I’ve said that one constant for me from the time of any consciousness in helping to define the world has been music. The various kinds of music, of course, gave dimension to the world. There was/is not just one music. There are many. (Though when I talk with black jazz musicians we say, sometimes, The Music, meaning African American improvised music. What we’ve called, in our deeper moments, Jazz. Directly from the African, jassm, orgasm, i.e., “come music.” I guess that stuck because that’s where white folks first heard the music, in New Orleans whorehouses, and that’s what they were doing when they heard it, jassing, or trying to jass. The word first means sexual intercourse.)
Music is the term for this chapter because I want to lay out an entirety of my feelings about The Music and Music and connect them precisely to the growth of my perception and its history. Because music is both an emotional experience and a philosophical one. It is also an aesthetic experience and the history of my moving from one music to another, the history of being drawn most directly to one music or another, is another kind of path and direction in my life. Part of the answer to the question How did you get to be you?
In our brown house was spirituals and gospels and blues and jazz and white and brown and yellow “popular” songs. We was not heavy (thank goodness) into “classical” (meaning European concert) music. So I did not have to do too much shedding of that from the inside when I thought I needed to shed that. I picked up that stuff much later.
At the yellow church I told you they would pile Handel and Bach and Mozart on our ass but that was lightweight on the real side except for the Hallelujah Chorus and stuff mashed on you around Xmas. Even in that yellow fortress, spirituals mostly dominated and my grandmother and them tried to ease the gospel number in on them but that was limited.
The school, you know, had some white stiff shit to mash on you when they could. I was in the All-City Chorus and they had us singing something called “The Song of Man,” a mixture of idealism and straight-out metaphysics that identified Humanism. In my music lessons or in the school auditorium we would have snatches of The Classics bounced off us but that was not my main diet.
We also had the radio jugging with you (and later on television in some small way) and movie background music I would use to “sord fight” around and across people’s cars parked unsuspectingly on our street, or as the mouthed background music for our playground and vacant-lot shootouts.
The radio carried the Make Believe Ballroom, turned on when I was younger by my parents. Somehow I connect it up with my father. Martin Block with that sinuous voice. On the weekends they had the Hit Parade, and I remember as an early high school baseballer hanging my portable radio over the handlebars and listening between innings to Ezio Pinza sing songs from South Pacific — “Some Enchanted Evening,” “This Nearly Was Mine,” also Mary Martin. Plus songs from The King and I or Wish You Were Here or Guys and Dolls as well as the other crazy stuff like “Rag Mop, R-A-G-G-M-O-P-P” (a black song in whiteface), almost as crazy as the “Mairzy Doats” and “Hut Sut Ralston” of earlier times when I was small before I had my own radio.
Sometimes Nat King Cole would come on, like with “Nature Boy” or once in a while the hip “Straighten Up and Fly Right.” But that Hit Parade, though it had some tunes I did like, for the most part I thought of as composed of lace glass lemon peels — some bounce for the ounce but something to be looked at, waved at, as it passed. Though I liked the show tunes.
I liked Bing Crosby better than Frank Sinatra (that was a raging controversy in junior high school, though the Hershey bar receiving teacher told us in his high wisdom that the best voice of all was Perry Como!). And stuff like Rosemary Clooney and Vaughn Monroe and Johnnie Ray and Frankie Laine (“Mule Train”). Even my father told me he was a “Jew boy singing like a colored fellow.” That was what the Hit Parade pumped at us.
But how strange is the human mind that it can receive all kinds of things from all kinds of places. Be put in weird situations (like at the end of the 9 Clifton run), yet retain some connection with its richest sources. Like the African slaves worshiping Catholic saints, yet St. Michael and St. Stephen, when you get up close on the slave converts renderings of them, have tiny cuts etched in their alabaster faces. These cuts speak of another world, another culture and language and life. You could hear some deadbeat in a turned around collar who’s been jerking off for thirty-five years scream, “Why these are tribal marks, Father Noel. Tribal marks! These heathen have been deceiving us all along!”
So that I was stretched between two lives and perceptions. (I’ve told you it was four — Black Brown Yellow White — but actually it’s two on the realest side, the two extremes, the black and the white, with the middle two but their boxing gloves.) And when I returned on that bus ride from Barringer and swung down onto Belmont Avenue, blues took me. Black people surrounded me. And that was the element I felt easiest in.
Even inside my brown house, as secure as it was (and that was its most carryable beauty, its security, that I never once had to wonder who and what was going on or where my next anything was coming from. My father and mother and grandmother, Jim, were solid as a rock), there was a certain posture you had to take on, after all, whatever yo mama wanted you to be, you was gon’ be that, to some extent, or get yo ass turned into a neon artifact. The casual lectures, casual in that they were constant and could accompany any other activity — combing your hair, washing your face, putting on your clothes, doing your homework (or having not done it), coming in late, wanting to take drawing lessons instead of piano lessons, you could be the recipient of an instant lecture on why you better do something other than you was doing or look or be better than you were, with immediate reference to somebody who was, were constant.
It was the normal guidance of what one assumes is the normal parent-to-child relationship, yet it is turned wherever the parent is turned and its specifics shaped by whatever the parent is and has been shaped by.
Moving in the blue/black streets there was a freedom, a possibility of becoming anything I could imagine. I was completely on my own (and even more so once I realized it), and everything in that world began and was defined by me, in me, by music. The blues heaviest and most constant. The quartets like the Orioles and the Ravens are Belmont Avenue near Spruce Street. I could look out my back window Saturday mornings and watch a young black girl hanging up clothes singing “The Glory of Love.” And she was just accompanying the jukebox or record player from somewhere. (In those days black radio was not as widespread, so most of the sounds were on 78s or jukeboxes or out of people’s mouths.)
And as I got older I could move in those streets with more ease and direction and go to hear specifically what I wanted to hear. In the house, from the beginning Amos Milburn might be playing “Bad Bad Whiskey” or “Let Me Go Home, Whiskey” or “One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer.” Louis Jordan, our main man, and His Tympany Five had me steppin’ from before I could even read. “Knock Me a Kiss,” “Don’t Worry about That Mule,” “Caledonia, Caledonia, What Makes Your Big Head So Hard? Mop!” The drama of “Saturday Night Fish Fry.” We was rocking till the break of dawn. And even later when he went calypso with Ella Fitzgerald and did “Run, Joe” and “Stone Cold Dead in de Market,” he was our man. He was cookin’ in our language. That’s what “jive” was. And why jive was jive? Well, it had to be for us to stay alive.
The lyrics of the blues instructed me. Explained what the world was and even how men and women related to each other, and the problems inherent in that. Even later so basic a communication as “Work with Me, Annie,” then “Annie Had a Baby (Annie Can’t Work No More),” could just about sum up some aspects of life in the black ghetto part of the western hemisphere.
But the blues singers were oldest and most basic. My grandfather even dug Lonnie Johnson, Amos Milburn, and Louis Jordan singing “Don’t Worry about That Mule.” The blues was old and basic, and everywhere, for us. There was people sitting on the fender of somebody’s car singing something. And you might stop or laugh as you went by. But it spilled out of windows and soon even out of car windows. It was the party and the party goers. It was old people and young slick-haired dudes.
Duke and Count and Jimmie Lunceford I associated with my parents. Those songs like “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” (Hibbler sang it “enty-moooore”) or “Move to the Outskirts of Town” or “One o’Clock Jump” or “Jumping at the Woodside,” I heard from them or with them or at their social events. That was more sophisticated to me, like highballs and the wartime upsweeps my mother wore. But we all liked Louis Jordan, everybody. It made me think of all of us, laughing at his jive.
