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BEBOP SPOKEN HERE

Jim Burns 

 

I've just re-read Susan J. Miller's Never Let Me Down, her autobiographical account of her troubled relationship with her father and how she came to terms with it and him. I' m not usually a reader of this sort of literature, which seems to have proliferated in recent years (or is it just my imagination?), and my main reason for looking at the book in the first place was that her father was a dedicated jazz enthusiast and a close associate of various New York musicians of the 1940s and 1950s. He was also a junkie, which probably goes at least part way towards explaining why he had a degree of affinity with the people he liked to listen to. Many of them were also junkies, a fact that some jazz fans prefer to ignore or dismiss but which has to be faced up to.

It's easy to understand that having a junkie for a father wasn't likely to make for a conventional childhood, though Susan Miller actually only found out about his addiction later in life. But she certainly knew there was a problem and the strains, financial and otherwise, were always present, as was her father's neglect of his family. However, that isn't what I want to talk about and my interest is in his jazz involvements. He wasn't a musician but she grew up hearing jazz all the time on the radio or on records and several jazzmen visited her father at home. And she suggests that his addiction, which lasted from 1946 to 1961, came about because of "the crowd he hung out with; white musicians deeply under the influence of Charlie Parker - and Parker's drug, heroin. Stan Getz, Al Cohn, George Handy - all were junkies and all were my father's friends." When her father finally told her about his experiences he made it clear that he had no regrets and his junkie years "were the greatest of his life." Susan Miller gives an insight into how things were in the period concerned when she says, "the musicians who came to our house fascinated me; their pants with black satin stripes down their sides, their hipster banter, their battered horn cases," and she mentions people like Terry Gibbs, Zoot Sims, Al Epstein, and Frank Socolow. She also says that others "were names, or sounds on records, or sometimes faces in our photo album; they belonged to men leaning against lampposts in the village, or sitting with their arms around attractive women on rocks in Central Park. Allen Eager, Tiny Kahn, George Handy, Stan Getz, Johnny Mandel, Georgie Auld - these names resonate in my heart like the Yiddish that I heard so often then"

Never Let Me Down is a fascinating book, well-written and often moving, and I'm neglecting its virtues by focusing on the jazz aspects. But my intention in doing that is deliberate because I want to link it to a few other books that may have escaped the attention of those interested in the music. And I want to indicate how in the period 1945 to 1960 there was an intensity about the jazz experience that comes through in all the accounts of it though it's best not to romanticise it too much. Susan Miller's story is bleak about how jazz and junk were more important to her father than anything else, including his wife and children. And other people knew what had happened to them. The saxophonist Al Epstein once said to her: "We should never have had children, none of us. We didn't know what we were doing; we just had kids. It was what you did in those days; you didn't think about it. You didn't ask yourself if you were ready for them, if you wanted them, what it meant to be a parent. So of course we screwed up. We didn't know shit about ourselves, let alone our children."

And that takes me into Side Man by Warren Leight, which is a play but the text is available in book form so I can include it here. Leight's father, Don, was a trumpeter and was born in 1923. He was very much a member of the generation of musicians who were active in the late 1940s and the 1950s, playing in big-bands and small-groups, and picking up work wherever they could, often with commercial orchestras, in order to make a living. You won't find Don Leight's name in the jazz history books and as far as I know he never got the opportunity to show what he could do as a soloist on record I may be wrong, because he worked with a variety of bands over the years and he was employed for recording sessions by leaders like Elliot Lawrence, Ralph Bums, Frank Hunter, Georgie Auld, and probably more. But as the title of the play indicates, he was mostly a side man, one of the numerous musicians good enough to be called to work with bands around New York and sometimes in the recording studios, but who never became well-known. After the early 1960s, as the big bands declined even further and pop groups took over, and as jazz became even more of a minority concern, the work dried up and side men like Leight drifted into total obscurity. There is a significant scene in the play where a group of musicians are watching Elvis Presley on TV in the mid-1950s and one of them remarks. "That kid will do to horn players what talkies did to Buster Keaton."

The play explores all that and it shows how "Gene "(the name given to the character based on Don Leight is unable to face up to how things have changed. But he's been impractical most of the time, anyway. In an author's note, Warren Leight says; "Gene, the father, exists in sort of a bubble. When the conversation isnít about music, he's elsewhere; even if he's talking to you." And at the end of the play, the son who has been a first-person narrator throughout, says of Gene and his friends: "Men who mastered their obsession, who ignored, or didnít even notice, anything else. They played not for fame, and certainly not for money. They played for each other."

The impracticality that Warren Leight ascribes to Gene affects the family circumstances, and the play is often a battleground as the mother rages at Gene's failure to amount to anything, be it financially successful musician or good husband and father. It is clearly deeply autobiographical and Warren Leight admitted that he "avoided writing Side Man for twenty years" until he had "gained a little perspective and shed a little anger." It's obvious why there was anger but the perspective that he brought to the play enables us to understand why Gene was the way he was. He demonstrated the sort of obsessional behaviour that Susan Miller thought was typical of her father, though it's nowhere suggested in Side Man that hard drugs played a part in Gene's life. He does smoke marijuana occasionally, and one of his friends is a junkie, but Gene seems too much in his own world to even consider entering one where narcotics would be a dominant factor.

