Grandfathers of the Jazz Clarinet

It is hard to believe now, but three quarters of a century ago the functional equivalent of the superstars of rock guitar were–clarinet players.  Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Woody Herman were the Hendrix, Clapton and Allman of their day, and young boys eagerly subjected themselves to clarinet lessons in the hope of someday serenading swooning bobby soxers standing at the edge of a bandstand.

Benny Goodman


The white stars of swing clarinet were preceded by an earlier generation of African-American clarinetists whose contributions to the development of the instrument are now largely forgotten when the so-called “Big Band” era that made wealthy men of Goodman and other later greats is discussed.

Johnny Dodds, painting by R. Crumb


Johnny Dodds, born in 1892 in New Orleans, was the first.  He is heard on the Louis Armstrong Hot Five and Hot Seven records and, while not quite a soloist of Armstrong’s calibre (who is?), his unadorned melodic inventions and strong tone in both upper and lower registers created a mold for profitable use by those who would take up the instrument after him.

Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five


Next came Sidney Bechet, born in 1897 in New Orleans, a protean figure whose forceful sound and apparently inexhaustible store of musical ideas made him the first jazz soloist (beating Armstrong by a few months) to be noted as such.  He was such a powerful influence that practitioners of other instruments–notably Johnny Hodges on alto sax–used him as their model.

Known for his powerful vibrato (which annoyed as many as it attracted), Bechet made his recording debut with Clarence Williams in 1923, played occasionally with Armstrong, and joined an early edition of Duke Ellington’s orchestra.  For the most part, however, his ego was too big to share the stage with other soloists, and he lived the life of a jazz maverick, traveling in Europe and missing out on the swing boom of the 30’s until 1938, when his recording of Gershwin’s “Summertime” was a hit for Hugues Panassie, leading to a contract with RCA’s Bluebird label.

Sidney Bechet


Bechet was two years younger than Jimmy Noone, another New Orleans native, but he instructed his elder, who rebelled against his instructor’s teachings at least as far as vibrato was concerned, developing a smooth tone that was adopted by the white players of the swing era.

Jimmy Noone, center, with Baby Dodds on drums, and Roy Eldridge on trumpet, Three Deuces Club, Chicago, 1940


Noone moved to Chicago in 1917 and worked there steadily through the 1930s, first with Freddie Keppard’s Creole Band, then King Oliver, then Doc Cook’s Dreamland Orchestra.

Earl Hines


Noone began to lead a band in 1928 at the Apex Club that featured Earl Hines, and together they recorded for Vocalion, including an early version of ”Sweet Lorraine” (which became Noone’s theme song) and “Four or Five Times,” a genial but ribald number on which the vocally-challenged Noone duets with Hines to amusing effect.  “Four or five times,” they sing, “there’s delight, to doing things right, four or five times.”  Contrast that with the sappy and sentimental “Three Times a Lady” recorded by Lionel Richie, and you will agree that not all modern developments represent progress.

Con Chapman’s biography of Johnny Hodges, “Rabbit’s Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges,” is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

Feminist Gift-Shopping is Man’s Work

High school graduation time is here, which means that over-achieving young women across America are preparing for the next phase of their lives–matriculation (which is not as painful as it sounds) at an expensive four-year liberal arts college. One of them is the daughter of friends.

Expensive four-year liberal arts college (not shown actual size).


“We need to get a graduation gift for Alicia,” my wife said yesterday.

“Isn’t that your bailiwick?” I asked.

“She says she needs something feminist,” she replied. “Why is that?”

“At most of your better schools, it’s mandatory, sort of like the swim test,” I replied. “So the cheerful, outgoing co-captain of our state champion all-white Hip-Hop Dance Team–”

“That’s her . . . “

“First team conference All-Star in field hockey . . . “

“The same . . . “

” . . . is going to become a grim, humorless feminist?”

“I guess,” my wife said with indifference.

I was silent for a moment, taking this in.  “Well, good for her!” I replied finally. Of course, I went to college in the seventies, when a mildly insensitive comment by a male was often rewarded with verbal and physical abuse by gangs of marauding females. I learned my lesson orientation week when the most affable, outgoing guy on campus was kicked in the shins for giving the wrong answer to the litmus test riddle about the child who’s in a car accident with his father, wheeled into surgery and examined by a doctor who says “I can’t perform the operation–that’s my son.” (Hint: Some doctors are women.)

