Retired bus driver recounts life of jazz
Hutchins has seen nearly every major jazz musician from the 20th century
October 21, 2013, 7:22 pm · Updated October 21, 2013, 8:32 pm·
When Donald Hutchins first heard the saxophone playing of Charlie Parker at the age of six, he didn’t know what it was.
“But I knew I liked it,” he said.
Hutchins, a retiree of the U.S. Mint and the Department of Recreation, has spent the past seven decades going to jazz shows in Philadelphia and has seen nearly every major jazz musician from the 20th century. Ask him about John Coltrane, Miles Davis or Dizzy Gillespie and he can tell you when he saw them and where they played.
On campus, however, Hutchins may be more known for his job driving student volunteers from the Barbara and Edward Netter Center for Community Partnerships to schools in West Philadelphia.
Hutchins’ family has a long history with jazz. His great-grandfather was an orchestra leader, and his grandfather had a jazz band. His mother was also a successful jazz singer who took him to many shows when he was growing up in Philadelphia.
He might have even met some of the jazz musicians he loves, at his grandmother’s house, where Philadelphia jazz musicians often came and stayed up late talking around the kitchen table.
“In the middle of the night I’d be trying to get some sleep and they’d be discussing politics,” Hutchins said.
However, he doesn’t remember talking to the musicians much. “You just sit there and look at them and stare,” he said.
Hutchins grew up listening to big names such as pianist Count Basie, Ray Charles and saxophonist Sonny Rollins. Hutchins himself plays the saxophone and trumpet, though not professionally. He didn’t take up the instruments, however, until his daughters bought him a saxophone for his 50th birthday.
As a teenager, he and his friends would sneak into Philadelphia jazz clubs, a place where people from different walks of life came together.
“People from all over, white, black came to see jazz. Everyone got along,” he remembers. “People weren’t getting drunk. They were listening to the music.”
If one went to Pep’s Music Bar, the Clef Club, or any of Philadelphia’s jazz clubs in the 1950s, no one would have been wearing jeans. “I come from an era when men wore suits and ties and ladies wore dresses,” Hutchins said.
Hutchins recalls, “You’d put on a hat and shades and make your mustache darker. Sometimes it would work and they would let us in. Other times, you had to give the guy [at the door] a little bit of money.”
Philadelphia was not the only place to listen to jazz.
Hutchins calls to mind that the Birdland Jazz Club — which still exists on New York City’s West Side —had a “milk bar,” where underage patrons could sit. He himself would go there when he visited family up in New York City.
“You used to walk around with your records in your hand. Then you were cool,” he said.
Even when Hutchins joined the Air Force in 1962, he brought his love of jazz with him in the form of records. He remembers that his friends in the Air Force especially liked “Jazz at the Café Bohemian,” a record they played on repeat.
“We wore out the record… I had to come to to Philadelphia just to get another record,” Hutchins said.
Jazz radio is still on constant rotation in the Netter Center van, and Hutchins is still going to concerts today.
“I came up at the right time when [jazz] was very popular,” he said. “Jazz was still jazz in the 1960s.”