There is a scene when Gene and his friends discuss, in some amazement, a fellow trumpeter who is giving up playing and instead is going to law school. But musicians moving onto other jobs were not all that unusual even in the days when there was still a reasonable amount of work to be shared out among the available side men. Leonard Garment wasn't a trumpeter but a saxophonist who became a lawyer and was successful enough to be hired as one of President Nixon's attorneys during the Watergate scandal. As for his skills as a musician, Garment modestly states in his autobiography, Crazy Rhythm, that working alongside someone like Al Cohn in the mid-1940s made him realise that he would never be a first-rate musician. But Garment did play briefly with Woody Herman's dynamic big-band and would have taken over the jazz tenor chair in Teddy Powell's orchestra had he not been called up for military service. His most significant musical involvement was when he worked with Henry Jerome in 1944/45. It was partly due to his enthusiasm for the new sounds of bebop then being heard around New York that "what had been a conventional 1940s dance band playing friendly pop tunes in a friendly way soon became an innovative and aggressive jazz ensemble, one of the first to use the Charlie Parker-Dizzy Gillespie bop style as the basis for a new big-band sound." It's perhaps indicative of how young jazzmen thought of themselves as a kind of misunderstood avant-garde that Garment adds, "The change attracted musicians but not paying customers."

Unfortunately, there appear to be no available recorded examples of the Henry Jerome band in its bop phase so it's impossible to tell how progressive it was. But it gave employment to modernists like Al Cohn, drummer Tiny Kahn, and trombonist-arranger Johnny Mandel. The saxophone section also included someone by the name of Alan Greenspan who later became an economist and, as Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank, one of the most influential men in America. Henry Jerome recalled that he used to make up the payrolls for the band. It's worth noting, too, that a whiff of scandal surrounded Jerome's bop outfit and a New York gossip columnist asked: "What name bandleader at what well-known chain restaurant has everyone in the band smoking marijuana in phone booths in Walgreen's ?" As Jerome was playing at Child's Restaurant and Walgreen's was a drug store connected to Child's by a tunnel it was obvious who was being referred to. Henry Jerome, reminiscing about the period many years later, said that "all the guys had a great need to be 'on' and outside of old square, Henry, the bandleader."

One other musician who played in the saxophone section of the Henry Jerome band was Larry Rivers, later to become a leading American artist, and there's a link here to Susan Miller's book She notes that her father not only mixed with jazz musicians but also counted among his friends artists like Rivers, Jane Freilicher, and Nell Blaine. Freilicher's husband, Jack, was a jazz pianist who worked with Rivers in the Johnny Morris band, and it was he and his wife, and Nell Blaine, who got Rivers interested m modern art and persuaded him that he had the makings of a successful painter.

His mildly-scandalous autobiography, What Did I Do? takes a humorous look at his jazz experiences, including the time he spent with the Herbie Fields orchestra, where he was introduced to heroin by another musician. Rivers makes the involvement with hard drugs seem almost amusing, but in a short story,"The Heroin Addicts," published in Neurotica in 1950, he paints a darker picture of a group of musician junkies and even uses a couple of real names (Manny Fox, a trumpeter with 1940s big-bands, and Johnny Andrews, a saxophone player). But I donít want to dwell too much on the drugs angle, though Iím aware that it's been present, to a greater or lesser degree, in everything Iíve discussed. What interests me most of all is the importance of bebop to everyone - Susan Miller's father, Don Leight and his friends, Leonard Garment, and Larry Rivers, who said, "I was influenced by the best of the bebop musicians." And Nell Blaine recalled: "That bop had created a new sound, and that we painters were in love with the idea of creating new forms and rhythms related to the spirit we felt moving in this music, was certainly true for most of us." The influence of bop on artists in the 1940s has been overstated in some cases (that of Jackson Pollock, for example, who didn't like Charlie Parker's music) but there's no doubt that it was of interest to some painters and writers. The novelist and poet, Gilbert Sorrentino, when recalling his own encounter with the music, claimed that, "its adherents and devotees formed a cult, which perhaps more than any other force in the intellectual life of our time, brought together young people who were tired of the spurious." Cults, of course, can have a dark side and some would say that drugs represented that, but the good side came out not only in the fascination with the music but also in the fact that bebop saw itself as an intellectual music and so it was logical for its followers to look to other art forms - literature, painting, etc. - as an extension of their interest in bop, Larry Rivers mentions that Jack Freilicher read widely in politics, philosophy, and literature, and Susan Miller's father, for all his waywardness as a junkie, loved to read Kafka, Joyce, and Auden, listen to Stravinsky, and visit the Museum of Modern Art

The intensity of the experience is, I think, what marks out the period Iíve been looking at, though it is obvious that the intensity and the single-mindedness and even selfishness that sometimes went with it could adversely affect other people. Intensity does not always lead to a successful family life. When he was dying Susan Miller's father could still upset his family by being brutally honest about what was important to him. He was asked what he would miss most of all and replied, "the music because it never let me down."

As I said earlier, it's the jazz content in the books Iíve discussed that interests me most of all, but it would be impossible to read them, or see Warren Leight's play, without being forced to reflect on the other aspects involved

 

NOTES:

Never Let Me Down by Susan J. Miller, Bloomsbury, London, 1998 Side Man by Warren Leight, Grove Press, New York, 1998

Crazy Rhythm by Leonard Garment, Random House, New York, 1997 What Did I Do? by Larry Rivers, Harper Collins, New York, 1992