My first musical foray off the path of respectability was my discovery of Rhythm and Blues. Indiscriminate in my pleasures as only a kid can be, I was bowled over by a musical form every bit as foreign to my own life as Scheherazade had been just few years earlier. On a summer evening in1953, standing in front of a jukebox at Chain Bridge, a low-rent swimming place on the Neshaminy Creek in then rural Bucks County near Philadelphia, I first heard the Big Momma Willie Mae Thorton version of Hound Dog. I heard it, and immediately, I loved it. I was as irrevocably changed as one of Mencken’s maidens exposured to Richard Strauss.
At a recent NYU/ New York Times forum on the 1950s, Elvis biographer Peter Guralnick noted that in the fifties, the big cultural changes were on their way, with or without a Mr. Presley. He said that as early as 1953, the music industry was aware that there were white teenagers starting to buy Black music. He was talking about me. I came home late on a Saturday night with my 45-rpm copy of Hound Dog and insisted that my parents sit with me and listen to this new voice of God, as I had come to understood God. They were incredulous.
The only local sources for rhythm and blues were a couple of AM radio stations targeted exclusively to the then Negro markets. WCAM, 1310 on the AM dial, broadcasting from across the river in Camden, New Jersey, put on a three hour rhythm and blues show every evening from seven to ten called “Swinging in the Groove.” The list of sponsors demonstrated that we were not on the station’s demographic target. Between Howlin Wolf and Muddy Waters we were given pitches for Dixie Peach Pomade, Florsheim Shoes and a high style men’s store in downtown Philly. Each song was introduced with a number, the meaning of which I was never to know. A matter-of-fact announcer’s voice would say “Number 128, Joe Turner with “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” or “Number 322, Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters with…” As the years went on and the crossovers multiplied, I responded with a purist’s sneer to the sanitized Bill Haleys, Pat Boone’s and reflexively even to Elvis himself. I had become too cool to be cool. My embrace of Black music gave me one more outsider’s flag to fly, one more way to distance myself from what I believed was a smothering cultural fate.
Bandstand, later American Bandstand, began in Philadelphia in 1952. Two of my “girl” cousins were among the first regulars on the show. I was envious and would have loved to go find out what it was like, but on the path I’d chosen, cool ruled. A kid from my high school class had broken ranks and was spotted on screen. For that for that single indiscretion he endured a merciless and seemingly endless hassling. It was a cautionary tale I heeded.
The mid-to-late nineteen fifties were a golden age for jazz and probably the final chapter for jazz as a broadly popular musical form. The aura of jazz attracted me and yet much of it eluded me. But the cachet of something as hip as jazz was too important to my self-image. I couldn’t allow myself to be left behind by the real hipsters, the people who did dig jazz. My plunging into jazz was not entirely an affectation, much of it, particularly the progressive and Latin-based stuff absolutely knocked me out. In 1954, Latin music seemed to jump across to the Black community, and “Swinging in the Groove” went beyond Fats Domino and Johnny Ace to begin playing Joe Loco’s percussive piano mambos, and then onto the entire pantheon of Afro-Cuban superstars. For a brief period in the mid to late 1950’s, Latin music did a wider series of cross-overs, surfacing not only in Black music, but in progressive jazz, and then on into mainstream pop in the form of cha-cha novelties.
What became known as Progressive Jazz appealed to me in ways that classic jazz, bebop and even Parker and Coltrane only hinted at. At the core of the progressive movement was the Stan Kenton band. I became almost fixated on what was essentially abstract, symphonic jazz. And no wonder, coming off an immersion over my head in classical music, the complexity of the lush, yet austere Kenton arrangements, and the virtuoso solo riffs against choruses of section work, spoke to me of a creative perfection, and orbiting the musical world according to Kenton were people like June Christie, the Four Freshman and a host of other artists in ascending order of obscurity. Even now, encountering anyone who can discuss Kenton, or the work of Cal Tjader or the George Shearing collaborations with Candido can establish bonds transcending the routines of daily life. So many rewarding conversations have begun with a “hey man, have you heard…’” That in itself has become one of the peripheral but significant rewards of an unconditional acceptance of what would become the primacy of music in my life.
The sixties arrived and I continued on, appearing to be and even believing myself, a connoisseur of all that was cool in music. Meanwhile all around me, a new and revolutionary music was coming into its own. But by then I was a grownup, an adult, and all that kind of stuff, the Beatles and such, was for kids. Wasn’t it?
(to be continued)