When I was a kid my father renovated the bath in our 1847 Greek Revival in Newton Corner, pulling down an old ‘servant’s’ staircase, and part of the ceiling. An odd space was revealed between the floors, just big enough for someone to lie down in. It was later related to me that this was likely a hiding space for run-away slaves to put up in overnight, a stop on the Underground Railroad to Canada. A lot of houses in Newton from that period had them.
A used furniture basement on Mass Ave in Cambridge, about where Stereo Jacks is now. While my mother browsed for objects d’art I quickly ferreted out a box of shellac records from under some complex cast iron patio stands and worked my way through. Hm, “Shirt Tail Stomp” by the Kentucky Grasshoppers on Banner, that oughta be good, and what’s this? Holy Cow, “Shim-Me-Sha-Wobble” by McKinney’s Cotton Pickers—the real deal! An elaborate Chrysler Building of an arrangement, full of stops and starts, rococo flourishes, atmospheric interludes— inventive use of dynamics, voicings and colorations plus hot solos, a real early big band masterpiece. Now I gotta get these by the troll of an owner who presides over this mess, of gimlet eye and avaricious temperament. I pull a dummy decoy stack of random wax and approach. ‘How much for these?’ He slowly passes through the records, pausing at each as if he knew anything at all about them; all he knew was that I had chosen them. “A dollar each.” I then produced the stack I actually wanted. “Then these should be what, 50 cents?” Cornered! It only dawned on me later that I couldn’t pull that again.
Jelly Roll Morton may have invented Jazz in 1902, but in 1964 when I was twelve, I was hot on the trail. A small scholarly obsessive, intent on tracing the thing back to its roots, diving in to the very entrails of antiquity to emerge with some mythical 78 depicting—what? the moment when jazz first crystalized from the ragtime ethers? I knew the standard chronologies but was convinced that something had been missed, that if only I dug deep enough into the primordial wax deposits I could discover stuff everyone else had missed—Holy Grail!—I felt like a combination Indiana Jones and Alan Lomax—and in my way I may have come close... it was an interesting sort of excavation, a way of finding out about the world. Most of these things happened between the ages of ten and thirteen, sometimes much earlier.
Once I had the virus, I approached the task with the fervor of Champollion trying to crack hieroglyphics, or any epigrapher on the trail of a Mayan codex.
My interest in early jazz had been simmering for a while, but first I was obsessed with old records.
My dad was a contractor and in the process of clearing out a house brought home a box of 78s—I was maybe five, 1957—I recall going through them with my grandfather on the cold grey boards of the attic of our Greek revival house... mostly ‘teens and ‘20s corn—‘The Little Red School House’, on Grey Gull—“when you and I were just a couple of kids”—male duet, tacky as suet, “Oh, By Jingo!” by Frank Crumit: “we’ll have a lot of little oh-by-golly’s, and we’ll put ‘em all in the Follies!”—‘Submarine Attack’, a bit of patriotic gore by the Peerless Quartet from the Great War... “he’s blown to pieces!” “HOORAY!”... amongst this appalling dross was a curio by Handy’s Orchestra of Memphis from 1917—even then I wondered at the wild disarray of the music, like a whirlwind in a drafty barn— “Livery Stable Blues,” in fact, and “That Jazz Dance”—a dim cacophony with all sorts of things flying around in the music, and a lot of instruments I couldn’t quite place, imitations of animals in the breaks and syncopated figures flying at odd angles like shingles tossed out the window into a vacant lot—years later I realized they were E-flat alto horns—a sort of dwarf sousaphone—saxophones, fiddles and clarinets scarcely distinguishable—a ramshackle rhythm cobbled together from xylophones and stripped-down traps—a wheezy cello—a pale cornet far back in the action reading out the text, stoic, imperturbable (Handy himself), a trombone nattering out rag figures, the shattered ghost of a piano—all with mad esprit de corps, organized abandon, mysterious, almost medieval, a peasant jig from Breughel. I was intrigued, I felt they were trying to tell me something. It was one of the earliest representations of black southern dance-band music on record. Something in the music opens a sort of portal, sounds bounced off the future and returned as prophetic dream-theatre, a Paul Klee déjà vu...
