Two photographic treasures. The first, presented by Hugo Dusk, shows Fats Waller holding — not eating — an ice-cream cone. Hugo explains, “On the boardwalk in Old Orchard Beach, Maine, where Fats Waller was appearing at the Old Orchard Pier 6th September 1941.”
It’s clearly a posed shot. The ice cream is untouched and not melting, perilously close to Fats’ sweater. The young lady behind the counter looks as if her smile is genuine, although we note her demurely folded hands. Was it not possible or desirable to show her handing “a Negro” anything? I should also note that this was a summer resort. The weather forecast for September 2017 at Old Orchard Beach has temperatures reaching 80, so the season was not over. Because of that, but we have Fats in less formal garb — but the creases on his shirt sleeves suggest that there is a temporarily discarded suit jacket just out of range.
To return for just a moment to the treacherous chronicle of race politics in 1941, this photograph was possible because Fats Waller was a star. True, a counter separates the two participants: they are not putting two straws into a malted, but stardom, at least for a newspaper photograph, allowed a man of color certain privileges. There is no FOR COLORED ONLY sign here, and we are led to assume, for a moment, that people of all races could come to Old Orchard Beach and enjoy themselves. I hope it was true. But I wonder that what looks like the main street of this resort was The White Way.
And the appropriate soundtrack, free from race hatreds:
The second photograph, still for sale on eBay for $375, comes from the collection of Cleveland, Ohio, native Nat Singerman, whose brother Harvey was the photographer (see the comments section for clarification). Here is the link. It is a candid shot of three members of Louis Armstrong’s All-Stars, standing outside their (unheated) tour bus: string bassist Arvell Shaw, clarinetist Barney Bigard, and drummer Sidney Catlett. Sidney was with the band 1947-1949, so we know the time frame, although my assigning the location to Cleveland is only a guess.
The poses are unrehearsed: Arvell is buttoning or unbuttoning his topcoat; Barney leans back with an inscrutable expression beneath his beautiful hat; Sidney is caught in mid-sentence and mid-gesture, possibly speaking to Nat or to someone on the bus. The eBay seller annotates his prize, “Unusual photograph of jazz greats . . . signed in white ink over the image by Bigard and Shaw. 10 x 8 inches. Tape remnants along the left edge, else fine. From the collection of Nat Singerman, a professional photographer and co-owner of Character Arts Photo Studio in Cleveland, Ohio during the 1940’s and 1950’s. During this period he met and befriended many jazz legends who performed at clubs in and around Cleveland and Chicago. He took many photographs of performances as well as numerous candid shots taken backstage. He also hosted jam sessions and dinners at his studio where other images from the archive were shot.”
However, in September 2013, The New York Times ran color shots of Billie Holiday and identified the photographer as Nat Singerman, earning these responses on a jazz blog:
These are indeed, wonderful photographs. Unfortunately, the photographer has been misidentified. They were taken by Nat’s brother, Harvey Singerman, and my own grandmother, Elaine Pinzone, both of whom worked at Character Arts Studio in Cleveland, Ohio. Arrangements are currently being made with The New York Times to correct the mistake.
and the next day, Ms. Garner continued:
I would very much appreciate you removing his name while we negotiate with The Times to correct this travesty.
Ms. Garner continued — on her own blog — to vehemently state that Nat took none of the photos and had stolen credit from Harvey and Elaine (the latter, 1914-1976, if the Social Security records are correct).
I can’t delve deeper into that: however, from the signatures on the photograph, it’s clear that Nat brought the developed photograph to wherever Arvell and Barney were playing, and asked them to autograph it to him. I suspect that the musicians would not have said, “Hey, Nat! Where are Harvey and Elaine?”
But back to my chosen subject.
It would be very easy to draw from this photograph a moral about those same race relations: if you were African-American but not a star in Fats Waller’s league, there might be few places that would serve you dinner. I imagine Sidney being turned away from a restaurant — even in Cleveland, Ohio — because of his skin color. Or that he could buy food from the kitchen but couldn’t eat it there. But other interpretations must be considered.
After Sidney’s death, a number of musicians (Louis and the bassist John Simmons come to mind) spoke of how he was often late — having too good a time — so that might explain why he is the only one in the photograph who appears to not have eaten. Too, the All-Stars covered many miles between gigs on that bus, so the road manager, “Frenchy,” might have said, “You have ten minutes to get some food, and if you’re not back, the _______ bus is leaving without you.”
A mystery too large to solve, especially at this distance in time. I hope the dinner in Sidney’s covered dish was memorable, just as I hope that Fats got to enjoy his ice cream before it melted.
In honor of those hopes, the appropriate soundtrack here (could it be otherwise?) is the blues from the Armstrong All-Stars’ concert at Boston’s Symphony Hall, featuring Sidney and called STEAK FACE. (Of course, for those in the know, that sobriquet refers to “General,” Louis’ Boston terrier, not Sid.) You’ll hear Sidney, Barney, Arvell, Louis, Dick Cary, and Jack Teagarden:
Thanks to David Fletcher, who, whether he knows it or not, has encouraged me to dig into such questions with the energy of a terrier puppy destroying a couch.
May your happiness increase!