Erskine Hawkins and Lucky Millinder were on the posters of the public dances where my folks would go with Ritz crackers, chicken, and whiskey on the table. Down at the Terrace or Wideway Hall or wherever they went in those early days.
When I first came back into the Central Ward I went to the frozen custard bar and two guys came up and checked me out. One a big barrel-chested guy who looked like he had a two-by-four shoved up his ass that also resulted in a grin approaching cretinous proportions. The other a dark squat husky dude with a homburg pushed back on his head. He looked absolutely serious but in the long run he had the most humor. “What’s your name?” the grinning one said, in a way that suggested he thought there was a leer on his face. Maybe he thought he looked terrifying. “Leroy,” I said, without saying much.
“You live around here?” the same one said.
“Yeh, up the street.” I was looking for the woman to get my order, talking tight-lipped with real tension.
“You gonna give us your money?” the barrel-chested guy said.
“No,” I said, so direct it frightened me. “Not a chance.” And stuck out my chest. Dinah Washington was playing in the background and her wide arching penetrating notes musta gave me something. Maybe I knew with Dinah in the background I couldn’t turn to stone and I couldn’t melt anyway. I stuck out my chest and ordered my hot dog. Not frightened but frozen.
“This guy thinks he’s tough,” the stiff one kept on. Now the bass-voiced singer with the Ravens was talking and singing “Ol’ Man River” and I wondered what they’d do next.
“I am tough,” I said. Why? Who’s to say? Maybe Jimmy Ricks’s heavy notes had aided me, and after him on the box, a stream of them. “Sixty Minute Man,” “Charles Brown,” or some of the Honkers. Finally, the grinning one acknowledged his grin and Pigfoot, the other one, a real sweet guy, started laughing and stuck out his hand. “You just moved around here, didn’t you? I seen your sister. Man, you got a fine sister.” And that friendship lasted until I went away to college to duke with the white and the yellow.
“This is The Poet,” he said of the other guy, whose hand was also pushed out. Poet was his street name, given because he had an elaborate exaggerated way of speaking and being. And later, as my own pretensions toward poetry emerged, I thought of this Poet so natural in his outpouring it was acknowledged as part of the scene. My own poetry was more difficult to come by because it began much less naturally.
But that transition, from outsider to through the door anyway, was accompanied by the sounds in the frozen custard store, as was every other event in our time, by the sounds. Just a few doors from my house, across the street, music came out of the Four Corners. Where the Fly and the Swift sped in and out. I could watch late nights sometimes from my window which looked right out on Belmont. (Though the window to my room looked out on the backyard and all the way to Livingston Street, where the more intimate life of The Hill would go on.)
At all the parties we went to the slow drag was the premier sound and the rhythm “fast tunes” were next. The blue or red light drug us in. And it would be so dark you had to stand in the corners for a while till you recognized somebody you knew. You had to make sure you could see, no matter how dark it was. To see who was with who and who was doing what, and whether any bad guys or gangs was in there. If it was a gang in there I’d hit the silk, especially when I went to parties alone. And I did a lot of that once I’d moved from the West Side back to The Hill and had a period when I didn’t run regular with the Cavaliers or had yet hooked up with the Hillside Place dudes.
The quartets were what was happening at the parties. The Orioles was the stars and with them a host of other birds, Ravens, Flamingos, Swallows, Cardinals, etc. Larry Darnell and Wynonie Harris, one on the soft crooning side (another poet), the other shouting and driving us across the floor or up the street, had to be at your party.
Remember Ivory Joe Hunter? “When I Lost My Baby I Almost Lost My Mind.” That was the hit that night the Dukes started some shit up in North Newark and one dude got beat with a meat cleaver. But that was so pretty. “… I almost … lost … my mind.” We were rubbing and the odor and heat would go through us and we tried to press the sister for all we was worth and sometimes had to get off the floor quick cause our spirits had suddenly rose.
On Belmont Avenue, I lived right down the street, the next block, from two social centers, so to speak. One was the National Theater, a movie that showed reruns, that was truly the neighborhood movie. More conversation ran around between the audience than you could hear on the screen. But it was a good place to go to catch up on what you missed or to see the goodies once or twice more. I was a teenager now and my parents let me go to the National fairly late Fridays and weekends or not too late other nights.
I got some note in there one night when The Three Musketeers was playing, the one with Gene Kelly as D’Artagnan. They find his girlfriend’s bag or brooch and it has her initials “C.B.” on it, and as they handed the bag up before the camera I shouted out, “Crime Buster,” which was Dick Tracy’s funny-paper crime fighters. People howled and a couple of the dudes in the neighborhood liked that. I saw a lotta people going in and out of the National.
And I guess I had started running into the Hillside Place dudes around that time. I had seen some of them earlier in a renegade boy scout troop up at Camp Mohican that counselors warned us to eschew. Some of them had been hooked up some way with this Charlton Street boy scout troop but only to go to the free summer camp.
Then I discovered, when I moved back to The Hill, that a bunch of them lived right around the corner a couple blocks away, on Hillside Place. Little Jimmy Scott lived around there too, also Babs Gonzales’s family. I ran with Babs’s younger brother T-Bone, who was part of the Hillside Place group. Little Jimmy was always singing around in Newark somewhere and gambling in the hallways of Hillside Place. But we all dug his “The Masquerade Is Over” and imitated him everyday, including his caved-in-chest stance and sway as he whispered his tragic blues.
But it was at the Masonic Temple that I got really involved with the Hillside Placers and we became great friends. Every Sunday night at the Masonic Temple they had a “canteen.” I guess they had got the name from the teenage canteens that were popular in the movies taken from the troop cool-out shelters, the Stage Door Canteens, the USO used to hook up or make believe they did during World War II.
The Masonic was right next door to the National, one flight up off the street. Proceeding up either of two grand curved staircases, you got to the main ballroom, where the canteen was held. The canteen was simply a dance, not too expensive, that was held every Sunday, with various groups. One dance got so wild, Lynn Hope and his turbaned screamers were on the set, that we all ran out into the street, Lynn Hope included, and disrupted traffic for a couple hours. (Vide: “The Screamers.”)
But most Sunday nights it was just a lot of black teenagers, some a trifle elderly, grindin’ and dancin’ fast to the sounds of that time and place. We loved Ruth Brown, and tunes like “Teardrops from My Eyes” were not only our dance favorites but emotional anthems of our lives. Dinah Washington and the many bird quartets also thrilled us. And Larry Darnell and Wynonie Harris and Charles Brown and a young dude who called himself Mister Blues who used to sing “I’m a real young boy just sixteen years old/I’m a real young boy just sixteen years old/I need a funky black woman to satisfy my soul!”
The Honkers really turned us on when we wasn’t grinding, doing the “slow drag” off Ivory Joe or Earl Bostic’s beautiful sound (“Flamingo”). We would be going crazy with Big Jay McNeely when he laid out flat on the floor blowing his soul with his legs kicking. Jay had a shirt that glowed in the dark and he played with that on sometimes. Or Illinois Jacquet (his detractors called him “lotta noise racket” but they was square). Bullmoose Jackson, Lynn Hope, Hal “Corn Bread” Singer. What about Joe Liggins and his Honey Drippers? I thought “The Honey Dripper” was a perfect piece of music. I could listen to that over and over. And you had to if you lived near Spruce Street and the shoeshine parlor with the jukebox blasting out into the open air.
Johnny Otis’s “Harlem Nocturne” I loved so much. I’d whistle it Saturday afternoons in anticipation of the Sunday sets. One time I sat up in the laundromat waiting for the clothes to wash and dry and whistled the whole Masonic repertory and the little pretty girl who worked there who I saw in the canteen from time to time asked me if I was a musician. I was whistling “Harlem Nocturne,” “The Honey Dripper,” “It’s Too Soon to Know,” “Tear-drops from My Eyes,” etc. All those words and those sounds carried what I knew of the world, they brought me as face to face with it as I could be then.
