This morning I gave a talk to a group sponsored by the Molloy (College) Institute for Lifelong Learning at a church in Rockville Centre.
My subject? “Miss Billie Holiday,” as John Crosby respectfully calls her.
These talks let me stand up in front of a group of attentive, aware people and discuss something and someone I love. (I came late to Billie — buying my first Holiday records in 1967 — but I fell hard.)
To be able to share Billie’s records of BACK IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD or MISS BROWN TO YOU and see someone twenty feet away from me gently rocking with the beat is a pleasure. And because the people who come to these talks aren’t taking required courses for a grade, the atmosphere is free from the emotions so often associated with academia — on either side of the desk.
STRANGE FRUIT casts its own spell as a unique piece of music, of political oratory, of theatre. As does the Commodore I’LL BE SEEING YOU and (of course) the film clip of FINE AND MELLOW from “The Sound of Jazz,” which I can no longer watch without a lump in my throat.
But the chat afterwards is often even more rewarding. And surprising. Today, for instance, we drifted into a discussion of trained and untrained singing voices, diction, Kate Smith, honoring the song GOD BLESS AMERICA, high drape pants, the Rosenberg children, and more.
Best of all, to me, are the bits of anecdote that surface. If you looked at this crowd, you might sniff dismissively, “Oh, senior citizens from the suburbs. What would they bring to such an experience?” But that assumption would be both unfair and wrong, as today’s experience proved.
A man told me about going to jazz clubs in the Village circa 1948 and sitting there forever for very little money, perhaps a quarter.
A woman off to one side picked up on something I had said about Benny Goodman and told me that her husband’s childhood friend was Jay Finegold, who had been Benny’s manager for a long time in the Fifties and Sixties. I had spoken about Goodman’s focus on his playing — to such an extent that he seemed eccentric, oblivious, or even cruel — and she pointed out that BG came to Jay’s funeral, contradicting much of what I had thought of the King of Swing as a boss or employer.
A woman in the back of the room raised her hand politely and said, “I saw Billie Holiday in a bar on Post Avenue in Westbury.” (An aside: Post Avenue does have two-way car traffic, but it is distinguished by a CVS, a supermarket, various ethnic eateries, donut shops, delis. 52nd Street isn’t and never was.)
I stopped cold and begged her to elaborate. She said that this sighting took place around 1954, that Billie sang beautifully but was so stoned (drunk or high, I didn’t know) that she almost knocked the narrator over on the way to the ladies’ room.
A rather shy woman came up at the end and told me that she and her husband had met at Jimmy Ryan’s in 1941 or 1942. They were high school students who came to dance to the jazz. She remembered sharing a Tom Collins (they were underage but no one cared). And she brought up sacred names: bassist Al Morgan, who gave her a brooch in the shape of a bass, and Zutty Singleton. I beamed at her, awestruck.
On the surface, such talks seem to be one-sided. I am The Expert; I offer information; my hearers might ask a question or two. And sometimes that is what the interchange feels like. But I go away from these experiences thinking that I have been well-taught by the people sitting in front of me. And they have made me feel more than I ever expect.
My hearers have lived the experiences I am explaining in ways that are no longer possible. So to talk with someone who saw Billie or Zutty is something extraordinary, not to be repeated as the years go on. And I am allowed into the most affectionately cherished memories of my audience. In me, a stranger with esoteric enthusiasms, they find someone eager to hear, someone who cares about a small piece of their past. Perhaps they tell me something they haven’t told their children, who know so little of the music of fifty or sixty years ago.
The casual generosity of these people, offering irreplaceable stories, is a rare gift.
[The photographs at top and bottom — showing Billie looking healthy and cheerful — come from a German website, and I believe they were taken during her 1954 European tour. Is the clarinetist a young Tony Scott? I am sure that it is Red Norvo at the vibraharp, as he would have called it.)