Flip Phillips

By some verbal turn of a publicist
worthy of an Ellis Island clerk,
Joseph Edward Filipelli became Flip Phillips.
As coincidence would have it, I heard him
on a boat going out of Boston Harbor.
Sixty-five years old, blowing as cool as the
seabreeze off the Atlantic.

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You were so good for an Italian you made
a lot of jazzbos and critics mad; you
weren’t supposed to hold your own,
up against Pres and Bird at the JATP concerts,
you were–back up, but they didn’t mind.
They just wanted to blow some too, no
matter what color you were; white–olive?

Flip

Who knows—who cares? You got your sound
from Ben Webster, with a dash of Lester,
but you made it your own. You were in
the right place at the right time with Woody
Herman’s Herd in 1944, and kept playing
for another fifteen years but then—stopped. A
quarter-century on the road was enough.

flip2

So, like an accountant or some other 9-5 drudge
you retired to Florida at the age of 44 to relax
a bit, learned the bass clarinet, lived the life
of a semi-senior-citizen. Until you got bored and
at the age of sixty, started playing again.
I wonder what happened—too much golf? Or maybe you
looked down and found your foot tapping one day.

 

The Men on the Moon

It was the summer of ’69, and men were preparing
to land on the moon, at the same time that
an event of far greater consequence was
about to occur; a declaration of troth
between two star-crossed lovers here on earth.

The girl was unknown, disreputable; the boy,
from a family that mattered, trying to catch
up with her. His parents had asked where
he would watch the historic event, and he had
replied, to their consternation, that he had a date.

It was a gesture on their part, an act with meaning;
they didn’t care about country or science; their love
was their art, their art was their love. They cared no
more about the men on the moon and all it meant
than—they laughed—the man in the moon.

They walked out in nature; it was summer-hot, and it
wasn’t clear where they were going, but they knew why.
The field was buggy, though, and so after a while
they went back to the car to consummate the
collision of their worlds in air-conditioned comfort.

He had chosen words he’d heard, he wasn’t sure where,
“When you cry, I will taste salt.” That’s how close he
promised to be to her as she straddled his lap in the front
seat. She laughed, thinking he was striking a pose. He wasn’t
hurt; these misunderstandings would happen, no big deal.

He took her home, after pizza and a Coke; he wasn’t
old enough to buy beer, and didn’t have any pot to smoke.
Her mom wasn’t even home; he could have spent the
night except that his parents would have raised holy hell;
he was going to college two months later, in the fall.

He never went back to that little town, but years later,
looking out the window of a women’s apartment onto
a parking lot below, he listened to Louis Armstrong sing
“I could cry salty tears,” and thought back to that solemn
promise that was misconstrued, and laughed at his innocence.

Chu Berry, Tenor Wrapped in Swaddling

“He can blow up a mess,” that’s what they said
about Chu Berry, who was christened Leon.
How he got his name is perhaps an embarrassment,
then and now. Called to audition in Columbus,
Ohio, he was in the middle of a fraternity initiation and
when he arrived from Charleston, West Virginia,
he still had a hat on top of his hat, with holes cut

berry

in it. He had to let his whiskers grow and he looked
like a character in a Chinese musical, Chu-Chin-Chow.
And that is how he ended up as Chu. He started playing
with Teddy Hill at all-night dances in Harlem
that started at 9 o’clock Saturday night and
continued through to 8 o’clock Sunday morning.
America could dance back then, instead of sitting on

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its butt smoking a joint and grooving on noodling
guitar riffs that wouldn’t get you second chair in
a school band back when Chu started, in the 1930’s.
He’s the first boss of the tenor after Coleman Hawkins,
and his complaint is “Doggone—ain’t no meat here
at all! What that man mean, dishing me out this for
charmaine?” Two bits for three dances, dime a dance

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for one is what the “hostesses” charge. He loved Hawk,
but he wouldn’t imitate him. “Some of these tenor men,
I see they go off copying Hawkins and them. Shuck.
A man never get playing it really good till he putten something
into it, you think? A man don’t watch out, all he putten is
spit.” He worked them out in his own way.
“Watch out for stale riffs,” he said, an admonishment that

lamar3

could be applied to more art forms than just jazz. He warned
against “honking,” which he thought showed lack of
imagination and was (delicate phrase) “irksome to the ear.”
Charlie Parker named his son after him, he was that good.
One night Berry and Lamar Wright in his new car and
Andy Brown finished a one-nighter in Youngstown and
were heading for Canada. The bus with the rest of the band

dime

was trailing them. Milt Hinton said he was sitting
up front, eating sandwiches and drinking beer, when the driver
slowed down and said “Something’s going on out here—looks
like an accident.” Lamar Wright loomed out of the headlight
beams, his new car appeared in the night air, pointing straight up.
They heard Chu’s voice, he was lying ten feet away, his skull opened up.
“Find my change,” was all he was saying. “I left my change around,

dime2

look for it.” His watch was in the middle of the highway, while
the band was still on his wrist. They got him in the bus and took him
to the hospital. He was so out of it, he wanted to go on, like the football
player he’d been at West Virginia State; unconscious from the blow,
prepared to carry on from memory alone, some dark part of the brain
where music plays and no language lives, because language hasn’t
been invented yet. There was nothing but song first, then dance.