I hear that music and not only does the image of Belmont and Spruce, the Four Corners, The Hill, come in but also names like Headlight, Bubbles, Rogie, T-Bone, Kenny, Sonny Boy, Rudy, my main men from Hillside Place. When I first went into the Canteen, it was like a minefield, you had to watch your step, like really. Somebody wanna pull a Fanon slash on you. You know, Fanon says, the oppressed, because they will not kill their oppressors, take out their suppressed violence on themselves, their brothers, every weekend we kill each other for minute affronts, while The Hill itself is a major affront.
So you had to watch out. Dudes was bashing each other for stuff like stepping on each other’s shoes. “Hey, motherfucker, you stepped on my suedes, I’m a fuck you up!” Also who was going with who and who was looking at who and who danced with who or tried to rub against who. Or maybe dudes fell into disfavor with headwhippers because they was going with someone who put said headwhipper down, little dudes going with real pretty girls that headwhippers figured was too small to go with girls looking that good. There was many reasons you could get your head beat about a girl.
But once I started hanging with K. the rest was cooled out a little. We watched folks do they thing. The heavy dancers in our group would do they number and we would cheerlead or razz lead. If they got a really nice looking girl we’d line up to get a dance after them, if it wasn’t one of their special numbers. But I was as interested in looking, checking everything out, as I was in dancing. Though I would get down a few times a night.
With the brothers from Hillside Place it was not a sports thing they were into, though some could really play any sport. But they were more into a social number. Going to parties and dances and a lot of times just standing around bullshitting. We went in and out of some dark dark joints, Jim, blue light red light “rub” records on the box, and nothing but big hats all around the walls. The silhouettes was frightening. But we had strength in our collective sense. K., short and bright, who hiked people almost bad as I did. He was much like me only K. was black. R. was my walking buddy it turned out. We spent a lotta time together. He looked like Malcolm a little, red top and mariney looking skin. He stuttered when he got excited. R. and K. were the most thoughtful of the bunch. And red or not, R. was definitely black. He had two brothers who also ran with us, one older and one younger. The older one was a sweet dude but crazy as daylights. He didn’t like to argue, cause he couldn’t talk that well. So if you pressed him it was like pressing a button. And he was a Golden Glover, could knock dudes cold with a stroke.
We had a couple flakes too with that bunch, B. the worst. He was a straight-out hood, a headwhipper from the word whip. But he ran with us and half of the time we were with B. it was keeping him from mashing somebody. Especially at the canteen. You be grooving and doing the one step you knew or rubbin’ hard up against some queen of the night and look up out of the corner of your eye they’d be a disturbance and you’d see B’s mouth and teeth working usually right up in some ill-fated pilgrim’s face. I’d say, “Excuse me,” like some nut I saw in the movies and bolt over there to play Ralph Bunche. K. would usually get in on that too but sometimes he would slap B. side the head and say, “You always messing up the goddam party goddammit stop messin’ up the goddam party.” But only K. could do that and even when he did it I felt like I was watching that crazy blond dude in Ringling Bros that let the lions and shit jump on him.
Somebody had (a) stepped on B’s shoes, (b) rubbed up against B’s chick, (b) took B’s chick, (d) wanted to take B’s chick, (e) looked like he wanted to do any of the above. Or was just a Mickey Mouse-lookin’ mf.
The canteen was our world. Sundays our day to show out, to come slidin’ in in our cleanest shit. By this time I had a green Tyrolean with a feather band and a checkered swag. And I would slide in too, happy to be with my comrades, and eager to be in that world and suck it all in.
We went to dances and parties all over The Hill. And sometimes we even ventured into other wards. There were a couple of gangs, but we weren’t really into the gang thing on the offensive. Ours was mostly defense and camaraderie. We loved to bullshit and put each other down. But we dug each other and felt for each other and even worried about each other. Yet it was funny when one or some of the Hillsides came up to Belmont and came upstairs to my house, it was always a tentative thing. Ours was a little apartment, maybe five rooms with hardwood floors and a porch overlooking Belmont Avenue. Right near the crossroads of the world. But the floors were waxed (my gig), there was wallpaper on the walls (my old man put it up), a piano and television. New linoleum on the kitchen floor, and doilies, cabinets with glasses and dishes. All the remains of the yellow dreams of a brown family. As modest as that was, and it was very modest, the Hillsides could be very quiet and respectable in there. They tried to be on their best behavior. While in others of the boys’ homes they were subdued to a certain extent, but never with the almost icy deference I saw in my spot.
And dig this, I was still going cross town every morning to the Vatican and watching white boys and girls do their thing and was bitter and envious at the same time. Yet when I would see them at some after school dance (I would be peeking in on the way to the 9 Clifton) it would crack me up. The little bouncy shit they did and doctrinaire “Lindy Hop” took me out. Though there was a couple of dudes like Frank B. who did not bounce when they danced and who talked just like we did on The Hill. I understand he is still locked up!
I was going from my sophomore year to my junior year. I wanted to try out for football. I knew I could make the team cause the playground ball we played was at a high level. I knew I was fast enough, yet the whiteness of the team, of the experience itself, put me off. I was embarrassed because I was small that they might not even give me a tryout, and I didn’t want to get embarrassed by those dudes. (Like the shoes on the desk bit!) I went out for track and cross country because I had more confidence and made those teams. I first got a junior varsity letter in track. It was a little white “B” with blue outline with a “2” inside it and I loved it. Especially since over on The Hill people wasn’t as familiar with Barringer letters and didn’t know quite the significance of it. The next year when I got a varsity letter, a big “B” in cross country, it actually got less play, even though it was much bigger, because it didn’t have the little gimmick “2” on it.
We were City Champs in track my last year and that was a really big thing. I had a letter jacket and could stroll all over Newark showing it off. But I got the letter jacket when I got the JV letter and that was my special dressed up everyday look. The high school athlete tip carried more note than even the old Cavalier jacket and I alternated it, according to the crowd. I also got track medals for finishing fourth in the All City Broad Jump and fourth in the Low Hurdles and I was trying to figure out a way I could wear those, but my sister made necklaces out of them and lost them (along with my college track medals) once I left Newark for college.
But the contrast was amazing (though I guess in some senses there were many similarities between the life of a young Italian high school student and an African American high school student in Newark). At least on the surface and in my feelings, how I was regarded and how I regarded my surroundings was totally different. To me, the high school and everything in it was as serious as a letter on a page. Not much.
Not just my day-to-day life, where I lived was naturally more important than the superficial academic high school formalities, but my life on The Hill had a door which led inside (the Hill and me) to much deeper experience. The canteen was a center for a time, and the Hillside Place dudes my fellow travelers in digging all that: the life and the sounds of our time. But wedged up in there was some brown and yellow shit (I told ya) along with the white. And that is a crisscross of reference, as well as emotion.
For instance, there would be parties arranged by secret yellow sources like birthday parties for W. from Bethany, which might be held at the Jones Street Y. And I would sit and watch what passed for dancing and drink the punch and keep my eyes peeled for the harder dudes who would be passing by outside. S. and R. from the Cavaliers were in this yellow-brown combine to bring yellow life onto The Hill. And we at least had reference to something real, our wheeling and dealing — “in your face, turkey” — out in the Waverly Avenue apartments playground. A lot of the dudes at these little gatherings, like at the church and the special Y sets, were funny time. Didn’t play no ball or nothing. It was some mixed up stuff.