Burger: “I do not now, nor have I ever, owned a Helen Reddy album. Well, only her Greatest Hits.”

My wife, on the other hand, is eight-and-a-half years younger than me and graduated in the early eighties, when many gains sought by the feminist movement had been achieved.  Oh sure, the Equal Rights Amendment and comparable worth legislation are still a distant dream, but the right of whiny, nasal female singers like Helen Reddy to record feminist pseudo-anthems such as “I Am Woman” was affirmed by a unanimous Supreme Court, 8-0.  Chief Justice Warren Burger, a night law school graduate, abstained because his wife was a woman.

“Leave it to me,” I said reassuringly. “Shopping for feminist stuff is a man’s job!”

Jimmy’s Woodlawn Tap


I harkened back to my time on the South Side of Chicago, where I first imbibed the potent brew of radical feminism. Those were heady days; at the University of Chicago, an alumna–radical bomber Bernadine Dohrn–was on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List (take that, Ohio State!), proving that a woman could do anything a man like her future husband Bill Ayers could.

Bernadine Dohrn: Bombs away!


My pals and I would sit in Jimmy’s Woodlawn Tap, drinking Heileman’s Special Export beer, pondering the apparently unsolvable mysteries of The Second Sex (Simone de Beauvoir’s term, not mine). “Hey Jimmy,” we’d shout at the bartender, whose real name was Bill, but who had acquired his nomme de biere along with the furniture and fixtures when he bought the joint.

“What?” he’d reply, speaking in monosyllables in order to keep his overhead down.

“Settle a friendly wager for us, would you?” we’d say, and then repeat Sigmund Freud’s enduring question, “What does a woman want?”

Nat Fleischer: “Pound for pound, Emily Dickinson was the greatest feminist poet who ever lived.”


“Jimmy” would reach behind the cash register for the reference books he used to adjudicate bar bets–the Guiness Book of World Records, Nat Fleischer’s Ring Encyclopedia, The Collected Lyrics of Joni Mitchell.

“Let’s see,” he’d say as he flipped through them. “Sugar Ray Robinson, Lake Chaubunagungamaug–okay, here it is. ‘A woman must have everything.’”

The winner would accept congratulations from the house and enjoy a beer at the loser’s expense.

It was from such diligent study that I acquired a working knowledge of the best in feminist thought, which I pass on to you gratis, to make your graduation day shopping a breeze.

Non-fiction. Two classic choices, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. The first comes with some baggage of the mauvais foi (bad faith) sort; while writing her, uh, seminal work, de Beauvoir allowed Jean-Paul Sartre to boss her around like a chambermaid. Worse, she used to procure les jeunes filles for the google-eyed Sartre–and watch as they went at it.  What’s up with that? Go with La Friedan.

Anne Sexton: “Look nonchalant–like this?”


Poetry. The obvious choices here are Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton, two confessional poetesses who committed suicide. But this is poetry–you’ve got to look beneath the shimmering surface. Emily Dickinson is the Cal Ripken of feminist poetry; she goes to the ball park every day, bangs out a couplet or two, and by the end of her career has an oeuvre that, pound for pound, makes Plath and Sexton look like flyweights. To mix my sports metaphors.

Marilyn French


Fiction: Plath’s The Bell Jar is a perennial favorite, but you should also consider The Women’s Room, by Marilyn French, which sold twenty million copies. French said her modest goal in life was “to change the entire social and economic structure of Western civilization, to make it a feminist world.”  Perfect for the young woman who’s feeling sorry for herself because she missed the season finale of Grey’s Anatomy.

Drama: Irony of ironies, the greatest feminist plays have been written by men. Sort of like how the Red Sox used to trade their best players–Babe Ruth, Red Ruffing, Sparky Lyle–to the Yankees. There’s Lysistrata by Aristophanes, about the eponymous character who persuades the women of Greece to withhold sex from their husbands as a means of forcing them to end the Peloponnesian War. There’s Hedda Gabbler, by Henrik Ibsen, which is loads of laughs. And there’s Medea by Euripides. I summarize the plots of the first two plays for my wife, and am about to describe Medea to her when she gets up from the table.

