The Last Days of Joe Oliver

They don’t know exactly where he was born;
it was either New Orleans or a plantation
outside of town.  His date of birth is a


shifting signpost as well.  It could have been
1885, or earlier, or later.  Jazzmen would move
the date up so people wouldn’t think they were

moldy old figs, or move it back to show that
that they were there at the beginning, in the
Garden of Eden, when jazz was created.


He lost his left eye when he still in his teens,
in a fight.  He started on trombone, switched
to cornet, and soon you could hear him shaking

the blackberry leaves as he played in funeral
parades.  By the time he was fifteen he was
touring in a brass band, but he was known

in the cabarets as well.  That’s where he came
to be called “King” Oliver, after he cut
Freddie Keppard one night in Storyville.


He lit out for Chicago, then California,
then back to Chicago when his gold rush
to the coast didn’t pan out.  He formed

the Creole Jazz Band to play in a swank
ballroom with a crystal ball on the ceiling.
In the spotlight, he wanted to do it right.

He assembled a tight band of New Orleans
natives, but he felt there was still something
missing.  He wired home for Louis Armstrong.


His former apprentice joined the band and,
as if by telepathy, they played in unison, long
cornet lines, seemingly improvised on the spot.

They had a system, Louis said, he and Papa Joe,
but they never wrote out their duet breaks.  They
didn’t have to, they were so wrapped up together.

It wasn’t long before apprentice surpassed his master,
and went out on his own.  Papa Joe started the
Dixie Syncopators, and began to play arrangements–

the duets by osmosis came to an end.  Joe Oliver
still wore the crown, but his kingdom had been
usurped.   His teeth, essential to his embouchure,

started to go; after a while he couldn’t play at all.
He moved to Savannah, where he worked as the
janitor in a pool room and at a fruit stand.  He was


the real King of Jazz, not the white man Whiteman,
but he was now a pauper.  One day Louis passed
through town with his orchestra and saw his mentor.

“No tears,” Louis said, “just glad to see us.”  Louis
gave him $150 he had in his pocket; the others—Joe’s
former employees—chipped in what they could.

That night, playing a dance, Louis looked over in the
wings and there was Papa Joe, looking sharper now,
not like a pool hall janitor pushing a broom in his

shirtsleeves.  Louis left town with his band and
later heard that Joe ended up cleaning out cuspidors.
When he died they thought it was a heart attack, but not

Louis, who said the King died of a broken heart.

The Master of the Air

He was, the local newspaper said, a man of vision.
It was he who had seen, back when no one else did,
that even a small town could have its own TV and
radio stations.  He’d been around—Kansas City,
St. Louis.  He knew how to do it, and he got it done.
You could see his handiwork from miles away—
the lights on his tower gleaming in the night.

He was smooth, his dark hair slicked back, and
always well dressed.  He was a booster—if you
believed in our little town, you’d advertise your
business on his stations, and everybody would prosper.
He belonged to all the clubs: Optimist, Rotary, Lions,
Moose and Elk.  He knew the value of getting out
there, shaking hands, being a regular guy.

Some nights he’d look down the boulevard on which he
lived with his wife and admire what he had built;
the square brick studio with the shining glass front,
green, red and blue lights making it glow from behind.
Overhead, reaching almost into the clouds, was the spire
of steel and lights.  You didn’t need to be in a big city;
it was a big country, and you could reach it through the air.

He thought of it as magic, but magic that he understood,
the way a magician knows about the hidden compartments
in his hat and trunks.  All it took was power and equipment;
if you had those, as he did, you could broadcast your sonorous
voice to places you’d never seen and never would see.
You could send your image to other towns and other states.
He was the master of the air, and the waves that ran through it.

When he’d arrive to broadcast from a hardware store opening,
he’d be greeted like a god you’d read about in a sacred text.
“It’s the man from TV,” someone would say, and he’d say
“Howdy—glad to meet you!” with a smile on his face.
He started looking for new sites for new stations.  If he
could do it once, he could do it twice, he thought, then
again, until he’d be master of all the air he surveyed.

