Tag Archives: heroin

BEING OLDER HAS BENEFITS

My chronological age is increasing, as I occasionally notice.

Tonight, the Beloved created a wonderful homemade Thai dinner, and when we’d finished, we worked our way through the dishes to music: an assortment of the 1937-41 sides that Billie Holiday and Lester Young created together, with friends.

And I thought, not for the first time, “How lucky I am to be the age I am. I saw Buck Clayton play — at the end of his trumpet career — and got his autograph. My friend Stu and I rode the subway uptown with Benny Morton, who sweetly and patiently answered our eager questions. I saw Teddy Wilson play at a shopping center, and got his autograph. Jo Jones spoke to me several times; two autographs, some recordings, some photographs. Dicky Wells waved an annoyed finger at me to get me to stop recording him with my cassette recorder. I saw Freddie Green and Count Basie, from a distance, at a concert in a Long Island park, Benny Goodman and friends in Carnegie Hall in the late Seventies.

Yes, Lester Young, Walter Page, Red Allen, Buster Bailey, Ed Hall, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, and Pee Wee Russell were already gone when I began actively searching out live jazz. But if I were younger today, I wouldn’t have had the precious experiences I did.

And listening to Billie and her friends — buoyant, wise, exultant, and so sweetly IN the music they were making — reminds me of how beauty never grows old. Let all the people who voyeuristically want only to make Billie into the Heroin Madonna, the Woman Abused by Louis McKay listen to this:

“Now they call it swing.” Exactly.

May your happiness increase!

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THERE’S LIFE IN (AND BEYOND) THOSE GROOVES: THE INTERNATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF JAZZ RECORD COLLECTORS

I suspect that most people, asked to describe “a jazz record collector,” would create at best a gentle caricature.  It wouldn’t be too far from the general stereotype of someone who assorts, covets, arranges, and studies any kind of ancient artifact.  In the imagined cartoon, the man showing off his prize collection of mint Brunswick 78s by the Boswell Sisters is simply a cousin of the museum curator, happily dusty.

But stereotypes are meant to be exploded by reality, and many jazz record collectors have seen the daylight and know that there is life beyond the shelves, beyond their notebooks of sought-after discs.  One sign of life is the refreshing friskiness of the Journal of the International Association of Jazz Record Collectors.  I would have written this blogpost a few weeks ago but I kept on finding new things to read in the March 2012 Journal . . . so I apologize for my tardiness but it is another sign of life.

I was entranced immediately by the cover — a comic portrait of trombonist Miff Mole, taken in Chicago in the early Fifties (courtesy of the jazz scholar Derek Coller): boys and girls, don’t try this at home without adult supervision.

Inside I found Bert Whyatt’s discography of the rough-and-tumble West Coast pianist Burt Bales (including recordings with Bunk Johnson and Frank Goudie), a chapter in Don Manning’s novel SWING HIGH! — its subject being an insider’s look at life on the road with a big band in the Forties.  I read an extensive affectionate report by Perry Huntoon on Jazz Ascona, and made my way through many CD reviews.

And that’s not all.  In an initial offering of jazz research done by Dr. Ian Crosbie — who sent questionnaires to many musicians and got remarkably candid answers, we learn from the Paul Whiteman reedman Charles Strickfadden that (in his opinion) Bill Challis’ arrangements for the Whiteman band were “melodic, uncomplicated, non-swinging . . . No affect on trend.”

In another section of the Journal I read a fascinating long letter by the scholar and current IAJRC President Geoffrey Wheeler — its focus on Charlie Parker’s RELAXIN’ AT CAMARILLO.  To give this its proper context, the previous issue of the Journal (December 2011) had an intriguing study of Parker’s actual stay at  the mental hospital located in Camarillo — written by William A. Pryor.  Wheeler adds this, which surprised me: “During a stay at Bellevue Hospital in New York City in the early 1950s, Parker was interviewed by a resident psychiatrist regarding his use of drugs.  At one point, the psychiatrist asked Parker if he wanted to give up drugs.  Parker’s response was an emphatic ‘no’!  . . . . This was related to me by a personal friend who was later on the staff at Bellevue and was told this by the attending psychiatrist.”