“Excuse me,” she says, “I need to see whether Mr. Jock,” our wayward senior, “has finished his final assignment.” She goes to the foot of the stairs and explains “FOR THE LAST TIME, FINISH YOUR GODDAMN INTERNSHIP REPORT OR YOU WON’T GRADUATE AND I’LL BE STUCK WITH YOU HERE NEXT YEAR, WHICH BELIEVE ME I AM NOT LOOKING FORWARD TO!”

Children: They’re cute when they’re young.


She returns and I give her a synopsis of the Greek tragedy; Medea kills her husband’s lover, then their two children.

“That sounds nice,” she says. “I’ll keep it–send Alicia the other two.”

Available in Kindle format on as part of the collection “The Difference Between Men and Women.”

My Artsy-Fartsy Robot Pal

    An Art Degree Could Give You a Leg Up on the Robots

Submishmash, linking to article on Quartz

“Thanks, but I’m actually dating Julio.  And Evan.”

We were sitting in Life Drawing 101 when I noticed the new guy roll into the back of class.  He was sleek, with a steely look, although I couldn’t tell if it was actually titanium.  So many of the newer bots are composites, it’s hard to tell.

He scooted up to the drawing board next to mine and the professor ambled over and asked him if he was enrolled for credit or auditing.

“i am enrolled full-time i just haven’t gotten my course slip from the bursar’s office,” the robot buzzed through a wire mesh grill where a human’s mouth would be.

“Okay,” the professor said, “but take care of your paperwork before class meets again on Wendesday.”

“no problemo,” the new guy said.  Have to say, he didn’t sound very convincing.

“Oh, Gawd–not one of those tacky big-eyed robot paintings!”


I turned back to my work–the model was a little on the chunky side, and I don’t mean peanut butter or Campbell’s chicken soup.  She was also downright ordinary-looking, but I guess not everybody can be starving-artist skinny.  Matter of fact, I don’t remember many super-model slim types in Albrecht Durer paintings.

“Yeah, that’s uh . . . just great.”

“pretty hot, huh?” the little metal man said.  Not sure what he was trying to accomplish, but some guys are like that, they think if they talk sexy you’ll get interested in . . . sex.  I ignored him, but I kept an eye on his drawing technique.

It was terrible.  We try to be accepting and open-minded and wishy-washy here at the New England Art Institute.  You know, “Seriously, that canvas looks much better now that you put some paint on it!”–and similar self-esteem-building bullshit.  But with this guy I couldn’t fake it.

“what do you think?” he asked me after he’d made a series of big looping swoops on his pad.

“Do you want my honest opinion?” I asked.

“go ahead I’m a hunk of metal, i can take it,” the thing said in a monotone that–nonetheless–betrayed just a wee bit of vulnerability.

“If I told you you had a nice body, would you hold it against me?”

“I think you need to work on your fundamentals.  Sit in front of the TV and take the Jon Nagy Learn-to-Draw home art instruction course.  Then, after a few months, maybe you’ll be ready for . . .”

“bwah!”  I’d never seen a robot cry, but apparently they can be outfitted with artificial tear ducts that secrete saline solution under stress.

                           Jon Nagy

“Geez, don’t take it so hard,” I said.  “Not everyone is cut out to be an artist.”

“that’s why they sent me here,” the little metal artist wannabe said.

The professor came over when he heard the bot’s outburst.  “Who sent you?” he said.

“buzz off–I’m on break.”


“the guys at robot workers international union local 235,” the little guy said.  “they read an article on-line that said artistic humans have a leg up on robots when it comes to high-wage skilled jobs.”

“So you’re an interloper,” the professor said.

“i can’t help it,” the robot said.  “i face an uncertain future with you creative types horning in on the jobs that are rightfully ours to steal.”

Robot artist self-portrait.


