At 91, jazz cornetist Jack Fine thought his rambling days were done.
As he tells it, he was a cop in New York and a musician in Paris. He survived three plane crashes and ran a mob-connected club in Greenwich Village. He hung out with Billie Holiday and ate ice cream on Louis Armstrong’s stoop.
Late in life, he moved to New Orleans and became a fixture on Frenchmen Street, a jazz elder statesman with a sweet tone and an endless supply of stories.
Fine recently had to move out of the retirement community where he lived. He was dropped off at the Mid-City home of James Williams, the 32-year-old, Louis Armstrong-inspired singer and trumpeter of the New Orleans Swamp Donkeys Traditional Jass Band.
Williams and Fine were friends from Frenchmen Street. Fine often sat in with the Swamp Donkeys; Williams loved his sound, as well as his stories.
And now he is the older musician’s primary caretaker. Fine has moved into a house on Williams’ property. A nurse checks in on Fine daily. And he can play his cornet whenever he wants.
“He’s in much better shape than he was,” Williams said. “He has his instruments, he has his TV. He’s happy, and he’s getting the care he needs.
“Once we were able to get him situated in his own home, he felt like he’s his own man again. And now that we have his nurse, things have calmed down and been a lot easier.”
Born in Brooklyn in 1928, Jack Fine fell for jazz early on.
At 17, he enlisted in the Air Force. He was a military police officer and served in British Guyana. He says he survived three crashes: “I walked away from all of ‘em. The United States Air Force takes care of its own. I loved the Air Force. No better way to travel.”
He spent time in Singapore: “That’s a hip place. Interesting things happen in Singapore that never happen anyplace else.”
Back in New York, he caroused 52nd Street jazz clubs during the “Swing Street” heyday and befriended Danny Barker, the New Orleans jazz guitarist, banjoist, singer and storyteller.
In the 1950s, he worked at Milt Gabler’s Commodore Music Shop, the crossroads of the New York jazz scene. He was a regular for the fabled Monday night jam sessions at Jimmy Ryan’s club on 52nd Street. He crossed paths with jazz legends who are, to most fans, more myth than actual memory.
“Jack knew everybody and has the pictures to back it up,” Williams said. “Being a person who chases the music from that time period, to sit with an individual who lived it was priceless. He might not remember what he had for lunch but he can damn sure tell you what was going on in 1950.”
Fine managed the Cinderella Club at 82 W. Third St. in Greenwich Village; Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk and Mae West were regulars. He lived and performed in Paris for a while.
Along the way, he says he was married three times and had three children, but fell out of touch with them years ago.
Music brought him to New Orleans. “When I heard that music, I knew that was for me. This is where it started. This was a good place to be for jazz. I’m so glad I got a chance to be part of it, even if I came a little late.”
He arrived in New Orleans in the 1990s. He gigged at the Old Point Bar in Algiers Point by day and haunted Frenchmen Street by night, playing with the New Orleans Jazz Vipers, the Smoking Time Jazz Club and other groups.
“I liked the excitement,” he said. “People actually listened to the music.”
He had an open invitation to sit in with Williams and the Swamp Donkeys. Founded in 2012, the Swamp Donkeys typically tour Europe every summer with a repertoire ranging from a banjo- and trombone-heavy remake of the “Game of Thrones” theme song to an especially faithful rendition of “What A Wonderful World.”
Given Williams’ musical mindset, he was immediately drawn to Fine.
“I’m a sucker for a good trumpet player,” Williams said. “I’ll go to hell and back to hear a good trumpet player, and Jack was one of the best. He liked how I played, and I liked how he played. A couple times, he almost ran me off the stage.”
Since 2017, Fine had lived in an apartment at The Landing at Behrman Place, a retirement community on the west bank.
Residents there live independently. But Fine wasn’t able to keep up with his medications, diet or personal hygiene, Williams said, and could be cantankerous as a result. He ran afoul of The Landing’s rules, Williams said, and was asked to leave.
Bill Dwyer, executive director at The Landing, said he couldn’t speak specifically about the circumstances surrounding Fine’s departure. But The Landing does not provide medical care and supervision, Dwyer said. When residents need it, staffers work with family members to move them to a nursing home or assisted living facility.
“There’s a responsibility for us to make something happen that will better meet their needs,” Dwyer said. “There’s a time for us to find a family member or power of attorney to step in and protect them from themselves, or anybody else.”
Fine had no family to take him in. Williams had visited him at The Landing, so he got a call from the person who had power of attorney over Fine at the time. Fine needed a place to stay — immediately.
Hours later, he arrived at Williams’ home. The tenants who lived in a small house at the back of the property had recently moved out; Fine moved in.
“When he showed up that day,” Williams said, “I was like, ‘Well, you’re here now, Jack. You’re not going anywhere.’ He sat on the porch, laughing.”
Williams was horrified at Fine’s condition. The first order of business was to get him bathed. Four trips to Walmart were required to supply Fine with everything from socks on up.
“We started from scratch,” Williams said. “Everything he did have was dirty.”
Now that Fine is taking his meds, he’s “done an about-face,” Williams said. “He’s not fussy, he’s calm, his memory is getting better.”
On a recent afternoon, Fine relaxed in his new home with a bottle of the nutritional shake Ensure, his preferred beverage these days. He recalled what first impressed him about Williams’ playing: “Right out of the gate I could tell he knew what he was doing, and he could do it.”
Williams feels the same way about Fine. “I met him in his 80s and he was still a helluva trumpet player. He put me to the screws a few times, and I was in my early 20s.”
Fine still aspires to play “music for the soul. I don’t want to just play entertainment. They called me Jack Soul. They call me pain in the ass, too.”
Before the coronavirus pandemic, Williams had multiple gigs a week. Given the shutdown, he had time to get Fine settled. “It couldn’t have come at a more perfect time. Jack is a handful. He’ll keep you running. He’s quick on his feet.”
Williams has been granted power of attorney over Fine’s affairs. He’s launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to help defray the cost of Fine’s care.
“He just needs oversight,” Williams said. “He’ll be 92 in September. If we’re all blessed to live that long, we’ll end up in the same predicament. You hope somebody is willing to look after you and take care of you.”
The main house includes Williams, his girlfriend, her 10- and 7-year-old daughters, and two dogs. In the back house is “Papa Jack.”
Williams checks on him in the mornings and evenings, and often eats lunch with him. They hang out and watch old jazz movies on PBS. “He’ll say, ‘I know all these people. They are my friends.’”
Just in time, Fine found another friend in Williams.
“When you have a good friend like James here, that’s a friend. And friends don’t come easy. We’re like family now.”
In addition to the GoFundMe campaign, a donor advised fund for Jack Fine has been set up in conjunction with the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic. Checks can be mailed to the New Orleans Musicians Assistance Foundation, 1525 Louisiana Avenue, New Orleans, LA, 70115, with “Jack Fine” in the memo line.