Tag Archives: World War Two

“MY DAD, A HUGE JAZZ FAN”: NIGHTS AT NICK’S and MUSIC AS MEDICINE

Some time back, I received the following note from Bruce MacIntyre:

My dad, a huge jazz fan, left me an extensive autograph collection, many of which I’ve framed. Mostly musicians & movie stars. One piece, however, I can’t frame since both sides of the piece are desirable for viewing. The piece is a small handbill from Nick’s, but not the postcard that is widely seen, though the same size. “Every Monday Night Jam Session” and “Every Sunday 4-8 P.M. Jazz Session”. Etc. appears on the front.

NICK'S front

The reason I can’t frame it is the reverse side. Autographs by Pee Wee Russell, Muggsy Spanier, Gene Schroeder, and the great Miff Mole. There are also 2 others, Joe Granso, and Bert Mazer. My Dad was there one night when they played.

NICK's rearI asked Bruce if he wanted to add anything to this story, and he certainly did:

My father, Robert MacIntyre, worked for Postal Telegraph as a teenager, delivering messages at the Baltimore’s Penn Station. He’d asked celebrities to sign their message and return it to him, thus staring a huge autograph collection. Most of those still have the Postal Telegraph masthead showing on the autograph.

In those days, VIP’s traveled without the big entourage and would gladly give a person an autograph. Harry James, Gene Krupa, Glenn Miller, Dooley Wilson, Robert Ripley, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, even Eleanor Roosevelt stood there an autographed a message from her husband the President! (It’s a very long list.) Then Dad was drafted and served in Europe, including the Battle of the Bulge.

His sisters feared they’d never see him again, but just in case he returned, they wanted to add to his collection. That’s how he got Red Skelton, Joie Chitwood, and many others, including the 2 handbills I shared with you.
Dad returned from WWII, a little worse for wear. I can’t overemphasize the importance of swing jazz to Dad & his fellow soldiers. Dad had very little to say about anything, and even less to say about his service, except where his music was concerned. Soldiers had the habit of taking a popular jazz tune and replacing the words with their own. As juvenile as that may sound, when you are scared shitless and wishing for your own demise as a way out, singing Pennsylvania 6-5000 with off-color lyrics helped our brave men keep their feet on the ground.
One final note, when Parkinson’s disease got the best of him and he was frozen stiff, unable to speak or even open his eyes, I took my Walkman (1999), clamped the headphones on him, and played him some Louis Prima (yes, Dad had his autograph). Dad’s eyes opened, he tried speaking, and despite the trembling, was trying to tap his toes.
Music as medicine.
A man’s love for the music; a son’s love for his father.  Thank you, Bruce and Robert MacIntyre, for reminding us of the healing powers of the music we love.
May your happiness increase!
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ONCE THERE WAS A HOUSE ON FIFTY-SECOND STREET (Henry “Red” Allen, 1946)

The Soundies — a kind of early video jukebox — seem very primitive today.  Watch more than two at a time by the same band, and it’s clear they were done rapidly, cheaply, and without much emphasis on variety.  The same sets and presentation continue throughout a series,  and the musicians are clearly miming to a pre-recorded soundtrack.  But how else would we see Henry “Red” Allen and his sidekick J. C. Higginbotham in performance in 1946?

This Soundie — HOUSE ON 52nd STREET — was not intended as a follow-up to Red’s moody THERE’S A HOUSE IN HARLEM, but it seems an extension of songs like GIMME A PIGFOOT and THE JOINT IS JUMPIN’ — efforts to invent a party scene in less than three minutes.

Its rather thin melody and lyrics already must have seemed nostalgic for a scene rapidly slipping away. By 1946, I think “the Street” was in decline: the returning servicemen had already decided to take their girlfriends to the suburbs, own some lawn, raise families — and I do not scoff at these activities, for they delineate aspects of my early life . . . but domesticity meant that you didn’t stay up late listening to jazz in the city.  And then there was television, a few years later . . .

In Manhattan, I believe that the block between Sixth and Seventh Avenues on Fifty-Second Street is called SWING STREET on the green-and-white sign, but that’s possibly the only thing swinging there now.

