My encounters with the late Jack Rothstein are vignettes from a narrative I did not have the sense to capture fully — chapters from a novel that should have been written.
Jack died a few days ago at 87; it is of course a cliche to say that my world has gotten smaller because he is no longer in it, but cliches are often true.
I first met him in cyberspace because he had found JAZZ LIVES and was enthusiastic about it. We exchanged a number of emails: the pattern was that Jack would read something I wrote about Henry “Red” Allen, for instance, and then write to tell me of his conversation with Red in the late Forties or early Fifties where Red was upset by the way he was being passed over for other musicians, most notably Louis (whom he loved and respected).
I knew I was in the presence of someone who had been on the scene — Jack had gone to law school in Boston and had hung out at clubs, listening to Bobby Hackett and Vic Dickenson. He had helped a number of musicians with minor legal troubles; he was a conoisseur of wines, a championship card player, and knew antiques deeply.
When you know someone only through emails or words on the page, their physical appearance is always a bit startling. (I am sure I have that effect on people, so I write these words without criticism.) Jack was clearly larger-than-life, and I don’t mean only that he was a substantial man.
He was ebullient in his speech, with an extravagant laugh and a voice that carried. He didn’t shout, but he cut through — I can compare the sound of his speech most closely to Pete Brown’s alto saxophone. He was clearly one of My People, that is to say an urban East Coast Jew with a satiric view of the world. We met at the Dixieland Jazz Bash by the Bay in March 2011, had dinner and talked. There he told me the story of the woman who wanted to present Vic Dickenson with a rose at Mahogany Hall in 1950 and others I no longer remember.
I am very sorry that I did not take the time — it would have taken repeated visits, I know — to aim a video camera at Jack and work through all the musicians we knew and loved . . . he had marvelous stories and — most delightfully — he wasn’t the subject.
All I can offer JAZZ LIVES readers is a selection from the Rothstein correspondence: excerpts from Jack’s emails to me. We had a long discussion about who “OLD FOLKS” was in the Robison song; we talked about other matters. But all I know is that when I got an email from Jack, it would contain something genuine, something new to me . . . and even when we disagreed, he was entertaining and informed.
I miss him and I won’t forget him.
The moral, of course, is not hard to bring to the surface. Our lives are finite; we should cherish people while they are around to receive it; the stories of our elders will vanish if we don’t collect them.
But someone like Jack Rothstein is not dead, because someone is playing a hot chorus or singing a ballad beautifully. In these offerings, he lives on.
And in his words:
I am on your side on crowd noise. Quiet conversation is fine but not when it interferes with the listeners. My tolerance is inversely proportional to the quality of the music. I was at the Embers (a celebrity hangout) listening to Tatum when a noisy conversation started at a table. A guy seated at the next table got up and told them quietly to shut up and a few guys at other nearby tables rose in support. The noise stopped. Tatum did not have to say or do anything.
Your comments reminded me of my high school days, a generation earlier, going through the bins of jazz 78s at Sam Goody’s. He only had one shop then, on Sixth Avenue somewhere in the mid-forties. He also had a bin of used jazz records where treasures could be found very inexpensively. I vaguely remember buying a few Armstrong reissues there on English Parlophone. The UHCA reissues I bought at the Commodore on the advice of Jack Crystal who was a super-nice guy.
Thinking about our dinner conversation, I have my doubts as to whether Prez actually changed jazz. He seems more a very influential extension of Bix.
I spent last week in Dayton, Ohio at a convention. The meeting room was on the ground floor of a large hotel. A couple stepped outside for a smoke and when they were done they found that the glass door had locked behind them. Not wanting to walk to the front of the building, they banged on the door. After a few minutes another member (a Catholic priest) heard them and let them in. One of them said, “You saved us.” He casually replied, “That’s my job.”
I remember talking to Barrie Chase about her work with Fred Astaire on the TV special where they were backed by the Basie band. She loved Jo Jones’ work and said he paid her the ultimate compliment – that the way she danced one of her ancestors had to be “one of us”. In the 30’s, Roger Pryor Dodge and his wife had a dance act and played stage shows at Broadway movie theaters backed by name bands. She later taught at the Manhattan School of Music. She told me that the best drummer they ever had behind them was Dave Tough.
Add Dave Tough to the list of those who died because they kept drinking and stopped eating. You were right on about Prez. I helped him with a very minor legal matter in the early 50″s. His problem was not drink but mental. I do not know the facts but I think it was caused by the Army. He was very withdrawn, somewhat paranoid and secure only in his music. He was a gentle human being and just wanted not to be hurt.
The very best that can be said for her singing is that it was egregious.
One night when leaving Nick’s, Wild Bill noticed a fire hose that had been left attached to a hydrant. He picked it up and ran towards a pair of elderly female pedestrians yelling “Wanna douche?” and laughing. Told to me by someone who allegedly saw it.
You mentioned Dick Gibson last night, so here is my Dick Gibson story. He was a classmate of my wife at the University of Alabama. I first met him around 1959-60 in New York at a party thrown by a girl I was dating. The lady I subsequently married, who I only knew then as a person who was taking bridge lessons from a friend, was there, and greeted him with “Dick Gibson! You’ve gained so much weight I hardly recognized you.” The scene shifts. It is now 10 years later. I take my wife to a charity bash in San Francisco because Hackett is playing. Mary Osborne (from Bakersfield) was in the band. My wife sees Dick up front and goes up to him and says, “Dick Gibson! You’ve gained so much weight I hardly recognized you.” His reply was, “Emilie, don’t you know how to say anything else?” Emilie told me he was a hunk in his college days.
True story c. January, 1946. I was in Seattle and there was a disc jockey who had a Saturday afternoon jazz program and solemnly stated that the Louis Armstrong Hot Five was the first decadent step in jazz. However, he did play a lot of Jelly Roll Morton (with George Mitchell, Omer Simeon,etc.) as well as King Oliver so I was a steady listener. Immediately after his program there was a half hour of the First Herd sponsored by Old Gold cigarettes playing Apple Honey, etc. which put me very much on the side of decadence. When I got back to New York, there was another Bussard type, Rudi Blesh who actually had a radio program and wrote a book. He also believed that a white jazz musician was a contradiction in terms. Idiots abound. Don’t let them upset you.
Will not attend San Diego as I am trying to build up my strength after a near fatal bout of pneumonia caused by my lack of immune system due to leukemia (CLL). I have a form that almost exclusively strikes Russian Jewish males and is completely painless. The doctor says I am a favorite to recover this time and go back to leading a normal life but that some time something minor will happen and I will go to bed and not wake up. Considering the fact that I am 87 it is the ideal way to go. I just have to build up my strength because there are a few more bottles of great wine to drink and more jazz cruises to take.
That was the last email I received from Jack — in late November 2012. He would often sign his emails, “Later, Jack,” which I have taken as my title.
I hope you have your very own Jack Rothsteins in your life. Their ebullient presence enriches us always. I am very grateful to his daughter Margo for offering the photograph of her father as a young man — how beautiful he was!
May your happiness increase.