From Under the Table
Rather than bore you with a stream of infantile flashbacks that include crib specifications, wall decorations, and household smells, I will dive right into the fray, into what I consider the real meat of the memory meal: music, music, music, and more music. In Boston during the 1930s and early 1940s there was a popular after-hours club/restaurant that went by the name of Mothers Lunch – and in light of the fact that I was not breast-fed, Mothers Lunch turned out to be in many ways Mothers Milk to me.
For a period of time during the Depression my mother was employed as the hatcheck girl at this club, which was In Its day the place to come and partake of good food and jazz. In the descriptive words of my mother, “Jazz, like sex, Is either good or gooder.” Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, Cab Calloway – you name it, it was all there. Good and gooder, all of it swinging all the way.
My mother (God rest her soul) had devised a clever scheme by which she supplemented” her regular paycheck. It involved the creation of her own unique “kitty,” into which she coerced the high spenders to toss silver dollars. She would take me to work with her, and after hours she would have me safely ensconced in a large dresser drawer that was padded with a big, soft, fluffy bed pillow. When a softhearted-looking customer would stop to check his hat or coat, she would kick the drawer and wake me up with a start. Of course I would start crying, and that usually elicited the expected compassionate response – the unwary customer would drop some cash in the “kitty.”
As we kids were growing up she liked to tell that story. These were her prime years and they were filled with legendary figures who were laying out the format for this great music called jazz. Yeah! She was proud to let the folks know that Art Tatum, Ben Webster, and Louis Armstrong would always flip a silver dollar into the dresser drawer for good luck before they went inside to dine or jam. It became a sort of ritual, a gallant gesture.
She often spoke of Duke Ellington and Coleman Hawkins as the most elegant men she had ever laid eyes on, “Smooth and sharp as a tack,” as the expression goes. She could go on for hours, giving every detail of their mannerisms and the effects that various songs and melodies had on the audience. My mother was a good people-watcher and a discerning listener. I can attribute my keen obsessive listening habits to her.
Without a doubt, music was my pabulum and my pacifier a permanent intravenous connection from my ears to my heart, listening became the paramount aspect of all childhood games and endeavors, particularly listening to the sounds of Mother Nature, like the birds, the wind, and the ocean, which was never far away. The wind would carry faraway sounds to my ears that escaped most folks in my immediate environment. It was if I were being trained to hear, two or more conversations at the same time. Most folks, even my mother, thought I was “putting on” when I would excitedly say, “Did you hear that?” and point in some direction that revealed nothing as a source of sound.
The music I imbibed lying in that padded drawer seeped in through the walls of the building and was filtered in different ways through the thick overcoats and furs that lined the walls and hung like curtains backstage in the mini-concert hall of the hat-check room. Sounds became layered with various smells and textures and began to take on the quality, of voices – many of these voices I still hear to this day. Billie Holiday’s voice is one of them.
It’s hard to explain, but I always felt that the music and I were one. Even now, sixty-some-odd years later, when I hear certain tunes or melodies, I feel as if I am listening to some extended part of myself. This early exposure to “The Sounds,” as this particular kind of music is sometimes called, was the first phase or set of impressions that made me, to put it in the words of Duke Ellington, “A Night Creature.”
At about 8 or 9 years of age I became a bootblack, which is what shoeshine boys were called in those days; that would be around 1942 or ’43. The war was still going on and there were thousands of shoes to be shined. Boston was a big military town at a major point of embarkation, so you had military from all over the world walking the streets – most, if not all, needing a good shoeshine.
Sailors, Soldiers, Marines, Air Corps, from everywhere on the planet. All colors, all shapes some wearing turbans; some with ceremonial knives, short pants, and puttees, like the Gurkas; some with the French pompoms. Boston was a military costume ball in those days. New and interesting accents – and even more interesting sizes and shapes of cigarettes that were offered to you once the men stood proudly astride your home-made shoe box. Mine was always rather wobbly, so that made for an interesting balancing act for the sometimes inebriated military men.
They were there looking for excitement, and usually where you .found excitement there was always music. Music everywhere, all day and all night long. Boston in those days was a real Hub.
Burlesque was still alive in Boston. I remember vividly as a kid going to the Old Howard Theatre and seeing the remnants of slapstick comedy, Gallagher & Sheen, and the Gypsy Rose Lee types of bosomy strawberry blonde. The Rio Casino, where Ann Coreo reined supreme, and the famed Crawford Grill- all of these venues were in or in close proximity to the old gaslit and cobble stoned district called Scolley Square.
Strolling through Scolley Square on any afternoon, you would be able to hear a variety of styles ranging from the plaintive Irish ballad to the Klezmer flavored polka to the plodding, happy beat of New Orleans-style jazz. Accordion .players could usually be heard in the smaller bars and taverns, and the inevitable jukebox would blare whatever ethnic ‘sound the clientele preferred.
