Tag Archives: race prejudice

OUR MAN DAN: DAN MORGENSTERN TELLS TALES of COZY COLE, BENNY CARTER, MILT HINTON, LOUIS ARMSTRONG, TEDDY WILSON, COUNT BASIE, JOHN COLTRANE, ROY ELDRIDGE, JOE WILDER, ED BERGER, and PERRY COMO (June 8, 2018)

Dan Morgenstern, now 89, is so full of wonderful stories — sharply-realized, hilarious, sad — that my job as a visitor with a camera has usually been to set up the video equipment, do a sound check, ask a leading question, and sit back in bliss.  Here’s the first half of my June 2018 visit to Dan’s nest.  Beautiful narratives are all nicely set out for us.

I’d already posted the first one — a total surprise, a heroic reaction to injustice — but I would like more people to hear and see it:

More about Cozy Cole and friends, including Milt Hinton, Cab Calloway, and a hungry Benny Carter:

More about Milt Hinton, with wonderful anecdotes about Louis and Joe Glaser, Dizzy Gillespie, Cozy Cole, and Mel Lewis:

And some beautiful stories about Count Basie — including Dan’s attendance at a Town Hall concert with Basie, Roy Eldridge, and John Coltrane:

Finally (for this posting — there will be a continuation) memories of Joe Wilder, Ed Berger, with a comment about Roy Eldridge:

That we have Dan Morgenstern with us to tell such tales is a wonderful thing.  As Louis said to the King, “This one’s for you, Rex!”

May your happiness increase!

Advertisements

A BLUE-EYED PAIR and A WEE HEAD

Small painful ironies emerge even in the midst of listening to and thinking about beautiful music. Ivie Anderson and the Duke Ellington Orchestra recorded the Edgar Leslie-Joe Burke song AT A DIXIE ROADSIDE DINER in July 1940 and played it on a broadcast:

The elaborate video production is the work of Tim Gracyk. But what concerns me is that these African-American musicians were singing and playing a love song in praise of a specific locale “in the heart of Caroline,” a favorite of New York City / Hollywood songwriters — where a blue-eyed pair fall in love.  However, when the Ellington band toured the American South, the roadside diners wouldn’t allow them inside or sell them food. Did it hurt to sing and play this song?

On that same emotional path . . . Lorenz Hart was a gay man at a time when his love had to be concealed.  (And he thought himself physically unattractive.)  But he spent his career turning out one song after another in praise of heterosexual bliss, or at least bliss that a heterosexual listening public could identify as their kind of attachment.  “With your wee head upon me knee,” in BLUE ROOM, is the first example that comes to mind, and there are many more.  It’s very clearly a he-and-she marriage with a trousseau, the prospect of children, and more, in this sweet performance from 1926 by the Revelers.

Did that wound him with each new song? We can’t know, but merely considering these hurts is in itself painful.

May your happiness increase!

IRRESISTIBLE READING: “TRAVELS WITH LOUIS” and “RIDING ON DUKE’S TRAIN”

I have to tell you about two jazz books that have given me immense pleasure: Mick Carlon’s TRAVELS WITH LOUIS and RIDING ON DUKE’S TRAIN.  Yes, they are officially “children’s books” or “YA fiction,” but I delighted in every page.

I confess that I initially resisted both of Carlon’s books for reasons peculiar to me.  I was a precocious sort who grew up among adult readers and got into their books as soon as I could.  So I have no deep connections to children’s literature. And having seen some books “about jazz” or “about jazz heroes and heroines” for children, books that were inaccurate, oversimplified, or were unintentionally condescending, I was exceedingly wary of the genre. (Much “adult” fiction about jazz strikes me the same way, including the revered Baldwin story “Sonny’s Blues.”)

Because I’ve spent my life studying and revering Louis and Duke, I was ready to pick a fight with any book that didn’t do them justice. So even though both books had been praised by people I respect — Dan Morgenstern, George Avakian, Nat Hentoff, Jack Bradley, even Ruby Braff — I found other things to read.