But we can return to this invented scene — sixty-five years ago now! — and hear Red, Higgy, Don Stovall, alto; Bill Thompson, piano; Benny Moten, string bass; Alvin Burroughs, drums; Johni Weaver and Harry Turner, dancers.  And Red obviously didn’t develop his stage presence only at the Metropole: he has it here, exuberantly selling this song:

Thanks again to Franz Hoffmann for delving even deeper into his treasure-chest and letting us see and hear these prizes.

LESTER YOUNG’S MESSAGE: “BLITZKRIEG BABY”

This March 10, 1941 recording is not as well-known in the Lester Young canon as it should be.  Singer / pianist Una Mae Carlisle, a Fats Waller protege, landed a Bluebird Records date, possibly with the help of Fats.  Carlisle was an engaging, low-key singer.  How she and Lester Young’s short-lived little band came together in the studio has never been established, but it was fortunate for us and for posterity.

If you were a singer looking for the best band in that year, the choice would have been simple, given the perfect accompaniment and solos Lester had been playing with Billie Holiday for the previous four years.  The rest of the band — Shad Collins, trumpet; Clyde Hart, piano; John Collins, guitar; Nick Fenton, bass; Harold “Doc” West, drums — was also splendid, although to my ears they sound slightly hesitant, perhaps constrained by their roles in the recording studio.

The song (one of four) we are considering is unambitious, its lyrics odd: an attempt to blend current events — the German bombings — with a cautionary love song to an undefined lover.  Is the person being addressed an actual soldier or simply someone the singer wants to threaten by violence into good behavior?  The lyrics speak of bombing, a hand grenade, a parachute, propaganda, the infantry, a raid, dynamite; the only peaceful comment is about neutrality, which seems forlorn.  A perverse romantic utterance at best.

But the music shows once again how great jazz musicians and singers make the thinnest material imperishably beautiful.  The record begins with a thump leading us into an ensemble passage — a trumpet-tenor riff that would have been well-trodden by 1941.  (Quick, on which Louis recording did it first appear?) And the rhythm section, although everyone is pointed in the right direction, is more steadfast than airborne, heavier than the Basie ideal.  Carlisle’s cheerful, earnest-though-amused reading of the lyrics lightens the collective gravity, and Shad Collins’ muted arabesques behind her vocal don’t sound like anyone else’s — although muted trumpet behind a singer was also a familiar convention.  But aside from his brief appearance in harmony with Collins to start, Lester has been silent.

But he emerges into the sunlight in the second chorus, beginning with a simple ascending three-note phrase I associate with the exposition of a twelve-bar blues chorus, then after a brief pause for breath — and space — expanding that initial statement into a line that winds and climbs, not quickly or predictably, taking its time, the notes climbing a stairway that Lester is creating at the moment he ascends and descends, dipping down in the middle of the phrase before climbing easily again.  Visually, it might be a line drawn by William Steig.

So it might seem that Lester has offered us three improvisations on a simple climbing motif — not surprising, because many solos start low and climb for pure drama.  All this has happened in the space of fifteen seconds. Were we watching the original record move on, the stylus and tone arm tracing preordained paths through the grooves, it would seem as if a great distance had been traveled, the needle moving more quickly than the notes, bringing us that much closer to the end of the performance.

But Lester thought structurally: a sixteen-bar solo had its own logic, a balance apparent to the ear and would be visible in a transcription to someone who could only observe Up and Down, Long and Short.

A more conventional player would have repeated and varied the upwards motif (a trumpet player might have embellished the initial phrase until it would end on an impressive high note) — but Lester’s imagination was more spacious, and by 1941 he had heard thousands of formulaic solos next to him on bandstands across the country.

The second half of his too-brief solo begins from a height — although not “high” — that his first exploration has barely hinted at.  And Lester, having climbed his imaginary stairway, then proceeds to play on it as if he were a child rolling down those same stairs, one downwards-moving phrase tumbling after another, without haste or urgency, ending his solo with an echo (or a playful parody?) of the first upward phrase with which he began.

