Jive-Colored Glasses

John Goodman BY

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The following is an excerpt from "Chapter 4: Chicago" of Jive-Colored Glasses by John F Goodman (jg publications, 2015).

Growing up in and around Chicago in the 1950s brought me to all kinds and flavors of jazz. Between the house parties, clubs and concerts, there was a menu to please everyone. The Rush Street and downtown clubs like the London House were flourishing, and so of course was the Blue Note, where the Ellington and Basie bands held forth. Jazz was played in some of the big hotels, like the Sherman House. But there were other, less prominent saloons that we found in high school and college.

The 1111 ("eleven-eleven") Club on the far North Side was one of these where old-timers like pianist Art Hodes and the Dixieland trombonist Georg Brunis played. On a good night, Brunis would march band and patrons around the club, then parade into the street playing, of course, "The Saints Go Marching In" and "Didn't He Ramble." I heard Red Allen doing the same thing around three in the morning in an obscure dumpy saloon on Howard Street. As suburban aficionados, we were unaware of the irony of our commuting to the seamy city for our jazz kicks. Though, on reflection, why should we have been aware of it?

In 1953, my friend Paul and I gave a notable party at my house in Highland Park and got Brunis and the band to come out from the city and play. The drummer was Hey-Hey Humphrey, a kind of early, boozy version of Keith Richards. You could say the party was a success. People drove their cars across the front lawn when leaving, and Paul drank so much he passed out in my bathtub upstairs with the tap running while trying to sober up. My father, mixing drinks at his bar referred to above, began to notice water dripping through the ceiling. Paul, now dressed, comes down and hands Jerome an umbrella, saying, "I'm sorry, Mr. G." Big Daddy laughed but Dr. Jazz's parties ceased thereafter.

Summer Bands, 1952

My father delighted in golf and his country club, at one time belonging to two of them, both Jewish and flourishing on the upper-crust goy model. In addition to the usual sports (golf, tennis, swimming) there were parties, dances, special events and incredible food. The Sunday buffet was Roman in its splendor. People were known to puke in the parking lot. In my younger days, I fell right into the country club scene, loved the swimming, took up golf. Mostly I played alone and grew to detest the game because it got me so emotionally wrought up. Missing shots was like a personal failure, and the social aspect of it was beyond me. I finally quit during my college years. The male camaraderie of the club house—the gin games and the banter of the fathers—never appealed.

However, as we have seen, Jerome loved parties and turned out to be a proto-George Wein, a nascent impresario who would have been happier in that role than making the shoes and brushes he did in his business life. He persuaded the board of the Lake Shore Club in Glencoe to host a series of three dance parties in 1952 that featured the bands of Les Brown, Count Basie and Duke Ellington, delicious summer events on the club terrace.

Then a freshman in college, I invited part-time girlfriends to these affairs and came to understand the multiple pleasures of moving to the music and holding your lady close, the saxophones blowing right in your face. I had a serious crush on a girl named Sue, a tall blonde. So did maybe three other guys. She came with me to one of these dances, wore a corsage that I bought and a semi-formal white dress I complimented her on. I wore a dinner jacket and bow tie, standard dress for an event like this. The dancing, I finally discovered, was sexy. Sue was gorgeous.

In high school, dances were held in the very unsexy gym with teachers making sure that no one got out of hand from extramural drinking. You tried to impress the girls, but it had little to do with seduction or sex except in a subliminal way. Sex was something wonderfully mysterious but distinct from music. Guys in high school were incredibly uncool but tried to interest the girls by acting cool. The girls wanted to dance and most of the guys seemed to keep the act of dancing fatally separate from the music. We just couldn't fall into the sensual groove. I was always uneasy about my dancing ability; my feet seemed quite detached from my body. Maybe it was the horrible '50s pop music that caused this uncoupling.

It was just impossible to connect with girls in high school. Testosterone had us all numb fumbling, as Fats Waller put it. Picking up the phone to ask for a date was a major hurdle, and if she did agree to go out you had to master the intricacies of '50s date behavior. At the end of one such event, I drove the lady home and followed her to the door with the expectation of getting a kiss goodnight. I stood at the door with her for maybe three minutes, fumbling through small talk without getting the desired result. Returning to the car humiliated, I found my two buddies doubled over with laughter.

Anyhow, the three club parties were extraordinary. The Basie event finished the series in late summer of '52, as I recall, and by then I was dancing my ass off and feeling more comfortable with my feet. This was the Count's new band with a new sound, heavy on ensemble playing, less light on its feet than the Kansas City band that had featured Lester Young. The new group was trying out different, sometimes good, sometimes repetitive arrangements by Neal Hefti and others. Repetition, unfortunately, became the order of the day: if you heard the "April in Paris" windup chorus one more time, you would puke in the parking lot. Still, Joe Newman played fine trumpet in this band, with FFrank Foster on alto, and Joe Williams later on sang respectable blues. They toured the world and kept the big band era alive—for a while. Basie developed this style on into the '80s.

Basie's band in the '50s and '60s was all functionality, comfort and ease—like some sort of Cadillac Fleetwood with deep maroon plush seats and a soft easy ride. No longer the blues-based, Kansas City swing unit that brought it fame, the Basie bunch evolved into a well-oiled dance band, as you can hear on this typical bluesy performance.

With jazz stars like Frank Wess and Marshal Royal blowing, the band performed such music with slickness and power. The best dance music in the '50s was slick and functional though often with added ornament—tail fins, if you will.