chu1

They played the dance at Buffalo that night in 1941, then Cab
Calloway got everyone together and told them that Chu was dead.
Poor Chu, his tenor wrapped in swaddling sweetness with Teddy Hill
and Calloway most of the time, eight bar solos at the most, when what
he wanted, what he needed to do, was air it out. He was like a
gaudy broach lying in cotton in a jeweler’s box on a shelf.
Had he lived a little longer he might have seen the light of day.

Basie in the Airfield

I saw Bill Basie in a moribund airfield
near Worcester, Mass. He was 70
then. I’d seen him in his younger
days on film, a frenetic pianist,
all the energy of youth, your eyes
could hardly keep up with his hands.

basie

A half century on the road had slowed him
down, you thought at first, but after a while
it became clear it was a matter of choice,
and estate planning. He’d fathered a
generation of sons who relieved him
of the burden of the beat. All he had

basie2

to do anymore was lift a single little finger
and let it fall, that was all, and squadrons
of horns and a rhythm section responded.
I recall I wore a sport coat, in the middle of
summer. It was, I thought, the decorum he
was due after so many long years on the road.

moten

First, stranded in Kansas City, rescuing Bennie
Moten’s Orchestra, playing at the Reno Club
as the Barons of Rhythm until one night
John Hammond heard them on his car radio
in the night air and so raved about them
that talent scouts from Decca beat him

lester

to the scene. Hammond didn’t even know
who he was listening to when he wrote his
reviews. Most of what he heard were “head”
arrangements, musical folklore, products of
a nomadic tribe and not one artiste, concocted
on the bandstand as the mood and the muse struck.

Pres billie

Lester Young passed through, as did Don Byas and
Sweets Edison, Billie Holiday, Frank Wess.
Out of luck in ‘49, Basie broke the band up, then brought it
back to life in 1952, the New Testament replacing the
Old. I got Al Grey and Buck Clayton to sign an album
but that was it. One doesn’t ask a Count for an autograph.

 

The Unfinished House

There was, on the street where we lived, an unfinished house–
incomplete in ways you didn’t notice at first;
no stairs up the porch to the front door,
no walkway to the porch. The type of details
that were left undone let a person know that
tradesmen, visitors and strangers were not welcome.

Inside lived an old woman, or at least old to us kids.
We’d see her sometimes through the windows, which
had no curtains, or maybe in her car before she drove
into her garage, which opened into her house. You saw
about as much of her as somebody’s gin rummy hand held
close to the breast; in plain sight, but her back was turned.

Such a provocation to a gang of young boys, and yet
none of us had the guts or the callousness to
bother her enough to react to us. She had a chain-link
fence around her yard, all the way out to the property line
There was no gate, so none of us ever got any
closer to trick or treat, or to chase a ball.

The story our parents told us was that she’d figured
out a way to save money on her property taxes.
Until her house was finished, it was undeveloped
even though she slept there every night, and kept
a fire going in one fireplace all winter long.
She was shrewd, crazy like a fox, my mom said.

I don’t know who told me the other version of her life,
and which was true; that she had been engaged to be
married to a man more dashing and handsome than
she expected. That she had built the house with money
she’d inherited from her family, and that the money,
and not love, was the reason he was attracted to her.

The banns had been published, and they would move in
when they got back from their honeymoon, the
house would be finished by then. But something happened;
the man discovered he couldn’t live for money alone,
or maybe he found another woman just as rich
but prettier. Either way, he was gone.

And so the house stood there, unfinished, like the heart
she had built for him. She saved on taxes, yes,
but also on expenditures of emotion. She needed
nobody, and nobody needed her. She grew used to it
and, like an unused chimney that’s bricked over to
conserve heat, she was as cold and indifferent as stone.

