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Posts Tagged ‘father’

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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The second episode of The Twilight Zone, titled “One For The Angels,” tells the story of a salesman who outwits Death and saves a child by delivering the sales pitch of a lifetime.

It’s not the most incisive half-hour Rod Serling ever scripted, but it’s fondly remembered, largely due to Ed Wynn’s charming performance in the main role.

This week’s installment of Hope Street — starring my dad — makes me think of that long-ago episode. (There’s a Rod Serling connection in this tale, too, which we’ll get back to in a few hundred words.)

My father is not a salesman by trade, and I don’t expect he could tie up the Grim Reaper in knots of argument.

But 30 years ago, he dedicated himself to the biggest sales pitch of his life — convincing his elderly parents and grandmother to leave their home of 40-plus years and move to a wintry, unfamiliar region in a different state.

Damned if he didn’t pull it off.

Because my grandfather saved much of the correspondence, the story can be retold in detail. (It says something that my grandpa saved these letters. He must have been impressed. Touched, even.)

This week, then, we’ll open the envelope and revisit the sales pitch we’ll call the Rochester Letters.

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By the early ’80s, my grandparents’ home at 1107 Hope Street in Stamford, Connecticut, was showing its age. Bringing it up to date would have required more money than my grandparents could spend.

The residents of 1107 Hope were also starting to show their age. My grandpa was in his 70s and had had two heart attacks, while my great-grandmother was almost 100 and still climbing a steep flight of stairs to and from her room each day.

It couldn’t last as a living arrangement. And finally, the time came when it didn’t.

In the fall of 1984, my grandparents signed a sales agreement with a developer that had plans to demolish old single-family homes and build condos in their place.

In return for a good payout, they agreed to be out of the house by April 15 of the following year, so the builders could begin their work.

(A curious coincidence: April 15, 1985, was my family’s deadline to leave the house on Hope Street. As previously announced, the last post on the Hope Street blog will be the week of April 15, 2015 — exactly 30 years later. I had no idea about that when I picked the date. Cue the Twilight Zone music…)

My grandparents talked about moving elsewhere in Connecticut — to the nearby city of Danbury, or up the coast to the town of Clinton.

But as weeks passed, they didn’t seem to be coming to any decisions or taking any firm action. That concerned my dad.

Starting in November, his letters began to reflect a common thread: Move to Rochester, and we’ll find you a nice house and take care of you.

Consider these excerpts dated Nov. 16, 1984. My dad acknowledges my grandparents’ concerns, like weather, taxes and distance from friends and family …

Click any of these to read larger.

Click any of these images to read larger.

… and then tries to rebut them.

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That last theme — you cared for me; I’ll care for you — shows up a few times in the Rochester Letters. This angle was sentimental enough to hook my grandma, but logical enough to appeal to my grandpa’s German-American ideals of fair play and obligation.

I don’t know if my dad really felt that deeply in debt for his upbringing, but — speaking as a communications professional — I find it an effective piece of messaging.

0109852changeddiapersAs December passed — and my grandma fell on some ice and broke her wrist — my dad kept pushing back against the inevitable pushback.

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And, to set the wheels in motion, my parents began working with a realtor to identify homes that might appeal to my grandparents. The Rochester area has a respectable stock of affordable small ranches and Capes, so it wasn’t hard to find suitable places.

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December 21, 1984.

Christmas ’84 was a pivotal point in the Rochester Letters. My grandparents still hadn’t been swayed to Rochester, but weren’t moving in any other direction either. Apparently, they were even starting to think that they might use my grandmother’s injury as an excuse to buy more time.

Some of the strongest-worded and most affecting messages of the Rochester Letters date to the final days of that year.

Dec26841Dec26842That approach must have lit at least some sort of fire under my grandparents, because the correspondence of January 1985 finds the push toward Rochester gaining some momentum.

My dad recapped his earlier statements that western New York is not the Arctic wasteland it’s sometimes thought to be …

"Winters up here are overstated."

“Winters up here are overstated.”

… and also repeated the notion that he and his family were ready to help in case of any emergency:

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Health care was a major part of my dad’s argument — and it might have been around this time that he made a spoken faux pas that could have derailed all the work of the Rochester Letters.

During a phone call, my dad was reiterating the point that Rochester’s Strong Memorial Hospital has a well-regarded cardiac care department. Trying to bolster his argument, he cited a famous son of western New York who had come to Strong in his hour of greatest need.

“Oh, yeah, they’re famous for their heart care,” my dad said. Rod Serling died there.

I can still hear my mom’s appalled gasp at that one. But thankfully, one misstep didn’t quash the entire effort.

From my grandparents’ perspective, the fact that famous people went to Strong for heart care seems to have outweighed the fact that not all of them walked out afterward.