It was still the era of the big bands, and the swing music could be heard from solo players to quartets and quintet. You could hear the bands of Sabby Lewis, Jimmy Tyler, Preston “Sandy” Sandiford; tailgate artists like Max Kaminski, Bob Wilbur, and Oran “Hot Lips” Paige.
It was amazing how many of the New Orleans players were in Boston at the time, like Sydney Bechet, who also worked at his second trade as a tailor. Pops Foster, Henry “Red” Allen and J.C. Higginbottom, and a host of eight to-the-bar piano players could be found playing around town. Afternoon stage shows at the R.K.O. and the Loews Orpheum would feature artists like Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie – and these stage shows would also feature their own brand of slapstick in Pigmeat Markham and his famous “Caldonia, Caldonia, why don’t you open the Door?”
Later, towards the end of the war, came a flood tide of great players and their small bands, like Tab Smith, Louis Jordan and his Tympani Five, Earl Bostic. Then when the ’50s rolled in, the great rhythm-and-blues bands of Bull Moose Jackson, Wynonie Harris, Willis “Gator Tail” Jackson. By then many of the featured soloists from the big bands had left to form combos of their own: Illinois Jacquet, Gene Ammons, James Moody, and Charlie Parker could be heard in night clubs as well as at dance halls.
Music, music, music! Enough to keep any curiosity-filled kid in knickers completely enthralled.My favorite spot was the Savoy on Massachusetts Avenue, just a few doors up the street from Wally’s Paradise and the High Hat Club, where just a few years later I would see and hear Charlie Parker play. Eddie Levine’s was across the street, and I remember guys like Ben Webster and Oran “Hot Lips” Paige holding court there.
This section of Boston, which is just a few blocks away from Symphony Hall and the New England Conservatory of Music, was at the edge of Back Bay and still within walking distance of the Charles River and Fenway Park. I guess you could compare this tiny spot in Boston to New York City’s 52nd Street.
The Savoy back in those days was the territory of .the New Orleans-Kansas City-Chicago crowd. I had a brother-in-law who waited tables there, and his best friend was the doorman, so I had no trouble sneaking in, but the condition was that I had to stay hidden, or partly hidden, under one of the checkerboard-covered tables. It was from this vantage point under the tables – particularly those close to the stage, which were usually adorned with the lovely lady friends of the musicians – that I became acquainted with the music and the players from Kansas City and New Orleans’ Storyville section. Storyville, a legendary name, and, thanks to George Wein, a name that would soon adorn one of the better jazz clubs in Boston.
I remember clearly seeing the grandfatherly and bespectacled Pops Foster plucking (thumping) away at the bass, accompanying one or another of the famous piano-playing Johnson brothers.
Sydney Betchet on soprano, Edmond Hall on clarinet, J.C. Higginbottom on trombone, and my main man Henry “Red” Allen on cornet and trumpet. I also remembering seeing Israel Crosby there from time to time as well.
The table I liked best was the one that was in the middle of the floor .and faced the center of the stage. It was on the aisle, and only the aproned waiters’ fast-walking pace interrupted the view of the stage with its earthshaking and thunderous ragtime roars. Syncopated and soulful – and really beyond description – what I saw nightly was a historical work in progress. Barnum and Bailey had nothing on this. (As a matter of fact the circus had a pretty good band, but not as great as what I heard nightly under that table.) Life is strange, and as Fats Waller used to say all the time, “One never knows, do one?” As I mentioned, Henry “Red” Allen used to play at the Savoy quite often, and was one of my regular customers. Years later, when I was plying my trade as an itinerant but still fledgling trombonist in New York City – oh, around 1961 – I had my horn stolen between gigs. I had just left a gig at the Greymore Hotel in Portland, Maine, and was on my way to Philly with a small group to play a lounge gig. The piano player lived on 82nd Street, and this happened in the mid-80s behind the Museum of Natural History.
To make a long story short, a friend of mine had picked up an old beat-up horn in a pawnshop uptown on 8th Avenue. Thinking or hoping I would be able to do something with it. I took it over to Giardinelli’s instrument repair shop on 52nd street to see if it could be put into some kind of shape.
Much to my disappointment, the repairmen came out of the back room – I can remember the look on his face; it spoke the words before they came – and my heart dropped a thousand feet; “No kid, nothing can be done with this horn. The best thing you can do with it is to hang it up and use it as a decoration – or just throw it away; get rid of it.”
Well, as I was standing there with this infirm piece of junk in my hand, and probably looking like I had just lost my best friend, a friendly voice came from behind me and said “Hey man! Whats the problem?” I looked up and to my astonishment there was standing Henry “Red” Allen. “Henry Red,” I blurted out, “I haven’t seen you in a long time, not since Boston. back in the old days at The Savoy.” .
