Saturday, 31 December 2011

Downbeat at 75

Blue Champagne/Glenn Miller
"The Great Jazz Interviews: A 75th Anniversary Anthology” (Hal Leonard Books,2009). Basically it’s reprint of the best essays. This magazine was my post-Catholic Bible as I adjusted to secular life after being expelled from Sacred Heart Seminary (by Rector Henry Donnelly for secretly smoking after midnight in the Gothic Tower with my pal Jim Van Slambrouck).

Glenn Miller’s Chesterfield broadcasts every evening at 7 p.m. started my obsessive transition from Gregorian Chant. And at my new public school, Edwin Denby High, aspiring jazz drummer, Gil Kamen, introduced me to my new Church, the Paradise Theater in midtown Detroit, where “colored” bands played an unending series of weekly stints. We cut class to get the cheap afternoon tickets, sweating out boring “B” movies and idiosyncratic gigs like Pegleg Bates’ mix of corny humor and vivid dancing. Summers, it was nearby Eastwood Gardens for the great white dance bands. We were happily bipolar.

When I took my dead brother’s ashes “home” from Philadelphia where he died, I was in a sentimental mood—seeking out the Paradise, sadly to find it closed by an excess of rock music, with a city bicentennial explanation of the building’s provenience. After World War I, when the Grosse Pointe auto execs were first getting a “Culture” fix, they imported a pianist-conductor from Poland to form a symphony orchestra. Alas, then forced them to perform in the acoustical equivalent of a junior high cafeteria. The Polish director laid down his demand: create a decent place, or I’m off to Warsaw. What they delivered was described by no less an ear than Pablo Casals as the greatest acoustical space in North America.

But when during the Second World War, Southern blacks abandoning the cotton fields where gins were making then superogative, flocked to Detroit’s defense factories. Their housing surrounded the Paradise. The white suburbans fled, building another symphony hall along the Detroit River. The “Paradise” was born. It lay empty during the rock music boom, until an obsessed oboist in the Detroit Symphony raised $23 million dollars to retrieve the old venue. When I gave in to nostalgia to test the ”new” hall, I teased the oboist that he had destroyed my Youth! He yelled that they has a jazz concert every Saturday. A doubly satisfying outcome a battered city really needed.

When I came to New York on a Ford grant in 1955, I was eager to meet the king of jazz criticism, Marshall Stearns, the Hunter medieval lit specialist. If he could teach medieval lit and simultaneously be America’s leading jazz critic, then my combo of American Lit and TV was not schizophrenic. That night he invited me to his Greenwich Village flat, with Nat Hentoff the other guest, was the highlight of my New York year. They were discussing the Newport Jazz Festival’s founder George Wein’s idea of starting an annual Jazz Critic Symposium at Newport. (George was making money; now he wanted to make a difference.) They invited me to the first symposium in 1958, when I was a University of Pennsylvania teacher. I drove from Philly and got to the Festival Viking Hotel just as the dining room was closing! I ordered the last chicken. But before I was served, Mahalia Jackson arrived. I gave her my bird!

I’ll never forget how the symposium ended, the semanticist who was the chair saw her at the back of the auditorium, and believing everyone should be heard, asked, ”What do you make of our discussions, Mahalia.” There was an awkward pause as she made up a response. “I shore don’t knows what youse bin talking about.” Short pause. “But I shore do love jazz.”

I sure loved spending an hour together, munching dinner. By the way, my mentor Studs Terkel interviewed her, and his respect for her wanting to keep her churchly provenience away from nightclubs is pure Terkel. (I won’t forget either my room adjoining Miles Davis, for his all night physical abuse of his girl friend has haunted me ever since for not complaining.)

I’m amazed at the catholicity of this collection. Everybody important has his day in the court of jazz criticism. Except for Bobby Dorough, currently of Mt, Bethel, PA. On a visit to Paris, my girl friend had just had a noisy baby. So I chose to spend the night at a no-star hotel opposite the train station in Ivry-sur Seine—the Commie suburb. I was way trying to use Bach on France Musique radio to put me to sleep. Alas, after the eleven p.m. newsbreak, there followed a jazz concert from Paris Disneyland featuring one young sounding Bobbie Dureau (as my Francophone ear rendered it). I was wide awake after he played a short history of reeds in jazz, beginning with Sidney Bechet, and ending with Charlie Parker. WOW! I called my friend the next morning to ask for a date that night to dance at Disneyland. Were we ever surprised.

First it’s Bob (he hates being Bobbied!) Dorough, a seventyish cracker from Hope, Arkansas, who studied jazz at North Texas U at Denton. His piano is superb jazz, his homemade lyrics, pure poetry, and his quartet was as satisfying as any I’ve ever danced to. (Try “Sunday at Iridium”, ARCO, 1935 if you’re skeptical). His audiences of this New York club contains many fans from the several years he used a rock music TV series to develop mature teenagers. I think the jazz purists may have blackballed him for that openness. His daughter plays in the Houston Symphony. Financing her musical education was one motive for the rock series.

In any case, everybody else important is here, including of course the finest jazz critics of the last century. It’s rare that a popular magazine can dominate a field like “Downbeat” did—and still does. This is a jazz addict’s lifetime companion. The only equally priceless access to great jazz is my wife’s discovery two days ago of an internet service, ”Pure Jazz Radio,” that broadcasts internationally from New York. The same network plays NPR 24 hours a day! I just celebrated a turkeyless Thanksgiving with Terry Gross’s superb interview of the new Muppets. Her chops are still as fresh as ever! I’m vicariously back in Philly. YIPPEE!

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