I guess it must have been Henry Schwartz who first hipped me to Cuz Faulkner’s, the great painter who was also a fanatical collector of classical 78s of the ‘VivaTonal’ era of early electric recording—the fervency of the performances, the depth and presence of the early dynamic mics of the late 1920s—after which the recorded arts had slipped into its decadence, never to recover. His sensibility was strictly Romantic to early Modern, mostly Beethoven to Bruckner; Stravinsky was okay but Mahler was the apotheosis. His vast symphonic canvasses celebrated his great heroes Mahler, Stravinsky, Oscar Wilde, Joyce, Proust and the symphony orchestra, often depicting himself conducting, megalomaniacally. Occasionally I would be the recipient of cast off records from his collection, Bruno Walter conducting Das Lied Von Der Erde as the Nazis marched into Vienna, the original 78 of the first noise recording: Slonimsky conducting Varese’s “Ionisation” in 1934, whatever he thought I might dig. He dismissed jazz out of hand as self-evidently inferior music, infra dig, hardly worth attacking, kinda like Adorno’s dismissal of swing as commercial tripe. He was still staving off the specter of Bunny Berrigan, residue of a running argument with a roommate in the ‘30s. We skirmished for years on the subject, finally coming to a truce when I played the folk melody card, getting both Beethoven and Bartok into my tent through the back flap.
Earlier, when I was maybe ten, I had gone with him on expeditions to ‘Morgie’s’—Morgan Memorial, a Goodwill-type shambles on E. Berkeley Street in the South End. It was there that he committed a great subversive act by handing me a copy of Spike Jones & his City Slickers’ recording of “A Holiday For Strings b/w Hawaiian War Chant”—they were a mash-up of madcap comedy and corny but infectious Dixieland jazz. The combination was vivid & explosive, but the jazz element seemed to have catalyzed something.
My dear old mom is someone who can also cop principal blame. Tuned into the big band dance pop and swing of the day, she soon stumbled into the real deal, ‘authentic’ classic small band jazz. A girlfriend of hers also went with Nat Hentoff, when they lived in Dorchester in the late ‘30s—he was already a macher on the jazz scene, writing columns for the papers and spinning wax on WMEX. He became a sort of jazz guru for their set, leading safaris to the Savoy Cafe in South Boston to see Billie and Basie, and record buying expeditions to Boston Music Co, hepping them to the reissues of ‘20s classics just coming out for ‘collectors’, the Louis Hot 5, Bessie Smith, King Oliver, Ellington, Benny Goodman, Frank Teschemacher, in addition to the latest sides by Billie, Count, Duke, and knocked-out little 52nd St combinations with Chu Berry, Coleman Hawkins, Art Tatum, Roy Eldridge, Charlie Shavers. These were my kiddy records, c. 1957, after I’d burned through the regulation pile of insipid Little Golden Records. They’d stack ‘em up and I sucked ‘em down on bored, rainy afternoons. But this was something else, this was infamous! What the fuck were these people singing about? The fierce emotionalism of the music invaded my mind. “I’d rather drink muddy water, sleep in a hollow log, than be up here in New Yawk, treated like a dirty dog,” sang Jack Teagarden. “Oh, hot dog!” vamped Mezz. WHAT? “If your house catch on fire, lawd, ain’t no water round—throw your trunk out the window, let the dog-gone shack burn down.” Would he really? WHY?? Mysteries abounded. Years passed, and though I thought little about them, like radiation, I’d already taken on a fateful dose.
After my Spike Jones phase when I would listen to Any Old Record, I began gradually to discern that some were indeed better than others. When I was about eleven, I decided to play through my mom’s collection, most of which I hadn’t heard since I was five... the reconnection with my early memory of the music created a powerful linkage, like a collect call to the unconscious mind—the effect was catalytic—I realized I had most of this music already inside of me, and was now able to hear and be aware of it almost three-dimensionally, and invoke it in my head at will.
