Saturday, February 26, 2011

Jazz, Beer and Tear Gas. A fantasy up in smoke.

Jazz, Beer and Tear Gas. A fantasy up in smoke.

©Joel Baumwoll

I got into jazz when I was sixteen, in 1956.  Elvis was over for me already.  I think Count Basie was responsible.  His rendition of April In Paris hit the top of the charts that year, and the swinging arrangement was irresistible.  Thad Jones and Joe Newman’s trumpets and Benny Powell’s trombone sang to me, and I wanted more.  Already a fan of Glenn Miller and his classic 1940s big band swing, Basie was whole new ballgame.
I played the Verve LP of Basie’s so many times on my Sears Silvertone “hifi”  that the needle worked its way through the vinyl. And I was a sucker for Basie’s three endings-- “one more time” and play it just one more once.”
Joe Williams, recording of “Every day I have the blues,” became another of my anthems, and soon I lusted after more jazz, as Rock and Roll began to lose its grip on me.  Music in 1956 was heard on LPs and the radio.  AM radio was full of syrupy Patti Page, Pat Boone and Doris Day, but gutsy black R&B and hip jazz were to be found on a new medium, FM radio. 
Disc jockeys with cool names held me captive in the late night hours.  Jazbo Collins, Symphony Sid, (the “all night, all frantic one”) and a melodramatic DJ who called himself “Jock-O” played Olatungi and his Drums of Passion, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Horace Silver, the totally cool Modern Jazz Quartet well into the early morning hours. 
An exotic FM station, WBAI, was sponsored by listeners, and played avant guard stuff, including Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” and “Krap’s Last Tape,” bebop of Coltrane, Miles and Gillespie, the zany Goon Show from England, and social critics like Julius Lester and Larry Josephson.  I remember Lester mocking a New York Times ad from some Fifth Avenue store with the headline “Is this the day you do something dramatic about your ice bucket?”  He wondered if the folks living on the hot air grates and picking through garbage cans for food were worried about their ice bucket.  I was becoming socially aware and an anti-capitalist critic.
In 1956, I heard a fantastic cut from a vocal group that sang lyrics written for specific instrumental solos.  I was immediately smitten with Lambert Hendricks and Ross. Their new album, “The Hottest New Group In Jazz” took pride of place on my Silvertone.  I sang along to Annie Ross, Dave Lambert or Jon Hendricks as they sped through “Cloudburst,”  “Bijou” and Annie’s funny “Twisted.” (“My analyst told me, that I was right out of my mind…”)
By the time I was eighteen, I did my best to look and act like a “bohemian.”  I grew a beard, smoked a pipe, and made my way to the jazz clubs of Greenwich Village as often as I could scrape up the money.  The Morristown Daily Record even did a story about two of us freshman at Fairleigh Dickinson who had grown beards over the spring break.  It actually made the front page, with a photo and the headline “Fairleigh students strike a bohemian theme.”  I guess in 1959 Morristown, this was big news. 
Next day, I got several phone calls from men who wanted to get to know me better.  Instinct told me to ignore them.
I lived with my parents in an isolated summer community in north Jersey called White Meadow Lake.  Bereft of action in the cold winter months, and not being able to afford room and board at college, I commuted to Fairleigh Dickinson in Madison. I spent weekends working in M. Epstein’s, an upscale department store in Morristown, selling men’s clothing to the wealthy shoppers who lived in nearby towns.
Greenwich Village was an exotic place to me, with its dark, smokey clubs and hipsters with their cool talk.  I was a fan of a radio monologist, Jean Shepherd, who, in his nightly program, talked directly to me in an intimate way.  He became my mentor into the world of cool.  “Shep” as we called him, was a truth teller, and he made us see the hypocrisy in the “adult” world with his stories and anecdotes.  He called his listeners “night people” and we were like a secret society, with our own form of decoder rings.  “Excelsior, you fathead” was a common Shep greeting, and “keep your knees loose” was an oft-given piece of advice.  Shep lived in the Village and played cool jazz in the backgrounds of his early all-night show.
In Manhattan, we’d often go to Prexy’s, a hamburger joint that was a sponsor of his.  Their slogan was “The hamburger with the college education.” Conspiratorially, we’d whisper “excelsior” to the counter man, and were supposed to get a free order of fries.  Mostly they’d look at us like we were nut cases and just shrug.  Every once in a while, a hip waiter would bring a platter to the table with the secret salute returned under his breath.
I drove nearly an hour from Rockaway to East Orange to see “films” (not movies) in an “art theater” called the Ormont. “The Bicycle Thief,” “400 Blows,” a raft of depressing post-war Italian films, and an occasional obscure Swedish movie (“Wild Strawberries”) that showed naked women making love, drew us back at least monthly. 
“Black Orpheus” was one film that I remember vividly, with its samba and bossa nova rhythms, the music of Jobim and Bonfa, the beautiful Marpessa Dawn and the tragic story of Orpheo and Eurydice, set in Rio’s carnival. The melodies of the soundtrack still haunt me, especially the chanting Manha de Carnival, and A Felicidade.  At the end, two preadolescent lovers starting the saga over again, singing the Samba de Orfeu, was enchanting.  I still listen to this music, over forty years later, with undiminished emotion. 
