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Archive for the ‘jazz’ Category

My dad was a semi-pro musician during his high school and college years (and after), and this activity shows up regularly on the early years of my grandpa’s monthly calendars.

I’ve written before about my dad putting phantom “jobs” on the calendar as a way to claim the family’s only car on a weekend night.

Lest anyone think he was just a schemer, we’ll go in the other direction this week, and write about one long-ago late-summer Saturday when he worked his arse off.

(As much as playing music for money can be considered working, that is.)

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August 22, 1964. Yanks split a doubleheader; Mets lose.

Just to set the scene: At the time of this calendar entry, my dad is 21 and a few weeks away from heading off to his senior year of college at RPI.

He’s got his own car by this point — the infamous Shrimp Boat. And he needs it to fulfill this busy agenda:

-First comes an 11 a.m. wedding at North Stamford Congregational Church  (now North Stamford Community Church), where my dad was a substitute summer organist during the summers of 1962 through ’64. Three summers later, my parents would be married there.

-Next up is a wedding from 1-5 p.m. in Fairfield, about 18 miles up the coast from Stamford. While the first job of the day would have involved church organ, my dad is fairly sure he played tenor sax for this one. I’m guessing he was playing the reception, not the wedding itself.

(The timing between an 11 a.m. gig and a 1 p.m. gig seems awfully tight. My dad was apparently counting on the Shrimp Boat, and everybody else, not to break down on I-95.)

-Finally, my dad drove about 10 miles back down the coast for a 6-10 p.m. gig, again on tenor sax, at Chatham Oaks, a long-established banquet facility and catering hall in Norwalk. No doubt a beer or two kept the tunes flowing.

“Joe” on the calendar was local bandleader Joe Denicola; you’ve met him and his bandmates (including the immortal Shaves the Drummer) in this space before.

My dad was not in the habit of packing his days so tightly, and in fact was surprised when I told him about this calendar entry:

I thought I remembered the only triple-header I ever did, which was in 1962 and started at Springdale Methodist Church with their fair. But apparently I did it again in 1964.

This was pretty tightly scheduled; playing two 4-hour gigs plus a wedding service within 11 hours with maybe 25-30 miles between each gig is no mean feat!  And if it was really 8 hours on tenor sax, wow …  I can’t do 20 minutes now.  Ah, to be young!

As you can imagine, my dad was well-rewarded for his long day:

I think a safe number is between $75 and $100 total.  I remember a number of $25/gig.  Organ for wedding service might well have brought a little more.  But gas was 25 cents/gallon, cigarettes were 25 cents/pack, and a 6-pack of the Schaefer or Rheingold was around $1!  This was a good day’s work for a 21-year-old, make no mistake about it!  Minimum wage was around $1.25/hour.  I think I was making $1.40 – $1.50/hour at Parker Instruments that summer, so it’s a given that I brought home more that day than I had for the whole previous 40-hour work week.

Some of the other specific details of the gigs — like the exact event being celebrated from 6 to 10 — are lost to history.

Still, the calendar tells the story of a footloose young man with a song in his heart and a willingness to travel.

Or something like that.

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My dad sold his piano a week or two ago.

It was a seven-foot Mason & Hamlin, made next door in East Rochester, N.Y. And when I was growing up, its voice was almost as familiar in my house as the voices of my family members.

My dad, a semi-pro musician, would keep his chops in shape and wash off some of the mental grunge of corporate life by sitting down at the piano just about every night and playing for 15 or 20 minutes. Often it was stride-style, like Fats Waller; from time to time, if he was preparing for a gig, it might be something more formal.

The piano joined the household either a couple months before I did or a couple months after.

One of my dad’s old college friends has told me a story of coming to visit when I was a toddler, and seeing my dad playing me notes on the piano to try to ascertain whether I had perfect pitch. (Unfortunately, I don’t. Sorry, Dad.)

Now my folks are retired, and shedding possessions, and lightening their load,  and thinking about maybe moving to a different house.

Plus, today’s digital keyboards can capably simulate the sounds of everything from a baby grand to a clavinet to a softly plucked jazz guitar. My dad has a good digital keyboard, and it’s less imperative now to have a big piano in the living room than it seemed 40 years ago.

So off it went, a week or two ago, trucked off to a new owner in Buffalo.

I would guesstimate that my dad has lived 60 of his 70 years in a home with an acoustic piano of some sort, with the exceptions being college and his first five or six years of marriage. So this is a minor but interesting milestone in Blumenau family history, this transaction.

My disheveled dad at the piano with his bass-playing, pajama-wearing younger son. 1981.

My disheveled dad at the piano with his bass-playing, pajama-wearing younger son. 1981.

My folks hosted Christmas parties for many years at which my dad's musician friends would show up and blow a couple sets of jazz. This pic is also probably circa 1981, and early in the night -- these parties drew a fair number of people.

My folks hosted Christmas parties for many years at which my dad’s musician friends would show up and blow a couple sets of jazz. This pic is also probably circa 1981, and early in the night — these parties drew a fair number of people.