“Look,” the professor said.  “I don’t know why you think working’s so great.  From the time you turn 16 and you’re scooping ice cream at the local soda fountain until you get that golden watch at age 65, you face nothing but drudgery every day when you get up.”

I could see the little guy’s artificial intelligence running through an infinite range of possibilities.  “so if i don’t like to work,” he said finally, “what do you recommend?”

“Simple,” the instructor said.  “Become a professor.”

What We Talk About When We Talk About Photosynthesis

Minimalist/realist short-story writer Raymond Carver was fired from his job as an editor of science textbooks because of his inappropriate writing style.


Photosynthesis is an important process. I mean it’s extremely important. It’s the source of food for almost all organisms on earth. Except for Doreen, my wife, who lives on cheese curls and diet soda except when we have company over. Which isn’t all that often. Her brother, Floyd, won’t eat vegetables at all. Calls them “rabbit food.”

Plant photosynthesis is the dominant form of photosynthesis on our planet. There’s photosynthesis carried on by bacteria, but it’s not nearly as important. Maybe it’s important to the dirt under Chef’s finger nails. I don’t know. I’ve never been there, and I don’t want to go. Chef is the fry cook at the place where Doreen is a waitress. I don’t think he washes his hands before returning to work from the rest room.

Man depends on photosynthesis for both food and non-edible plant products, like wood for shelter and fiber for warmth. We had this little wood-frame house when we were first married. It wasn’t much, but we wouldn’t have had it at all if it weren’t for photosynthesis.


I had Avogadro’s number but I lost it, so I started asking around to see if anybody else had it. I asked Naomi, the woman I’d been going out with for a while. “Do you have Avogadro’s number?” I asked.

“Why do you ask?” she said.

“No reason. No reason at all.”

“Why do you need the number of an Italian physicist who originated the hypothesis that equal volumes of gases, under the same pressure and temperature conditions, contain the same number of molecules?”

“I’m not suspicious,” I said. “I just need his number.”

Avogadro: You know his name, look up the number.

She gave me a look, then pulled a matchbook from her purse. She opened it up and handed it to me. “Here-here it is. 6 X 10 to the 23rd power,” it said on the inside, right under “Close cover before striking.”

I looked down at the matchbook, then back up at her. How did I know this was the number of molecules per gram molecular weight of a substance, and not some phony-baloney number she’d cooked up?

“Thanks,” I said. “Thanks a lot.”

“Don’t mention it,” she said. “Don’t mention it at all.”


I wanted to get out of Wapato, wanted to get out bad. There was a flag stop where you could catch a bus, but what good would that do you? It only went as far as Moxee, then came back, like running in a circle. I needed to get to Yakima, where I could catch a flight out.

I asked my sister to take me to Yakima, but she had to work. I wasn’t about to take a cab all that way–it was 15 miles-so I had to ask my wife.

“Why do you need to go to Yakima?” my wife asked. I couldn’t tell her.

“It’s the principle of the thing,” I said.

“What principle?”

Bernoulli: It’s the principle of the thing.

“Bernoulli’s Principle.  You wouldn’t understand.”

She mashed her cigarette down into the sink. “Like hell I wouldn’t. See that?” she said.


“How I used the energy of a stationary mass to exert a downward push.”


“So? So you’re talking about how fluid pressure is reduced whenever the speed of flow is increased.” She was angry.

I just sat there, taking it in.

“You don’t have anything to say?” she said finally.

I drank the last of my coffee. “You got me,” I said.

She looked out the window over the sink. “Go on, go.”

“I don’t want to go,” I said, trying to calm her down. “But the difference in speed of flow causes a lower pressure on the upper surface of a wing. It results in an upward force, or lift.”

“That doesn’t help me,” she said.

“It can take us away from here.”

“Just get out.”

“It’s better this way,” I said.

She turned her back to me, and I stared at the kitchen wall, marveling at the wonders of science that surround us. We don’t even know they’re there most of the time.

Available in Kindle format on as part of the collection “Dead Writers Make More Money.”

Raymond Carver, Poet of the Short Story

Today is the 79th anniversary of Raymond Carver’s birth.  Carver, who died at the age of 50 in 1988, was a writer who produced poems that were like short stories, and short stories that read like poems.  He probably didn’t lengthen his time on earth by the heavy drinking that he indulged in until the last decade of his life, when he seemed to find peace.

