Having taken the opportunity to celebrate the 105th birthday of one Eddie Condon, I remain convinced that he did much more than play rhythm guitar and talk to the customers at a variety of saloons in New York City.
Although some I’ve spoken to seem to find the topic of racial integration no longer interesting, Condon has never gotten the credit he deserves as a pioneer.
His achievement was more than shepherding Fats Waller to the Victor studios so that he could make two sides with a mixed band in 1929. It was larger than quietly playing his banjo alongside Louis Armstrong and the Luis Russell band in that same year.
It can’t be overemphasized that Eddie was one of the earliest figures to make sure that black and white musicians could stand on an equal footing, playing their music for posterity.
It was one thing to have a mixed jam session at 4 AM in Harlem; it was quite another thing for records featuring mixed-race bands to be made, to be known as such, to be recognized as classics. Much attention has been paid (rightly so) to the roles of Benny Goodman and John Hammond in encouraging mixed ensembles in public.
But that was 1936: Condon’s efforts had been going on for seven or more years. If you could get listeners accustomed to hearing mixed bands on record, then they would be more eager to see their favorite artists perform in public. Condon had the first mixed band on Fifty-Second Street; his mixed troupe of jazz artists was closed out of a Washington, D.C., concert hall because of protests from the DAR.
He was genuinely color-blind when it came to music, and that equality of thought and feeling had an impact. When white and black troops were serving in the legally sagregated armed forces, both sets of soldiers could hear color-blind music coming from V-Discs and AFRS transcriptions.
I think of Charles L. Black, a young Southern lawyer who found himself shaken out of his racist assumptions by hearing Louis Armstrong in 1931: Black went on to write the legal brief for Linda Brown in Brown vs. the Board of Education, the decision that made such segregation illegal in the United States.
I believe that soldiers who thought that “Negroes” were inferior had their beliefs changed, however subtly, by hearing Hot Lips Page and Pee Wee Russell play thousands of miles away at a Condon concert. Consider someone with similar inbred views, ten years later, seeing Ralph Sutton, Walter Page, Edmond Hall, and George Wettling play at Eddie’s club, noting that these four men got along especially well, no one was superior or inferior to anyone else on the stand.
Eddie Condon made such things possible. It’s a cliche of the theatre that you can make people think about larger issues if you make them laugh in the process or if you set the ideas to music: Eddie did both, in person and as part of many ensembles.
He also improved every band he was a part of: Joe Bushkin insisted on acknowledging Condon’s phenomenal harmonic sense and knowledge of songs (and, in fact, Eddie helped Bushkin through his early shaky beginnings on Fifty-Second Street by calling out the chords to songs Bushkin only half-knew).
Eddie also had a fine dramatic or structural sense — listen closely to any recorded performance, in the studio or in concert. Riffs, backgrounds, knowing when to encourage one player to go on or to subtly say to another, “You’ve had your say,” all of this was second nature to Eddie — a great orchestrator who didn’t work from a printed score.
How anyone ends up to be what they are as an adult may be mysterious, but Condon’s growth and development seem particularly remarkable. His birthplace, Goodland, Indiana, was not exactly the cradle of jazz. He came from a large family; his father was somewhere between a saloon-keeper and the man who greeted people in the saloon, sat down and chatted with them. It would have been very easy for Eddie to become nothing more serious than a young man who played the banjo now and again while someone else sang pop hits of the day, or while someone else played the C-melody saxophone.
But something hit the young man from Goodland with the force of religious revelation. I don’t know quite how it appeared to him: was it a record by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, or one by the New Orleans Rhythm Kings? Was it the proximity to Chicago? Jazz music — and playing that music — must have seemed the most thrilling things possible. However it grew, the transformation from Indiana boy to Chicago jazzman was quick, and it gave shape to Eddie’s life, and thus gave pleasure to so many.
Eddie Condon’s club on West Third Street no longer exists: it is now part of the New York University conglomeration of buildings. Nick’s on West Tenth Street is now a gourmet supermarket. So the Condon landscape has shifted and been obliterated.
But one shrine remains: the New York apartment still inhabited by his daughter Maggie, her husband Peter, their son Michael. I paid them a return visit (with my camera) and have some new delights to share — holy artifacts, as far as I’m concerned.
Although many of Eddie’s effects “went away” after hie death (Maggie thought that Phyllis Condon had simply given away many things to Eddie’s relatives), she still has “Slicker” Condon’s first banjo, circa 1924. It no longer has its neck or strings, but what remains is delicate and precious (even if a few of these photographs unintentionally intensify its resemblance to a nicely browned souffle). The stenciled lettering on the front reads _ _ _ _ _ JAZZ BAND, but the top line is somewhat difficult to decipher.
From the top!
An alternate take . . .
“Slicker” Condon! I don’t know if that is Eddie’s Twenties handwriting or not . . .
And one more. That looks like May 1, 1924, but rry Kaylor is elusive, although I don’t have my copy of WE CALLED IT MUSIC nearby.
Not an exhibit at MOMA (not yet).
One of Eddie’s trademarks was his hand-tied bowties, and here’s a whole stash of them (with a birthday drawing done by brother-in-law Paul Smith as ornament).
More to come! But for the moment, listen closely to one Eddie Condon recording and celebrate the man who made it possible. And, in doing so, slowly changed the world.