Fulbright riffs, 1991 — day 68, Monday August 5th
I replace the stolen umbrella on the way to the station: showers are frequent, heavy and sudden.
Back in my IJS office, Dan comes in to see how everything is going: “So here you are, as always, dressed in black”. [Black has been fashionable for a number of years in London, especially for anyone young at heart involved in the arts. Every time the press announces that such and such a colour is the new black, black persists. So, yes, my IJS office uniform has been preponderantly black, including a much-loved, black silk bomber jacket from Wodehouse, one of several new high street outlets providing to the new individualism of 1980s Britain]. He’s realised that my time here is fast running out and when he goes back out again, as ever far too soon, I am left pondering how I can make best use of the three remaining weeks. Whatever I do, if you compare it to the jazz knowledge amassed over decades by Dan Morgenstern and his IJS colleagues seated just outside my office, it will only seem like scratching the surface, an attempt to thrive on a riff or two. But I do have plenty of substance on which to build when I get back, not least the network of contacts I’ve made. Face to face encounters have been the most important ingredient in this jazz gumbo. I’ll now concentrate on extending that network.
Also on the plan was broadcasting. The IJS presents a weekly show on Newark’s jazz station WBGO. A programme is being reserved for me to create and host before I leave. Its two-hour duration is a luxury: my Jazz FM slot was just half an hour, which allowed for six or seven tracks only. I now have the possibility to select about twenty-five. I’ll divide the show into two halves: the first half will draw on my time here in America; the second will showcase some British and European musicians the WBGO audience may not know much about.
A good place to start the playlist would be James Reese Europe whose wartime performances with his regimental band in France included syncopated songs like Memphis Blues, opening European ears to a new sound in music that quickly became a craze.
[But my programme was not about to attempt another jazz narrative, in the manner of John Hammond (From Spirituals To Swing) or Ken Burns. At this point in my journal, looking back at it from 2016 and half-way through reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan, I can foresee some of the unexpected changes that would follow my return from America. This Fulbright deal was unrepeatable and it felt like I was getting the most out of every hour of every day. But if I felt I was obtaining some answers, what were the questions? I suppose one of them was ‘How to build and sustain a better jazz archive’? If so, on what basis? As an oral history interviewer I was careful to ensure that the subject’s answers revealed the motives behind their decisions about where to work and how to play, as if to confirm the traditional historical narrative’s focus on cause and effect, scholarly explanations that follow on from the word “because”. Once that narrative was academically legitimised, it should then be a matter of ensuring that a sufficiency of recordings and writings were accumulated to illustrate and confirm it and enable exploration in a cycle of affirmations or partial adjustments. But that is not how a life unfolds, especially for jazz musicians, as the uncertainties of working opportunities and the improvised approach to performance demonstrate time after time. Luck plays a part.
“Note that a history is just a series of numbers through time. The numbers can represent degrees of wealth, fitness, weight, anything” (Taleb). Or, echoing the quote from Beckett’s Unnamable (via Berio’s Sinfonia, if you like), “We must collect our thoughts, for the unexpected is always upon us, in our rooms, in the street, at the door, on a stage”.
A tale of the unexpected. This is from Chapter 2 (“I’ve got Billie Holiday…” “Who is she?) of Cafe Society by Barney Josephson. The author is recounting the opening of his uptown and downtown clubs that mixed audiences and musicians — ‘the wrong place for the Right people’. He has met John Hammond (high-born talent scout and promoter of black musical talent) and John has been recommending musicians for Barney to hire.
“I had often wondered how John came to all this. One evening several years after Cafe Society had opened John came in with a very distinguished gray-haired gentleman. As I passed their table John reached out and stopped me. “Barney, I’d like you to meet someone. I’d like you to meet John McChesney. Mr. McChesney was one of my teachers at Hotchkiss. He’s the man who began to change my social and political opinions”. This gentleman was a socialist and an agnostic. His Sunday philosophy class would meet in his house after chapel “to undo the harm of the Sunday services” he would tell his students half-seriously. So here in this fancy boys’ school, a Vanderbilt gets these ideas. I got them coming from a poverty-stricken family who had taken a boarder into their house who instilled one brother with these ideas that were handed down from brother to brother, ending up with me” (Cafe Society (University of Illinois Press, 2009, p. 17).]
A letter from Jayne awaits my return to Maplewood, which includes an update about the garden at our new house in Purbeck Road, Chatham. During the week between moving in and leaving for America, the ‘jungle’ (described by the estate agent as a ‘mature garden’) had been partly tamed by tearing out hundreds of sycamore and elder saplings by the roots ad letting the light in. Jayne has taken things further:
“Found a pleasant small garden centre just around the corner from home where I’ve bought a lovely fuchsia for one of the tubs — it was 99p. Am I spending too much, I ask myself? I’m still pulling up acres of bindweed, next flush of roses are out and the crocosmia is just coming into flower.”
She also describes lunch with her father at the Whitstable Oyster Company, which has seawater tanks below the restaurant floor. Something to look forward to. As will be a dinner party at ours in September for Jayne’s long-time friend and conductor, Bramwell Tovey who has just got back together with Esther.
Marya called, now in the middle of exams: definitely intent on returning to Europe next year with Zoltan.
I’ve borrowed Mississippi burning on video from the library, a tense and thrilling search for missing persons. In the manner of In the heat of the night, a confrontation between the FBI and Southern custom threatens to escalate dangerously. Blacks and whites live side by side in harmonious separation but discord ensues the the moment there is any attempt to integrate with WASP (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant) values. One of the central characters of Mississippi burning, a Klan grand wizard, extends the hatred to Jews, Papists, Turks, Orientals, Tartars and Romanies. The book I’m reading, Hunting Mr Heartbreak also treats this heinous order, telling of children playing hide and seek and finding themselves inside the closet next to their father’s Klan robes. The States are united politically but culturally there are chasms. The South would be no place for a John Hammond or Barney Josephson.
Rowland’s other son, Chad, is also in trouble, facing expulsion from college for a series of misdemeanours. There is to be a summit “interview” at the college on Friday. I tell Rowland to advise his son to give himself a break and explain what he’s really made of. After all, they have given him a chance rather than expel him unilaterally. Compared to the cultural issues faced constantly by Marya and by the victims in Mississippi Burning, Chad’s situation does not merit much sympathy.