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?

5 responses to “WRITE NOW!

  1. Pingback: WRITE NOW!

  2. Barbara Bengels

    Funny that you should be discussing this subject–because a friend of mine named Emily just asked if you would be willing to sit for an interview so that she could capture your memories–on tape, of course.

  3. Tell her yes!

  4. Two astonishing things happened in 1955: the Brooklyn Dodgers won the World Series, and I shook hands with Louis Armstrong.

    I was a junior in high school, and my friend Richie and I went on a double-date to Basin Street East to see Louis and the all-stars: Ed Hall, Trummy Young, Arvell Shaw, Billy Kyle. Richie and I didn’t have our draft cards yet, i.e. we weren’t old enough to order alcohol. Despite this, we were given a ringside table. Thus, for two blissful sets I was “this far” from Pops!

    Between sets, prompted by the cigarette girl/house photographer, I shelled out $5.00 (no small sum to a 1955 kid) to have my picture taken with him. As she composed the shot, Louis and I shook hands. To this day I remember the feel of his hand: like well-worn leather. At the time my entire jazz knowledge was based on about 20 LPs and three books – by Robert Goffin, Barry Ulanov, and Marshall Stearns. Armed with all this knowledge, I managed, as our picture was being taken, to stammer some question involving Louis’ relationship with King Oliver. His expression softened and brightened noticeably, and he said, “He was like a daddy to me.”

    Two postscripts: (1) Somewhere there exists a photo of Pops shaking hands with an awkward, acne’d adolescent at Basin Street East in 1955, but I haven’t been able to find it. (2) My Beloved recently asked me who the girls were on our double-date. On this my memory is a total blank.

  5. Michael– The dozen or so times I worked with Bobby, when he wanted a tempo, he tapped his horn with his wedding ring- often right on the bell but muffled with a couple of other fingers. At O’Connor’s (Jim Andrews gig) because of space, it was necessary for him to stand to the right of my floor-tom. Sometimes Bobby would have to tap for awhile as Jimmy (between tunes) would light a cigarette… take a puff or two… put that down and pick up his beer…. take a couple of sips of that… all the while Bobby is patiently tapping his wedding ring on his horn.
    “Ding-ding” seems appropriate here. mb

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