The Curious Case of Baby Face

By Carl Glatzel, Editor

Roosevelt Willette, aka “Baby Face”, was somewhat of a mystery man. Even his birthplace is disputed — it might have been Little Rock or possibly New Orleans. One thing is for certain, however, his appearance on the jazz scene couldn’t have been more serendipitous. In the late 50s he met soon-to-be labelmates, Lou Donaldson and Grant Green, in New York after a move from Chicago. Donaldson, acting as unofficial scout for Blue Note Records, was a catalyst in signing both Willette and Green to the label. Willette’s soulful touch on the Hammond B3 reflected his gospel background and would later become a high-water mark, if not a significant footnote, in Blue Note’s storied past.

Face To Face, 1961

Armed with a big, bluesy sound and brimming with raw emotion, Willette would go on to lead his own groups on two outings in 1961 — both excellent sessions: Face to Face and Stop and Listen. Each group featured Grant Green on guitar and Ben Dixon on drums. Willette’s first session, Face to Face, added the earthy, southern swagger of Fred Jackson on tenor — duck calls, squawks and all.

By the time of his debut as a leader Willette had an original sound pinned down — easily giving similar units such as Smith/Burrell and Turrentine/Scott a run for their money. Although it was early in the recording careers of each member, his group played like weathered professionals — effortlessly belting out greasy, gospel-tinged lines in flawless Blue Note fashion. Even Willette’s sideman contributions on Lou Donaldson’s Here ‘Tis and Grant Green’s Grant’s First Stand are standout examples of Soul Jazz at its finest. There was no doubting it, the man had the golden touch. It was a crying shame he didn’t get to record more for the label. With regular creative partners such as Grant Green, Lou Donaldson and Ben Dixon, Willette could have gone on to record several more albums in the same vein, perhaps even exploring larger group settings or varied instrumentation. Instead, he mysteriously left Blue Note and resurfaced a few years later on the Argo label cutting two more sessions as leader in 1964 — neither hitting the heights of his earlier efforts.

Here ‘Tis, 1961

After Argo, Willette left recording altogether and made his way back to the live jazz scene in Chicago where he played from 1966 till his untimely death in 1971. How on Earth could such a natural talent fade away into utter obscurity? Willette’s chops were, arguably, on par with the likes of Jimmy Smith and Jack McDuff. And yet, he wholly owned an original and identifiable sound — something quite difficult to achieve in a climate dominated by the innovators of his instrument of choice. Was there a falling out with his collaborators or label chiefs? Or did he pose a threat to more established artists on the roster? Unanswered questions and a handful of excellent tracks are all that’s left of “Baby Face” Willette’s checkered and mysterious recording career.

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