Carver grew up in a working-class home in Washington; his father was an alcoholic mill worker, his mother sometimes a waitress and retail clerk.  He was married in 1957 at the age of 19 to a 16-year-old girl.  They had a daughter six months later and a son the next year.  Carver worked as a janitor, sawmill laborer, library assistant and delivery man.  His wife worked as a waitress, teacher, salesperson and administrative assistant.

As a boy he had been an avid reader of Mickey Spillane mysteries and outdoors magazines.  He became interested in writing in his twenties and began to take creative writing courses; he eventually received a bachelor’s degree from Humboldt State College in California.  With a degree, he was hired as a textbook editor, the first job he’d ever had that allowed him to work with words; he was fired after three years as his writing style was understandably unsuited to the genre of the science textbook.

Carver’s writing didn’t appear in print until he was in his thirties, and then under the humble auspices of a college literary club.  Carver’s first short story collection, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, was published in 1976, when he was thirty-eight.  It struck many readers as spare and unfinished, like the interior of the hunting and fishing cabins he had spent much time in over the years.  Some critics stuck the “minimalist” label on him, but there is some dispute as to whether the style was truly his, or imposed upon him by Gordon Lish, his editor at the time.  After a bit of a struggle over copyright, the stories collected in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love have been re-published in their original, unedited form, so that readers can see where Carver would have gone without the bit and bridle of Lish’s editing.

Raymond Carver and Tess Gallagher

I heard Carver read once before he died, in 1981 when What We Talk About was first published.  He had an unimposing presence, better suited to the many low-wage jobs he’d held over the years than the mantle of literary lion, compared to Hemingway and Chekhov, that he assumed at the end of his life.  He had a faint voice and autographed copies of his second collection without ceremony, as if he were still somewhat surprised to find that, after all the years of scuffling, he’d produced something that a roomful of admirers at the other end of the continent in Boston would turn out for.

In an interview, Carver was once asked how he found time and the will to write during his years of obscurity, when he had to work long hours to make ends meet.  His response was that he would take scraps of paper and a pencil with him wherever he went, and would use every spare moment–waiting for his wash in a laundromat was one example he gave–to write something, if only the thoughts running through his head, or an inchoate idea for a short story he was trying to shape.

Carver is buried in Port Angeles, Washington.  Two poems are inscribed on his head stone, Gravy and the following, Late Fragment:

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

A Day in the Life of a Public Access TV Cop

As I drained the dregs of coffee from my Styrofoam cup, I stared out the window at the non-descript parking lot below and let my mind wander.  Let’s see, only 801 days until retirement, not that I’m counting or anything, if–and it’s a big if–I don’t get killed on the job first.

State-of-the-art facility.

Perhaps sensing my sense of inner unrest, my long-time partner Mike Walzick spoke.  “Penny for your thoughts?”

“You can afford to give two cents,” I said.  “It’s fully deductible to the extent permitted by federal law, so you should gross-up and give the taxable equivalent.”

He laughed at my mordant commentary on the impecunious industry in which we labored to earn our daily bread.  As we like to say around the Public Access Television Police Station, the pay may be lousy, but at least the work stinks.

“You’re on,” Mike said.  “I got lucky in the parking lot today.”  He reached in his pocket and tossed two pennies on my desk.  “I’m gonna need a receipt.”

I sighed at the futility of it all, then began to unburden myself.  “You know what it’s like.  The late-night stake-outs to see if the host of ‘Nose on Nonantum’ actually resides within the city limits of our little burg, and thus qualifies for membership in Nonantum Community Access comma Inc.,” I said, taking care to sound out the full legal name of our little public-educational-government TV station.  “Much more than Wayne’s World!” was our motto, and we meant it, but we couldn’t deliver the high-quality public access television our viewers had come to expect if we allowed deadbeats to move out of our high-tax suburb and mooch off the fruits of our premium cable revenues from some loser town where people were allowed to–God forbid–park their cars on the street overnight and wear t-shirts on the public tennis courts!