There’s more.  The IAJRC will be holding its annual convention in New Orleans (Sept. 6-8, 2012) and in addition to scholarly presentations and the opportunity to buy records, chat with fellow jazz enthusiasts, and tour the city, there will be live music, video presentations by Tom Hustad, Ruby Braff expert and author of the new book BORN TO PLAY, film scholar Mark Cantor, and jazz researcher Sonny McGown (the last one having as its subject the eccentric clarinetist Irving Fazola).  The banjoist and singer Michael Boving (of the Scandinavian Rhythm Boys) will speak about Eva Taylor touring Scandinavia in the Seventies — with filmclips, photos, recordings never heard — and he will be joined by Clarence Williams’ grandson, Spencer.   

To join the IAJRC and get in on the fun, click here.  To learn more about the convention, click here.

May your happiness increase.

BILLIE HOLIDAY’S DRUG DEALER SPEAKS

I present this possibly apocryphal narrative (published in ESQUIRE)  without moralizing . . .

Speaking of the slow pace of change, I [author John H. Richardson] recently talked to Billie Holiday’s drug dealer. He said I could call him Pat. “Don’t put my last name in there,” he ask me. “I know too many people.”

Since those people had names like Frank Costello, “Johnny” Gotti, and Bugsy Siegal, I’ll oblige.

Pat was skeptical about the chances of drug reform. “I don’t think they’re going to legalize drugs in this country because of the fact that the government is behind it all,” he insists. “You go back in time during the bootleg days, the Kennedys winded up with the eastern seaboard. All the whiskey that came in, they got a percentage. And jail is big money, too — they feed you nothing but beans, rice, and potatoes, and all that money is going in somebody’s pocket.”

Pat said this is a gravelly voice with a New York accent. He’s eighty years old, retired to Florida now. He just had hip surgery, he’s got back problems. But he remembers clear as day how his life of crime began. He was growing up on the east side of Manhattan, up around 110th Street, an altar boy at St. Anne’s. “I came home from school one time, fourteen years old, and found my mother crying in the kitchen. I asked her why. She said, ‘There’s no food in the house.'”

That was the day before Thanksgiving. So Pat put his schoolbooks down and went to meet his friend Chubby. They sat on the milk box in front of the Kennedy store and made plans to rob a deli on the corner of 96th Street.

“There was one of those rotisseries spinning, so Chubby and I got the idea to snatch a turkey. I said, ‘I’ll tap on the glass with this key and tell him I want the oatmeal box on the shelf and when he moves the ladder, I’ll snatch the turkey — and when he chases me, you grab the money.”

Pat still remembers the oatmeal box, which had a black-and-white cartoon of a man in a big hat — and how the deli owner came after him yelling sonavabitch! “I ran from 96th to 110th without stopping — he was gaining on me for a while, plus the turkey was about 22 pounds.”

They cut the turkey in half and both families had a great Thanksgiving, but of course their parents found out and gave them each a beating.

A few years later, Pat started “making deliveries for different people, because they trusted me and I never ratted on nobody.” That’s how he came to meet Billie Holiday.

“I met Billie through Bumpy Johnson,” he says. “I used to go listen to jazz on the west side, at Milton’s [Minton’s] Playhouse. She popped in there one day and I was introduced to her. Somebody said, ‘Pat’s your man, he can take care of you.’ So I sold her like a half-ounce of cocaine. A couple of days later, she called me and I called her back.”

He had a system. He would call her every few days, they’d meet somewhere and have a drink. She’d tell him what she wanted and then they’d meet later to make the deal. Holiday would be dressed in ordinary clothes, slacks and shirts. He liked her. “She was a very warm person. She was kind of heavy, with rosy cheeks. Then after awhile she started losing weight, started looking like a toothpick.”