But some of the same records would play as in the blue and red light parties. And Mr. Lamar, who ran the Jones Street Y, was a tough hip old man. He conducted big bands of ghetto youth (like they say). And heavy-weights like Woody Shaw, Walter Davis, Wayne Shorter, Buddy Terry were coming through there. And some of these youth bands were so good they began playing gigs all over the town. They even started playing at the canteen.
These youth bands were playing in the canteen for a while. And they were good but they added another element that speaks to the whole nature of that time. As young people we were blues people; it is and remains African American popular music. It was the most natural element in our lives, the sound of those lives, as they were lived. In the late ’40s and ’50s the whole of the U.S. was going through changes and we were going through changes in it. What the blues said and says is the flow of our blood and the flow of us through this world. The old blues came into the cities before, even in the South, got hooked up to European instruments and marching bands and whorehouse employment post funeral enjoyment and became not just jass but jazz and not just that but us in a different way, somebody black with some other stuff to say. Some more stuff, what the city did, was propose itself to us as our new place (and home even away from home, which is still the South).
The music took on everything we ever did, which is why we loved it and made it (being us). So come into Newark, Jim, about nineteem and something, close to or into the twenties. And what you got? Some up North show time stuff. Some gay ballads, like Bert and Jim Europe and Eubie and them made. Could get raggy or barrelhouse, a strut come all the way out of the Gay Nineties.
But here come the blues. From out of the South, barrelin’ in on them trains, lookin’ for work. Moved into wherever, kept alive with a gut bucket. (“A bucket of guts to go, please, sir!”) The blues would come into these cities and take over whole neighborhoods, not to mention horns and pianos and the rap of the drum always been there. Rap rap rap rap, drummer rappin’. Like “I rather drink muddy water an’ sleep in a hollow log.” “Why, you ain’t even in New York, boy. This year’s New Ark.”
The blues would get dressed up. Put on some shiny brass and hang out in districts so out they was called red light, like our dark parties full of menace and joy. And the blues would be dressin’ up and stretchin’ out and soundin’ like it was somebody else, but we knew it was always the blues. It would take in and take on anything it needed to survive and grow and still be us.
Blues would show changed but itself anyway. Talking about different places it had been and what it had seen. How it had been treated, using anything it could to get our attention, its only love. So here they come with horns and electric guitars. (Was named Blind Lemon, and Leroy, then come up here and plugged theyself in, turned on for modernism, called theyself T-Bone!) Somebody put some slick shit in they heads to match they ideas. Like Red mud for the Nuer. Grease was the newer, conk! City shit.
As for jazz, we could dig the Dukish presumption, made you see how blues could show out. Could expand and talk history like a suite of symphonies. Where we been. How we got there. How we changed. (How some got strange!)
There is a heavy thing to us, blues says. A heavy thing, which always want to get out. It’s in that song and dance, that levitating stroke of walk (strut?). All the tragedies and high comedies, the constant grim ironies of tears or laughter. And beyond that. Beyond that. All the past, zoomed like a real silver bullet toward the future. The long glittering song of motion which is now thinking about itself.
The “romance” of jazz is that it does not let go of its crowded past, its blue shadows nor the wisdom of the lone banjo at sunset near the anonymous plantation. Yet it wants to speak of everything in this place (even the shit it ain’t supposed to understand) since it is fed by everything even on the cool. Blues was naturally dismissed, some slave shit. Jazz would get smacked as payback for its presumption. No matter the rhythmic sophistication of naked savages so naive they used gold to sit their black asses on and fan themselves with peacock bennies. And then got the nerve to send messages through night black fingers smacking animal skins in Congo Square here in the New World.
Blues is our poem of New World consciousness, jazz our articulation that we is familiar with all the shims and shams of the machine (vertical American Class society, plus the international advertisements of the planet’s beauty). Blues is our father and our mother, our grandparents, our history, plus our daily black soulful lives as brothers and sisters against and within the reality and the idea of this place. Blues is the basic pulse and song, the fundamental description and reaction. A slave’s music, a peasant’s music, a worker’s music, the music of a people, a whole nation, expressing that nation’s psyche, its “common psychological development.” And jazz, as Langston says, is the child, the blue/black prodigy of the earth mother/father, that wants to take its inherited sensitivity (could etch a blue outline of hope against a grey sky made reddish by fire and blood) and presume to claim (to know and understand) all that exists in America black brown red yellow or white. Jazz, the most advanced music of the African American people, not only begins by being thrown by its parents through the shiny channels of alien sound machines, and then claiming them (like Mr. Sax of Germany might not have dug or understood John Coltrane) but then it even wants to describe the whole of this society, its multinational reality, to that society itself, and propose alternatives to the very society (from the fundamental sound of the culture, its publicly stated matrix of creativity and profundity). Jazz challenges Europe because Europe cannot even get in America without jazz’ help. And then jazz want to take the real credit — it be legitimate American music, when Brahms and them is only visitors (get its arrogant drift?).
Jazz said, “We can deal with this hardware and them harmonies too, and we is rhythmically sophisticated, and can create what you call, uhhh, syncopation.” And to the inquiring stiffnecks, the academic deadbeats who had come out from under they hoods momentarily so they could write their essays on the relative worth of these Aframerican melodies, jazz would stare politely and whilst beset with multisyllabic descriptions of the towering greatness of all that is “west” or white or European or merely dead, jazz would answer, and without malice, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” And jazz’ parents would smile, being proud of their presumptuous offspring.
Other people would say “But how can you say all this, jazz, you was not even in the classroom?” (This was before integration!) “So you did not even hear what is being taught. All you knew was the blues and that’s downright paltry.” (That was before the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, Bix Beiderbecke, Paul Desmond, Dave Brubeck, Stan Getz, Stan Kenton, Chuck Mangione or Elvis Presley, Bill Haley and the Comets, the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Kiss, and John Travolta. A long time before dudes started calling themselves PUNKS!)
And jazz would repeat its message from its Duke or stare monkishly just off to one side of the questioner’s ashen face.
So we had come into the world bathed in spirituals and blues. And by time I came to consciousness up in that northern city, blues also had large scale come out the country, had come into cities and even went with a buncha people up North lookin’ for work, or runnin’ from the Klan or they animal counterparts, the boll weevil.
We had give up the “Spanish” (Mississippi-Louisiana-Texas) guitar for the industrial one, the urban worker’s guitar that needed electricity to tell its tale. In my generation we came up with the rise of rhythm and blues, the big city blues of screaming horns and endless riffs. The big bands were actually big blues bands, and even the jazz bands were blues bands that also had another kind of story, one that included deeper histories and music so heavy it could call on an ology if it needed to explain itself.
The spirituals we carried with us even into blues. We needed quartets like the Ravens and the Orioles to translate our real funk, past the Mills Brothers and Ink Spots, who were chosen darksters white folks could believe in. Dinah and Ruth B. were gospel sounds inside the blues. And the gospel itself was an urban spiritual that wanted to bring blues right on into the church and forget the devil sposed have something to do with it.
When Big Jay, and Illinois, Jug and Gatortail, the honkers and screamers of our day, came on, it was blues church we groaned and stomped to. Those screams were like black folks in sanctification, brown folks when they quit bullshittin’ and let the full spirit take ’em.
But a lot of us were leavin’ the church (even while we sat in there bein’ pinched by brown grandmas), leavin’ it to yellow folks or black and brown fantasy folks who still wanted to sit on the porch rockin’ endlessly to familiar groans strainin’ and squintin’ they eyes tryin’ to look into the nothin’ mist for a sign that Jordan was close on or that angels was actually motorin’ our way in those sweet chariots we sang about.