“I hear ya pal,” Mike said, not surprisingly since he was only maybe five feet away in our cramped constabulary quarters.  “Every night when I come home and my kids come runnin’ to greet me, I tousle their hair and dandle them on my knees thinkin’–you got to treasure every moment with ’em, cause you never know when somebody’s gonna bust a cap on you ’cause you terminated them for using our non-profit equipment to tape somebody’s wedding or bar mitzvah for money.”

“Our next guest on ‘Guys You Wouldn’t Want to Date’ decided to wear shorts for some reason.”

“Don’t I know it,” I said, shaking my head ruefully.  I knew whereof he spoke–in spades.  I had just completed the most dangerous assignment of my career, terminating a “member”–those are quotation marks of dubiety–who’d been using his mother’s address for years, even though he had long since moved out of town.  The guy used every excuse in the book, ranging from “you didn’t send my membership cancellation letter certified mail, return receipt requested,” to “We have a family membership.”  When we finally got his mom to come to the phone, she said she’d thrown him out of the house years ago because he’d fallen in with a bad crowd–he’d become a professor at Tufts.

But the guy–I’m going to call him “Schimmer” because that’s his name–decided he wanted to appeal all the way up to the Supreme Court of NonantumTV; the full Board of Directors.  This means not only do I got to make the collar, I got to come in on my day off and testify against the mook.

“It’s time once again for Popular Potted Plants!”

“State your case,” the Chairman said, and Schimmer rose to his full 5’8″ height.  He had the look of the tweedy miscreant that I knew him to be; sport coat with leather elbow patches, scraggly beard, those ugly suede shoes the professoriate thinks are so cool.

“Thank you, your honor,” the dweeb said.  “Tonight I will lay out for you,” he began after clearing his throat, “a case of such unbelievable perfidy, such arbitrary and capricious behavior . . .”

“We got a big crowd tonight, you only got five minutes,” the chair reminded him. “I’d cut down on the adjectives if I were you.”

“Thank you, your honor.”  I noticed a few beads of flop sweat break out on his forehead; he was going to be at a distinct disadvantage since he didn’t have the power to hand out bad grades to his audience for the first time in a long while.

“I have been a dues-paying member of NonantumTV for many, many years,” he said, and I got up on my hind legs to interrupt.

“Objection,” your honors.  “His mother pays her dues, but he don’t live with her.”

“Is that true, Mr. Schimmer?” the chair asked.

“My mother and I have broken up due to irreconcilable differences,” Schimmer said.  “Still, I am family, and . . .”

“I don’t see how that’s relevant,” said the vice chair of the board.  “If you don’t live in Nonantum, you can’t be a member.”

“But I still get my mail there,” Schimmer said, “due to the peripatetic nature of my job.”

“If you’re peripatetic, where’s your wheelchair?” the chairman asked.

“Not paraplegic, peripatetic means I have to move around a lot.  I’m an adjunct professor, I never know where I’ll be working from one semester to the next.”

“Your honor,” I said.  “We have evidence that the appellant has been living in Somerville for over five years.”

“Somerville, Nonatum, it’s a straight shot down the MassPike–what difference does it make?” Schimmer said with the sort of smug expression our local intelligentsia gets on their faces when they’re trying to put one over on a decent, hard-working law enforcement officer such as myself.

“I’ll tell you what difference it makes,” I said, trying to keep my rage on a low blue flame.  “You got cable giants coming into this town, bringing us great programming without the snow storms we used to get when we had to depend on rabbit ears back in the day.”

“There–either the winter or the summer Olympics is coming in just fine!”


“Big deal,” the professor said.  “Everybody’s got cable these days.”

“‘Everybody’s got cable,'” I said with a mirthless little grin.  “But not everybody’s entitled to use the facilities of NonantumTV, which the cable companies pay for with the hard-earned money they make off the people of our town.  They’re the ones who are entitled to narrowcast their crappy public affairs shows, or sing Peter, Paul & Mary medleys, or bloviate about their model car collections on cable TV, to the embarrassment of their families.  Not carpet-bagging interlopers like Mr. Schimmer here.”

