Posts Tagged ‘concert’

Among the curios to be found on Neil Young’s 1980 album Hawks & Doves is a song called “Union Man.”

Brief and country-tinged, it sketches a musician’s union meeting in droll detail:

Every fourth Friday at 10 am
There’s a local meeting
of the A F of M, yeah!

This meeting will now come to order
Is there any new business?

Yeah, I think ‘Live music are better’
Bumper stickers should be issued.

What was that?

‘Live music is better’ bumper stickers
Should be issued

The gentleman says
‘Live music is better’ bumper stickers
Should be issued
All in favor of what he said
Signify by sayin’ “aye”

Aye! *

What does this tell us?

Well, for one thing, it told anyone who was listening at the time that the Eighties would be a weird and unpredictable ride for Neil Young, even by his prodigious standards.

It also tells us that live music — which really means local music, to read between Neil’s lines — is indeed better, and the people who make it are justifiably proud to promote it.

I wrote last week about my grandparents (and maybe my great-grandma) going to see Benny Goodman at a Stamford-area high school. And I wrote some time ago about them going to see Count Basie in a similar setting.

This week finds them metaphorically slapping a “Live Music Are Better” bumper sticker on their Ford Fairlane and going out to support a regional musician I’d never heard of:

March 9, 1968.

March 9, 1968.

There are no Fred Dearborn videos on YouTube, nor are any Fred Dearborn tour itineraries waiting to be discovered through Google.

But I’ve pieced together the Fred Dearborn story, thanks to my dad’s memory and a little deft web-searching.

According to my dad, my grandpa was friendly with a Dearborn family while growing up in Springfield, Mass., in the 1920s and ’30s.

The Dearborns were among the families who used to gather with my grandfather for summer getaways at Lake George — not the big one in New York, but a smaller one near the Massachusetts-Connecticut border.

My grandfather and the Dearborn family shared musical as well as personal ties, my dad says.

I very vaguely recall that one of the Dearborns was a musician, and that my father once actually played a couple paying gigs with him on violin (I once saw a song list in Pop’s writing) in the late 1920s or early 1930s. 

(I’ve dug up a lot of family oddments over the course of this blog … but a set list in my grandpa’s hand? Wouldn’t that be something. Wonder what was on it, and what became of it.)

You might notice the period after “Fred” on my grandpa’s calendar entry, indicating that “Fred” was an abbreviation for something — presumably Frederick.

A Google search for Frederick Dearborn turns up a Hartford Courant obituary for a man who grew up in Springfield and sang in professional bands. Sounds like he could have been part of the family my dad remembers.

After leaving a touring musician’s life behind, Fred Dearborn taught music in the West Hartford public schools from the 1940s to the late 1970s. In retirement, he played in no fewer than three towns’ senior citizen bands.

(He would still have been teaching in March 1968. I’m not sure what brought him all the way down to Stamford to perform. I also don’t know whether he was the headline performer or part of a larger group; I’m guessing the latter.)

In a charming gesture, Fred Dearborn apparently held a dance and reception for his students well after his retirement, to thank them for “being so nice to me.”

The obit also indicates that he outlived my grandfather by about five months, dying in West Hartford in July 2001.

My grandpa and Fred Dearborn apparently did not stay that close into adulthood. My dad has no recollection of him visiting the family home when my dad was a kid.

So this concert could well have been the last time the locally beloved music teacher ever crossed paths with his former violin-sideman-turned-draftsman.

I’d like to think they spent a couple minutes shooting the breeze after the concert. The approachability of the performers is one of the most enjoyable things about local music, whether you’re a new fan or an old friend.

It’s one reason why — however you phrase it — live music is/are better.

* Neil Young lyrics copyright 1980, Silver Fiddle Music (ASCAP.)

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And now, on with the show:

Being an American musical legend doesn’t entitle you to royal treatment, unfortunately. Oftentimes, it’s the legends that play to 100 people, while the here-and-gones sell out the hockey rinks.

That’s what happened in December 1975, when my grandparents sat in a high school auditorium and saw a performance by a man acclaimed as American musical royalty.

Dec. 6, 1975. (Forgive the poor-quality image.)

Jazz pianist, composer and bandleader William “Count” Basie, born this week in 1904, had seen his best days by the time my grandparents saw him perform at Stamford’s Westhill High School. (A comedown, surely, from the days when Basie and ensemble played network TV shows and snazzy Las Vegas hotels.)

But Basie and orchestra owed no one any apologies in 1975 for being less commercially successful than they once were.  Basie had spent 40 years both defining and sustaining the genre of big-band jazz, never losing the essential pulse and groove of the music.

In addition to its own recordings, the Basie band also backed some of the finest singers of its generation on records that still sound good today. (I have my other grandfather to thank for my LP copy of Frank Sinatra’s “Sinatra at the Sands,” which features Sinatra, Basie and band working out on a version of “Fly Me To The Moon” that takes off like Gordon Cooper in Faith 7. A studio version with a similar arrangement can be heard here.)

Basie’s main male rival, as far as jazz royalty went, was his fellow pianist and bandleader Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington.

As the child of a lifelong jazz fan, I had the Duke-vs.-Count situation explained to me at an early age. It was sort of a parallel, as I understood it, to the Beatles-vs.-Stones dilemma so beloved of rock n’ roll fans.

Ellington was a more cerebral and creative composer, a more devoted seeker of new tonalities, like John and Paul. Basie broke less new ground, but he just plain swung harder, like Mick n’ Keef.

Personally, I prefer Ellington. My dad prefers Basie. It is an amenable disagreement.

(Only about a year after the Westhill High concert, Stevie Wonder registered his own opinion on the matter. One of his greatest and most joyous singles sang the praises of “Basie, Miller, Sat-chi-mo, and the king of all, Sir Duke.”  While I’m pleased to hear that Stevie is a fellow Duke man, I’d say his mention of both Ellington and Basie verifies that both men were geniuses. If Stevie digs ’em, that’s all the endorsement I need.)

That night in December 1975, my grandparents would also have seen a musical figure I’ve always found fascinating — assuming he wasn’t sick that night or something.

Guitarist Freddie Green joined Basie in 1937 and, except for a brief break in the 1950s, stayed with the band the rest of his life. Green used a big hollowbody guitar and played nothing but four-to-the-bar rhythm strums — chank chank chank chank — like a percussion instrument with dimly audible chordal overtones.

He almost never soloed — and when I say “almost never,” I mean once every couple of years, not four bars per gig. His professional life was devoted to providing the subtlest of rhythmic pulses, driving the groove with no desire for fame, recognition or volume. Few musicians have had a career so long and so nearly Zen in its selflessness.

(Green is quoted in the Wiki article linked above as saying, “You should never hear the guitar by itself.” How many professional guitarists have ever said that? It’s just a shame Yngwie Malmsteen never got stuck on a slow boat to China with Freddie Green.)

As for Basie, he would gig for another eight years or so after the Westhill High show, pretty much up until his death in 1984. Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead tells a great, oft-repeated story of seeing Basie a few weeks before his death, which is captured near the end of this interview. To Weir, Basie was an inspiration — proof that a musical craftsman can keep plying his craft until the very end.

I don’t know for sure what the set list was for the Westhill High show. I imagine it featured some of Basie’s best-known tunes, though, like “April in Paris” and “One O’Clock Jump.”

And I’m sure it was executed with enough class and professionalism to bring a touch of the Sands — a flash of high-wattage Vegas neon — to a high school auditorium in the ‘burbs.

Next week on 5,478 Days: The sporting life.

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