Lester’s solo is at most thirty seconds long. To ears accustomed to life after Bird, Trane, Ornette, Braxton, it seems simple, unadorned, even plain (leaving aside that dark creamy tone, the rubato hesitations and anticipations too subtle to notate).  But like a great Japanese brush painting, its magnificence is in the depths under its apparent ease.  Following Lester, pianist Clyde Hart, harmonically subtle and swinging, offers his own version of Basie-and-minimalist-stride that (one says ruefully) seems heavy in comparison with Lester’s ease.

When Una Mae Carlisle returns for her second exposition of the lyrics, the horns riff around and behind her: Shad Collins plays straight man to Lester, offering a simple phrase that Lester weaves around rather like ivy twining around a post.  I recall what Lester and Roy Eldridge create in the final minutes of Billie Holiday’s LAUGHING AT LIFE.  Shad and Lester offer a quiet miniature of the Basie band in performance, the saxophones explaining the truth to the trumpets or the reverse.  Lester seems to converse with his friend Shad while the rhythm and the bar lines move along beneath them, until the gentle festivities have to come to an ending.

Hear for yourself:

As always, Lester’s playing has so much to say to us, seventy and more years after he created it.  He speaks to us.  And although he seems like the least didactic of men, he has much to tell us by his example:

Use simple materials but treat them reverently.  No matter how few measures you have to say your piece, make it beautiful.  

Go your own way but don’t be bizarre for the sake of novelty.  Surprise us but don’t shock us. 

Honor the other members of the ensemble by making sure they sound good.  Give everyone a chance to shine. 

Take your time.  Breathe deeply.  Do nothing by rote.  Float on the rhythm.

Even if the lyrics speak of death and imminent destruction, don’t let anyone mess up your cool (to quote Vic Dickenson).

And — as a final sad irony — Lester could make beauty out of the impending blitzkrieg, but the Army didn’t see fit to extend him reciprocal courtesies.  But on March 10, 1941, he was on his own sweetly winding, hopeful path.  We can follow him always.

GORDON AU’S GRAND STREET STOMPERS with TAMAR KORN at RADEGAST (March 30, 2011)

The Grand Street Stompers (led by trumpeter, composer, and arranger Gordon Au) made a return visit to the Radegast Bierhall on Wednesday, March 30, 2011 — and I got myself there without mishap.  Brooklyn is still mysterious to me, but the mysts are beginning to lift.

With Gordon were Emily Asher (trombone), Dennis Lichtman (clarinet), Peter Maness (bass), Nick Russo (guitar and banjo and the proud father of five-month twins!), and Tamar Korn.  A small firmament of jazz stars (who will blush at this characterization).

Please listen to the band — not only the soloists, but to the textures they and Gordon create, moving back and forth between the Creole Jazz Band of 1922 and the Birth of the Cool of 1949 and the Grand Street Stompers of 2011.  No dull spots or routines: nifty head arrangements, split choruses, a neat orchestral sensibility!

I always found W.C. Handy’s OLE MISS irresistible — named for an especially speedy railroad train — whether it was played by the Condon gang at Town Hall or by Louis and the All-Stars.  This version pleases me immensely: its leisurely, rocking tempo and the alternating keys (I asked Gordon — F and Ab) from chorus to chorus.   And I love impromptu riffs:

Here’s Gordon’s own THIRTIETH STREET THINGAMAJIG, which would sound like a Sixties “Dixieland composition” (and that’s a compliment) until you notice the unusual chord changes throughout.  Not the usual thing or thingamajig at all:

How about going UP A LAZY RIVER with Miss Tamar?  A good idea:

Is it true that Glenn Miller was working undercover for Eisenhower and the entire “small-plane-and-bad-weather” story was made up to conceal the facts?  It wouldn’t surprise me (Joe Yukl would now)  . . . but what we have here is a pretty rendition of his theme, MOONLIGHT SERENADE, with unusual twists — Bubber Miley meets the Schillinger system:

And here’s CRAZY EYES — a hilarious modern love song with music and lyrics by Gordon.  To learn the lyrics, I think you’ll have to purchase the Stompers’ new CD . . . watch this space for late-breaking news:

Thank you, gentlemen and ladies of the GSS!