I can’t think of a calendar entry from my grandfather’s calendars in which he surrenders anything of that level of significance. (Except possibly for his job, which would be an interesting post, but not here and now.)

So instead, I’ll link this to a calendar entry in which my great-grandma comes to the end of something musical that, I imagine, mattered  a fair amount to her.

June 21, 1969.

June 21, 1969.

I’ve mentioned before that my great-grandma was a piano teacher. She taught my dad how to play. And she held a recital for her students every year at the house on Hope Street, followed by some low-key refreshments.

(A few of her former students have even made their way here to the blog, which is a marvelous thing.)

Anyway, the calendar entry above is the last calendar entry I have a picture of that mentions my great-grandma’s annual recital.

She would have been 82 years old in June of 1969, and probably about ready to stop teaching the basics of piano to the youth of Stamford.

I’m also fairly sure that her piano teaching ended sometime around 1970, when she went through a period of suffering spells of disorientation. (I’ve written about that before too.)

So, while her last recital could have been in 1970 or ’71, I’m going to presume for the purposes of this blog entry that the June 21, 1969, calendar entry represents another Blumenau family goodbye to the world of the piano. Not to the instrument, per se — her upright piano remained in the living room at Hope Street after she stopped teaching — but to a certain connection to the instrument.

My grandparents’ upright piano made the move with them from Stamford to Rochester in the mid-’80s. It was not of the same quality as the Mason & Hamlin, though, and I don’t know what became of it. I suspect it was disposed of without great ceremony, which was in keeping with its age and condition.

The Mason & Hamlin may be the last piano in the  family for a while, as my brother and I have broken the keyboard tradition. (He took lessons for  a while; I was never coordinated enough to manage 88 keys.)

I do have a couple of guitars lying around the house, though. As I write this, I find myself thinking about some future time when my hands are too gnarled to play them and I finally sell them off, bringing another generational shift to the Blumenau family’s long relationship with music.

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I don’t know whether the name George Gershwin means anything to today’s young people. I’m guessing probably not, for the most part.

It didn’t have much solid meaning to me — until a couple of minutes ago, when I read his Wiki entry and was astonished at how many of his compositions I knew, or at least knew of.

I’m pretty sure my grandpa would have been a big fan, though.

Gershwin’s peak years — from the early ’20s to his death in 1937 — were my grandfather’s teenage and early adult years. I like to imagine my grandfather as a young man, sitting in front of some improbably large wooden radio with glowing tubes, admiring the creativity and craftsmanship in songs like “Fascinating Rhythm,” “I Got Rhythm” and “Embraceable You.”

(When I was that age, radios were plastic and they played Phil Collins. My grandpa got the better of that deal.)

How can I be sure my grandfather appreciated George Gershwin?

From one of his calendar entries, of course — one written 35 years after Gershwin’s passing.

February 28, 1973.

February 28, 1973.

The stamp in question can be seen here. Even though the stamp was issued in a decade not known for its aesthetic good taste, I think it came out pretty well. I like the way the pine green and gold play off each other.

(I wonder how many stamps the U.S. Postal Service has ever issued that featured both Jewish people and African-Americans. Three cheers for American diversity.)

It was common for my grandpa to mark postal service price increases on his calendar. He chronicled the coming of the ZIP code, too, and the postal strike of 1970.

I don’t remember him keeping track of any other stamp releases, though. Maybe one or two others, but not many. So the Gershwin stamp must have meant something above and beyond all the other stamps the U.S. Postal Service issues in any given year.

To my grandpa, buying a book of George Gershwin stamps must have been akin to punching up one of his songs on a jukebox, or buying an LP of his music … a way to support the artist, even if Gershwin’s family didn’t see any financial benefit.

And, for at least a few months in the spring of 1973, anyone getting a letter from my grandfather could have learned something about him, had they taken a moment to look at the envelope.

This would not be my grandpa’s only opportunity to put George Gershwin on his letters. In September 1999, the Postal Service issued a joint stamp honoring George and his lyricist brother, Ira.

I would have been getting occasional letters from my grandparents around that time, but — of course — I’m not sure I saved any. So I couldn’t say for sure whether the second stamp made it into his rotation.

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Not long ago, on my other blog, I declared my intention to see Todd Rundgren when he goes out on tour later this year.

It embarrasses me to admit that my tastes in live music are, chronologically speaking, less hip or current than those of my grandparents.

This week’s calendar entry finds my grandparents going out to hear a legendary performer — a clarinet player whose musical style seems as ancient and distant to me as saddle shoes, ration cards and mock apple pie.

(A clarinet player, for Chrissake. Is there any instrument so redolent of soft-focus, geriatric Music Of Your Life as the clarinet?)

But fairness compels me to admit that Benny Goodman‘s commercial peak was 20 to 25 years behind him when my grandparents saw him perform on February 7, 1963.

If I see Todd Rundgren this summer, it will be (gack) a solid 40 years past the days when he was a rising young hitmaker.

For that matter, I already have a ticket to see Graham Parker and the Rumour in April — a group that, until last year, hadn’t recorded together in 32 years.

Game, set and match, grandparents.

February 7, 1963.

February 7, 1963.

