I offer this as a remembrance of clarinetist Frank Chace, one of the most elusive of men. He and I had perhaps ten phone conversations and a dozen conversations-by-mail at the end of the last century, continuing into 2003 or so. At first, I think Frank was flattered by my interest, intrigued by someone so curious, so intent, but soon he retreated back in to the shadows. I can remember the odd feeling of telephoning him on an early Sunday evening and hearing the phone ring on. I picture him waiting for it to stop ringing.
But he did respond to my hero-worshiping curiosity in whimsical ways. A cassette he had mentioned, a concert recording of himself with Marty Grosz and Dan Shapera — something he thought he had lost but surfaced unexpectedly — came to me in an envelope, with a few words handwritten on a scrap of paper torn from the back of an envelope.
Earlier, I’d asked him for a picture (don’t all fans do this?) and he’d sent a newspaper clipping with a dim photograph of him as one tiny figure in a band. Then this — his expired bus pass, with Frank staring in to the camera in that fixed pose we all assume for drivers’ license photographs.
I treasure it as an artifact even more because of the whimsy behind it. I’d rather have this than a studio portrait of Frank wearing a striped vest and a straw boater. I carry it in my wallet, which will certainly confuse someone who goes through my belongings posthumously. (“When was Michael riding buses in Chicago? That’s such a bad picture — it looks nothing like him.”)
Frank’s elusiveness, his desire to be left alone, had something to do with his learned disdain of the modern world, with the political landscape, with the ungrammatical announcer on Monday Night Football, with the bad jazz he heard on the radio. But it was also a state of mind he treasured. He was happy when I told him that a working title for my biographical piece would be THE J.D. SALINGER OF THE CLARINET. (But, like Salinger, although he wanted to be left alone, I do not think he wanted to be forgotten.)
But every now and then the vault door opens for a moment and something precious can be glimpsed before the door closes again. Frank’s friend, protector, and executor, the jazz scholar Terence E. Martin (“Terry” to friends) shot some 8mm film of Frank — and friends Bob Neighbor, trumpet; Mike Walbridge, tuba; Don Stiernberg, banjo; and Rich Fidoli, saxophone — at a gig that may have been Mike’s retirement-home gig, the date and place unknown at the moment. But here is a minute of Frank in action among friends:
I find this more than remarkable — impassioned and perfectly controlled, brave and searching. Terry tells me that there are other minutes of Frank, but for now I savor this brief intense sighting. It is like nothing else I know. There is the sound — and even more, his physical presence . . . especially the half-embrace he gives himself and the clarinet at the end, a rare moment of pleasure he allowed himself. And us, for all time.
May your happiness increase!