JUST PERFECT, THANK YOU

As a long-time jazz listener, I find myself mentally editing and revising many recordings (silently, without moving my lips).  “Tempo’s too fast for that song, “”That side would have been even better if the tempo had stayed steady,” or “Why couldn’t he have taken just one more chorus?”  Since the musicians can’t hear my silent amending and since the recordings remain their essential character, I think I am permitted this fussy but harmless pastime.  Fruitless, of course, but amusing exercises in alternate-universe construction that serious readers of fiction know well: every close reader is by definition an unpaid and unheard editor.  

But there are some jazz recordings no one could improve on.  Here are two flawless sides.     

This music was issued on a non-commercial V-Disc (“V” stands for Victory) recorded during the Second World War especially for the men and women in the armed forces.  The musicians gave their services for free; the sessions were supervised by (among others) George T. Simon; the discs were 12″ rather than the usual 10″, allowing for blessedly longer performances.  And many sessions took place after midnight, when the musicians had finished their gigs, lending them a certain looseness; as well, the recording companies gave up their usual restrictions, so that musicians under contract to one label were free to cross over from the land of, say, Victor, into Decca. 

This October 1943 session was led by Teddy Wilson (itself a near-guarantee of success); it is a quartet taken from his working sextet, which would have also included Benny Morton (trombone) and Johnny Williams or Al Hall (bass).  Perhaps those men were tired after a night’s work; perhaps they didn’t want to record without getting paid.  But as much as I revere Morton and Williams or Hall, the men who remained made irreplaceable music. 

What follows is a series of impressionistic notes on the music: keen listeners will hear much more as they immerse themselves in the music, as I’ve been doing for thirty-five years. 

The four voices are powerful ones — Wilson, Sidney Catlett, Ed Hall, and Joe Thomas — but this quartet is not a display of clashing ego.  Of the four, Thomas is least known, but his work here is deeply moving. 

After the little end-of-tune flourish that brings on Wilson’s (scripted) introduction, his harmonically-deep, crystalline lines and embellishments float over Sidney’s steady brush tread (forceful but not loud.  I think of the padding of a large animal in slippers).  Wilson’s second chorus is pushed forward by a Catlett accent early on; the two men dance above and around the chords and rhythm. 

In the third chorus, Hall joins them: as much as I admire the Goodman Trio, how unfortunate that this group never was asked to record — Hall’s tonal variations are beyond notating, in their own world. 

Thomas’s entry, clipped but mobile, provokes Catlett into tap-dance figures.  No one’s ever matched Joe’s tone, velvet with strength beneath it, the slight quavers and variations making it a human voice.  The annunciatory figure midway through his chorus is a trademark, those repeated notes looking backwards to 1927 Louis and forward to a yet-unrecorded Ruby Braff.  (Thomas was Frank Newton’s favorite trumpet player, a fact I can’t over-emphasize.)  He seems to stay close to the melody, but the little slurs and hesitations, the dancing emphases of particular notes are masterful, the result of a lifetime spent quietly embellishing the written music, making it entirely personal. 

And then Sidney comes on.  The sound of his brushwork is slightly muffled and muddied by the 78 surface, but his figures are joyous, especially his double-timing, the closing cymbal splashes.  Try to listen to his solo and remain absolutely still: hard, if not impossible! 

Then the ensemble plays (with everyone facing in the same direction, not breathing hard) a variation on the melody — something taken for granted well before the official birth of bop — with a jammed bridge in the middle.  Notice how Catlett and Wilson ornament and encourage the line that the two horns share.  And the side concludes with a little jam session finish (Sidney urging everyone on) with Thomas recalling the “Shoot the likker to me, John boy,” that was already a familiar convention perhaps eight years before. 

Incidentally, the swing players had discovered HOW HIGH THE MOON as early as 1940: Roy Eldridge and Benny Carter, guest stars on a Fred Rich Vocalion session in that year, improvise on it.

As delightful as I find HOW HIGH THE MOON, the masterpiece –subtler, sorrowing — is RUSSIAN LULLABY.  Berlin’s melody was already familiar, and I wonder what thoughts of the Russian Front might have been going through the heads of these four players, what political or global subtext. 

