Thursday, July 16, 2020

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

Once Again -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, the oldest grandson of 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 follows 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 not say word one, since lately the minute 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 to get, high as hell on tea, you know what we called ganja, herb, stuff like that.

Frankly I was too young, you too but I knew how you felt since I couldn’t listen to rock in my house either as 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 were looking for them but that scene is best left for another time), or at some party when the host tired of playing old-time folk music had 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 if 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, 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. Check this out. Blowing that high white note out into the surly choppy Japan deep blue seas foaming and slashing out into the bay the one time I was sitting in fog-bound Frisco town, sitting around a North Beach bar, the High Hat maybe, back when Jimmy La Croix ran the place and a guy with a story, or a guy he knew could run a tab, for a while, and then settle up or let the hammer fall and you would wind up cadging swigs from flea-bitten raggedy- assed winos and sterno bums.

On Monday nights, a slow night in every venue you can name except maybe whorehouses and even then the business would  fall off only a little since guys had to see their wives or girlfriends or both sometime, Jimmy would hold what is now called an “open mic” but then, I forget, maybe talent search something like that but the same thing. The “Hat” as everybody called it was known far and wide by ex hep-cats, aging beats, and faded flower child ex-hippies who had not yet got back to the “real” world once those trends petered out but were still looking, as I was, looking for something and got a little solace from the bottle and a dark place to nurse the damn thing where you could be social or just hang out was the place around North Beach where young talent took to the boards. Played, played for the “basket” just like the folkies used to do back in the 1960s when that genre had its heyday, and probably get a few dollars from the mostly regular heavy drinker crowd that populate any gin mill on Monday, whether they have seen their loved ones or not.

Jimmy would have Max Jenny on drums and Milt Bogan on that big old bass that took up half the stage, if you remember those guys when West Coast jazz was big, to back-up the talent so this was serious stuff, at least Jimmy played it that way.

Most of the stuff early on that night was so-so some riffs stolen from more famous guys like Miles Davis, Dizzie, Coltrane, the cool ass jazz from the fifties that young bud talent imitates starting out, maybe gets stuck on those covers and wind up, addled by some sister habit, down by the trolley trains on Market Street hustling dollars from weary tourists waiting to get up the damn hill. So nothing that would keep a steady drinker, me, from steady drinking in those days when I lifted low-shelf whiskeys with abandon. Maybe half a dozen other guys spread out around bar to prove they were there strictly for the drinking and chain-smoking unfiltered cigarettes to fill up Jimmy’s ashtrays and give Red the bartender something to do between pouring shots (otherwise the guys hungry for women company would be bunched near the dance floor but they must have had it bad since Monday night the serious honeys were not at the “Hat” but home getting rested up for the long week ahead of fending guys off).

Then I turned around toward the stage, turned around for no particular reason, certainly not to pay attention to the talent, when this young guy, young black guy, barely out of his teens, maybe sixteen for all I know and snuck out of the house to play, Jimmy wasn’t taking ID cards in those days and if the kid wasn’t drinking then what did it matter, to get play to reach the stars if that is what he wanted, slim a reed, dressed kind of haphazardly with a shiny suit that he probably wore to church with grandmother, string tie, clean shirt, couldn’t see his feet so can’t comment on that, maybe a little from hunger, or had the hunger eating him up. Kind of an unusual sight for ‘90s Frisco outside of the missions. But figure this, figure his eyes, eyes that I know about from my own bouts with sister, with the just forming sad sack yellow eyes of high king hell dope-dom and it all fit.

The kid was ready though to blow a big sexy tenor sax, a sax as big as he was, certainly fatter, blew the hell out of one note after another once he got his bearings, then paused, paused to suck up the universe of the smoke filled air in the place (a whiff of ganja from the back somewhere from some guy Jimmy must have known since usually dope in the place was a no-no), and went over to the river 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, copy some somebody and let it go at that for the Monday crowd or blast away, but even I sensed that he had something going, so 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 then, 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 an 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 fog-bound bay and on its way, not stopping until Edo, hell maybe back to Mother Africa where it all started.  He had it, that it means only “it” and if he never blew again he had that “it” moment. He left out the back door and I never saw him at the “Hat” again so maybe he was down on Mission or maybe he went somewhere, got some steady work. All I know was that I was there when a guy blew that high white note, yeah, that high white note. 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.             

No comments:

Post a Comment