I set about reading up on the stuff—there was a certain amount at hand, my folks had Hentoff & Shapiro’s great oral history “Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya”, the Newton library had Delaunay’s Hot Discography, and I sucked up the data, hacking into neural circuits any less-odd boy would normally have employed for memorizing baseball stats. Jazz New Orleans, 1947, a pictorial survey of the Crescent City jazz scene of that time, completely fascinating, with shots of marching bands, cabaret ensembles beneath giant fans, musicians slouching in slanted light through weathered doorways. Our 1929 Britannica had an article analyzing Red Nichols’ solo on his record of Washboard Blues. I sucked up Condon’s Anthology, Max Kaminsky’s My Life In Jazz (turned out he had been a waiter at my grandparents’ summer resort in Gloucester, 1927), and evidently Hoagy Charmichael’s memoir, as I seem to have memorized the dada fables of his pal Moenkhaus, which I would recite to potential co-conspirators as a sort of absurdist consciousness test, amusing myself if no one else. Keepnews and Grauer’s epic Pictorial History of Classic Jazz put faces on the legends, and Feather’s Encyclopedia of Jazz answered a lot of biographical questions.
My Thomas Edison phase. Coming right after my FBI phase (so that’s how the counterfeiters do it!) and my Illuminated Manuscript phase (kindly have a case of Yoo-hoo delivered to the scriptorium). The whole idea of capturing sound waves seemed near-magical, yet tactile. I set about constructing a clap-trap apparatus in my bedroom, employing a cardboard Red Sox popcorn cone as recording horn, a balsa arm-balance with string and spool tracking mechanism, and announced to the imaginary masses, with Barnumesque flourish that the miracle of recorded sound was now open for demonstration! My mother spoiled my sport by noting that I was merely re-creating, not inventing, but still. A chunk of flexi disc served as the cutting point. Aluminum foil did not have the ductility of the old tin foil, and ripped. Thick, waxy freezer paper worked best. If you yelled into the horn, with luck a word or phrase might emerge on playback: “I am now speak—” “—alloo! hallooo!!” “with astonishing fidel...” Though the effect was startling and magical—almost no one had tape recorders yet—Chalfonic Recording was not about to take the world by storm. Proof of concept, anyway.
I was in sixth grade, growing crystals on charcoal, pretty colors. That experiment would have to wait. We were sent home, wondering about the rip in the sky that had suddenly appeared, exposing weird constellations. Thought I might as well stop by the home of my mother’s friend Irma, who told me she had some records that had belonged to her mother. She said I could look through them and take what I wanted. Box in a coat closet: stack of maybe fifty 78s, all near mint, 1920s wax, lustrous black labels, Columbia and OKeh, all in original sleeves; seemed promising. As I pawed through the Sophie Tuckers, Al Jolsons, the novelty parlor piano and vaudeville dialect comics I grew disappointed, but there finally at the bottom was a mint OKeh of Louis Armstrong and his San Sebastian Club Orchestra playing “Dallas Blues” and “Bessie Couldn’t Help It.” It didn’t hit me till I took it home to show my mother. “Dallas Blues is right!” she said.
I drifted in a dream through junior high, head flooded with jazz I’d soaked up from recordings, composing dada poetry, science fiction and plays, only dimly aware of the nowheresville cacaphony around me, the regimentation, the deadly dull classes, the dreaded athletics. I became Manichean, dividing the world into Jazz and Not Jazz. (In fact I would get into knock-downs with the bluegrass hordes then in ascension, who had a sort of ‘30s Popular Front attitude about jazz as corporate, commercial, not Volkish, sort of like Henry Schwartz, but coming from the other angle.) I was gnostic, conducting the arcane rites of my own mystery cult. Truth, the real world, was elsewhere. Evangelism proved problematic however; with the British Invasion hitting the beaches, the stuff I was into couldn’t compete. My little bedroom jazz cult was blown to smithereens by the Beatles & Stones; no one wanted what I was selling, it was too much of a stretch. I did have some interesting 8th grade music appreciation classes, demonstrating the Ur-source of various Rolling Stones and Chuck Berry tracks. I’d picked up some tunes on piano from a 1942 Big Maceo Merriweather 78 on Bluebird, “Any time for you, and all the time for me,” I sang plaintively, “you gonna be sorry—the way you treated me”... tho in my case not directed at some woman but at the beefeaters lurking for me in the hallways and schoolyard, easy prey.
