A SPY FOR DIXIELAND

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.

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19 responses to “A SPY FOR DIXIELAND

  1. Michael – very enjoyable post. Your story has a familiar ring to it. However, you didn’t miss anything by not being a band geek. None of my fellow school band mates were interested in early jazz. They liked Maynard Ferguson, Stan Kenton and Don Ellis – or the standard pop fare of the early 1970s.

    Cheers,
    CT

  2. Many parallels here Michael. However, I was lucky enough to find a sweetheart who did swoon the first time I ever put on Fats Waller and The Dukes…on one of our first dates yet! (But, I have to confess THIS DIAMOND RING does bring back fond memories…and I like the tune…the reverb was also fresh and enjoyable).

  3. …oh yeah….of course I promptly married her (going on 30 years!).

  4. sam mckinstry

    Thank you, sir, for that reflection. I’ve always thought that people embrace jazz for different reasons, like looking for spiritual enlightenment or meaning in life, or using it as a badge of rebellion, or as a symbol of the political left (or right), or as an attention-seeking mechanism. This applies to musicians as well as fans, I often think. This it seems to me can happen with or without a deep musical appreciation being there, which then produces mixed and complex motives for following the music. Francis Newton (EM Hobsbawm) once covered some of this in a book which touched on the music’s sociology and psychology. Its name escapes me. My guess is that we all love and follow it for vastly different reasons, some of them musical, some not.

    As a professor might say to a student, ‘Discuss’. But only if you want to!

    Best wishes and thanks for a great site which gives so much pleasure.

  5. Why we love what we love — from the way we like our eggs to the way we vibrate to some people and not others — is a lifetime study, and even we don’t know the roots of our loves and our dislikes. But the examination is fascinating in itself . . . and I am so grateful to have been born in this time and place and to have this music and these friends. Thank YOU, Sam!

  6. Makes you wonder how many unassuming, seemingly conforming teenagers actually harbor delightful secret desires. The peer pressure during those years is an irresistable force though. How well I remember!

  7. Judy Quehl

    I can so identify with this blog! I was way out in left field during high school as far as my choice of music went. Having reconnected with some of my school mates I am surprised and pleased to learn they are now “into” jazz – the real jazz. They may always have liked jazz but never let it be known at that time. I also count my blessings (and hers) that my youngest daughter loves Louis, Billie, Ella, etc. Thanks for this and the enjoyment your blog brings Michael.
    Cheers
    Judy

  8. Jose Ramon Elkoro

    Thank you for that reflection Michael. Me siento muy identificado con usted.
    Thanks !!!

  9. jOhn P. Cooper

    MS –
    I had a similar situation. i was in 7th grade on LI when the Beatles landed at JFK/Idledwild – whatever. Excited girls were listing to the event on a cheap transistor radio by the open window.

    I was already into vintage music, mostly big bands. I had seen a couple movies with big bands in them, so I began to buy stuff.

    It wasn’t too hard to explain to classmates what I liked b/c this was largely the music of our parents’ era. Of course, some clods could not understand ‘why’ I liked it. PLUS – some kids already liked it or ‘got it’ from hearing this music at home. I remember Barbara Field- “Ray Bauduc. Well, who hasn’t heard of him?” b/c her dad played his music at home.

    I lent a class mate who was a rock drummer my Chick Webb Decca with the yellow cover. He played it and liked Webb’s drumming.

    I was always really soft sell on my music, simply exposing people to it and not telling them how magnificent it was and why it was better than what they listened to – which was a sure way to be shunned.

    I’d walk around with and play on the music room stereo LPs by Earl Hines, Glenn Miller, Lionel Hampton, Count Basie and Charlie Barnet, One English teacher heard a passage of a Barnet tune and said, “It’s so old it sounds like an Aeolian mode”. One time I was blasting Hamp doing “Flyin’ Home” from his Newport show that a teacher came down from the second floor and asked me to turn it lower b/c his class could hear it through the floor!