Just to add to Benny Goodman’s hip credibility, he was the first bandleader to successfully and regularly employ an electric guitarist, Charlie Christian.

He was also among the first to integrate his band.

In 1938, Goodman headlined the first jazz concert at Carnegie Hall — a breakthrough for the music into mainstream society. Oh, and he was also capable of playing classical pieces for clarinet and orchestra, too.

In other words, he wasn’t the syrupy big-band smoothie I tend to think of him as. He was an innovator, a giant figure in his style. (Rather more so than the performers I will probably see this year.)

Goodman was also a Stamford resident, which might explain why he happened to be playing at my dad’s alma mater, Stamford High School.

I’m not familiar enough with Goodman’s career and oeuvre to guess what he performed that night. My sense is that he either did the classical stuff or the swing stuff; I don’t know which side he was leaning toward in early 1963.

(Whatever it was, I imagine it was well-performed. Goodman’s Wiki profile indicates he didn’t have much tolerance for musical sloppiness. Neither did the Blumenau family, before I came along. So I’m sure my grandparents were satisfied with the quality of the performance.)

Here’s a sample of the sort of thing that might have been played. Christian, who died young, wouldn’t have been at the Stamford High gig. But the standard tune “Rose Room” might well have been on the menu:

Sounds — cough — pretty — choke — hip to me.

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I’ve written before about my dad being in the same room as jazz royalty when he was a teenager.

This week, we’re going to leave my grandfather behind and once again travel with my dad as he goes into New York to see some of jazz’s most legendary musicians.

August 27, 1961.

Randall’s Island, in the East River, is part of the borough of Manhattan. Over the course of human history it has been home to an orphanage, a rest home for Civil War veterans, the New York Fire Department’s training academy, the U.S. Olympic Trials for track and field, and a team in the risible World Football League of the 1970s.

It also has a pretty distinguished history when it comes to live jazz.

On May 29, 1938, the island hosted the “Carnival of Swing,” a festival of 25 big bands including those of Count Basie and Duke Ellington. The Carnival of Swing has been described as America’s first outdoor jazz festival, and newsreel footage makes it seem like a happenin’ event.

In the 1950s and ’60s, even more of the biggest names in the business turned out to play a series of annual festivals at Downing Stadium, a small WPA-built facility on Randall’s Island that has since been replaced.

Just look at the lineup for Aug. 27, the day my dad went: Stan Kenton, Dizzy Gillespie, Carmen McRae, Dave Brubeck, Stan Getz and Art Blakey, to name some of the performers. Those taking the stage on other nights included Basie, Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan, Sarah Vaughan and Cannonball Adderley.

I asked my dad what he remembered, and he offered the following:

“I distinctly remember hearing Stan Getz with his quartet.  Stan was recently back from living in Europe for a while, and was allegedly the backstage buzz (as well as the audience) buzz in terms of “what’s he sound like now?” 

Randall’s Island was clearly in the flight path of one of the Big Apple’s airports, and periodically planes would go over.  Stan wryly introduced one tune: “It’s about time for a plane to go over, so I think we’ll play a ballad,” which got a good laugh and assured everyone that his humor was intact.  I believe the consensus was that Stan still had it; this was a couple years before the Bossa Nova craze which brought him his widest popularity.

My other clear memory is the Count Basie band.  Lou and I were hundreds of feet away from the stage, maybe even the length of a football field.  The Basie band was cookin’ along when the sound system went out totally.  To this day I remember that you could still clearly hear the brass section (esp. trumpets) and drums, and they were swingin’!  Outage didn’t last long, luckily.”
(This memory may be a little unclear after 51 years. My dad and his friend believe they only attended one day. But the program linked above shows Basie and Getz playing on separate days. It is possible my dad is mixing memories from two different years of festivals, or that the running order of the shows changed after the program was printed.)
I’m not a huge jazz fan, but I recognize the performers at Randall’s Island as giants in their field. It must have been phenomenally cool for a young jazz fan to have easy access to events like this — much cooler than being a jazz fan in, say, Omaha.
My dad was a couple weeks away from starting his freshman year at college when he went to this show. I still have a ticket stub from a show I saw the summer before I started college. And I have to admit, my teenage dad had cooler taste in live music than I did.
I’m not quite sure how long the Randall’s Island Jazz Festival lasted. A quick Google search turns up a reference to a 1962 version of the festival, but not 1963.
The island was later host to a three-day “New York Pop Festival” in 1970 that featured performers like Jimi Hendrix, Jethro Tull and Grand Funk Railroad. It was one of Hendrix’s last U.S. performances; archival footage suggests he was not at his sharpest.
And just a few weeks ago, Randall’s Island hosted a music festival called Catalpa, whose performers’ names — TV On The Radio, Zola Jesus, Polish Ambassador and the Aviation Orange, to name a few — would have had my teenage dad and his friend scratching their heads as they tapped toes to Count Basie.
But, no matter. It’s good to know that, all these decades later, people are still flocking to Randall’s Island for a day of live music.
Maybe someday someone will blog their dad’s reminiscences of being in the second row for Zola Jesus.

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