My first concrete notion of the Civil Rights movement was the March on Washington in July 1963. I listened in avidly on a balky tube Zenith kitchen radio, King’s stirring Dream speech, Mahalia Jackson, Baez, Dylan. My folks were hi-test liberals, local Democratic ward heelers, activists in the Fair (integrated) Housing movement. They signed me up for Freedom School—we were bussed into Roxbury to hang out with the black kids as a sort of inter-racial cultural exchange program, and they in turn were bussed out to Newton to hang out with us, the rich white kids. (This is before school busing, Metco, etc.) For me it was more a lesson in class consciousness—the difference between their poverty and our affluence was excruciating. I was wracked with liberal guilt. I made friends, kinda, with a black kid. Since Newton was pretty white & I had almost no experience of black people, I viewed the entire people through a musical lens. I quizzed him about his jazz consciousness—King Oliver? nope. Armstrong? nope. John Coltrane even? nada. What did he listen to? R&B on the radio, as far as I could tell. Music didn’t even seem particularly important to him. I was confused, appalled; were these not the very people of this great tradition? Evidently the tradition was kaput, in his family anyway.
I was conscripted to stuff envelopes in church basements for Freedom Summer. Occasionally there were presentations by Movement types and significant figures in the black community. One day a reverend from a black church in Boston spoke at length to a crowd in the basement of the Eliot Church in Newton Corner. In retrospect it was an Afro-Nationalist rap, an attempt to relate an alternative, non-colonial mythology for the Race, with traces of late Garveyism. I was ok with it as far as it went, but when he came to a passage about the origins of black folk in Atlantis, I felt I must take exception. I approached him after the talk. “I don’t subscribe to the Atlantis theory,” I began earnestly, but before I could continue I was picked up by the large preacher and sat upon a counter. He roared with incredulous laughter, surprised, amused, but equally unwilling to engage this precocious little white twerp in any sort of learned colloquy. The tectonic plates would have to wait. It was pretty humiliating.
Cruising on directions from Henry Schwartz, my dad took me down to Cuz Faulkner’s on Columbus Ave in the South End. He took some photos & dropped me off. The South End of Boston was pretty much part of the black ghetto at the time. Cuz Faulkner’s Books Bibles and Records was a community hang out next to a black barbershop; he’d evidently been in the biz for decades out of this storefront.
A long corridor emptied into a larger room at the rear, with only a few pale bulbs and what light could filter in from the street to moderate the gloom. Every wall and surface, floor to ceiling, and extending back far into the darkness, was stacked with crates of 78 records. Acrid smell of cat urine pervades. A few ancient floor model gramophones stood silent sentinel along one wall. The walls were hung with show biz stills of black musicians and show biz figures, back to the ‘20s & ‘30s. Faulkner’s roll-top desk was piled with records, ledgers, correspondence. A florid Victorian print hung above a calendar photo of Dr. King, who was to speak in Boston the next month. I had entered Valhalla. I wandered the stacks like an archaeologist on first entering a lost city, immersed, ecstatic, lost in time. I’d never encountered such plenty. I dove in, entered a fugue state and disappeared.
The crates were organized mostly by label, and the records stacked vertically—you had to pull most of the stack onto the floor to go through them. The stuff at the top was the most picked through; the gems, such as they were, were found at the bottom. Extending the notion that the most remote and inaccessible zones would hold the choicest items, I climbed precariously the back an ancient armchair to reach a stack of record albums atop a shelf near the stamped tin ceiling and brought them down into the sallow light. The only items that seemed worth-while were a couple by Edith Wilson, ‘comedienne’ with Johnny Dunn’s Original Jazz Hounds. Sounded like it could be some actual early jazz sides, by a band unknown to me, anyway. An actual discovery! Playing them back at home, through storms of noise & badly worn grooves came a shouting blues singer, barely intelligible, and a raggy, stomping, brassy, bluesy band that was playing some kind of primitive jazz but not the regulation New Orleans variety. One of the sides was audaciously titled “Old Time Blues”!
