Charlie Howze

class of 1946

 

Click here for Charlie Howze playing Duke Ellington's "Drop Me Off in Harlem"

 

 

Click here for Charlie Howze playing Duke Ellington's "Tishomingo Blues"

The Piano Was Where He Lived

Many of us at Western around 1945-46 remember a good-looking guy who played great piano. Most will not know that playing the piano was more than a party thing for Charlie Howze --- "C.P. Howze, Jr." as he liked to style himself. The piano was where he lived, though it took a number of years before he came to accept that fact himself.

Charles Perry Howze, Jr., Class '46, had more than one life. Born on July 3, 1928, to a socially prominent Virginian family, Charlie was raised to become a successful professional. Right after graduation from Western, Charlie chose to be drafted when Yale initially placed him on their waiting list. Though Yale changed its mind and sent an acceptance for 1946, Charlie elected to 'get it over with' and spent the next two years as a medic. He was assigned to the U.S. Army of Occupation in Japan where he provided medical services to Japanese war prisoners, including the 'notorious' Tojo.

Entering Yale in 1948 Charlie again became known as the piano player and party guy but even so gained a solid intellectual base and appreciation for learning that he applied throughout his very successful legal career. He followed up Yale by attending the University of Virginia's School of Law. While in Charlottesville, Virginia, he married Ann Pickford, whom he met while at Yale; Charlie and Ann had two daughters, Perry and Randi. After a few years with a Boston law firm, Charlie was recruited to work as an investigative attorney for the House Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee. One of his first investigations, in 1959-60, was of the famous "$64,000 Challenge" quiz show, recently re-created in the movie "Quiz Show". He was instrumental in locating the elusive Charles Van Doren whose testimony exposed the fraud. By 1963 he was Chief Counsel to the committee and led the investigation that exposed radio "payola" practices.

But all the while Charlie's heart had remained with the piano and the great "stride" style of Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, and Ralph Sutton. He took every chance he could find to sit in with local jazz groups, playing both solo and with bands. Charlie was a frequent visitor to spots, such as the old Bayou on K Street in Georgetown where 'Wild Bill' Whelan ('47) led a band that often included other Western grads such as Wally Garner ('46), Walt Coombs ('44), and Gary Wilkinson ('47). The Charles Hotel, on R near 14th Street, for years offered good live jazz where Charlie sat in. Later, he was often heard at Billy Martin's Carriage House, sitting in for John Eaton, who recalls Charlie as a gifted natural player with a remarkable perception of the music and what he was doing. In the mid-1960's Charlie went through a divorce and remarried, to a co-worker on the House Committee staff. Dorothy Howze recalls that she left that position and moved to the EEOC, and soon after Charlie also moved --- first to the USIA (U.S. Information Agency) and, later, the EEOC. But increasingly Charlie was feeling dissatisfied, in spite his successes and reputation as a keen legal analyst.

By the early 1970's, his dissatisfaction was acute and, in 1974, he made up his mind to make the break --- to resign from the EEOC and attempt to make a living in the practice of music, somehow. A change of professions is not unusual for folks in their '40's but trying to break into playing professionally is difficult indeed.

It took Charlie about six months and a few false starts, but he did succeed in landing a series of gigs as a professional pianist. Well known to the prominent jazz pianists in New York, he was invited by Maxine Sullivan in 1975 to participate in a Jazz Salute at the opening of "The House That Jazz Built". His first break was with the Joe Rinaldi Trio at the Gaslight Club on 16th Street, where he played for a year. It was followed by gigs with the Hot Mustard Jazz Band and a variety of spots around town. In 1977 he got a regular gig playing solo piano at the National Press Club lounge, then primarily a watering hole for journalists.

Charlie was proud of his effort to pursue playing the music he had loved and studied since his early teens, when he would persuade the family houseworker to take him to the Howard Theatre to hear the great jazzmen playing there. "It was financially disastrous", he wrote in a Yale reunion book in 1977, "but I think things are looking up (as Ira Gershwin once said)."

Charlie was still with the National Press Club in 1979 when his cancer was diagnosed, and it was only some eight months later that he died. But not before one of his oldest friends, the mail order catalog entrepreneur, S. Roger Horchow, arranged to have Charlie spend several days recording as much as he could. Horchow issued the tunes Charlie himself selected as "Charlie Howze On The Piano", just weeks after Charlie's death on August 1, 1980. It was the perfect tribute to a man who lived to play jazz piano and finally got his wish to make it his life.

Westerners who recall that carefree guy at the piano, especially members of the Class of 1946, who would be interested in having a tape of Charlie's playing, to be drawn from Horchow-produced sides not included on the issued recording, are urged to be in touch with Myles Johnson (1400 Floral St. NW, DC 20012). The only other recording made by Charlie is still available on "Dixie Dance" (The Hot Mustard Jazz Band), sold by Dave Burns Music, 1712 19th St. NW, DC 20009.

It seems like the 'Western' of today, the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, should have some tangible reminder of this earlier graduate who made one art, music, his real life.

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Updated November 20, 2003 04:09 PM