Tag Archives: rare letters

“FINE GIRLS,” “REALLY TOO TIGHT,” “I AM GOING TO TRY SO HARD TO DREAM OF YOU”: PROFILES IN HISTORY: LOUIS and BILLIE

On one of my rare audio visits to National Public Radio, I learned of an esteemed auction house that deals in the rarest paper documents — PROFILES IN HISTORY.

They are currently auctioning off the treasures of an American collector whose specialty was “everyday life” of the greatest mortals: thus, letters written by people whom we revere for their art — but letters that show them at home, being thankful, ordering a new pair of eyeglasses, listening to the radio.  Immortals being mortal, perhaps.

The trove is astonishing and the catalogue is no less so.  Below I have copied excerpts from two pieces of paper that I know JAZZ LIVES readers will find uplifting and sad, respectively.  The first — hooray!  has Louis listening to the radio . . . writing happily about the Boswell Sisters.  (God bless the Boswell Sisters.  God bless Connee, Vet, and Martha, and their family.  And that is not a digression.)  And he delights in the 1933 Ellington Orchestra.

216. Armstrong, Louis. Autograph letter signed (“Louis Satchmo Armstrong”), 5 pages, (11 x 8 ½ in.; 279 x 216 mm.), “Chicago,” 5 April 1933 to an unidentified friend “Gate”; soiled, small splits at folds.

Excerpts:

I’ve just gotten back home from my Tour down South – we had a lovely time. Everybody was so glad to see me and- you know? – all the ‘Buh lony’ that goes along with it. Ha. Ha. But sho ‘nuff Gate I am having a grand time on my tours.

I am now sitting home in my dining room with some of the folks at home and we are listening to the Radio. A swell program is now in session. The Three Keys are now getting away ‘righteously’. Late that Cats are after the Mills Brothers own hearts. But I am still Crazy over those Boswell Sisters. Bless their hearts. They are from my home town, you know? Fine Girls.  They think I am the Last word. They played here at the Chicago Theatre the same week we played the Palace Theatre. Ol Amos ‘N’ Andy’s just comin in on the radio. They are still funny. They ‘ll soon be making another movie so you all’l get another chance to see the funny boys again. Like Em? I bet your little boy does.

Boy, you’re right, when you said we broke all records for doubling from the Trocadero – to the Hobborn Empire Theatres. Some quick connections I really mean. Ha. Ha. We was known to make time, Eh? Gizzard? Ha. Ha.

So by now it’s the wee hours in the morning – And we’re now listening to Duke Ellington’s Orchestra whom has just return ‘d to the Famous Cotton Club in New York. Boy they are raising H— no foolin’ My. My. My. What a band. Ol Duke has a new trombone player from California that’s really too tight. His name is Lawrence Brown. He was in my orchestra when I was in Hollywood the year of 1930. He’s a trombone hound…

$3,000 – $5,000 (that’s the estimate for bids)

The second letter is as tragic as the first is sunny: Billie Holiday to her then-husband Joe Guy, while they were both in different jails.  What can one say for sorrow?

226. Holiday, Billie (Eleanora Fagan). Poignant autograph letter signed (“Lady Billie Holiday”), in pencil, 2 pages (10 ¼ x 8 in.; 260 x 203 mm.), Box No. PMB A, “Alderson, West Virginia,” 12 July 1947 to her husband, Joseph Guy, 10 Reed St., County Prison, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; the letter is stamped “CENSORED BY:” (and initialed) at the top of page one.

Joe Darling.

Your letter just arrived and it just makes me sick the way people set there sevls [their selves] up to be so true blue. Bama [trumpeter Carl “Bama” Warwick] has told everybody on the street he gave you money a darlor [dollar] indeed could he spare it. As for Bobby [pianist Bobby Tucker] I am sure he will send you some when he can. He said he had to wait until pay day and as you know sweetheart he has got a wife and two kids. But hasn’t he wrote to you yet. He owes me a letter also. Well hes working on 52 nd st and has to travel way over to Jersey. But I don’t think he will let us down. We are going to the Movies tonight so I will finish this when I get back.