Often LULLABY is taken briskly, but this version is true to its title.  After Wilson’s introduction, Joe essays the melody: if he had recorded nothing else than this statement, I’d hail his unique trumpet voice: his tone, his vibrato, his use of space, his pacing.  Hall sings quietly behind him — but that soaring, melancholy bridge is a creation that is both of the trumpet and transcending it.  I hear the passion of an aria in those eight bars, with little self-dramatization.   

Wilson, following him, is serious, his lines restating and reshaping.  (Some listeners find Wilson’s arpeggios and runs so distracting that they miss out on his melodic invention: he was a superb composer-at-the-keyboard, and his solo lines, transcribed for a horn, would seem even more stunning.  Not accidentally, he learned a great deal about melodic embellishment and solo construction from his stint in Louis Armstrong’s 1933 band.) 

Keeping Wilson’s mood, Catlett plays very quietly, although you know he’s there.  Hall’s approach is more forceful and Catlett follows suit. 

Then . . . a drum solo?  At this tempo?  Most drummers would have found it hard to be as relaxed, as restrained.  He quietly paddles along in between the horns’ staccato reduction of the melody, making it clear that he is a serious servant of the rhythm, the time, devoted to the sound of the band — until he moves to double-time figures and two cymbal accents.  Music like this is deceptively simple: a casual listener might think it is easy to play in this manner, but how wrong that mild condescension would be!  Wilson and Catlett join forces for a momentary interlude before the horns return — Joe, sorrowing deep inside himself, Hall soaring. 

How marvelous that we have these two sides! 

Thanks to vdiscdaddy for posting them on YouTube; his channel is full of music worth hearing that has been hidden from us.  Thanks of a larger sort to Wilson, Thomas, Hall, and Catlett — brilliant creators who knew how to bring their individual selves together to create something brilliant, immortal.  And I don’t use the word “immortal” casually.

P.S.  I first heard these sides thanks to the late Ed Beach, and then savored them on an Italian bootleg lp on the Ariston label, THE V-DISC.  In 1990, they came out on CD — with an incomplete alternate take of RUSSIAN LULLABY — on the Vintage Jazz Classics label (TEDDY WILSON: CENTRAL AVENUE BLUES, VJC 1013-2), a production that brought together, although not face to face, John Fell, Doug Pomeroy, and Lloyd Rauch.  I don’t think a copy of that CD would be easy to find today, though.

BARBARA LEA’S 80th BIRTHDAY (AND MORE)

Etiquette books don’t line my shelves (I find the word difficult to spell), so I don’t know if sending someone birthday felicitations this late is forgivable.  But Barbara Lea, the wonderful but oddly under-recognized singer, turned eighty years old on April 10.

b-leaReaders of this blog should know her and have her imperishable recordings with Johnny Windhurst, Dick Sudhalter, Loren Schoenberg, and others.  (Barbara was a fine writer, too: her liner notes to the Sudhalter-Connie Jones CD, GET OUT AND GET UNDER THE MOON, still stick in my memory.)  But for those of you who never heard her sing, a few words.  Although Barbara has been compared to Lee Wiley, Billie Holiday, and Mildred Bailey, she sounds like herself.  Her voice is warm, her delivery powerful yet subtle.  She conveys emotion without strain; she swings in the great manner.  She is at home with a solo pianist, a Condon-style ensemble, a lush big band.

Her most recent CDs find her in the latter two settings. The first, DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT MEANS TO MISS NEW ORLEANS? (Audiophile) was recorded there in March 2006, with Barbara fronting a small band featuring such wonderful players as Hal Smith and Bob Havens.  Here, she shows her fine unfettered range of feeling, from the Morton romp DR. JAZZ to the rather ephemeral wartime favorites I COULDN’T SLEEP A WINK LAST NIGHT and MY DREAMS ARE GETTING BETTER ALL THE TIME — songs that have never sounded so good.  She weaves in and out of the band with great style.