Sonny Rollins at Paul’s Mall

When he is announced he is heard (but unseen)
not from the stage but the back of the room;
he enters from the entrance, unaccompanied
for the first number, his notes tilting like
a gyroscope, whirring and yet in control.
Every now and then he plays with one hand free
in a sort of look-ma-no-hands daring.
Some know some things about him, others know
others; I know him from Valse Hot with
Clifford Brown. Several years later I

Brownroach

realized most people in the room know
him for his Williamsburg Bridge period
after I saw him in a commercial on TV,
and learned how, driven Christ-like into
self-imposed exile for two years he would
walk the span, 1,600 feet across, a very public
wood-shedding, until he was satisfied with
his sound and re-emerged from hiding in plain sight.
Why the bridge? he was asked when he returned.
He didn’t want to disturb his neighbors, he said,

rollins

one a pregnant woman. He didn’t know what
effect his experimenting, breaking down
his old sound and building something new,
15, 16 hours at a time, would have on the fetus.
The baby turned out fine, beautiful, happy, he said
after he’d returned, first to the Jazz Gallery
in New York. That night in Boston he had
a young tenor player with him; dashiki clad (it
was the early 70s), he brought him up between
numbers, introduced him, said he was going to

Paul'small

play a few numbers with the group. They started
something uptempo and, after Rollins took his turn
he handed it over to the guest—who promptly proceeded
to crap out. He looked sheepishly at the master, began
again, and finally, embarrassed, receded into playing
mere accompanist. He learned that night that jazz is
a sacrament; an outward and visible sign of an inward
and spiritual grace. It takes more than an article of
clothing, a well-combed Afro and an attitude to
achieve something approaching enlightenment.

My Old Man, Across a Hotel Pool, In the Bahamas

It took my dad eight years to pay off the note he signed
to buy the little store, grandiosely sub-titled
“Mid-Missouri’s Finest Specialty Shop.”
To celebrate, he took the family on a real vacation,
to the Bahamas; white beaches, conch shells,
calypso music and all that, three guys playing
“Cocoanut water, rum and gin” on steel drums,
guitar and trap set outside on the deck by the pool.

Up in my room, I had to memorize 200 lines of poetry,
punishment for some mortal offense imposed
on my junior English class, by the time we got back.
I can’t remember what we did or didn’t do, and
whether I was as guilty as the rest, but I wanted to be
out in the sun, on the beach. I wanted to see a
barracuda, a manta ray, all the creatures of the deep
I’d read about back when I wanted to be a Navy frogman.

Instead I lay on my bed and read about the rude bridge that
arched the flood, and ours is not to reason why, ours is
but to do or die. It’s a wonder I can stand to read a poem
these days, much less write one. I came down for a break
one day and saw him, sitting in a lounge chair across the
pool, staring off into the middle distance, as if saying to
himself, “So this is what it comes down to, my only son,
sitting sullen, alone in his room, reading poetry?”

In the Basement With Tiny Grimes

He’d been everywhere but he ended up in
the basement of a hotel in Boston,
a forlorn jazz club on its last legs,
and so the man who’d played with
divinities—Art Tatum, Charlie Parker,
Billie Holiday–found himself on
a little stage with two sidemen playing
to a sparse crowd in a crowded room.
I wondered how many students knew who he was.

grimes

That’s him you hear singing “Romance without
finance is a nuisance” on the record, and I
suppose he was remembered as much for
that little novelty number as his playing by
most, which tells you more about his audiences
than it does about him. When he had a hit with
“Loch Lomond” he changed his band’s name to
The Rocking Highlanders and played in kilts,
anything to keep body and soul together.

grimes3

When a DJ named Alan Freed came up with the
idea for a concert called the Moondog Coronation
Ball, Tiny was there, at the first rock ‘n roll
concert ever, along with Paul “Hucklebuck”
Williams. He may even have played on
The Crows’ one hit, “Gee,” no one really knows,
but rock passed him by. His style was too swinging,
not hard enough, and so he went back to the stuff
that got him started, playing with Coleman Hawkins

grimes2

and Earl Hines and, when they were gone, Roy Eldridge,
back to the roots, now buried deep. Two drink minimum,
he’s probably playing for half the gate as the leader, paying
the local sidemen the rest. He works through the set list,
62 years old, a decade left to live and probably out of
dough, otherwise he wouldn’t still be on the road.
There is scattered applause, time for one more number; he
rips into the opening riff of “Tiny’s Tempo,” not
rushing it, same as he did three decades before.

Her Stars

Doretta taught eighth-grade English, and lived alone, a block
from the school. She was “Miss” Hay to everyone, and
even though the boys never thought twice about it, the
girls in her classes knew that meant she was an Old Maid,
a figure on a card in a game that you didn’t want to end up
holding in your hand. And so they knew she was something
they didn’t want to end up being, not if they could help it.