But urban industrial United States was teaching a lot of us. The material reality of being urban workers and shaky middle-class members of an oppressed nationality. These things were teaching us in the factory classrooms and other sweatshops, on the streets, over the radios, and over television, in the movies, in school classrooms. The world was here and some people was heavy into it suckin’ it dry. Our sad streets seemed to some of us to have maps and paths drawn on ’em glowing in the dark. We saw arrows away from the plantation in green-glowing neon under our eyelids just before we went to sleep. Ways out, even when we didn’t know we cared. Ways away. We wanted to go where the factorie’s conception arose and the intelligence of the sparkling machines came from. We wanted to go where that money went. Or we wanted to step into the books or understand more than the streets, we wanted to understand our feelings about them. We wanted to step into the radios (we sent messages and notes). We wanted to step into the movies and television screens. The grey steel streets were indeed paltry (not our feelings, and no, not the blues) but those gray streets were dead and cold, despite our warm living selves celebrating the life in us dancing across their surfaces. What was most important about the survivors was our will to be more than those streets proposed, to be happier than possible (in your philosophy, Horatio).
So the blues was myself and my life and the lives of those around me. But we were all in motion. The R&B life on the streets of the Central Ward, in the Masonic, on Hillside Place, and Spruce was natural to me. But something else was developing as well. In me, in us, in the music, in the society. It’s all connected.
The horizontal quality of black life, that is, the smashed flat quality of life for the oppressed, proposes that we is all generally equally mashed. So that one whole can incorporate us in our parts, though even so there was always a slight verticality. A yellowness and brownness, from the slavery time days when the Tom Jeffersons and other great philosophers would throw black women down and fuck them up (get them pregnant) with yellow life. And many of their yellow sons and daughters was the first petty bourgeois we had, even during slavery times. Though there was a black bourgeoisie in minute quantities, a slave-owning black bourgeoisie even during slavery. That is, free slave-owning niggers!
But as the verticality extends and gets larger so the contrast within our ranks. So the wider divergence of ideologies within the nation, reflecting the sharpening of objective economic division. The blues band of the ’30s becomes both the rhythm and blues band of the ’40s and ’50s as well as the jazz band and combo and later bebop combo of the ’40s and ’50s. It is simply one people showing its divergence socially though the aesthetic reflections of different sectors of themselves.
The youth bands we began hearing at the Masonic were just a few years older than I was and I was on top of middle teens then. Bands like Nat Phipps and Jackie Bland had the most note for us. And they played both the blues numbers and the incoming rhythm and blues hits and jazz and even a little new jazz. They were playing the whole of the continuum, like most of the big bands then, still able to play both big blues and jazz, they had a blues singer and a jazz singer, or one singer who could sing both. And we danced to all of it.
They would play “Harlem Nocturne” and “Flamingo,” stock band arrangements of anything danceable, Ellington, Basie, “Caledonia.” Jackie Bland was probably the most advanced. He had them playing “Ooopapadow” of Diz, and Wallington’s “Lemon Drop.” Herman’s takes of Diz were popular. They wasn’t prejudiced, they even ended the sets with Kenton’s “Intermission Riff.” But mostly it was rhythm and rhythm and blues and blues ballads. Wayne Shorter played with Jackie and Nat, and Grachan Moncur III played with Nat as well as Knobby who’s now with Herbie Mann plus some great young players like Ed Lightsey on bass, Nat’s brother Billy on reeds (the whole Phipps family played — Nat a pianist). And hip musicians liked Hugh Brodie, Allen Shorter, Herbie Morgan went through the bands. Hank Mobley was blowing with Billy Ford and his thunderbirds at the Howard Bar and James Moody lived on Monmouth Street up the street from my girlfriend D.
Jackie had the most strange presence and he would conduct the band (really like Diz) with head, arms, legs, butt, even his eyes shooting in all directions. These bands played the whole spectrum of the music, our whole history, from old blues to new jazz, and we danced to all of it. “Hucklebuck,” “Honey Dripper,” “Four Brothers,” and the band members were great heroes to us.
Nat and his brother Billy and a couple other members of that band (like Pretty Boy F., who turned out to be a four-hundred-pound cop) went to Barringer and I knew them, but they were older and in higher grades. Nat and I even ran track together one year and got to be pretty good friends.
All that music was at the Masonic. Some I was very familiar with and some new stuff I heard and began to dig. It was all part of the same cultural matrix to us — black from every which a way and brown plus even yellow and white translated by our main men stomping on the stage.
K. and R. and I also did some other steppin’. We might go to Lloyd’s Manor, which had a different crowd plus some of the same folks who was at the canteen. I met Little Esther at Lloyd’s one night. She had a big hit (and she was about my age, fourteen or fifteen or so) “Double Crossin’ Blues” with Johnny Otis. Between sets I came up to her and she was foolin’ around with the bandleader’s trumpet. I wanted to say something. She had really big pretty lips, bright red, and her hair cut short and straightened. She was smiling and talking to one of the musicians. I just looked and thought, Hey, I got close to Little Esther. She and Mel Walker and Johnny Otis would sing (and I would too in those bright blue Saturdays of my teenagedom.)
You way out in the forest
How come you ain’t out in the forest?
I’m a lady!
They got lady bears out there!
We also went to mambo sets which were coming in about that time too. Once at Lloyd’s there were so many people mamboing you couldn’t move. We were stuck fixed in the crowd, breathing everybody’s passion. (It was also the first time I ever remember seeing what I later found out was a Puerto Rican. Two young girls near my own age, one with a blond streak in dark reddish brown hair at the corner of Belmont and Springfield, going somewhere. I didn’t even know what they were.)
This was also around the same period my cousin George lent me (forever) some of his bebop records. I had listened to a couple in his house on Wallace Street. Then he brought some over to my house on Belmont.
They were Guilds, Manors, Savoys (a Newark company), with groups like Charlie Parker’s Reboppers, Max Roach and the BeBop Boys, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie’s “Ooopapadow,” “Hot House,” “Ornithology,” “The Lady in Red,” and waboppadapaDam! my world had changed!!
I listened to bebop after school, over and over. At first it was strange and the strangeness itself was strangely alluring. Bebop! I listened and listened. And began learning the names of musicians and times and places and events. Bird, Diz, Max, Klook, Monk, Miles, Getz, and eventually secondary jive like Downbeat, Metronome, Feather, Ulanov, began to be part of my world and words.
I want to explain how much bebop changed me. Not in the superficial movie way that said, look, yesterday the hero wore glasses and had a limp, today he’s whole and looks more like Ronald Colman than he did with that funny disguise. Maybe there were some changes on the top some people could peep. But mostly it was interior. I heard this different music and different ideas, different images came to me. I thought about different things.
I was still in the Central Ward, up over the oil heater Polish couple, and could look down on Belmont Avenue weekends and see slick folks strut and drunks stagger into the Chinese restaurant for some chow mein. I was still going to the canteen on Sundays, and the National, and hanging out most times with the Hillsides, but mostly K. and R. But now some other kinds of yearnings turned me around. I wanted to go to some other kinds of places, and usually by myself. Not because I suddenly felt “estranged” from people or whatnot. But because bebop, “The Music,” had got into me and was growing in me and making me hear things and see things. I began to want things. I didn’t even know what.
And I wasn’t even sure what the music was. Bebop. A new language a new tongue and vision for a generally more advanced group in our generation. (Though that could always be turned around by the rich and the powerful and this will be the case until the oppressed have control over their own lives!) Bebop was a staging area for a new sensibility growing to maturity. And the Beboppers themselves were blowing the sound to attract the growing, the developing, the about-to-see. Sometimes even the players was carrying out the end of another epoch as they understood it. Though they knew they was making change, opening a door, cutting underbrush and heavy vines away to make a path. And where would that path lead? That was the real question. It is the real question of each generation. Where will the path you’ve shown us lead? And who will take it?
