Black Music Award (1983) in recognition of his lifetime musical achievement; a certificate of commendation (with Red Wolfe) from Governor Rudy Perpich for keeping jazz alive in Minnesota (1985); the proclamation of "Red Wolfe and Percy Hughes Day" from St. Paul Mayor George Latimer and Minneapolis Mayor Don Fraser (1985); and the William Griffin Performing Arts Award (2000).

Percy Hughes is survived by his third wife, Dolores, of Richfield; five children, 21 grandchildren, and 30 great grandchildren. Services will be held at 10:30 a.m. Thursday, January 14, at the Cremation Society of Minnesota in Edina.

Reposted from Jazz