That might have helped the breakthrough in January, when my dad finally got my grandmother to fly to Rochester and see some houses. (It might have been her only plane trip. My grandfather, who stayed behind with my great-grandma, was never known to have flown.)

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January 17, 1985.

And, building on that breakthrough, my dad poured on the family messaging:

January 20, 1985. He bought a printer.

January 20, 1985. He bought a printer.

By my dad’s recollection, my grandma saw only a few houses during her quick trip to New York. It only took one to win her over — a small yellow house on Lynnwood Drive in the suburban town of Brighton.

She liked it enough to convince my grandpa to buy the place sight unseen. I was press-ganged into action, along with family and friends, to make all manner of improvements to the place in a hurry, from laying new insulation in the crawlspace to repainting the big central room.

In the spring of 1985, the sales pitch of the Rochester Letters came to a triumphant conclusion as my grandparents and great-grandma moved into a new home in a new town.

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On the back deck in Brighton, summer 1991. My grandpa the keeper of the calendars is in the red shirt; his wife is in the red-blue-and-white shirt. The other older lady is my other grandma, who had also settled in Rochester by then … but that’s another story.

The back yard in Brighton a few days after the ice storm of '91. Winters up here are overstated.

The back yard in Brighton a few days after the ice storm of ’91. Winters up here are overstated.

My grandparents’ life in Brighton went just about as well as my dad predicted it would.

My grandparents were a regular presence in the lives of my brother and I as we were growing up. My folks’ social network welcomed them, giving them connections and opportunities to get out and mingle when they wanted to.

My family handled heavy lifting and home maintenance, while my grandpa got to plant his garden and do tinkering chores that kept him content.

I don’t know whether my grandpa was ever treated at Strong Memorial Hospital, or whether he benefited from the heart specialists there. But I think that being relieved of major housework, and knowing he had family nearby to help with any need, did his heart a lot of good.

The Rochester Letters did not beat the Reaper, then, but perhaps they bought a few years of his absence.

As sales pitches go, they don’t come much better than that … not outside the Twilight Zone, anyway.

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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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I tell ya, it’s hard writing a family history blog when your family doesn’t remember its own history.

Though I suppose it’s a good thing that my dad does not remember an event other American men can recall like it was yesterday:

June 26, 1961.

Draft boards were local organizations responsible for registering, evaluating, selecting or rejecting prospective candidates for military service.

The power to grant a deferment, or to classify a young man 1-A (immediately available for combat), lay in their hands. And all those mythical Sixties scenes people my age have only heard about — like people eating nothing but eggs for two weeks so high cholesterol would keep them out of the service — were done in hopes of swaying the local draft board.

It has been my generational good fortune never to go before a draft board, and I hope my sons will have similar luck. (I suspect there will have to be armed enemy soldiers in the streets of Philadelphia before Uncle Sam turns to my sons for help.)

I hit up my dad for his memories of his visit to the draft board, and received the following:

“I remember nothing about seeing the draft board.  … I doubt seriously if there was a physical THERE; I might have had to bring in some form from my doctor.  I think the operative procedure was that when you were 18 you had to REGISTER for the draft, which was probably more like registering your car than anything else.  I suspect I might have had to bring a birth certificate to prove my birth date, although at 18 maybe they would accept my driver’s license. 

“The process of getting those different classifications because you were infirmed or in college or had kids was – I believe – separate and took place mostly by mail.  I don’t remember any live inquisitions in any point of my (non)military career.  And I’m sure in 1961 I wasn’t very worried because (a) I was going to college, which exempted me for the next 4 years and (b) there was no war going on (that anyone had noticed).”

While the Vietnam War had not yet heated up in 1961, local draft boards could still throw a monkey wrench into people’s lives when they got the notion.

In one well-publicized case, Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Johnny Podres was abruptly reclassified 1-A after winning Game 7 of the 1955 World Series. Podres missed the entire 1956 season while sportswriters and fans debated whether he had been unfairly singled out, or whether it was fair to assume that any man capable of throwing a complete-game shutout in the World Series was able-bodied enough to serve.

No such issues came up in my dad’s meeting with the Springdale, Conn., draft board. The skinny electrical-engineer-to-be, all of 18 years and a month old, was waved along to college. After college, a professional deferment related to his job at Eastman Kodak and the birth of my older brother carried him through the remainder of the war.

Much changed between his generation and mine. When I turned 18 and had to register for Selective Service, I’m pretty sure I did that by mail; I don’t remember any face-to-face contact.

Hopefully, my sons get to do the same.

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If the Blumenau family’s total lack of history or drama in this post leaves you frustrated, check out this site. It collects the stories and memories of men eligible for the draft lotteries of 1969 through 1971.

