Last week, I met Maggie Condon. If you don’t recognize her immediately, let me give you a hint:
Yes, that family. Maggie is the elder daughter of Eddie and Phyllis Condon; she and her husband Peter (a most amiable filmmaker) live in the family’s Washington Square apartment, where I visited Maggie recently.
I should say here that Eddie Condon — bandleader, man with an idea, guitarist, promoter — is one of my most beloved heroes. When I started listening to other jazzmen beyond Louis, I naturally gravitated to any and all records that had any connection with Eddie — from the early Twenties to the middle Seventies. And I was lucky enough to see the great man himself: once at close range, three times in concert.
I knew I was in the presence of something remarkable when Maggie offered me the tour of the Condon apartment — which began by her walking to the window that overlooked Washington Square Park and pointing out the diagonal path she remembered seeing her father take across the park to the club named for him (47 West Third Street). Then she opened a box and unwrapped what was and is a sacred object — Eddie’s first banjo, labeled on the back of the head “Slick Condon,” with a date of 1921. Eddie had his own bedroom in the apartment because he and Phyllis — although truly devoted to each other — kept different hours. Phyllis, an ambitious woman, was up early, someone with things to do. Eddie came home late from the club and wanted darkness and silence for his daylight-hours sleeping pleasure: thus his room was painted a dark green, almost black.
The holy relics continued to surface: one of Eddie’s custom-made Gibson tenor guitars:
From another angle, with reverence:
And here’s the label on the outside of the guitar case — written by Phyllis:
Eddie called the jazz magazine BROW BEAT — and here’s the only award he ever got from them:
But back to the title. “Maggie Condon has a plan?”
Yes, Maggie Condon is making a video documentary about her father — possibly a feature-length film. She’s been planning it for more than twenty years, and is well-qualified, having been a film and television director for a number of years. As I write this, she is doing a series of video interviews — of jazz scholars who knew and loved Eddie, jazz musicians who played alongside him, people who saw him at close range.
The film, let me assure you, is a daughter’s tribute to her father — as a man, as a musician — no filmed pathobiography here.
Why Eddie Condon?
If you were to search blindly through the morass of semi-factoidal information that makes up the web, you might find that Eddie was (some say) more well-known for talking than playing, a not-very-adept rhythm guitarist (according to others) who didn’t take solos; a proponent of a now-dead style. Even though Eddie loathed the word “Dixieland,” and said that it was “music for the farmers who wanted to hear THE SAINTS,” he is identified with the form.
Three minutes of any Condon record would sweep some of this fallacy away, but there’s more that needs to be said. That Bx Beiderbecke and Louis Armstrong called him their friend should say something as well.
First, Eddie was a rebel against the Midwestern world in which he was born. Who would have expected a young man from Indiana to find his calling in that noisy music called jazz? And, odder still, who would have expected that Condon boy to be so thoroughly color-blind that he would organize integrated record sessions before 1930, picking musicians by their talent rather than their compliexion at a time when this wasn’t done? Even as late as the mid-Forties, an integrated Condon band was shut out of a Washington, D.C. concert hall because the DAR wouldn’t countenance race-mixing onstage. So he was a pioneer.
Critics and social historians get justifiably excited about John Hammond bringing Teddy Wilson into the Benny Goodman band; they extol the heroism of Branch Rickey, getting Jackie Robinson onto the field in the white major leagues.
But who celebrates Eddie Condon for getting Fats Waller and Hot Lips Page into Carnegie Hall? And when the Condon groups broadcast from the Ritz Theatre and Town Hall over the Blue Network in 1944-45, how many people (here and overseas) thrilled to the music and then realized that the people whose art they were charmed by were the same people who had to sit in the back of the bus? (Exhibit A above: “Eddie’s Hot Shots” was what they used to call “a mixed band,” and the record is still a Hot landmark.)
Ken Burns didn’t pay much attention to Eddie; I have yet to see a Jazz at Lincoln Center tribute to the man and his music. Eddie was Caucasian (unfashionable), he made a living from his music (unthinkable), and he didn’t die young (unbelievable). Even in the face of all these ideological burdens, he surely deserves to be celebrated. Was it his fault that he had a good time, and that jazz wasn’t his martyrdom?
He was the first jazz musician to have his name on a club, and it’s not incidental that the music that came out of that club was free-wheeling and passionately expert. And he brought jazz to television long before it became the soundtrack for many shows — as early as 1942, and his EDDIE CONDON’S FLOOR SHOW remains a model of what could be done with the form — informal, funny, and Hot.
With Milt Gabler, another down-home urban saint, Eddie and his gang made extraordinary records for the Commodore label in the late Thrities and early Forties, moving over to Decca and later (under George Avakian’s benign, wise guidance) to Columbia for classic sessions in the Fifties.
So I’m thrilled that Maggie is interviewing the elders of the tribe as well as getting acquainted with the younger musicians who know and love the jazz that Eddie nurtured and sustained.
If you’ve got memories of being in Eddie’s club, let’s hear them! If you remember the first time you heard a Condon record, tell us! (And — I’m probably not supposed to say this, but consider it whispered: if you’re a wealthy jazz-lover who would like to make sure more people know who Eddie Condon is — is, not was — it would be nice to hear from you, too.)
Not someday, but now. More to come!