    I was fairly popular at school, so I never took any hassles about my taste in music.

    Life at Sam Goody’s right after high school was different and we all engaged in idiotic musical ‘discussions’. Pointless, really. The cashiers upfront controlled the stereo system. so if you were nice and they liked you, they would play your choice of music. They and a Cab Calloway LP and a Dizzy Gillespie under the counter for me. We heard Cab’s “Boo Wah Boo Wah” so many times that there was one occasion, impromptu, sang along with the band – bunch of hippies singing “Boo Wah! Boo Wah!” Ya had to laugh.

    Two other Jazz records got hooted off – a Coltrane which was encouraging honking noises from the sales guys and comments like “The execution of a goose!” The guy who wanted it played cursed us out from his department. Another time an excellent, generic Jazz LP on the Time label was hooted off for reasons unknown to me. Great blowing session with superb fidelity.

    These days when i tell people I like Jazz, I explain to them that I prefer pre-War jazz and Big Bands and later stuff by artists that emerged before WW2. That narrows it down and most people seem to understand what i am talking about.

    OTOH – these days, way younger people may never have heard of some of the giants of pop and Jazz music from the 30s and 40s. Zero name recognition, though if you hum a few bars of IN THE MOOD or MOONLIGHT SERENADE or SING SING SING, they ofttimes recognize it from movies or commercials or whatnot. Lots of kids discover old tunes from the video games they play – FALL OUT 3 sends lots of kids over to YouTube to hear more of what they hear when the zombies fight the aliens or robots in the 23rd century. i am always happy to see those kids on YouTube b/c it means the music will live on.

    Ta da!

  10. LOUIS GALIANO

    JAZZ IS ALL THE TRUTH TO BE FOUND; NEVER MIND WHO PUTTING DOWN–NORMAN MAPP.

  11. I agree with Chris – young musicians can be as blinkered as anyone. I remember the entire trumpet section of a big band snickering as I played a solo on clarinet, because, as they said, ‘clarinet isn’t a jazz instrument’.

    The song was Woody Herman’s ‘Woodchoppers’ Ball'; the irony wasn’t lost on me…

    Thanks for the great word-journey, Michael!

  12. Rob Rothberg

    Michael, you should have played those women Hackett!

  13. At least then one of us in the room would have been gratified!

  14. “The cold passion for truth hunts in no pack.”

    –Robinson Jeffers

  15. Enjoyed your article! I can relate although I’ve always had an insatiable craving for all sorts of music (confession: I had This Diamond Ring and can remember that it was so short there were two songs on that side of the 45 and that the producer was Denny Cordell!). I always got great joy from the music of the 1920’s be it jazz, pop, blues, country or jug band (especially jug bands). Besides a love of the music I think part of the attraction was the sheer mystery of it, lets face it, you had to be a nerd to find the music or learn anything about it. There were hints of the music in some of the Beatles tunes, Winchester Cathedral and many others, the music was out there circulating around enough to be in the subconscious. Even psychedelic posters had many elements of old graphics, etc. in them. You mostly had to find 78’s or buy those reissue Lps from Biograph, Herwin, Vintage on RCA, etc. Sam Goodys, mentioned above had a great selection but even then, you never knew what would show up in their bins. As an aside, the guy that ran their classical department always had a cigar in his mouth- try that nowadays! The greater mystery to me is not why I like the music but why any musical style that is so popular with the general public goes completely out of style. This is a fascinating aspect of how societies function and how music evolves. Anyway, thank you for an exercise in nostalgia. My guilty pleasure? Tiny Tim!

  16. Shoulda whipped out a Ben Webster on any unsuspecting high school girl, Michael. A lot fewer rejections for sure.

    Jeeze, NOW I think of it!

  17. I found this blog very special..I can identify with it. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, and memories. Much love, The getting close to being elderly, Ida

  18. I NEVER comment on Blogs usually – but this blog exactly captured how I feel – we must be a similar age. Geoff

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