They talk about where they were at the time the numbers were drawn (a surprising number were drinking heavily in fraternity houses) and how they responded to their place in the draft order.

Great oral-history recollections of what one man describes as “a scary time to be young.”

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A little thematic music, for the old-school swingers and those who prefer it Seventies-style.

Some time ago, I described my dad as a good sport. This week I’m going to raise the ante.

I will go so far as to say that, many years ago … before the plaid pants and the Reliant K wagon  … my dad was pretty cool.

Well, OK, that might be pushing it.

But I am impressed to know that, as a young man, my dad spent some time at one of America’s most celebrated nightspots — a place practically synonymous with jazz, and equally synonymous with cool.

January 26, 1963.

This particular visit to Birdland, the famous New York City jazz club, appears to have been cancelled — perhaps due to the snow and frigid weather.

But my dad confirmed that he and other jazz fans from Stamford High made the drive into New York several times to dig the scene at Birdland:

We didn’t consider going to NYC to hear jazz a big deal.  It was only a 45-60 minute drive from Stamford (probably another 15 to find parking), we never had any safety problems (we always went as a small group), and jazz was more commonplace than it is now (I’m not including Kenny G and the like).  Probably only the relatively high expense for us high-schoolers prevented us from going more often!

To translate this for the rock n’ roll fans in the audience: This is kinda like finding out that your dad saw the Beatles at the Cavern Club, or Jimi Hendrix at a club in the Village, or the Ramones at CBGB’s.

Everybody who was anybody in the jazz business played the original Birdland between 1949 and its closing in 1965. Miles? Trane? Duke? Dizzy? Monk? Yup, all them and then some. (A partial list is here.)

When musicians weren’t playing there, they went to hang out and listen to whoever was onstage.

Legendary keyboardist Joe Zawinul told Jazz magazine in 1977: “To me Birdland was the most important place in my entire life. I met everybody including my beautiful wife in this club. I met Miles, I met Duke Ellington. I met anyone I ever cared for in this business. I used to hang out there every night.” (Quote taken from the excellent Weather Report Annotated Discography website.)

Birdland attracted more than just famous musicians. Jack Kerouac, for instance, made reference to the club in his writings. I doubt he was there when my father was. But it’s still kinda cool to imagine the angelheaded hipster saint of American literature in the same room as my dad.

Anyway, my dad’s recollections of the setting at Birdland:

 It was below ground (e.g., down cellar), dark, dank and cellar-like (e.g. with support columns in inconvenient places), quite low ceilinged, and surprisingly small.  No memorable decor, just very functional.  Doubt if the tables and chairs matched.  Lots of sound-absorbing material so the sound was very dead.  As our visits were all before we could legally drink (even tho’ drinking age in NY was then 18), we were seated in the less desirable seats and sipped coca cola.  But I think even the WORST seat was only about 30 feet from the stage, which was not really big enough for a big band (grand piano sat on the floor next to the stage).

Unless I’m mixing up my venues, there was a diminutive black man who met you at the door and took your money, circulated about, and ended up being the announcer.  Maybe PeeWee something, or some such…  He was allegedly almost as much of an institution as the venue itself.

(My dad is correct in his memories of Pee Wee Marquette, the house emcee at Birdland.)

The two artists my dad specifically remembers seeing at Birdland are Eric Dolphy — an innovative saxophonist, clarinetist and flutist who died too young — and trumpeter Maynard Ferguson.

Ferguson’s band included sax players Joe Farrell and Lanny Morgan and pianist Jaki Byard. According to my dad, the musicians were just as close to the crowd offstage as they were on the bandstand:

 I remember seeing several of the guys in the street – and chatting with them – before the performance.  We usually found our jazz “idols” very accessible.  (A buddy of mine had a great conversation with Dizzy Gillespie in the mens’ room of the Village Vanguard once.)

(OK, I’m gonna amend my assessment of a few paragraphs ago. This is like finding out that your dad shared a smoke break with George Harrison outside the Cavern Club, or ran into Hendrix wandering through the Village. Pretty cool, in other words.)

I asked him if he knew at the time that he was hanging out in a legendary place. His reply:

Maybe “legendary” is a little strong, but we knew it was THE happening place for jazz.  I mean, the same sort of feeling you have when you go to Fenway!

Nice comparison, I thought. Dank, crowded, small, support poles in bad places … yup, that’s Fenway.

My dad has some pretty good live jazz stories from other places, too. Maybe some other time I’ll share his story about seeing Chick Corea take a screwdriver to his malfunctioning electric piano while Miles Davis stared bullets at him from across the stage.

But for right now I’ll leave him at Birdland, sipping intently on a Coke and watching Eric Dolphy take an unaccompanied bass clarinet solo … and probably not appreciating that, in the eyes of future generations, he will seem like the epitome of cool.

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