Well baby I am back from the Movies it was called Sister Kennedy [Sister Kenny, 1946] with Rosland Russel [Rosalind Russell]. It was a very good picture but it made me kind of sad thinking about the last show we seen together odd man out [“Odd Man Out”, 1947] rember [remember] I shall never forget darling its lights out now so I will finish this in the morning. I am going to try so hard to dream of you. Don’t laugh. Sometimes I am lucky and can there goes the lights Well darling its night again. After I got thru [through] my work today I just couldn’t write. I cried for the first time. Oh darling I love you so much I am so sorry you have to stay there in Phila. It must be awfully hot. Yes baby I gained nine pounds and I am getting biger all the time gee you wont love me fat (smile) But you must look wonderful. Youer [you are] so tall and you needed some weight. So thank heavens for that and what ever happens at your trial sweetheart keep your chin up don’t let nothing get you down. It won’t be long before were together agian [again]. My lights has been out every [ever] since I last saw you. But they will go on agian for us all over the world. Write to me Joe as soon as you can. Ill always love you as ever your Lady Billie Holiday.

$ 6,000 – 8,000.

Visit PROFILES IN HISTORY even if you don’t have thousands of dollars to spend on holiday gifts.  The letters are frankly astonishing, and the catalogue puts Eubie Blake next to Johannes Brahms, so someone knows where One is.

May your happiness increase.

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“GRATEFULLY YOURS, RUBY BRAFF”

The stories of Ruby Braff’s anger are based on fact: he seemed to enjoy being assertively irascible — not pretending to be a charming curmudgeon.  And he also apparently took special perverse pleasure in verbally abusing those in a position to help him.  “Idiot,” “asshole,” “and “moron” were favorite vocabulary words.

But Ruby was capable of gentleness and sweetness that he has never been credited for.  Those qualities weren’t restricted to the sounds that came out of his cornet.

In 1971, when I was nineteen, some friends and I went to hear Ruby for the first time.  He was playing at the Half Note, a jazz club that stood at the corner of Spring and Hudson Streets in New York City.  (Now that corner is a parking lot.)

I brought my cassette recorder (an archivist in the making, I think now) and recorded an evening of Ruby and a rhythm section: I recall drummer Dottie Dodgion, pianist Don Friedman, possibly bassist Victor Sproles.  Late in the evening, Ruby’s Boston pal, reedman Sam Margolis, sat in — bringing his own brand of Louis, Lester, and Bud Freeman to the proceedings.

At the end of the night, I told Ruby that if he would like, I would be happy to send copies of the tapes.  He agreed, wrote down his address, and the very brief Braff-Steinman correspondence began.

(Thanks to Braff scholar Tom Hustad, author of the soon-to-be-published discography of Ruby, BORN TO PLAY [from Scarecrow Press], for taking such good care of these letters for the last ten years.  The water stains are mine or Ruby’s, not his.)

Here is the first letter, written with that Flair pen we were all so fond of then:

Even faced with technical difficulties, Ruby hardly sounds bad-mannered or abrasive.

I can’t recall exactly what I had written that prompted Ruby’s gentle, amused response.  Perhaps I might have talked of the great pleasure it was to hear him play, and lamented that the world wasn’t aware of his beautiful music.  But, reading this letter forty years later, I am touched by his consoling phrases, “I suspect you suffer from having a brain, and having a heart.  Don’t be alarmed.  There are many people on the planet who are the same way.  You’re not alone.  It’s fun.”

Emboldened by his empathy, I sent Ruby cassettes of what he had played — and didn’t hear back for some time.  But when I did, it was still a pleasure.

I smile at Ruby’s reaction to his own playing — off-speed and drowned out by the piano.  I didn’t quite understand it then, but erasing my tapes to make space for Fats Waller seems appropriate.

I think that his closing phrase had become “Affectionately Yours,” words to treasure.  For the archivists in the audience, here are the envelopes.  Neither Ruby nor I live where we did in 1971, but every scrap of such sweetness is worth preserving.

On the darkest day, I can remind myself that once, for however brief a time, Ruby Braff thought of me with gratitude, empathy, and affection.  Those aren’t bad memories to have.