The second CD, BLACK BUTTERFLY, has special meaning for me.  The only time I ever saw Barbara perform was at the benefit for Dick Sudhalter held in St. Peter’s Church in New York City.  And if memory serves me, she sang only one song — Ellington’s sorrowing BLACK BUTTERFLY — backed by the Loren Schoenberg big band.  Her performance had the intensity of a great aria and the intimate immediacy of trumpeter Joe Thomas’s magnificent 1946 Keynote version.  This CD captures Barbara and Loren’s big band doing that song and sixteen others — ranging from classic themes by Arlen, Wilder, Victor Young, Oscar Levant, Berlin, and Monk — to lesser-known gems: RESTLESS (Sam Coslow) and WHEN THEY ASK ABOUT YOU (Sam H. Stept) as well as a few songs composed in part by Barbara herself.  To accompany Barbara, there are lovely curtains of sound illuminated by beautiful solos by Mark Lopeman, Bobby Pring, James Chirillo, and Loren himself.  It’s an ambitious recording but a hugely gratifying one.

Barbara’s health hasn’t been good of late, and her medical bills arrive with the regularity of the Basie rhythm section. Why not give yourself a gift in honor of her birthday and consider purchasing one of her CDs from her?  (I know that buying CDs from a variety of third-party sellers is economically tempting, but the artists get nothing for their work.)

The list of CDs currently available is at the bottom of this posting.  Each one is $17 (including postage).  Send your check or money order to Jeanie Wilson, 212 Ramblewood Drive, Raleigh, NC 27609-6404.

2007 Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans? (Audiophile)
2006 Black Butterfly (THPOPS)
2005 Deep In A Dream, Barbara Lea Sings Jimmy Van Heusen (Leacock Does Babcock) (Cape Song)
2004 Barbara Lea and Keith Ingham Celebrate Vincent Youmans (Challenge)
2004 Barbara Lea and Wes McAfee Live @ RED — our love rolls on (THPOPS)
2002 The Melody Lingers On (BL)
1999 Barbara Lea and Keith Ingham Are Mad About The Boy: The Songs Of Noel Coward (Challenge)
1997 The Devil Is Afraid Of Music (Audiophile) Added tracks. Original LP 1976
1996 Fine & Dandy: Barbara Lea and Keith Ingham Celebrate The Women Songwriters (Challenge)
1995 Do It Again (Audiophile) Added tracks. Original LP 1983
1995 Remembering Remembering Lee Wiley (Audiophile) Added tracks. Original LP 1976
1994 Hoagy’s Children: A Celebration of Hoagy Carmichael’s Music, v. 1 & 2 (Audiophile) Added tracks. Original LP 1983
1993 Barbara Lea & The Ed Polcer All-Stars “At The Atlanta Jazz Party” (Jazzology)
1991 Barbara Lea (OJC/Fantasy) Added tracks. Original LP 1956
1991 A Woman In Love (Audiophile) Added tracks. Original LP 1955
1990 Sweet and Slow (Audiophile)
1990 Lea In Love (OJC/Fantasy) Original LP 1957
1989 Getting Some Fun Out Of Life with Mr. Tram Associates (Audiophile)
1989 You’re The Cats! (Audiophile)

LOUIS, AN ECSTATIC EXPERIENCE

louis-posterSam Parkins, bless him, sent me the backstory (or is it “prequel”?) to his 1945 Louis experience, which I posted as LOUIS AND “THAT MODERN MALICE”:

A note from now – January 2009: It’s impossible to overstate Louis’ nearly-vanished position in the early 40s, when I came into jazz sentience.  To us hep-cats he was only slightly more ‘there’ than Alphonse Picou (whom no one had heard of).  We’d heard of Louis, but he hadn’t mattered for years.  I did have a high school classmate who kept a wind-up Victrola and some 78s in the garage, but when he tried playing me some red-label Columbia Hot Fives they didn’t register so he gave up.  Benny and Duke (oh all right – and Glenn Miller) were pretty nearly all there was.