The sound itself. The staccato rhythm and jagged lines. The breakneck speed and “outside” quality. Joe Carroll sang “In the Land of Oobladee.” “Outside.” Strange. Weird. Weird. That word I read and heard. Weird. Thelonious. That’s a weird name. What did it mean? Why were they sounding like this? They even looked weird.
My first hero was Diz, Dizzy Gillespie. That’s because he was the wildest. For the same reason the media picked up on Diz. I looked in Esquire (which my father used to subscribe to) and there was an article on Diz. “The High Priest of Bebop” (later I got to understand that that was Monk). The title of the article hit me. “To Be or Not to Bop.” The Shakespearean overtones, the picture magazine hype, turned me on. Diz in windowless hornrims. Also the shades and beautiful beret. I had never really looked at a beret before. We called them “tams.” And there were dudes and women who wore them. But Diz (and the magazine) provided a pique I’d never checked before. A guy down the street from me who went to Barringer named G. and I began to hang out. He was a bass player. He played with the school band and also made some of the gigs with the various teenage bands around town. He hung with with a trumpet player named Pinball who I thought was one of the hippest dudes in the world. He even had a sound like Miles.
I had gone from piano lessons to drawing lessons to drum lessons and now I was at trumpet lessons. My mother kept throwing yellow W. in my face as someone who would stick to piano lessons. (He had an uncle who played piano occasionally for the church. He, the young uncle, was yellow with a slanted high side part, the epitome of yellow mischief as far as I was concerned. Glasses. A sort of Hollywood character actor type. Had a name like Percy, dig?)
Bebop had brought a wind of other connections, interconnections in all directions. Like wires strung up and looping out of the Third Ward, yet that, for me, was its center, where you had to be to pick up all the communications coming in. I had a skate box, without skates as I remember, because I couldn’t really skate. Though I went to the rink a few times. But that was a social thing. Thursdays was Colored Night in those days, even in Newark. The joint was called Dreamland and other nights you’d get turned away. Those were for white kids and the joint was really in the next town, Elizabeth, and there was always talk that if you showed up the other nights not only would you be turned away but you’d get into a rumble with the white kids.
Usually, I’d just show up down at the White Castle hamburger place on Elizabeth Avenue and check out the cars until I saw people I knew and we’d rap. I’d check the beauties and maybe see a couple of my familiar fantasies. Sometimes I’d get a ride back to Belmont, other times I had to hoof it. But it was a regular stop. The only thing I ever did pertaining to skating was paint the skate box, which was made of plain wood. I had some red sticky paint and painted Dizzy’s picture, with the bebop glasses and bebop tam and around the hopeless painting I scrawled “To Be” on top of the picture and “Or Not to Bop” underneath. I don’t even know if I took that skate box out of the house. I might have taken it to Dreamland a couple of times, I’m not sure, cause once I got into Dreamland, I’d just stand around and watch. Even when I put on skates. But that was it, I never even had skates. When I went down there I had to rent skates. So it woulda been stupid to carry the box. However, I mighta carried it.
But I did show the picture a couple times in some context. I began to buy records now to try to add to my core collection which was really my cousin George’s. George had also given/loaned me some “Jazz at the Philharmonic” (JATP) records. The Norman Granz production of everybody in those mostly blowing sessions that traveled around the country. Bird, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Roy Eldridge, Ella Fitzgerald, Flip Phillips. He asked me if I had any records, bop records, and up until that time I would only occasionally buy an R&B or quartet record. Like Orioles, Ravens, Honey Dripper, or Hucklebuck. I showed him my parents’ album (those four-record 78 collections) of Nat King Cole’s trio. And they was pretty hip but that was all I had.
Everything was still 78 and very fragile. One of the first records of the new music I bought was Charlie Parker’s Repetition. I hadn’t heard it, but something I read in one of the magazines turned me on. I pored through those magazines and the mystique and the fact that they were mentioning landmark sides which I didn’t know anything about and dropping names and showing flicks and I knew nothing at all about them — except the little bit of knowledge I got from George’s present — made it seem that I was being let in, now, on something very heavy that had been going on all around me without me knowing anything.
I had just started trying to play the trumpet and still didn’t know how to read music very well. The band I started was embarrassing in that regard, cause I had to have them play the heads over and over till I could read it, I was so slow. We wanted to play Shearing’s “September in the Rain” and a tune we’d heard Sarah Vaughan sing, “Tenderly.” That’s when we discovered that those were really the same tune.
The alto and drums were the only really consistent members of the “band.” The bass player, G., was too advanced for us. (And of that band the bass player is a street vendor, the drummer an architect, and the altoist a commercial artist, the trumpet player does write something about the music, but he sure can’t play!) The band was a brown enterprise connected in its strongest tone to black and blue. But my mother let us play in her living room on her sacred hardwood floors. She “didn’t mind,” in fact I’m sure she was happy we was there rather than snakin’ through the streets which was pure black and blues.
And then I was going through some other changes as I was about to leave high school. In school my grasp on the day-to-day academics had slipped altogether. Though I still got passing marks in most stuff, I had just waved my hands at stuff like algebra and just sat up in the class listening to the white boys crack jokes. The teacher we had, Mr. H., was no teacher at all but just the brunt of cruel high school First Ward jokes. The kids would sometimes curse him out in Italian or call him names consistently like “Baccala” (fish) which invariably cracked everybody up. I laughed because the others did. But I could ask V. sometimes what the Italian words meant and he would tell me. Where before I’d been much more serious and concerned about my grades and school behavior now I cared less and less.
In fact around my junior year I’d begun to take off (play hooky) from time to time. Mostly, when there was something happening downtown at the Adams, when they had live shows. Like the whole of the Newark school system turned out for Nat King Cole. But why would they have an 11:00 A.M. show? Once they had a guy come on stage and get a rah rah session going where he said, “Everybody from Barringer,” and they’d cheer. “Everybody from Central,” and they’d cheer. “Everybody from South Side,” and they’d cheer. And so forth. And then they busted all those that raised their hands and any others they could see and made ’em go back to school.
The bass player and I used to cut together. We lived near each other, on the same street, way cross town. But still went to Barringer. How we got over there I’ll never know. He was older than I was and was actually driving a truck. I think it was his father’s fish truck, (though I could never understand how his father could use it to sell fish if G. had it daytimes cattin’ around with us).
But that was superhip for its time, that fish truck. A few of the selected would meet near the school and take off. Or else we’d be in school and after letting them mark us present in their homerooms we’d break, meet outside, and take off. Just the idea of riding around in that fish truck while school was going on thrilled us. We felt real big time. Though we had deep paranoia about the truant officers and our parents. Much more probably than is possible today when the truant officers are so secondary in the present “philosophy” of education that they have been fired in Newark because of budget cuts. So your child could be absent any number of days these days and you wouldn’t know it. In those days you couldn’t do that. They would be onto your case in a minute.
We’d go the Adams, if there was a show. We’d go to other high schools’ lunchtimes and hang out. We might go to somebody’s house. For instance, G’s girlfriend Mary was living with an aunt, and the aunt would be away at work. We might pick up Pinball or Calvin, a drummer, or some other developing hipsters (later the word was “hippies,” before white youth took the word over in the late ’50s) and just breeze around being cool.
Because if the blues and rhythm and blues especially had made us hot as blue flame, now we, in hooking up one way or another to bebop, wanted to be cool. As we got more conscious of bop we got more conscious of wanting to be cool. (The word as it was used before Chet Baker and Lee Konitz absorbed it.)