In the spring of 1960, we were drawn to East Orange to see a film with the title “Jazz on a Summer’s Day.”  The movie had a lot of “buzz” in the world of jazz.  I had no idea what it was about, except that it was a documentary, filmed at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958. 
Well, little did I know what was in store for me!  For the next eighty-five minutes, I was transfixed and transported to a world I wanted to be in.
Bert Stern and Aram Avakian had captured a magical moment.  The setting, amid the sparkling ocean and white sands of Newport Rhode Island was entrancing.  Scenes of beautiful blond young women lounging about on the decks of white yachts caught my fancy like no Ralph Lauren ad could ever do.  And the music!  The music was a banquet of the best that the world of jazz could serve up in 1958.
Here were Jimmy Guiffre, (playing “Train in the River,” one of my favorites); Thelonious Monk, Sonny Stitt, George Shearing, Anita O’Day (incredible), Dinah Washington, Chico Hamilton, Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Big Maybelle, Mahalia Jackson, Bob Brookmeyer, Chuck Berry (!!), Buck Clayton, Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Holiday, Carmen McCrae, Eric Dolphy, Art Farmer, Terry Gibbs, Max Roach, Jo Jones, Jim Hall, Urbie Green, Bill Crow and many others.
As the musicians played, the camera wandered over the audience, the town, the beaches and the musicians.  The enthusiasm of the fans was transferred to the audience in the theater.  It was like being there!
The highlight of the 1956 festival was Duke Ellington’s performance a composition called “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.” Ellington told the audience that the diminuendo and the crescendo would be separated by a tenor sax solo by Paul Gonsalves.  It made jazz history.
One jazz fan’s description of what happened:
“The piece starts with a several minutes of standard-issue Ellingtonia, that is, Duke setting the stage with four jumping choruses on piano before the ensemble rolls in to fortify the main theme. After two more choruses by the Duke and with a rollicking beat being laid down by bassist Jimmy Woode and drummer Sam Woodyard, Paul Gonsalves finally steps forward to perform his most memorable solo. Gonsalves' segment begins conventionally enough and his first few choruses could have been played by any number of tenor players from this era.
Traditionally, three or four choruses by even the most notable soloist would be plenty for an Ellington composition, but this would not be the case at Newport. It was somewhere around Gonsalves' sixth steaming chorus that the crowd began to sense something special was occurring and it was during his seventh go-round that a sophisticated lady (a platinum blonde in a black evening dress, as the legend goes) jumped up from her box seat and began dancing wildly to the rocking rhythm. Bear in mind that the festival was a somewhat elegant event and the commotion caused by Gonsalves' tour de force had the Newport police security more than just a little concerned.
By this time, most the crowd (7000 strong) was on their feet and cheering. Eight, 12, 15 muscular choruses and Gonsalves still showed no signs of slowing down. At the very foot of the stage, Jo Jones (former Basie drummer who was appearing at Newport with Teddy Wilson) was pounding out his unbridled enthusiasm with a rolled up copy of the Christian Science Monitor.
Still being backed by just bass, drums and an occasional piano fill by the Duke, Gonsalves reared back even harder and played on. Veteran Ellington bandmates like Johnny Hodges, Cat Anderson and Harry Carney were shouting their own, special encouragement as Paul Gonsalves soldiered through a grand total of 27 straight, groovin' choruses.”
Familiar with this legendary performance, I was hoping to see Ellington go for a repeat. But alas, it was not to be.
However, I left the theater that spring evening promising myself that I was going to the Newport Jazz Festival in July, to have my own Jazz on a Summer’s day.  As much as eighteen year-old who did not know what he was going to do from one day to the next could make a plan, Newport in July was on the books.  Two of my buddies, Pete Tannen and Bill Bloete, Shep fans, sports car aficionados and jazz nuts decided we would go.  My cousin Roz’ parents had a cottage in Barrington Beach, not far from Newport, which we were invited to use for sleeping.  I counted the days from April to July with mounting excitement. 
Every spare dollar I made went into a pile for Newport.  The fantasy of the movie played in my head as we drove to Newport.  I don’t recall whose car we took, but it could have been my red 1960 Saab, the one with the two-cycle engine that required oil to be mixed with the gas, like some lawnmower or outboard engine.  But it was, at least a foreign car, which set us apart from the mopes that drove the uncool Detroit behemoths.
We arrived at my cousin’s beach cottage to a rousing reception from Roz and a few of her girlfriends.  The plan was for Roz and I to share a bed, and my friends to bunk on couches and other beds.  Why we made this quasi-incestuous arrangement, I don’t know, but I don’t recall objecting.
