Ian Fleming never gave me a thought. I never had a specially-equipped car, dangerous gadgets. But I was a spy for Dixieland.
In a recent seminar with one of my mentors, Prof. Figg, he asked the question, “What are your secret guilty musical pleasures?”
I think the Professor expected that I was listening to Justin Bieber or to marimba orchestras. Toy pianos. Singing dogs. Kate Smith. Anthony Braxton. Rossini overtures. Andrew Lloyd Webber.
And although I thought hard, I couldn’t come up with any guilty musical pleasures. Oh, I love sentiment: Connee Boswell’s LITTLE MAN, YOU’VE HAD A BUSY DAY makes me cry. But I am proud of my reaction to her singing, so there’s nothing guilty in it.
But then I started to remember the time when I was a jazz operative in enemy country.
When I was nine or ten, I was already seriously hooked by hot jazz. Louis Armstrong, first and foremost. I recall spending birthday money on a Louis record, and I was thrilled when he appeared on television.
I was in the fifth grade when the Beatles came to the United States, and I found them fascinating — but for only a short time. They were fun, energetic, new, uninhibited. I remember pestering my father to buy me the soundtrack album from A HARD DAY’S NIGHT. When I could, I bought those records, borrowed them from friends, tried so hard to make them my personal soundtrack. (Everyone else did.)
I got all the way up to RUBBER SOUL before I decided that I didn’t really like this music all that much. What I was entranced by was the possibility of being liked because you like what everyone else likes.
I had already begun to notice, although I probably did not articulate it to myself, that one’s musical preferences were ways definitions of one’s self, stated publicly or otherwise. One’s taste was an ideological / emotional badge.
If you liked Gary Lewis and the Playboys’ THIS DIAMOND RING (why do I remember this now?) you were possibly a member of the club that could be considered worthy of being inspected for possible admission to the clubhouse.
But walking around telling my peers that I listened to Louis Armstrong — the truth — was clearly not the way to be accepted, to be cool, to be “in” or popular. I remember telling some adults, who looked at me indulgently. Perhaps they thought my preference more strange than the loud music their children were listening to. My conscious anachronism must have struck them as at best, a benign eccentricity; at worst, inexplicable.
Among my peers, anything that new and rebellious was good. Ancient and entrenched was definitely not. When I met the pretty granddaughter of our French-Canadian neighbors, I knew I could not tell her that I preferred Fats Waller to Iron Butterfly and expect her to swoon. ”Our” music was supposed to unsettle the old folks who fed and clothed you; it wasn’t supposed to have any comforting connections to their world. Jini Hendrix, not Jimmie Blanton.
So I kept my love to myself. I told very few people that I listened to Louis and the Dukes of Dixieland in my room, that I read Mezz Mezzrow’s REALLY THE BLUES (and was then violently disappointed by his playing — I was too young to appreciate those Bluebird sides). I couldn’t really confess to anyone that I loved Bobby Hackett’s air-traceries on ballads, that “Dixieland jazz” on television — those small groupings of oddly-dressed men — thrilled me. I even remember watching Lawrence Welk’s program for the brief “hot” interludes (not knowing at the time that I would someday see and admire Bob Havens in person). Even my parents, who were very indulgent and loving, did not quite know what to make of my obsession: they had lived through the Depression and the Swing Era, but the depth of my ardor must have puzzled them.
In this century, a broader acceptance is the rule. It is much easier to say, “Oh, I listen to Bulgarian hip-hop,” or “I am working on my harpsichord on the weekends,” than it was. I know a young woman in middle school who dresses in elaborate clothing every day, plays the ukulele, analyzes 1905 Sousa records. She seems to have gained much more flexibility to be unusual in this century than I had in mine.
My generation may have marched to Thoreau’s different drummer, but to call the metaphorical figure of independence Dave Tough did not do. It still seems a towering irony that my nonconformist friends were obliviously conformist.
I had to go underground because I identified so strongly with the music of an earlier generation and one before that. I didn’t dance, so I hadn’t met the swing-dance generation who would teach me the Balboa and know, instinctively, which version of SWINGIN’ THE BLUES they liked. In 1966, had I come out of the aesthetic closet and said, “The music I like was the popular music — or at least one strain of it — in 1936,” I would be marked as even more freakish than I already was.