Cool, for us, was to be there without being into nothing dumb. Like, the whole thing. The society — right? But this was an accretion, a buildup of consciousness. Though we were talking about being cool in that fish truck or when we played hooky or as we strode out of Barringer homeroom on the way outside and down to the Adams, we were being cool. We did not want to be attached to anything stupid, though in those days we did not yet understand how widespread stupidity was nor how valuable to those who ruled us.
I got a job, my mother got me a job, really. Next door to where she was working then. The white-collar experience my mother had in the war she had used since (once the war was over and they started letting the war boom people go, especially the black [include brown] Rosie the riveters, as the slogan went). She now had a job at the community hospital as an assistant administrator (the administrator’s name was Romeo Brigs) and she got me a job, working Fridays after school and Saturdays at a grocery store next door to the hospital. After I checked out OK I began working everyday after school and all day Saturdays. It was OK with me because it was a new experience and kept a few coins in my pocket. I was making about forty-five big ones a week, which allowed me to start buying my own clothes and go the various places I was coming to decide I wanted to go and to buy my own records.
I was a more solitary night traveler now. Though sometimes I would walk around with G. to someplace where music was playing or with a dude we called “Limes” because people thought he dressed and carried himself like Harry Limes (Orson Welles in the movie The Third Man. Limes is now a New Jersey politician and he still looks like Limes). The trombone player, Little Jay Jay, was another one of my sometimes late night walking buddies. (He was called that cause he worshiped J. J. Johnson.) Because that late night walking was more and more about music. I might meet them at one of the various places we knew where the music was being played. We were looking for bebop. The Hillside Place dudes I didn’t see as much now because they were still going to the canteen. Sometimes I would go to the canteen and see them or just go around to K. or R.’s house or they come round to mine. But they did not dig bop like I did.
I was with G. or Little Jay Jay the night we went to the Silver Saddle on Clinton Avenue and checked Bird. It was a burst of magic to me. I didn’t know what to make of it. It was a burst of magic. It was blue and pink and white (or were those the lights over the bar, which whirled around and shot spears off a globe of many refracting surfaces?). It was blue — but a blue that shattered into many unknown moods. Moods unknown to me. Different modes of thought. The playing in the bar shattered (was it the lights?), it showered me with blue and red dancing things held in blinding light. It was moods. Modes. Ones breaking into twos and them breaking. It was a burst of magic.
The dark crowd that night — you walk up Belmont to Avon, then turn left, go down three blocks, turn right at Hayes Circle and the Silver Saddle is right there — I couldn’t even see them clearly. They might have been one large head bouncing under the music taking it in! But the music was magical and it covered me over and turned me into myself.
Afterwards, I was by myself now (for some reason), I came out and began walking down Clinton toward Hayes Circle and there was Bird sitting there smoking a joint with a white woman. I didn’t know that’s what they were doing because up till that time I didn’t know anything about marijuana, just as some strange reference in the magazines. The idea of heroin seemed to me some crazy jail-death idea that people wanted to down you with. I didn’t fully understand it or even what it was.
But it was the woman who had played piano with him in the club. (I found out later her name was Lorraine Geller.) But I passed close to them and Bird was talking and Lorraine was lighting up the joint he had just handed to her. They didn’t even pause as I came close and I did not even pause though I had them fixed in my eyes and in my head as I passed, turned the corner, and went up the street. When I got a little distance up the street I turned and looked back at them and they were still smoking and talking and joking. A white woman, I thought, that’s weird!
Saturdays I brought my trumpet to work with me. Steve, the owner, said I could take a long lunch cause that’s when I took my trumpet lessons, not far from the store, over on Springfield Avenue. And I loved the idea of walking with my trumpet, in a brown imitation leather bag I’d got that looked like the trumpet bags Diz and Miles carried. I didn’t want the hard square cases, I had what they called a “gig bag” and I tucked it under my arm and bopped those five or six blocks to Springfield and dug the idea of people looking at me thinking I was a trumpet player.
My father had asked me one day, “Why do you want to be a bopper?” Who knows what I said. I couldn’t have explained it then. But bebop suggested another mode of being. Another way of living. Another way of perceiving reality — connected to the one I’d had — blue/black and brown but also pushing past that to something else. Strangeness. Weirdness. The unknown!
I guess that’s what it was. The music took me places I’d never been. Literally. One night I found myself snaking through the darkness up to the Orange Armory for a dance. The dance had Larry Darnell as one part of the bill and Stan Getz as the other. I remember the fags was cuttin’ the fool with Bermuda shorts in bright plaid colors. I came in and stood in front of the stage unmoving and checked two sides of that equation out. To show the mix of the times. Getz and Max Roach had played together as part of the BeBop Boys on records. I dug Getz’s “The Lady in Red.” That wispy romantic tone. And a lot of the bebop groups were mixed in that period. Later, I even dug Stan Kenton and went down to Symphony Hall when he had his band with Art Pepper, Maynard Ferguson, Bob Graettinger, June Christy, Frank Rosolino. I bought that album which consisted of pieces named after the players, plus something of Bob Graettinger’s called “City of Glass.” And that stuff was really weird. But I dug it, for that reason, and it seemed linked to the whole experience that bop had opened up for me. The fact that they were white people meant nothing to me. What they were playing was linked to something I dug.
But my deepest experience of that period was with Miles. For me Miles was what cool meant. (And later, over the years, his various getups on the record covers, and the music that went with them, have always remained the highest explanation of that definition.) My last year or so in high school I ran into Miles’s “Venus de Milo” and “Move.” In fact all the tunes in that series of recordings he made with the big band: Max, Lee Konitz, John Lewis, J.J., Gerry Mulligan, and those tunes by Mulligan, Denzil Best, George Wallington, John Lewis, Bud Powell and Miles himself, Johnny Carisi, Cleo Henry. To me that was where the definition of “high art” began. But especially “Venus de Milo,” “Move,” and “Darn That Dream.” I liked all of the tunes and once I found out it was a whole series, I pursued all those records, which you had to get on 78s then.
The music was heavy to me almost like what they called “classical” music, which had only interested me in those terrible themes they played in the movies. I liked movie music and I dug Aaron Copland’s music “Salon de Mexico” in one of those Esther Williams MGM musicals. And somewhere I heard the “Firedance” of de Falla, but it was all in tune with the movie happenings, though I did continue to think about “Salon de Mexico” for a long time. And I’d heard and liked the popular themes from Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, and Chopin the movies played.
I would be carrying packages across High Street delivering them. (There were still some white families, mostly Jewish, living then on High Street, in what were then spacious luxury apartments and some one-family houses. Some black doctors had moved in there and on a couple of streets some other links in the black middle class. But only a couple blocks away, even then, was nothing but bloods, though they were a little more mixed in with Polish Jews and Catholics.) I’d be whistling “Venus de Milo,” then “Move,” then “Darn That Dream.” I would sing “Darn That Dream.” like I was Pancho Hagood, who sounded like a hipper kind of Mr. B. to me. Cause I always dug Mr. B. and even had a couple shirts with “Mr. B.” collars earlier, around the time he was in the movies and sang “I Left My Hat in Haiti.”
I was delivering packages and singing “Darn That Dream” or hearing those wild harmonies of “Venus de Milo.” I’d hum and whistle the opening of that tune over and over. The big band weight of the music and strange harmonic voices made me think of “classical” music but it was my classical music, because it meant something to me. Something serious and personal and out there. It was weird.