But when the books came to me, I decided to treat them fairly. Within twenty pages into TRAVELS WITH LOUIS I was hooked.  I am a quick reader, and yesterday and today you could have found me ignoring what I was supposed to be doing to sneak in a few more pages. (This, for me, is the test of fiction: do I care about the characters and what happens to them?  If not, down the book goes, no matter how respected the author.)

Both these books are heartfelt, endearing, and the jazz heroes come off true to their essential selves.  Louis first.

TRAVELS WITH LOUIS follows a twelve-year old African-American neighbor of Louis’ — little Fred Bradley — who is an aspiring trumpeter.  Louis is his neighbor, supremely kind not only to Fred but to all his neighbors (something we know to be true) and the book charts their sweet relationship as Fred grows as a young man and an aspiring musician.  I won’t give away the plot, but it isn’t all ice cream and good times: there is grief over a parent’s death, race prejudice, a sit-in in a Southern town, failure, embarrassment, danger.  But Fred’s love for the music, for his family, and for his Corona world shines through.  And Louis is a beaming avuncular presence not only for Fred but for us.  In some ways, this book is the fulfillment of what must have been the dream of many: “Suppose Louis Armstrong was my friend and I could hang out with him!”  The book is not restricted to one Corona street, and the outside world intrudes, but I will leave those episodes for readers, without spoiling their surprises.  (But Langston Hughes, John Lewis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Duke Ellington make appearances, speaking convincing dialogue and acting in ways that don’t seem out of character.)

Carlon is an easy, plain-spoken writer who has avoided many traps. For one thing, he has based his knowledge of Louis on first-hand real-life experience: twenty years of conversations with Jack Bradley, who loved and loves Louis deeply and followed him everywhere.  So one never feels that the author is at a distance from his subject — picking up his subject’s DNA from hours in the library.  Affection is the spine of this book, and I had tears in my eyes more than once.  Carlon also has neatly sidestepped areas of Louis’ life that would be troublesome for a YA audience.  Louis doesn’t tell dirty jokes, nor does he smoke pot in front of Little Fred, but that seems true to life.  The slippery presence of Joe Glaser doesn’t pop up here, and that’s a relief.

RIDING ON DUKE’S TRAIN, Carlon’s first book, is in some ways even more ambitious, because it attempts to portray Ellington (that intriguing mixture of declarations of verbal love and a deep distance from anyone) as well as his 1937-39 band here and in Europe. I was charmed by his portrayal of Ivie Anderson, both gentle and salty, of Juan Tizol, of all the Ellingtonians.  Django Reinhardt shows up here, as do the Nazis and the Swing Kids — in this tale of nine-year old Danny, an African-American Georgia orphan who finds himself nearly adopted by the whole band, especially Rex Stewart, and begins a career in Ellingtonia.  At times I thought Danny was much more eloquent and perceptive than a nine-year old might be expected to be, but then again, the young Danny is a quick study and the narrator is Danny, grown much older, who is telling his story retrospectively (a device often used by the Irish writer Frank O’Connor.)

Both books work.  I love this music and the people who create it so much that if I am taken to a film with jazz in it, I will be muttering to myself, “That record wasn’t out in 1944,” and “People didn’t use that expression in 1939,” but I had very little of that bristling in either book.  Of course the jazz scholars among us can pick at some of Carlon’s poetic license: “Louis never played POTATO HEAD BLUES in his shows.”  “Louis never played the Village Vanguard.”  “Sonny Greer wasn’t tall.”  “Billy Taylor was Duke’s bassist then, not Jimmie Blanton.”  “Where’s Strayhorn?” And the scholars would be right.

But Carlon is writing fiction, not a discography, and it is much easier to criticize someone’s efforts for their imperfections than it is to create them.

And the poetic license ultimately isn’t the point.

These books aren’t written to please adults who have spent their lives figuring out what ever happened to the Hot Choruses cylinders, but for new audiences. Heaven knows jazz needs new audiences!  Carlon is writing for the next generation who might, let us hope, be stirred by these fast-moving, varied human stories here to check out what Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington sounded like.

And who knows?  Conversion experiences have happened with less inspiring encouragement than these two books offer.  All I can say is that I am looking forward to Mick’s next book, GIRL SINGER, which will have a female protagonist (hooray!) and be set in 1938 with a band out of Kansas City led by a pianist named Basie.  It should swing.

