There are people, memorably important in the Land of Jazz, who never pick up instruments or sing a hot chorus. Three of them, dear to me in their own ways, have died in the past weeks. This posting is by no means the full-scale memorial or obituary each one deserves. It’s just something I have to write so that JAZZ LIVES readers will know.
Between 2004 and 2010, whenever I went to Jazz at Chautauqua, I inevitably ended up spending time and money at a table where a large quantity of sheet music was laid out enticingly — to admire and to purchase. Bill Wood and his younger partner Greg Laird came to greet me, to be amused by my comments on the sheets I bought and refused to buy, and I expected to see them there year after year.
Bill looked as if he would have fit in perfectly as a small-town druggist or the wise fellow behind the hardware counter in a small-town store that had refused to be bought up by a chain.
He wasn’t there in 2011, and I missed his quiet, amiable presence, overseeing the coming and going of people and pages of Thirties pop songs. In mid-November, Greg told me Bill had died: “Bill loved going to Chautauqua and providing his great collection of sheet music. He loved the music and the people. He was truly one of the nicest men I have ever known. Even when he couldn’t use the computer any more, I still read to him what everyone was doing through your blog.”
Now, whenever I go through the stack of sheet music on the piano, I will think of Bill Wood with even more gratitude: someone who made it possible for me to bring home new music to learn, to admire, to enjoy.
Selma Heraldo, who died a few days ago at 88, received less attention than she deserved. She was a fixture at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, because she had been Louis and Lucille’s next-door neighbor for decades. Although she was the size and shape of an old-fashioned elementary school pointer, it would have been a mistake to underestimate her.
Had Selma lived in Hollywood, she would have been a renowned character actress, and that’s no stage joke.
She had a lovely wry grin, a nearly theatrical forwardness, and no tolerance for inaccuracy or self-promotion in anyone. If someone else in the room claimed an unmerited glory, Selma would set the person — and everyone else within hearing — straight. She was a delightful storyteller, and I will cherish forever the tales she told of her mother making Louis a fried-egg sandwich in the Heraldo kitchen when he came home from the road, wanting something plain to eat.
Selma was a shameless vaudevillian, incomparable in the art of mock-serious flirtation. On September 22, 2011, she was seated at our table in the pleasant garden of the LAHM, eating dinner al fresco before Ricky Riccardi did his presentation on the Gosta Hagglof collection.
In an instant Selma decided I was both her comic foil and male door prize, leaning forward to ask if I would go home with her. “Not later, today. I live next door,” she winked at me. When I demurred, saying (as is my habit) that I was so sorry to turn her down, that I was already in a relationship, that perhaps I would disappoint her, she kept the game at a high level. “Your wife better keep a close eye on you, handsome,” she said.
I did my best to keep the level of things high by asking Selma where she had been seven years ago when I had been at liberty and would have taken her up on her offer, and she giggled happily.
Being the object of Selma’s attention, even for a minute, was like hearing Louis launch into a second chorus of WHEN YOU’RE SMILING: she was a master improviser, able to negotiate any turn with comic timing that would have pleased Jack Benny.
Paul Blair, the dear editor at HOT HOUSE — the great New York jazz magazine, died of a sudden heart attack. He would have been 70 in January 2012. I met him through the Beloved, who had gone on several of his jazz walking tours, and he welcomed me to the magazine.
Although I sometimes chafe against editing, cherishing my own peculiarities, working with Paul was a writer’s dream. He was careful, witty, tactful — but his suggested changes were so good that I took them without a word of fuss. Reading my prose, he quickly saw what it might be and moved speedily yet gently to make that ideal possible. I also enjoyed the witty emails he sent me — often with information I hadn’t known.
I only met him once in person: I had been urging him to come to The Ear Inn to hear The EarRegulars, and one night he did. I didn’t recognize him in person, but he found me and we had a conversation that began in laughter and ended in an deep friendly empathy. A casually-dressed man who easily made himself comfortable, he sat near the band and I could see him enjoying the sounds of the music: his face clearly reflected what was being played. I could see that he was a perfectly intuitive listener, which is why he was such a fine editor.
Paul was also master of the unexpected sweet generosity. Once, with no prelude (after he had come to know my taste) he told me of some cassettes he had, recorded at a jazz party in the Seventies, featuring jazz pianists, some of whom are now dead. Would I like these cassettes? I was enthusiastic; they arrived a week later; he wanted nothing in return.
With the deaths of Bill, Selma, and Paul, my circle of people I love and admire has constricted, and my world is a little smaller. I will do them the only honor I can — remembering them with love and hoping that others do so also.
And although I hope to make new friendships with other people memorable for their generosity, their style, these three will not be replaced or forgotten.