Les Brown and His Band of Renown played at the club on July 4, 1952, and for those who don't remember this was the era of brassy, loud, accomplished big bands like Ted Heath's and Les Brown's. Les played with Bob Hope for many years, fostered the singing of Doris Day, though not the indecent jokes about her, and had excellent musicians like Dave Pell (tenor), Don Fagerquist (trumpet) and Jack Sperling (drums). The music was very much worked out in advance, with precise, sometimes fussy arrangements, but it all swung like crazy and had the wealthy white folks jumpin' for joy at the club. Naturally, I thought Les's best numbers were not the hits like "Sentimental Journey" and "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" but the jazzier features for the band like Frank Comstock's "Happy Hooligan."

Les did a lot of covers, the art being in the arrangements. While sometimes echoing Basie and Woody Herman, the Band of Renown still managed to project its own robust voice.

One of Les's best albums is Live at the Palladium from 1953, the same band I heard. I recently listened to this LP for the first time in maybe twenty years, and my memory brought the solos right back to me. Most all were preplanned, but so they often are in big-band jazz. Mingus once said that to be a competent jazz musician you had to be able to play back, i.e., repeat, your solos from memory. Les's people could do that in spades every night, with slight new variations and without getting bored. The solos then got fixed in a listener's memory—which is part of the appeal of big-band music. Audiences want to hear the familiar solos and tunes they know from records and earlier performances. Why have recent jazz musicians forgotten that?

In my younger years when I started poking through the stacks of 78s in my parents' library, there seemed to be a lot of Duke Ellington sides, one or two going back to the early Cotton Club days of the late 1920s. But most were from the mid-1940s, that is, relatively contemporaneous music for me then. I grew really attached to those disks—a few Bluebirds but mostly black-and-gold RCA Victors—because the Ellington sound was like no other.

I couldn't then have put it this way, but what caught my ear was the voicing of the brasses and reeds. None of the swing bands sounded like that, and none offered the kind of rhythmic punctuation that characterized the Duke's music. But it was the timbres his players achieved and their harmonic blends—the tone colors—that struck me.

Duke's recycled tunes like "Black Beauty" and new ones like "Esquire Swank" I played over and over. I got hooked on Joya Sherrill's little-girl voice as she and the band made pop tunes like "Kissing Bug" and "Everything But You" into sterling three-minute compositions.

I hadn't yet heard the famous earlier numbers like "Cottontail" and "Ko-Ko." But these later tunes from the mid-'40s contained references to the war and the home front (events that made a big impression on me), to lovers and love affairs, to life, loss and leisure among adults. Then courtesy of Nat King Cole's overwrought version, Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life" became popular. The lyrics I didn't quite understand.

I used to visit all the very gay places
Those come what may places
Where one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life
To get the feel of life from jazz and cocktails.

The girls I knew had sad and sullen gray faces
With distingué traces that used to be there
You could see where they'd been washed away
By too many through the day twelve o'clock tales.

Yet music was a way to begin comprehending these adult things. Ellington's music—and that of his alter ego Billy Strayhorn—was a guidebook to learning about sophistication.

Players like Cootie Williams, Ben Webster and Harry Carney soon became household names to me, familiar from records, photos and write-ups. My firsthand experience hearing the band began in the early 1950s when some of my high school buddies and I would make regular trips to Chicago's Blue Note where Ellington became a fixture for a long time. We used fake IDs to get in, drank too much, and sought out members of the band to talk with during breaks. Russell Procope, who was kind of dour but sometimes willing to sit with us, and Clark Terry were favorites. We liked Russell because of his cool, detached demeanor. Clark told great stories.

Duke's music in the '50s has been subject to a lot of criticism, sometimes deserved. Yes, the band did get brassy and repetitive. The maestro developed an addiction to certain formulas like the sterile medley of famous old numbers, Cat Anderson's high notes, and constant repetitions of "Satin Doll." His key line "We love you madly!" got tiresome. In time, this schtick became part of the Ellington persona. In print I once called him "the greatest exponent of programmed whimsy in jazz."

But all criticism became moot when the band opened the series at the country club on May 29, 1952. My memories from years earlier of the Ellington sound, its voicings and rhythms, suddenly were fleshed out in real time by real performers in an intimate setting that put them before a fascinated audience, some dancing, some at tables just listening. Now, all the band's household names were right out front blowing, it seemed, for me.

Louie Bellson was still in the band (Ellington called him "the world's greatest drummer" when he died), and we heard "Skin Deep," "The Hawk Talks," "The Mooche"—all solo opportunities for him to play like Buddy Rich. But there was much more to Bellson than that. Duke programmed one or two long-form compositions that night, like "The Tattooed Bride," a kind of nonstop suite in which various band members could shine. To hear and later talk with people like Ray Nance was another delight. After the band finished for the evening, the Duke played piano and chatted with a dozen of us for an hour or so, another winning performance. All reports indicate the man was never off-stage, at least in public. It didn't matter: his charm carried the day.

Duke's was originally a show band, a pit band, and his first important gig was to accompany the dreadful jungle dance numbers at Harlem's Cotton Club. To the end, his music testified to this showbiz aspect. Bellson's extended solos were definitely part showbiz. Throughout his career Duke was attracted to the stage, the opera, films and television. Early on, he was influenced by Paul Whiteman, "king of jazz" in the '20s—symphonic, highly arranged jazz, that is. We had Whiteman records in my house, and my parents used the names of Gershwin and Whiteman and sometimes Ellington when they referred to jazz generically, and this grated on me. Duke was not generic, he was sui generis.

Throughout the '50s and '60s I sometimes had the feeling that Ellington was losing his way, that he was struggling to maintain his claim against the new music, or that the band was failing him. At the same time, I got to hear that band live on many occasions, and it was still a group of very extraordinary musicians playing an undying concept of jazz. At the country club Duke continued to rely on the old, somewhat tired formulas, but there were many grand moments and much of the magic was still working.

Reprinted from Jive-Colored Glasses © 2015 John F Goodman (jg publications)

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