She would walk home each night to her little apartment,
grade papers for awhile, then make dinner for one or
maybe have another teacher over, either a spinster like herself
or a woman whose husband was out of town or who took
pity on her; an evening not unlike that of nearly every other
household in town, with or without a family, until night fell.
As others turned on their TVs, Doretta turned out the lights

and looked out her window at the stars—her stars!—which
had provided the human race with peaceful and sublime
entertainment for eons, since the Greeks and before. She
couldn’t understand why people would spend good,
hard-earned money on a television when they could look
up at the sky every night—for free!—and trace the images
that had inspired poets, that had transfixed astronomers

and physicists. The stars—that gave man a sense of how
insignificant he was, and yet how there was a grand design
to the universe. She counted herself fulfilled if, out of each
year’s eighth-graders, she could awaken a sense of wonder
at the heavens, if she could cause just one idle or errant
young boy to step outside at night and look up at the skies
and lose himself, as she did, in the infinity he beheld there.

When winter arrived she told her students to look for Orion,
the hunter, with his tri-starred belt and his sword and club.
With his two dogs, Canis Major and Canis Minor, behind him,
and Taurus the bull advancing towards him, and Lepus the hare
escaping detection at his feet–that, she always hoped,
would interest the boys, who would sometimes come to class
sleepy-eyed from a night of coon hunting with their fathers.

And yet she was lucky to catch the fancy of even one of them.
The girls would dutifully hand in their reports, with neat drawings
of the constellations, but the boys were a different story.
Some would nod off in the late afternoon, others
would stare out the window, thinking of football or basketball practice—or girls.
Some would hand in nothing, others just a half-hearted stab at
the assignment—incomplete, illegible, incomprehensible.

One day walking home from school she noticed a bulldozer and
a truck on the lot next door to her building, where a small
home sat, fallen into disrepair. What, she wondered, was in store?
Each day as she passed she saw progress in the form of demolition,
then the lot cleared, then a concrete foundation, then a garish
hamburger restaurant—little more than a metal shack–rising
from the dust, its walls bright white and glass and shiny metal.

Then the lot was paved, and lines painted, and an enormous sign
erected. Well, she thought, it might be nice to drop in there at
night some time and pick up dinner instead of cooking.
Sometimes she was tired, and just wanted to close her
eyes at the end of the day before she turned them towards the
heavens. And so she waited for the grand opening, and decided
to treat herself to a hamburger and some French fries and a

milkshake the first night. She took the food up to her apartment
and ate them at her table and thought it wasn’t bad—
not something she’d do every night, but a nice break when
she didn’t want to cook. She finished and cleaned up
and, as usual, turned off the lights and took
her place at her window to look at the stars and saw—nothing.
The lights from drive-in and the sign had turned the sky above to a
milky white instead of a deep blue, and the stars—her stars—were gone.

From “Town Folk & Country People.”

The Madwoman Who Called on My Wedding Day

She was calling, she said,
from the bowels of a library
on a college campus where she
hid each night and slept among the
stacks. She’d been living that way
for years, moving on when she was
discovered to someplace else
where she would blend in
with the scenery and pass
undetected among the young.

I heard her out. She’d reached my name
after running through the directory,
alphabetically. Apparently no one in the
a’s or b’s or any of the c’s before me
had done so. It was a strange tale she
told, how she’d been cheated  of her inheritance—
money her father had left her–
by a trustee, distant and cold,
far off in California.  She said she had no money to
live on, or even fight with, because of him.

I called the fellow, a reasonable sort.
He thanked me for my concern and
the attention I’d given his ward,
but he said she was off her drugs,
the police had been alerted.
They knew she’d come East and
were looking for her but they hadn’t
found her yet.  There were too many
libraries for her to hide in, in this
City of Books, a place such as Borges
imagined where for every

rational line there were rows of senseless
cacophony, a library that was the universe,
the librarians in suicidal despair.

I rolled over in bed to answer the phone and
heard her voice again, more desperate than before.
They were closing in, couldn’t I help? She asked.
What had the trustee said? She wouldn’t say
where she was—perhaps I’d turn her in.

I don’t recall exactly what I told her other than
to say I couldn’t help her that day;
another woman —the one who would
become my wife— was waiting for me in a church.
She was not the sort who’d tolerate a groom
who’d dare to show up late to his wedding and hers,
and so I demurred. You’ll have to try the
next name on the list, I said.

But you’re the only one who’s talked to me yet,
she said, and those words rang in my head
like overtones of plainsong, Gregorian chant
echoing in the chancel up to the apse,
as I repeated my vows, facing the light
streaming through a stained-glass window
thinking of her disordered mind, which kept
her running as I prepared to settle down.

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