If the blues were old time in 1921, what sort of time-scales were we talking about? They actually sounded kind of like the later-’20s Memphis Jug Band & Cannon Jug Stompers records I had been poring over on vinyl reissue. Dunn, I discovered, was from Memphis—the Jug bands perhaps were trying to sound like him! Dunn’s band did not sound like Handy’s, but he had played with him earlier. Both Handy & Dunn played cornet, but they did not sound like each other. This Memphis thing had legs!
Dr. King was coming to Boston to give School Committee Chairwoman Louise Day Hicks a piece of his mind on the subject of school integration. He was for it, she was not. He was due to speak at the Boston Common, but first there was a rally in Roxbury and a march down Columbus Ave. I went with my buddy Nate. The rally, in a park at Roxbury Crossing, was charged with all the crackling electric currents of the liberation politics of the times. Malcolm X had just been assassinated in February, and intense groups of supporters with Malcolm signs warily negotiated space with Elijah Muhammad’s crew and Dr. King’s SCLC. All groups worked the crowd with flyers, newspapers, magazines. Eventually the march column was formed and headed out, Dr King and the local big wigs at the fore, Nate and I at the rear. As kids, we were natural anarchists, and thus exempt from the general gravity of the occasion... all organized social behavior was automatically suspect, possibly Orwellian... we riffed, we quipped, we cracked each other up... Nate found a license plate and hung it around his neck...at the park we stood in back, while Dr. King observed that while in racial matters Northerners thought themselves morally superior to the benighted South, segregation was in some ways worse in the North. We felt ourselves ennobled, standing in the cool, light rain, a New York Times held over our heads.
Once initiated, I made the trek to Faulkner’s several more times on my own, getting extracted with at the tail end to schlepp my haul back to the burbs. I came in on the trolley lugging my portable phonograph, which I powered off an adapter screwed in to the bare hanging bulbs that almost lit the place. Thus I could check out the sides and minimize guesswork. At least half the dance band records of the ‘20s were made under a baffling array of pseudonyms, both to make the work of house bands seem like the work of many, and to disguise the identity of moonlighting bands held elsewhere under contract. Actual bona fide jazz records were always a tiny percentage of the mass of wax made, and anyway mostly panned-out by all the ‘49ers that had preceded me—I was reduced to sifting for the fugitive hot choruses generally tucked after the vocals on dance band records as formulaic in their way as any ‘50s doo-wop side.
Often as not the place was locked, and I had to rouse the trusty, who would open the place on demand when Cuz was not in. A thin, ancient negro named Bill Morris who lived in a tenement nearby. No phone, no working door bell. I had to hurl a fist of gravel up against his 3rd floor windows and cry out ‘MR MORRIS!” It often took several attempts before I got any response. He would clamber down & let me in.
Carolyn Roberts was a junior at Emerson College who had a radio show called Collector’s Corner that spun old records of the ‘20s and ‘30s to general nostalgic effect, though not by any means a purist jazz endeavor. I thought that this was Incorrect, and offered my services. She was amused by my presumption. I’d taken to calling the station and shooting the breeze with her about the music. She started mentioning me on the air, and wrote me a thoroughly charming letter, inviting me up to the studio to tape some of my sides. In fact the letter was so whimsical and inventive that it had a profound influence on my consciousness and style, which I hadn’t realized until re-reading it years later. My dad drove me in to the brownstone walk-up on Beacon St, and I hauled the heavy albums up several flights to the studio. I went through most of the records she had, dismissing all but a few as ‘commercial crap’, worthy only of destruction, a jazz Robespierre. We spent the afternoon taping sides and some of my manic jazz-historiographic rap. She edited the results, and for a few weeks I was a virtual co-host. I think she’s still involved in radio, somewhere.
Occasionally I’d come across sides by Wilbur Sweatman’s Jazz Band, and reflexively put them aside as I did anything having the word ‘jazz’ on the label; they also didn’t sound anything like New Orleans-type jazz, in fact I wasn’t sure what they were, or if black or white—it was a more clangorous, raggy type of sound—I’d stumbled upon another regional sub-type of black American music, this time by a vaudevillian from Minneapolis, famed I discovered for playing multiple reed instruments at once, in the later manner of Rahsaan Roland Kirk (though I’ve never been able to determine any connection).