He lived with his wife and their little daughter, the joy
of his life.  She was a happy little girl who loved to dress
in frilly clothes.  She was, they knew, the only one they
would ever have, and for that reason all the more precious.
He would swing her high above his head when he got home,
and she would laugh.  Then she started having seizures, and
his wife said maybe he should stop—maybe it would help.

He did, and the little princess of the air was grounded.
“Daddy, swing me,” she would say, but he would say
no, I don’t want you to get excited again.  “But I like to
get excited,” she would say, and so he would take her and
rock her in his arms, singing to her she was daddy’s girl,
daddy’s girl, daddy loves his daddy’s girl.  She would calm
down as he slowed down, and he’d carry her up to bed.

The business grew, and with it the demands on his time.
He had to spend time with advertisers, or fill in for his
newscaster, who was also the high school volleyball
coach, when he was away on a road trip.  He resented
it, but it was the price he had to pay for success, he
told himself.  If the girl was asleep when he got home,
the agreement was he’d leave her be, she needed the rest.

One night he came home to find his wife waiting for him
at the door, a look of panic on her face.  “She’s having
a seizure,” she said.  “We’ve got to get her to the hospital.”
He rushed inside, slipped his arms under the girl, and held
her while his wife threw a blanket over her.  He ran out
the front door but, before he even reached his car, he
felt her kick one last time, and the life go out of her.

In his arms, as he ran, she became dead weight.  He had
heard the term before, but he felt it now.  She was unliving,
like a fifty-pound sack of grain, and a burden he could
hardly bear.  He almost stumbled but he made it to the car,
where he rested her on the trunk; less a body than an object.
He looked up to where the tower stood, and thought of what
had gone out of her; the breath of life, the buoyancy of air.

From “Town Folk & Country People.”

The Last Beach Heather

At the end of each summer they would cross
Uncle Tim’s Bridge in Wellfleet and clip some
beach heather—sea lavender, some people
call it. Soft, pink-purple flowers, that
she would dry upside down and then put
in a pitcher or a vase, to give some color
to the apartment over a grey Boston
winter, as a remembrance of summer.

One winter it wasn’t enough, and he moved out.
There were periodic attempts to reconcile
but he had settled down, and she still
wanted to be wild in her ways, to prolong
their bohemian days. Never one to save,
she’d spend her paycheck on a harpsichord
concert, or violin lessons for herself, still
a beginner at twenty-five.

He laughed at that behind her back,
but she laughed too, at the dinners
they had to go to now, where the laughs
were poured out in miserly fashion like
the more-expensive wine they drank now;
Instead of manic tears flowing down their
cheeks, each little titter was weighed and
savored; good God, she said one night,

I hope we don’t grow old like that!
But he saw nothing wrong with the men
who’d given him a job that paid the rent
at the lovely little terrace apartment
she said was what she’d dreamed of
for so many years in the woods of
Connecticut. He reminded her of
that one night; love isn’t logical, though,

and that was the end of that. She moved
to a garrett on the back side of Beacon Hill
where the sun seemed never to shine, while
he moved to the sunny side of the street in
the Back Bay. Eventually he met and wooed
and won a woman more like the man he’d become
and they went to Wellfleet, where he wanted to
show her where the beach heather grew.

They crossed the bridge, and he was bending over
to clip a sprig at the end of the summer, just as
he had before, when a voice called out to him:
“This is the National Seashore—you’re not
supposed to cut any plants,” a woman said.
He stood up and turned around, and yelled out
“But I’ve been doing this for years.”
“Well, you never should have, so stop now.”

Not one to break the law now, he put the clippers
back in his pocket. They crossed the bridge,
got in their car and drove home. On the way
they bought some beach heather—
and much more–at a cute gift shop that
his wife had spied. Things, he thought,
that were free before, were now bought
at a high price, and came wrapped in bags.

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.


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?


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.


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


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


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


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


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


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,


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.


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.


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


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.


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


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.


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