Rather than keep these books on my shelf, I’m giving them away to jazz friends I know who have young children: it couldn’t hurt.  I encourage you — even if you think you know all about Louis and Duke — to buy copies of these books, read them, savor them, and then give them away to the youngbloods we know. Something good could happen.

You can purchase the two books in the usual places, and you can find out more about Mick Carlon here.

May your happiness increase!

THE BAD OLD DAYS

We still recoil in horror and shame when confronted with photographs of COLORED and WHITE drinking fountains and entrances . . . or at least I hope we do.  And I know that Alistair Cooke’s announcements on the jam sessions broadcast for the BBC in the late Thirties — announcing players by race, as if radio listeners needed to be protected from Negritude entering their living rooms — still startle unpleasantly.  But what should we make of this article, possibly sold around 1939?

AN ANTHOLOGY OF COLORED JAZZ

Was Decca suggesting that this was “authentic,” as in “We have the real stuff on our records,” an attempt to woo the JAZZMEN audience, or was it a way of warning off a racially-charged audience, “This is that degenerate stuff.  Keep the women and children a safe distance away”?

I can’t tell.  But since I think few listeners have their music categorized by racial / ethnic characteristics, this record album has not lost its potential to shock.

The music inside, of course, is colorful yet without pigmentation.

May your happiness increase!

“RACE RECORDS”

Often insulting, demeaning pictures — to sell extraordinary music, primarily to the audience being mocked by the pictures.

Records falling from the skies seems a good thing, but not for shellac 78s.

The “Dusky Stevedore” singing down on the levee — material for a sozen popular songs of the period.

Those colored people were very superstitious, you know.

And their home life was sometimes less than orthodox or well-behaved.

This, from the label that brought us Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven.

Splendidly offensive — nineteenth-century caricature.

At least this advertisement — straightforward and plain — doesn’t thumb its nose at the people expected to buy the product. 

What’s the moral?  Perhaps it is that beauty, given enough time, transcends such condescension and prejudice.

CELEBRATING FRANK NEWTON AND PEE WEE RUSSELL

I wish that the title of this posting referred to some newly unearthed recordings that had both of these jazz poets improvising together.  Unfortunately, although such a meeting might have taken place, the recorded evidence may not exist.

Newton, whom I’ve written about before, remains beautiful yet shadowy.  The sensitivity we hear in his playing also made him one of jazz’s revered yet most elusive figures.  That same sensitivity apparently made him a man greatly burdened by the injustices around him: racial prejudice coupled with the inartistic nature of “the music business.”  Surely the frequent periods of illness he suffered were not merely the result of a frail constitution: he had power and self-assurance.  But they seem to be necessary periods of retreat from a world that repelled him.

Pee Wee Russell lived longer and had more opportunities to play and create alongside everyone from Arthur Schutt to Bobby Hackett to Thelonious Monk.  But he, too, was hampered by factors that he must have found demeaning: the musicians who had once cherished him treated him more as a clownish spectacle, someone who made freakish sounds and faces.

But there’s good news — so remarkable that only italics are suitable:

The Jazz Museum in Harlem will be devoting a Saturday afternoon to Newton and Russell.

On March 28, from 10 to 4, they will be celebrating the lives of these two creative improvisers.  Not, mind you, in the usual way, by simply playing their records.  I would guess that they would show us Newton and Russell on film (Pee Wee shows up in a variety of contexts over the years; Newton, I believe, is only visible once, if that).  But we will get to hear about these two men from people who were there. Readers of this blog will know the value I place on first-hand testimony, especially since the original players and the people who witnessed their miraculous work are becoming fewer.

Here’s the list of esteemed, eloquent testifiers: Nat Hentoff, Dan Morgenstern, George Avakian, and George Wein.

The panel will be held at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem Visitors’ Center, at 104 East 126th Street.  And it’s free.  “Don’t miss it!” is a real cliche when the event doesn’t warrant it, but it means something for an event like this.  And in the meantime, I hope readers can remind themselves of the beauties Newton and Russell created for us to hear.