The music was a sort of loose, small band ragtime with strong circus and maybe minstrel elements and though they played blues they didn’t employ blues-type inflection—it sounded like I’d imagine a jazz band from 1875 might sound, and maybe they did!
I’d inhaled Sam Charter’s Country Blues when it came out, and found some of the people mentioned were alive and kicking right here in Boston. In January ‘65 I attended a concert by Bukka White, who’d been recently ‘rediscovered’ by John Fahey & Alan Wilson, who produced the show. I was introduced to the guitarist backstage after the gig, and goaded to perform my rudimentary barrel-house routine on the old upright piano there—he laughed with astonishment—most likely just being polite, though a tiny white kid playing idiomatically correct Mississippi barrelhouse must have been something of a novelty. I quizzed him about various jazz figures he was unlikely to have met, to which he replied a broad, amiable YES!! Fahey later wrote that he tended to tell people what they wanted to hear, so it was tough to get reliable biographic material from him. It went better than with the reverend, anyway.
The country blues seemed the closest element to what I was into musically to what was then current—early jazz had had it’s revival in the early 1940s, and traditional jazz had its heyday in Boston in the ‘50s, but the wave had played out—I was a straggler, a late-arriving acolyte to the faith. About contemporary R&B and jazz I knew or cared pretty much nothing, for the time being anyway. I wasn’t exposed to black dance music and I considered bebop and contemporary styles overly cerebral, arid, missing some emotional point. It was partly snobbism, partly just not being ready for it. Hadn’t yet dug Bird, Monk, Coltrane... The folkies who were soon to create psychedelic blues-rock were devotees of traditional blues, gospel and country music then making its last stand at the coffeehouses, colleges and folk festivals. Jorma Kaukonen studied with Rev. Gary Davis, who lived in Cambridge and whom I saw at the Brandeis folk festival in ‘65—parents of friends ran the Boston-Cambridge Folk Music Society and put on concerts like Bukka White, to which I became a sort of mascot, but that’s another tale...
I wasn’t running into any other 12 year olds in the musty stacks, that’s for sure! 45 year old dentists from Wellesley grazing for Georgians 78s, older black guys trolling for an elusive but fondly recalled jump blues disc, Paul Whiteman completists—all were helpful, friendly in the collegiality of the stacks. One amused gent sent me LP’s of Minnesota Dixieland, the Mendoza Buzzards...
Cuz Faulkner himself was a genial character in suit, button down vest, raincoat, never saw him otherwise dressed. He held court with his pals from the hood, clearly the mayor of the block, if not large stretches of Columbus Ave. His roll-top desk held treasures culled from the torrent of wax that passed before him, select items to fill the massive card catalog want lists of long-time collectors... once I enviously glimpsed a copy of a James Europe disc, Castle House Rag on his desk - mythic, grail-like, untouchable. The mass of records in the crates was in fact his slag pile, from which I anyway managed to rake a few glittering gems in my trance-like excavations.
I got up to stretch my legs. How long had I been here? I got here around 10 am, it was now 4pm. Good god! I sauntered over toward the congenial chatter of the negro barbershop next door. All conversation suddenly stopped and everyone stared. I realized with a shock that I was an intruder, the enemy color, Ofay. I could not be privy to their communions. Meekly I withdrew back into the sheltering darkness of Faulkner’s.
After about six or eight hours I called in a pick-up-my dad hobnobbed with Cuz who flattered my precocity, there aren’t many kids these days who know so much about the music, etc. etc., while I proudly clutched the paper bag of the day’s discoveries... Back at the house I was shocked to discover that the bag did not contain my wax at all, but a few albums of Nat King Cole. I was utterly crestfallen. I can still recall some of the lost treasures: Ostrich Walk by the Original Dixieland Jass Band, a red-hot Henderson side on Banner, a cream-colored Cameo label by a Sam Lanin outfit with a rocking out-chorus and clarinet that sounded like Teschemacher—I couldn’t wait! Now I had just these worthless ‘pop’ sides, cruelly mocking my efforts. Whether a ‘bait and switch’ con or merely my own inattention I never discovered. Calls to Faulkner’s proved futile. It was a disillusioning experience, and a cautionary one. NAT KING COLE!!! Strangely, within the week the singer was dead.