I could and did wear the flowered shirts and bell-bottom trousers (both of which pleased me for their own sake) but I could not admit to an admiration for Pee Wee Russell. To do so would be to say, “I want to be just like your grandparents,” not readily accepted among my peers.
It might have been easier if I had had the ability and patience to seriously attempt a musical instrument. Then I could have hung out in the bandroom with the other trumpet geeks and said, “Have you heard what Ray Nance does here?” But that community was denied me.
Even when I was in an independent study program in my senior year of high school, I knew I had to practice secrecy. It was difficult to unmask. My friend Stu Zimny has reminded me of our being on field trips into Manhattan, and my running off during our lunch break to buy Commodore 78s. He would ask, “What did you buy?” and I would say, “Oh, nothing really. You wouldn’t be interested,” or some similar falsehood.
I was afraid of being laughed at if I was seen buying archaic recordings of strange music with odd-sounding players. Red, Muggsy, Big Sid, Little T . . . these heroic affectionate sobriquets were encouraged in baseball but not elsewhere.
My affections did not transfer easily. My seventeen-year-old self — suave, stylish, ineffably debonair, thought that Jack Teagarden’s 1954 recording of A HUNDRED YEARS FROM TODAY was the best seduction music ever. What woman could resist his wooing? (All of them.)
I don’t remember when and how the mists began to lift. It may have been when I began to encounter other young men at jazz concerts. We glanced at each other cautiously, suspiciously. ”You like this music too?” ”Yeah.” ”Don’t tell anyone, OK?” ”I like hot jazz.” ”Shhhh! Keep it down. They’ll hear us!”
But I only began to “come out” in college, perhaps defensively but more proud. ”Yes, I listen to Louis Armstrong records. Do you want to come to my house and hear what I am listening to?”
It wasn’t always easy. ”Cartoon music” was often the way my records were described. ”How can you listen to that old stuff? What do you hear in it?” “Wow, that’s old-fashioned!”
At this point in the imagined black-and-white film, calendar pages fall off the wall. We are now in NOW, this century, where I am entirely comfortable with my own love for hot music.
It fascinates me that when the Beloved lovingly introduces me, “Oh, this is my Sweetie — he has a great jazz video blog!” I can see people’s eyelids begin to flutter — with puzzlement or tedium, it is hard to say. I can only imagine what people think. ”Oh, no. Jazz, for God’s sake. One step less interesting than toy trains. What shall I say? I never ‘understood jazz,’ and this fellow is obviously so interested in it that he’s vibrating as he stands there.” So they say, generously, “Jazz! Wow, that’s interesting. Do you like Miles Davis?” Or “I think John Coltrane was a very spiritual being. I like electro-fusion. Do you like Diana Krall?”
And they are being as gracious as human beings can be, so it pains me to redirect their enthusiasm. But I have to say, “Well, I admire Miles and Coltrane, but my heart is with older stuff.” ”Oh, what do you mean?” ”Louis Armstrong is my hero. Billie Holiday. Duke Ellington,” keeping it as plain as possible. And it is clear that with those words and those names I have marked myself as An Oddity. The most kind people say, “Did you see ANTIQUES ROADSHOW last night? There was a woman who had a whole collection of autographed band photographs from the Big Band Era, and one of them was signed by Louis Armstrong?” Others smile sweetly, vaguely, and head for the white wine spritzers.
Jazz still remains a mystery to most people, and those of us who truly resonate to it are destined to remain Outsiders. It’s a pity. Why shouldn’t everyone be able to share the great pleasures that we know?
I am now a Spy Emeritus, now able to view these episodes with nostalgia and amusement tempering my puzzlement. Call me 0078, retired. But I remember the feeling of being out of step with the culture of my times, and being made to feel weird.
Yet I followed what I loved, and jazz has paid me back for my loyalty a million times over. And it continues to do so.
This one’s for my friends AJS and KD — and, as always, for the Beloved, who knew that it don’t mean a thing . . . before I ever came along.
May your happiness increase.