Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Down At Duke’s Place-With Duke Ellington In Mind

Down At Duke’s Place-With Duke Ellington In Mind


From The Pen Of Bart Webber  

One night Sam Eaton was talking on his cellphone to his old friend from high school (Carver High, Class of 1967), Jack Callahan about how his grandson, Brandon, his oldest grandson from his daughter Janice from his first marriage (first of three all ending in divorce but that is merely a figure for the Census Bureau and not germane to what following so enough) had beguiled him recently with his arcane knowledge of classical jazz (the jazz from the age of King Oliver say until the death of the big bad swings bands which died in the late 1940s for the most part giving way to cool ass be-bop and what followed). Jack braced himself for the deluge, got very quiet and did say word one, since lately the music Sam mentioned, maybe even thought about mentioning the slightest thing connected with jazz he knew he was in for it, in for a harangue of unknown duration on the subject. Sam, recently more conscious that Jack, who hated jazz, hated it worse when as a child of rock and roll as Sam was, his father would endlessly play Count this, King that, Duke the other thing and not allow the family record player centered in the family living room to be sullied (his father’s word) by heathen stuff like Roll Over Beethoven or One Night With You, would go silent at the word “jazz” said not to worry he would only say a few words from his conversation with Brandon:        

No, Jack, my man, this will not be a screed about how back in the day, back in the 1950s the time of our complete absorption into rock and roll, when be-bop jazz was the cat’s meow, when cool was listening to the Monk trip up a note, consciously trip up a note to see if anybody caught it and then took that note to heaven and back, and worked it out from there or Dizzy burping then hitting the high white note all those guys were struggling against the limits of the instruments, high as hell on tea, you know what we called ganja, herb, stuff like that, to get to. Frankly I was too young, you too but I knew how you felt since I couldn’t listen to rock in my house either since the 1940s Andrews Sisters/Perry Como/Frank Sinatra/Peggy lee cabal were front and center in our living room and I was reduced to listening on my transistor radio, way too young to appreciate such work then and I only got the tail end, you know when Hollywood or the popular prints messed the whole be-bop jazz “beat” thing up and we got spoon-fed Maynard G. Krebs faux black and white television beatnik selling hair cream oil or something like that, and ten thousand guys hanging around the Village on Saturday night in full beret and whatever they could put together for a beard from the outreaches of Tenafly, New Jersey (sorry but Fort Lee was out) and another ten thousand gals, all in black from head to toe, maybe black underwear too so something to imagine at least from Norwalk, Connecticut milling around as well. Square, square cubed. No, this will not be some screed going back further in the hard times of the Great Depression and the slogging through World War II when “it did not mean a thing, if you ain’t got that swing” when our parents, the parents of the kids who caught the end of be-bop “swang,” did dips and twirls to counts, dukes, earls, princes, marquises even leading big band splashes to wash that generation clean. Come on now that was our parents and I wasn’t even born so no way I can “screed” about that. And, no, no, big time no, this will not be about some solitary figure in some dank, dusty, smoke-filled café, the booze flowing, the dope in the back alleys inflaming the night while some guy, probably a sexy sax player, blows some eternal high white note out against some bay, maybe Frisco Bay, and I was hooked, hooked for life on the be-bop jazz scene.

No, it never even came close to starting out like that, never even dreamed such scenes. Unlike rock and roll, the classic kind that was produced in our 1950s growing up time and which we have had a life-long devotion to or folk music which I came of age, political and social age to later in the early 1960s, jazz was a late, a very late acquisition to my understanding of the American songbook. Oh sure I would hear a phrase, a few bing, bang, bong  notes blowing out the window, out the door, sitting in some bar over drinks with some hot date, maybe hear it as backdrop in some Harvard Square bookstore when I went looking for books (and, once somebody hipped me to the scene, looking for bright young women who also were in the bookstore looking for books, and bright young men but that scene is best left for another time), or at some party when the host tired of playing old-time folk music and decided to kick out the jams and let the jazz boys wreak their havoc. But jazz was, and to a great extent still is, a side bar of my musical tastes.          


About a decade ago, a little more, I got seriously into jazz for a while. The reason: the centennial of the birth of Duke Ellington being celebrated when I was listening to some radio show which was commemorating that fact and I heard a few faint bars which required me to both turn up the volume and to listen to the rest of the one hour tribute. The show played a lot of Duke’s stuff from the early 1940s when he had Ben Webster, Harry Carney, and Johnny Hodges on board. The stuff blew me away and as is my wont when I get my enthusiasms up, when something blows me away, I grabbed everything by the Duke and his various groupings and marveled at how very good his work was, how his tonal poems reached deep, deep down and caught something in me that responded in kind. Especially when those sexy saxs, when Johnny or Cootie blew me away when they let it all hang out.


Funny though I thought at the time that I hadn’t picked up on this sound before, this reaching for the soul, for the essence of the matter, before since there are very definitely elements of the blues in Brother Duke’s work. And I have been nothing but a stone blown blues freak since the early 1960s when I first heard Howlin’ Wolf hold forth practically eating that harmonica of his on Little Red Rooster and Smokestack Lightnin’. Moreover I had always been a Billie Holiday fan although I never drew the connection to the jazz in the background since it usually was muted to let her rip with that throaty sultry voice, the voice that chased the blues, my blues, away.


So, yes, count me among the guys who are searching for the guys who are searching for the great big cloud puff high white note, guys who have been searching for a long time as the notes waft out into the deep blue sea night.  Out into the surly Japan deep blue seas foaming out the bay the one time I was sitting in fog-bound Frisco town, sitting around a North Beach bar, the High Hat maybe, when on Monday nights that was the place where young talent took to the boards and played, played for the “basket” just like the folkies used to do, and probably get as few dollars from the mostly regular heavy drinker crowd that populate any gin mill on Monday. Most of the stuff early on was so-so some riffs stolen from more famous guys nothing that would keep a steady drinker, me, from steady drinking in those days when I lifted low-shelf whiskeys with abandon. Then this young guy, young black guy, barely out of his teens if that, hell, he could have been sixteen for all I know and snuck out of the house to play, to play to reach the stars if that is what he wanted, slim a reed, maybe a little from hunger at hunger, with the just forming yellow eyes of high king hell dope-dom blew a sax as big as he was, certainly fatter, blew the hell out of one note after another, then paused, paused to suck up the universe of air in the place, and went over to Jordan for a minute, rested, came back with a big blow that would get at least to Hawaii, rested again, maybe just a little uncertain where to go like kids always are, blew up a big cloud puff riff alternating with pauses hard to do, went at it again this time to the corner of paradise. Stopped, I thought he was done, he looked to hell like he was done, done in eyes almost closed, and then onward, a big beautiful dah, dee, dah, dee, dah, dee, blow, a “max daddy” blow then even this old chattering wino in a booth stopped to wonder at, and that big high white note went ripping down Bay Street, I swear I could see it, on into the bay and on its way, not stopping until Edo.  He had it, that it means only it and if he never blew again he had that it moment. So yeah count me too among Duke’s boys, down at Duke’s place where he eternally searched for that elusive high white note. See I didn’t take too long, right.             

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