So the following trip was – well – a trip: 1945 was a hell of a year.  A half-dozen big things happened: I got drafted, Roosevelt died, VE day, I heard Louis Armstrong for the first and almost last time (drunk in Geneva – the other time – doesn’t count), VJ day, Bird and Diz first record, Stravinsky writes “The Ebony Concerto” for the Woody Herman band… I was let out of basic training end of March just after VE day and given a chance to go back to college for engineering.  Seemed vastly superior to heading for the Pacific so I didn’t tell them I had already switched to a music major at Cornell, and fetched up at the University of Kentucky, where the girl/boy ratio was 5-1.  Cool.

I’d been there three days – and met a girl acquaintance downtown on the main (and only) drag by the drugstore. Saturday afternoon.  There’s no possibility of transcribing this but I’ll try: “Yawgnjlnnye?”  It evolved that Louis Armstrong was playing at the Joyland Ballroom that night and was I going?  Joyland was the classic American amusement park and ballroom, built by the trolley company, always at the end of line to get customers out on weekends.  Think Coney Island.  So I took her.  At least I took her, bought tickets and got her in the door.  Then Louis started to play and I was rooted to the floor in front of the stage, which was high, at shoulder level (a good idea if there’s a riot – and I’ve been in one, at a wedding where the bride was Irish and the groom Polish.  High stage saved the band).  Never saw the girl again. (But I did see one of the dancers.  Barefoot guy, nearly seven feet tall, very long – past shoulder length – hair, in an era where that simply wasn’t done.  Guy stood out.  Jitterbugging like hell.  Must have still been with girl; asked her “Whoozat?”  “Oh – that’s a hillbilly. They come down from Harlan County.”    Ferociousest lookin’ guy I ever saw).

Rooted to the floor with tears streaming down my cheeks.  Louis could play one note and destroy me.  Never ever let up.  This was his traveling big band, one nighters all over the country, and this was the South, where by all accounts the going was rough for a black band.  He could – and I think this was true all his life – only play and sing wide open. And that doesn’t mean loud.  “Commitment and Abandon”?  This is it.

I look over my long life in music and can think of only one comparable experience.  Bob Palmer, our composition teacher at Cornell, took us – his class of four would-bes – up to Eastman to hear Frederick Fennell conduct the student orchestra in Bartok’s “Music for Strings Percussion and Celeste”.  Bartok had just died, and his music immediately spread like a tidal wave everywhere.  Erased everyone else for a few years.  At the end of the performance Fennell asked the audience, “Would you like to hear it again?”  Of course we would.  At the end of the second go-’round I nearly fainted – had to be partly carried to the door.  Too much emotion.

(And folks – tell me: can any of the other arts do that to you?).

Stoned: Like most bands in the ballroom era, Louis only took one break – no more that a half-hour.  His arranger had his office across the hall from Big Nick’s studio over the Savoy in Boston; when I was about to leave for the army he said, “If you run into Louis on the road, say ‘Hi’ for me”.  So at intermission I went back stage, found Louis’ road manager, flashed the arranger’s name (which I’ve forgotten) and asked for an autograph (on my gold-rimmed union card – issued when drafted, dues suspended).  He disappears, comes back with Louis and introduces me.  Louis reaches out his hand to shake, and I really shouldn’t try to transcribe this one.  Guttural utterances, no recognizable words at all.  I thing he was working on “pleasedtameetcha”.  So wrecked he couldn’t talk.  (Now you know why he needed Joe Glaser).  But he could play and sing like an angel.  (All sources including All-Star players I know agree that it was mostly pot.  He did drink a little Slivovitz, but only at parties).

I asked my father (doctor) about this phenomenon and he told me about a colleague, brain surgeon, deep in the toils of senile dementia – and still able to do the most delicate surgery.  Dad said that what ever you’ve spent your life doing day in and day out is so embedded in the brain (sounds like a back-up circuit) that it’s often available when everything else has packed it in.  Regarding music against speech – nowdays we would say that speech is left lobe and music right, and right is apparently more durable.

So what do I close the 20th century with?  Only Louis and his idol Caruso (played on a wind-up Victrola on the original discs please.  Anything more modern destroys his soul; digital buries him) have the ability to by-pass hearing.

They go straight to the gizzard and shake it up mercilessly.

A note from a grateful reader: now you see why I praise Sam as a writer — intent, exuberant, apparently heedless but knowing what he’s up to all the time.