He knew it was because of the drugs he was selling her, but he never said any words of warning. “No sense lying to you,” he told me. “You don’t say those things when you’re looking to make money. But when you’re sitting behind bars, in your cell-house, you think about those things.”

Pat got arrested for selling a quarter kilo of cocaine in 1950. In 1954, the day after his son was born, he went to prison on a twenty-five-year sentence. He’s also seen drugs destroy members of his own family. “I got a niece that was fooling around with drugs — she would up with a bad needle, she got AIDS, she’s ready to die in any day. I feel bad about that, but what can I do?”

And that’s why — for his dying niece, for Billie Holiday, for the St. Anne’s altar boy who fell for the lure of easy drug money — he thinks the government should finally try something different. “Frankly, I think they should legalize it all,” Pat says. “As far as the heroin, they should allow that to be taken in hospitals, so patients know it’s clean and they’re not going to use any dirty needles and they’re not going to drop dead from an overdose.”

A few years ago, Pat’s wife took all his jazz records in a divorce. But he still listens to Holiday on the radio, and whenever he hears the mournful joy of that unforgettable voice, the memories and the regrets come roaring back. “Not too long ago I was listening to blues, and she came on and sang a song — that song she used to sing about her man. She used to tear me up when she sang that song.”

http://www.esquire.com/the-side/richardson-report/marijuana-bills-in-congress-2010-011210#ixzz0cnxOXunq

MISS HOLIDAY TO YOU

billie-jpegIn the last few years, I’ve been fortunate enough to be asked to talk to groups, often senior citizens, at libraries and community centers.  And although I started out with literary subjects (Frank O’Connor, William Maxwell, Sylvia Townsend Warner) I decided I might have much more fun talking about Louis, Billie, and Fats.  And that has been the case.

Last Friday morning, I spent a pleasant ninety minutes at the JCC (that’s the Jewish Community Center) in Commack, talking about Billie Holiday to a large group of serious, receptive people.  Of course I played “Miss Brown to You,” “Now They Call It Swing,” “Back in Your Own Backyard,” “Strange Fruit,” “I’ll Be Seeing You,” and the kinescope from The Sound of Jazz where Billie sings “Fine and Mellow.”  I talked about Billie’s Baltimore chum who described her as “don’t-careish,” about Linda Kuehl, Artie Shaw, Lester Young, Count Basie, John Hammond, about gin and heroin, about Louis McKay and Joe Guy, about the jukebox phenomenon that made Billie’s Thirties sessions possible, about Milt Gabler and Billy Crystal.

And the people in the audience were good listeners.  They swayed and rocked to the beat of “Now They Call It Swing,” and one woman in the front softly sang along with “Back in Your Own Backyard.”  “I’ll Be Seeing You” and “Strange Fruit” left them appropriately silent, awed.

But this posting isn’t about my talk so much as it is about the questions it provoked.  “Was Billie Holiday Jewish?” (No, I’m afraid not.)  “Did she have any formal training?” (Ditto.  She didn’t need it, did she?)

The best colloquy came from a well-dressed woman with brown hair and lively eyes.  When I mentioned the blessed name of Hot Lips Page, this woman — twenty rows back — got elated and shot me a huge grin.  I stopped and said, “You know about Lips Page?” and her grin got wider.  I told her that she had to come up after the talk to receive a hug.

Well, she did and I did . . . and it turned out that her parents, who ran twenty-four hour candy / convenience stores, were both mad for music.  Although she was raised as an Orthodox Jew, her mother had taken her and her younger brother to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on Christmas Eve to hear the holy music.  Her first piano teacher was Conrad Janis.  And she recalled other kinds of holiness: Tuesday night jam sessions at Eddie Condon’s, the Suyvesant Casino, the Central Plaza.  Oh, to have had those experiences!  And I hope she reads this blog.  Whoever you are, dear lady, you made my day.  Thank you!

P.S.  The photograph of Billie with her dog comes from http://www.ladyday.net, “The Unofficial Billie Holiday Website,” which has other lovely photographs.