I glanced over at the itinerant academic, and for the first time saw just the hint of a trace of a simulacrum of embarrassment on his face.  I let my words hang heavy in the air, waiting for him to respond, knowing we had him dead to rights, and there was nothing he could say.

“Well, your honors,” he began finally, “perhaps I have been less than candid in my dealings with your fine local cable access channel, which is responsible for some of the most engaging, informative programming . . .”

“Put a sock in it professor,” the chair said, “unless you’re going to throw yourself on the mercy of this distinguished court.”

Those harsh words made him realize the jig was up.  “If it please the court,” he began again a bit sheepishly, “before you throw me out, I would like to get one of those cool tote bags.”




Father Kniest, Jazz Priest

I’m getting too old for this, I thought as I made my way down Boylston Street, my tambourine in one hand, the Good Book in the other. I started ministering to the jazz scene in Boston back when Estelle Slavin and Her Swinging Brunettes were the house band at Izzy Ort’s Coney Island Club on Essex Street. Floogie Williams and the Unquenchables were ensconced at the Tip-Top Lounge, which didn’t sit well with the sconces that came with the place as trade fixtures, but so what? We were young and crazy for jazz—we didn’t care.


But now I’m closing in on eighty, and eighty’s looking over its shoulder, nervous as hell. I’ll catch it soon enough–if I don’t die first.

Back in ‘55 I was just out of the seminary and was assigned by my religious order—the Congregation of the Hep—to Boston, one of the most Catholic cities in America, and always viewed as nothing more than a stepping stone. Cats in Boston lived in an existential no-man’s-land; always doubting whether they were any good as long as they stayed in Beantown instead of moving on the Big Apple. To them, I was Father Kniest—Jazz Priest.

Like The Disgruntled Threesome—“Buzzy” Drootin, Sparky Tomasetti, Cas Brosky. Man, those guys could swing. The name was facetious, of course; if you came into Wally’s Wigwam in a disgruntled mood, those guys would have you completely gruntled by the time they’d finished “Muskrat Ramble” the second time.

totem pole

But all that’s in the past, in the semi-glory days of Boston jazz. Now, I’m reduced by fifty years—a half century!—of rock, folk, disco and rap to trying to save a few forlorn souls from eternal damnation.

I pass by a soprano sax player in Dewey Square, or “Financial Center” as some urban planning goober decided to re-brand it in the 80’s. He’s playing “Chim Chim Cheree,” among other schmaltz-laden Disney tunes. I know the guy’s just trying to survive, but so are the hookers down on lower Washington Street—that don’t make it right.

I step out of the herd of faceless commuters making their way to South Station for the train ride to the suburbs, and pull a $5 bill from my pocket. The man says “thank you” without taking his mouth off his reed so he can keep the cash flowing, but I dangle the sawbuck in front of his face without letting it drop to let him know I’ve got something I need to say to him.

“I need to talk to you, man,” I say, and he finally stops playing.

“Really, thanks a lot, I . . .”

“You don’t get it,” I say with the seething demeanor Jesus must have taken on right before he threw the money changers out of the temple.


“I’m paying you to stop . . . not keep going.”

sax monkey
“Blow Sax Monkey, blow!”


“But . . . I won’t make any more money that way.”

“Yes you will, if you’ll stop playing that crap and switch to something worth the breath it takes to play it.”

“Like what?”

“If you play ‘Cherokee’ there’s another fin in the wallet where this one came from.”

His eyes light up. “Heck YEAH, man,” he says, and he launches into a creditable rendition of the Ray Noble classic. I drop two fives into his instrument case, nod my head as I give him a look of commendation, and I’m off to rescue another frail reed about to break beneath the burden of a culture that doesn’t appreciate his art.

