The American novelist William Maxwell (1908-2000), who wrote searchingly and lovingly about his Illinois childhood, told an interviewer late in life that if people didn’t write down what they remembered, so many beautiful things would vanish forever.
Maxwell was right, and I am reminded of this now more than ever before.
One of the Beloved’s friends has endured the deaths of her parents, both in their early nineties, in the past year. I met her parents twice. They had been political activists in the Thirties; the husband, a writer, had worked with Langston Hughes. When they heard that I was immersed in the jazz of their era, they — in turn — became happily animated. They had been to Cafe Society; they had heard Billie Holiday and Fats Waller frequently; they had particularly loved a pianist who played on Fifty-Second Street but couldn’t immediately call his name to mind. (He was Clarence Profit.) They had been at the 1941 Count Basie recording session when Paul Robeson tried to sing Richard Wright’s blues in praise of Joe Louis, KING JOE.
Each of these comments seemed to me like a doorway into the miraculous past: people stting in the same room had been there. They had seen my heroes; they might have magical narratives to share.
Of course, they no longer remembered any details. Robeson had had a hard time; the clubs on Fifty-Second Street had been a great pleasure; they beamed as we exchanged the magic names. I had come too late. And they took their stories with them.
I urge my readers to ask questions of the Elders of the Tribe. The Elders don’t have to be musicians; they can be someone’s aunt, who owned a candy store where Ellington would buy cigarettes. Or we ourselves can be the Elders, contributing our own memories before they — and we — vanish. I never saw Clarence Profit, but I did see Bobby Hackett indicating to the band the tempo he wanted for the next number by clicking his tuning slide back and forth in time. Having written that down, I have hopes that it has a less evanescent existence.
What do you remember?