My buddy and Boston hip-hop history scholar Pacey Foster rang up to invite me to ride shotgun with him on a record expedition to a furniture store in the Fenway, Queensborough Street I think. He told me the basement contained the fossilized remains of a record store that had gone out of business around 1980 named Record King—the remaining vinyl stock constituted a sort of time capsule—access was haphazard, regulated by the whims and caprices of the owner, a former partner in the store. The record gods were smiling on us that day, he granted access to us and a few other guys hanging around. Pacey happily scavenged a number of relics from the early days of hip hop, but for my jazz purposes it was dregs, a sucking sound at the bottom of an ancient root beer float. Yet my record senses were twinkling, my 78 radar was picking up signals... they became stronger in the main room upstairs—I picked through the rolled up carpeting and ancient typewriters—like an ancient mariner casting a practiced eye on the sky and tides, conditions were auspicious—something was here, somewhere. Nothing was visible, but I was picking up waves from behind a pile of heavy oak tables and other furniture, stacked before some shelving. Pacey lent a hand, and it took us about 15 minutes to move everything out of the way. There was indeed revealed a large box, filled with 78 rpm records. I had to excavate my way down: the top layer was a lot of early 1900s light concert military band music, like Arthur Pryor’s 1908 William Tell Overture. Next came a layer of post-war gospel quartets, interesting but fairly common and not my area of expertise. The bottom layer started producing ‘20s dance-band sides, genteel hotel-type orchestras, pretty vanilla. The very last record at the bottom was by Jimmy McHugh’s Bostonians, a bona fide jazz classic from 1929 featuring Benny Goodman & Jack Teagarden, then members of the Ben Pollock Orchestra, “Futuristic Rhythm” b/w “Whoopie Stomp.”
This was the record giving out the signals I’d detected. Holy cats man, now I just had to get this thing out of here! Negotiating with these characters is always precarious, you can’t tip them off, one must feign nonchalance. I chose a small pile of sides and waited for Pace to complete his transactions. The owner, holding court in an armchair outside the entrance, slowly leafed through the stack, “Two dollars for this, a dollar, three dollars.” Then came the Jimmy McHugh. “I want to hold on to this one, I collect anything Boston-related.” The treacherous reefs! The monstrous shoals! “That’s not a Boston record, man, there was no recording in town then, it was all done down in New York.” Dangerous to reveal too much, but I had to release his grip... . “Anyway it’s a pseudonym, a lot of dance band records were put out under fake names in the 20’s. I know for a fact it’s the Ben Pollack band...” Prying, prying... “I’ll give you eight bucks for it.” After a moment’s further excruciation, he relented. The disc was mine. Later I found out that McHugh was indeed from Boston! He’d booked the date and had composed both titles. Ah well, all’s fair...
For the last several years I’ve been running Outpost 186, a performing arts space/gallery in Inman Square, Cambridge. In addition to providing an inexpensive performance venue for local improvising and experimental artists, we try to book many of NYC’s black avant-garde jazz players, who seem to get short shrift among the jazz institutions here in town. These are the players who are still advancing the music. They are the living, organic growing tip.
ROB CHALFEN is the nom de plume of Rob Chalfen, whose many triumphs in sidereal wrestling, quantum psychodynamics and uphill skiing are too numinous to mention. Writing exclusively on an original single-stroke Fulton coal-fired compositor, his essays have burned up the world’s telegraph lines, much to the annoyance of the other operators. Much in demand on the lecture circuit despite life-long laryngitis, his works include The Hoarse Whisperer, Homage to Catatonia and A Price Guide to Imaginary Recordings. He is currently researching Jelly Roll Morton’s original 1907 patent application for jazz, “An Improved Form of Rag-Time.”