African American Studies
The Fleet family moved to the Patterson Houses in the Bronx in the fall of 1956 from Harlem. He says growing up there provided for a very healthy and nurturing childhood. His father, Bittie Fleet a noted jazz musician, abandoned his music career in the early 1950’s to work in a department store, while his mother stayed at home with the children.
He had been aware of his father’s jazz career from an early age. He learned to play on his own, without lessons of any form. His claim to fame is that he was the person who influenced Charlie Parker to pursue, what would later be known as bebop. However, he also goes greatly unrecognized for his talents and contributions as a musician. He worked with many famous musicians and groups during the swing era of the mid to late 1930’s-1940’s. However, his father felt very restricted playing in the Big Bands because there was very little room for improvisation. It was through jam sessions with musicians that others would notice his aptitude for improvisation, which greatly inspired them. When Charlie Parker first came to New York, other Harlem musicians did not like his style, aside from Fleet’s father, Bittie. Because of this, Parker, called Bird by Fleet, would seek out Bittie at one of Bittie’s jam sessions. During these sessions, Bird and Bittie would experiment and toy around with show tunes coming out at the time.
Although his father stopped playing professionally, he still played at home and participated in local music programs in the Bronx, like ABC. This was a program that operated out of P.S 49. ABC stood for “A Better Chance” and lasted only a year. Meanwhile, James was learning how to play the sax at his middle school.
In addition to being a talented musician, James was also an illustrator. He attended The High School of Music and Art and was accepted to the school based on his ability as an artist, not as a musician.
To qualify his comment he made at the start of the interview, saying his father stopped playing music professionally when the family moved to the Bronx, Fleet says that his father continued to play at home and to perform at smaller gigs, like parties and boat rides. He also played at the anniversary of Charlie Parker’s death.
In the early 1970’s, Fleet was in a funk band called “The Cross Bronx Express.” He and his band were chosen by the Upward Bound project when they were in middle school. He currently is an assistant teacher and teaching autistic children to play music in Brooklyn. None of his siblings are still playing music.
His mother lived in The Patterson Houses for 48 years and Going to visit her year after year allowed him to take note of the drastic changes. He noted the change in the ethnicity of the population, lack of sense of family, lack of caring for the neighborhood, and lack of respect in general.
Fleet, James. August 31, 2005. Interview with the Bronx African American History Project. BAAHP Digital Archive at Fordham University.
Click below to download supplemental content.Fleet, James.mp3 (38639 kB)