Now you have to remember that at this time I was in my late twenties and God only knows how old Henry Red was at that time. Well, anyway, I explained my predicament to him, and also told him that I had an important rehearsal to go to that evening. If all went well with it, 1 would have a gig on the weekend.
He told me to go over to the front window of the shop and look down in the street and see If his car was OK. I looked down, and sure enough, there was a purple fish-tailed Cadillac convertible double parked in the midst of the midday theater traffic, with two very attractive blondes sitting in the back seat chatting with the traffic cop, who looked like he was having a ball flirting with Henry Red’s lady friends.
Henry Red told me to the window and holler down that he would be down in a minute. The repairman had just brought Red’s shiny new horn out from the back room; he was fingering the valves with the typical repairman’s flurry, so you could hear each valve do its thing, smoothly.
I hollered down as instructed. And the cop yelled up to tell Red not to hurry, that he had it all covered. Well you probably know what he had on his mind. Red took the horn and fingered it, listening closely to the sound of the valves, feeling the action with a critical expression. His face changed into a big, full joweled bulldog smile and he nodded his head in that all-knowing way. The repairman stood resplendent in his soiled apron, ecstatic and proud, but also noticeably humbled by Red’s wink of approval. It was a moment of silent joy – almost reverence. The obvious love and respect that flowed between Artist and Artisan was a great reminder. That singular touch. That crucial pinch of salt that makes the difference between a work of great art or a tolerable concoction. I was reminded of that old saying, “If you wish to be great, make it your business to be in the company of great men.”
From Giardinelli’s second floor shop on 52nd Street, we drove through heavy Times Square traffic from west to east, and on the way Red would beep his horn or wave at some of his friends and admirers along the way. The two ladies in the car were very friendly and they chitchatted about a lot of things that were casual and nonsensical. But I felt quite important riding in that purple Cadillac convertible with the two beautiful and buxom blonde lady friends of Henry Red.
I tell you one thing: You could tell by the way they were dressed and the way they acted that they had been around the block a few times. I always liked these types of woman because they were so happy-go-lucky and friendly.
Well, to bring this story to its conclusion, we ended up at Jack’s Drum Shop, a popular New York music store that was located midtown. I had passed this music store many times while wandering around the streets but I never had occasion to go inside. This day in particular Jack would turn out to be an angel. As Red and I entered the shop an elderly man with a big cigar in his mouth came running to greet us. “Red! My man, Red!” he exclaimed with a heavy Lower-East-Side Yiddish accent. Jack was obviously an old time hip-cat who was happy seeing his friend Henry Red. “What can we do for you, Red?”
He took a big draw on his cigar and adjusted his frayed toupee. As I said, Jack was an old hip cat from way back and he had the habit of smoothing down his lapels as he talked.
“Well, it’s really my young friend here who needs help.”
“Any friend of Red’s is a friend of mine,” Jack bellowed out as he approached Red and put his arm around Red’s shoulder.
“I need a trombone,” I said.
“Mine was stolen last week and I have a gig coming up.”
“Well, take a look at what I have over there against the wall and pick out something you can use – no problem, ain’t that right, Red?”
“Yeah!” said Red. “No problem.”
Exactly, it was no problem. And on that note I will bring my story to an end.
Jack had a decent variety of good horns on display. As a matter of fact, he had just gotten in a shipment of silver Kings, which were the latest thing back then. I remember the last time I had seen JJ. Johnson, he was playing one and it had a great sound, and as I remember Yusef Lateef was playing a silver King tenor saxophone, and earlier I had seen Bird with a King silver alto – so how could I resist?
Jack, God bless his soul, made the whole thing easy as pie. He said, “Take the horn; try it out,” and if I liked it I could pay a little every time I had the money. A deal that must have been made in heaven. If there was ever such a thing as luck – this was it. The silver horn that I selected I am still playing to this day. Now, that’s been over 40 years. I have learned quite a bit and have created a lot of fine music on that horn. In all humility I must add that I still have a lot to learn and a long way to go to do that great gift justice.
I remember Henry Red telling me as I walked out of that music store with my new horn and a big smile on my face: “Hey, Kid! Remember to keep that horn in your hand. That way folks will have a hard time stealing it if you are trying to blow some air through it.”
He and Jack had a good laugh as they stood in the doorway watching me try to avoid the oncoming rush of the traffic as I stepped out of the door with my new, oversized, imitation alligator-skin horn case and attempted to turn to say thanks. It was almost like getting caught up in a revolving door with a package that was too large. I hope you can dig the humor in the image.
As I turned to face the traffic, my old friend the wind came to carry the voice of Red and Jack to my ears. The very last thing I remember is hearing Red invite Jack to his car to meet the ladies. I could envision Jack handing Red a cigar and saying, “It’s a deal!”
God bless you, Henry Red, and you, too, Jack.
Thanks for the memories. . .