Roz had decorated her room with a huge pyramid of empty beer cans, which we immediately proceeded to extend in all directions.  Naraganset was the local brew, an exotic lager with a photo of a sailboat on label.  Somehow, it was more exciting than drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon or Ballantine, my usual brand of suds.
The plan was to drink a few six packs, eat some food and make our way to downtown Newport.  Luckily, Roz had purchased tickets for the first day’s concert, and we figured we’d buy the next two days’ events when we got to Freebody Park, the ramshackle stadium where the concerts were held.
I discovered several years later that there was an uneasy relationship between the upper crust town and the Festival.  The merchants, restaurants and hotels loved it, but the tony folks who summered in Newport were not happy with the hordes of unruly hipsters and beer guzzling kids that swarmed into the town every year, creating traffic jams, making noise to all hours and having sex on the beach at night.  That one of their own, Elaine Lorrillard, was a main sponsor of the festival, and an ardent jazz fan, did not help matters.
We had not counted on the huge throng that came to Newport, owing to the growing popularity of jazz and the impact of Bert Stern’s documentary.  Apparently, thousands of people left the movie theaters after seeing the film with the same idea as I had, and the result was that tickets were in short supply, traffic was bumper to bumper and tempers of the local police were frayed.
The first night was marked by some fantastic music and marred by a torrential downpour.  I sat huddled under the shelter of sodden newspapers and listened to Gerry Mulligan, Diz, and Louis Armstrong with great enthusiasm, as only a half-drunk eighteen year-old, experiencing a rare time of total freedom from parental oversight could do. 
Louis Armstrong closed the place down with a rousing rendition of “Saints,” joined by an energetic audience who yelled for more.
John Wilson, The New York Times Jazz critic reported on the events.
HEAVY RAIN SOAKS NEWPORT THRONG; 8,500 Brave Downpour to Hear Gillespie, Armstrong and Mulligan Groups
By JOHN S. WILSON Special to The New York Times.
July 3, 1960, Sunday
NEWPORT, R.I., July 2 -- The fortitude and devotion of the 8,500 persons who heard last night's Newport Jazz Festival program at Freebody Park was put to a severe test by a drenching rain that began before the concert started and was still pouring down when it ended.
After the concert, we filed out and pushed into the nearest tavern.  It was crammed to the walls with wet and thirsty kids, many of whom were drinking foamy pitchers of Naraganset without bothering to pour it into glasses.  Much to my cousin’s annoyance, I scoped out the room for good looking chicks, and slithered and squeezed through the throng to get within earshot of one or two, hoping to find one who I could spend the rest of the evening with, slaking our thirsts for beer and romance.
I have no memory of how we got back to the cottage at Barrington Beach, but I woke up in the early afternoon smelling of stale beer, cigarette smoke and perfume.  A willowy blond was next to me, still in deep sleep.  It must have been a hell of an evening.
Breakfast of more Naraganset and doughnuts, and off we went to get tickets to the next concert.  We managed to cadge some of the last available seats before “Sold Out” signs went up at the box office.  I read later that 15,000 people were inside the stadium listening to the concert, while another several thousand outside began to protest.  Beer drinking kids started to throw empty cans and bottles at police and the lid came off.
Inside, unaware of what was going on outside, we heard the music of Horace Silver, Lambert Hendricks and Ross, the Oscar Peterson Trio, Ray Charles, Dakotah Staton, Harry “Sweets” Edison, and George Auld. 
By the time the concert ended at 1:30 AM, a full scale riot was ultimately ended by uniformed National Guard troops, firing tear gas grenades and breaking up clusters of kids that looked threatening.  The streets were full of broken glass, uniformed National Guard patrolled in jeeps. At one point, we climbed a fence and sat on a tree branch to get away from the melee and smoke of tear gas that hung close to the ground.
Making our way back to Barrington, we ended the evening in a less boisterous fashion, and figured we’d get up very early to get tickets to the next day’s concert.  It was not to be.
Newport Jazz Festival Closed Because of Rioting
By JOHN S. WILSON Special to The New York Times.
July 4, 1960, Monday
NEWPORT, R. I., July 3 -- The remaining performances of the Newport Jazz Festival were canceled today by a 4-to-3 vote of the Newport City Council. The action followed a battle last night between a crowd of several thousand persons outside Freebody Park, where the festival was being held, and the state, naval and local police.
Hearing this, we decided that there was no point in hanging around, so we packed into the SAAB and headed back to Rockaway.  The excitement of the weekend was still with us, but somehow, Jazz on a Summer’s Day did not turn out to be the magical experience that my fantasy promised.
As I got older, I learned that fantasies rarely panned out, and often went up in smoke.

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