It’s over to La Fisherie, an upscale restaurant in “Copley Place.” I can only shake my head at that solecism. Copley Square was already a place, the aorta of the heart of Boston jazz. It was here that Leonard “Dizzie” Groot joined forces with Bunny “Fred” Buchanan and Tommy “Flip” Phlegman to come thisclose to getting a contract with Verve that coulda shoulda woulda made them stars in the same constellation as The Dorsey Brothers.

jazz band

But no. A cold sore hampered Bunny/Fred the night the A&R man from New York came to town to hear The Jazz Nocturnals at Mert’s Playland; by the second set his lip was bleeding and he could barely manage “In the Mood.” The guy from the record company got lost on the subway, like Charlie on the MTA. He didn’t know that there’s no inbound/outbound transfer at Copley, and he didn’t know that you pronounce the name of the place with a short “o”; it’s COP-ley as in “Cheez it—the cops!”–not COPE-ley, as in “I can’t cope with you any more, Laverne.”

There’s still one jazz venue left in the Square; the somnolent, soporific Swank Room in the basement of a Class B hotel where a Red Sox relief pitcher took his own life back in the 50’s, setting off a massive manhunt on the part of the ball club’s management to recover his $3.50 per day meal money.

I tread gently down the dimly-lighted steps and see a scene that would break any self-respecting jazz man’s heart; there’s four, maybe five tables occupied, one by Lydia Tournquest, “society” columnist for The Back Bay Schooner, a relic of a bygone era before the MassPike made it easy to commute to the suburbs and drained the city of adults with a recollection of what jazz once sounded like and the pocket money to pay for it.

On the bandstand is Wilson “Chet” Forskett, a Berklee student who’s wailing on alto sax; he’s chasing the Bird, playing an easy-swinging “Yardbird Suite” with enough invention to keep you listening while still tapping your feet to the Kansas City beat. I’m almost ready to get excited—is this the Second Coming of Boston Jazz?—when he ends on a mellow note and draws scattered applause.

girl singers

Down front a mismatched couple—he’s wearing a toupee, her burgeoning breasts are about to spill out of her scoop neck—takes it all in with a knowing, somewhat superior air. Why not? They sprang for the $19.95 Veal Scallopini Avec Porcini Mushrooms—the name of the dish is like a mini-United Nations Security Council.

They put their hands together in restrained admiration—probably don’t want to get the kid’s hopes up for a tip—and the woman speaks.

“Excuse me,” she says to the sax man.

“Yes?” he replies.

“Do you know Lady—by Kenny Rogers?”

The young man bites his lower lip but not, I think, because he can’t recall the changes.

“No ma’am,” I’m afraid we don’t.” I know what he’s thinking: he’s drunk the milk of Paradise, like the man in Coleridge’s Kubla Khan—the paradigm shifting music of bebop; he’s not going back to Classic Country.

“Aww, that’s a shame,” the woman says. I think I’ve got these two figured out. Mr. Hair Club for Men is her boss, she’s his secretary. How—sordid!

“Sorry,” the budding jazz man says.

“You should learn it,” the woman says. “It’s really beautiful!”

I see the kid’s neck stiffen; he’s trying to keep from shaking his head.

“Well, uh, sheet music is expensive,” he says.

“That’s okay—I can hum it for you, and you can fake it,” the woman says. She clears her throat—shoulda got that flu shot, I think to myself—takes her long-stemmed red rose in hand and begins to emote.

“Lady,” she sings in a husky contralto, “I’m your knight in shi-i-ning armor!”

“Stop!” I yell as I make my way down front. “Stop it before you infect this young man with whatever pop virus has corrupted your brain!”


“Hey—don’t talk to her like dat!” the man says. Now that I’m up close, I see that I’ve judged him unfairly; his hair’s real, only it’s combed over from a point just above one ear all the way over to the other. He looks like a Georgia cotton field infected with kudzu.

“I’m a man of the cloth, pal. I’m deputized by a higher power to save jazzmen’s souls from the lures and wiles and temptations of bad taste.”

I have bad taste?” the woman says. Apparently no one’s ever leveled with her before.

“Abso-freaking-lutely,” I say, drawing myself up to my full 5’10” height.

“I thought the rule was ‘Cha-koon o sone gout’,” the man says. “To each his own.”

“Nope,” I reply with authority. “There are certain immutable laws of beauty, and your ‘lady’ here is a veritable one-woman aesthetic crime wave.”

“How do you know she’s got bad taste?” the man asks, a bit miffed at my condescension.

“Easy,” I say. “She’s with you.”

This story originally appeared in Jerry Jazz Musician.