The trumpet teacher I had was an Italian classicist and he had me blowing those hard round whole notes like I was playing the overture from some Italian opera or at least that’s what I thought. He was really trying to teach me to play “legitimate” trumpet, if you can dig that. But I didn’t want that. I wanted to play like Miles Davis, so I had to slide the horn to the side of my mouth sort of to try to get that sound. Because the way the trumpet teacher was teaching me, only those big old round notes would come out and I thought they were square. (Though I listened to Maynard Ferguson play those same kinds of notes. But he was playing so high up in the stratosphere the novelty of that hid the fact that he was playing the same kinds of notes as my trumpet teacher was trying to mash on me!)
When I was in grammar school I would take my father’s clothes and wear them to the Court, the late night recreation program. He must’ve known it but I guess that’s one of the trials of parenthood. His sweater and shirts and even a couple of ties I would wear, like it was secret, and then try to slip them back in his closet when I came home on Dey Street.
They bought clothes for me at Larkey’s (where a friend worked and they could get deals) and Ripley’s which leaned a little toward Hollywood. They used to have a store in Newark with palm trees sitting outside like it was Hollywood and I went in there too.
In high school my ideas must’ve changed somewhat. I know by the time I got a high school letter, the big one, I had on a red corduroy jacket to go with the white “B” sweater. But earlier in high school some guy had made fun of me for wearing a green sweater and blue pants. My clothes thing was fairly scrambled up.
In the canteen I’d got, I mentioned, the checkered “swag” coat we called it (a single-breasted English type overcoat with slit pockets). The green Tyrolean, I guess both of these were influences of my peers, and the peacock band I saw somewhere. I know. I was reading Esquire because my father subscribed to it for a long time. And I looked at the fashions and as I got older began to try to buy some of the things. I know that’s where I saw Dizzy and the Esquire jazz polls which dropped all those names I picked up.
It’s complex though. I did not just leave out of The Hill or up off it. The Masonic and the house parties and the Hillside Placers and the yellow mob plus white high School Barringer all continued to have some influence. For instance grey flannel was being talked about. That’s what college dudes was beginning to wear, so spake the whatever that I picked up, maybe it was Esquire. So I went where those of us who was hip on The Hill had our clothes made, Wohlmuth’s, and had a grey flannel suit made. The only thing was that it was a Hill suit with twenty-two-inch bottoms. (The style on The Hill was bellbottoms at the time.) I remember a girl at the Jones Street Y say it was a “black wool” suit. But she said it was a hip suit, a hip black wool suit. It was a black suit, dig it?
I went to a Howard-Lincoln basketball game for some reason at the Newark Armory and checked out those people. I was a little kid, by myself. Knowing no one, really, though there were some folks there I thought I dug. And something about that was really hip, but something else about it was disturbing. I was going to the Golden Gloves matches up there by myself and the basketball game was OK too, my parents seemed to approve.
I saw white bucks being worn. And I’d read (again, Esquire?) that that’s what college kids were wearing. And also that they wore them dirty. Dirty? That was weird. But I bought a pair. And a couple of corny people remarked on the white shoes how dumb they were. (They bought them a year or so later and wore them until they really were dumb!) One Negro, B.P., a yellow stuck-up nee-grow from way back (he was a cheerleader for Barringer briefly till he gave that up and began driving the library truck which was some uppity shit for bloods in them days. The first nee-grow cheerleader was, yes, from yellow headquarters, and never spoke that I knew of. He ran on white approval, much like Jeckie Raw-bean-son. He was soft, like a pudgy yellow mistake. And only made sounds when cheering, “Gimme A, B,” etc., clapping with pudgy little yellow paws) actually took the lead in kicking dirt on the shoes. He thought it would make me mad. What made me mad was the idea that this turkey would kick dirt on my shoes. But the result was what I really desired. At least I knew that was supposed to be hip, so I didn’t really mind. In fact I treated it like they were just doing work for me, saving me the work, of having to dirty them myself. I even ran around the track with them after school at track practice to show the stupid buggers that I wanted them dirty. And what was so satisfying was that these very dudes was the kind of stiff five-and-ten-cent Ivy Leaguer types who a few years later would have to have them a pair of such shoes.
I began to go to a store on Raymond Boulevard. A kind of English store the likes of which are found no more in Newark, obviously, but maybe still exist in some of these wealthy Connecticut or New York towns. With saddles and riding boots and crops for decoration, cloth laid about. Very traditional and English and it impressed the hell out of me. That was a new world, too. And the clothes now I began to buy out of that mold. The English conservative clothes that the Ivy tradition is the natural extension of. I guess what was called Ivy League was the commercial surface of the older English and Eastern school tradition.
The son of the owner was there every day and I would stare in awe at his oxford flannel pants and red belts and plain-toed shoes and button-down blue shirts and paisley ties. I would stare around the store in amazement at the very hip clothes. Some I’d only heard described that now I saw.
It was part of the coolness the music conveyed to me. And it was a vector from black and blues with veins, tributaries going all directions. We were cool because we were not “country,” not first generation. We’d been up here and dug what it was and we could sound like we had been up here and knew what was going on. The hot quality of R&B we dug, but we translated that into frantic I guess because that described us to ourselves and what we sounded like. Frantic. In sharp endless motion. But even frantic was cool in the blues sense. Because weird, frantic, hip, cool all meant to be other than that which was everywhere perceived deadly in its dead-end of day-to-day horrible American reality. The life of America that it talked about in the movies and on the radio was one thing, there was some imagination and vision, some honesty in that, but that was not American life. The dead end of American life meant that you could go nowhere. It was nowhere. It was not sharp (what the Egyptians called the “Angle of Success”), it was blunted, going nowhere, square. What the Egyptians called the “Angle of Failure.” And we perceived most of these things only semiconsciously.
Our cool, which went hand in hand with bop (not the later commercial definition), meant other than regular America — we were not in gangs, we were not loud and unruly, we did not want to get sweaty and still be frustrated (when just a minute ago we were sweaty as we could get under Lynn Hope and Big Jay McNeely). We still might go up to parties and dance to Lloyd Price, “Lawdy Lawdy, Miss Clawdy,” and that was in us, but even in those sanctums we was cool, we moved through those blue lights under those red lights trying to sidestep the ugliest parts of our American ghetto reality.
We did not want to be beat up by headwhippers or have our hats blocked by the Dukes or Geeks. We did not want to get some little girl “jail bait” pregnant and end up tied to our mutual frustration; we did not want to fail school or get thrown out or have to go get a job and just work. We did not want to be from the South or be so poor people felt sorry for us or talked bad about us. Where I was comin’ from, the brown side, we just wanted to keep steppin’. The black had shaped us, the yellow had taunted us, the white had terrified and alienated us. And cool meant, to us, to be silent in the face of all that, silent yet knowing. It meant knowledge. It meant being smart, intelligent too. So we hooked up the weirdness and the intelligence. Dizzy’s hornrim bebop glasses, the artist’s tam, these spelled some inner deepness to us. It was a way into ourselves further, and sometimes because we went into ourselves, we seemed quiet on the street.
But throughout my life, our lives, there is music. And for me our attachment to it is one deep definition of who we are and where we think we’re going. Bop was deep in its connections, its frantic side its cool side. Flame itself has different colors. The old blues, spirituals, quartets, and rhythm and blues, the jazz and bebop plus the multicolored pop, the identifiable American flying object — like Martin Block or movie and stage music (I could even speak to what we called “hillbilly” when I got in the air force and collective ignorance — my own included — was used to torture me). All this and there is a beyond we already know about, from here, all this has made its mark, is shaping and has shaped a world and complex interconnections within that world. They cannot be exclusive, yet we are “hung on a line” (as Chas. Olson said), somewhere or everywhere these collectively or singly or however we perceive them, are located. We know people by what moves them, what they use as background sounds for their lives, whatever they seem to be. We are talking about feeling and thought, emotion, aesthetics, and philosophy (and science). We will investigate all of them to one extent or another.