Posts Tagged 'richard strauss'

Liner Notes – My Life Was Saved By Rock And Roll- Part II: Rhythm And Blues, And All That Jazz

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)

Liner Notes – My Life Was Saved By Rock And Roll – Part I: The Classics

My father loved music, particularly classical music. One of his younger brothers, my Uncle Frank, was an operatic tenor. As a kid, my personal definition of hell was a rainy Saturday afternoon, trapped in our tiny row house while my father listened to the Texaco radio presentations of the Metropolitan Opera from New York. The insufferable tedium of opera itself was topped by the monotone voice of Milton Cross droning on about the role of Mephistopheles in Gounod’s Faust, or by Boris Goldovsky’s heavily accented answers to the intermission questions sent in by listeners on “Your Opera Quiz of the Air.”

My father’s tastes were wide ranging within the acceptable classics, but beyond enjoying the pop standards and the autumn arrival of that year’s show tunes, he didn’t stray far from the bounded safety of the classics. In later years, my brother and my father would spend hours at the dinner table debating the finer points and weakness of various tenors, sopranos, orchestras and conductors. By the time I reached my teenaged years, I too had become attracted to much of the same music, but I responded on a more visceral level. I did hear the music behind the delivery systems, but if the musicians got the essence across, it was enough for me. I know that my father and brother were hearing things I wasn’t hearing or couldn’t hear.

The ongoing, almost continual presence of music in our house began at Christmas in1951 when my father brought home a Webcor tabletop phonograph. Before that, the small table radio in the living room was used for family entertainments like the Lone Ranger, Captain Midnight serials and the network shows; sitcoms, variety shows and dramas. But every Monday evening at 8:30, it was The Voice of Firestone with the Firestone Orchestra under the baton of Howard Barlow. The program usually included a selection of semi-classical and light classical orchestral pieces and a featured operatic vocalist. Over the holidays, one of the networks carried hour-long, special broadcasts by the Longines Symphonette, which was the Firestone show writ longer and larger.

My brother and I picked up on whatever the popular music happened to be. A few years ago, the Scottish Comedian Billy Connolly described pre-Beatles pop music as a “fookin nightmare.” A bit harsh, but aside from the genuine jewels like Nat Cole, Peggy Lee or Les Paul and Mary Ford, much of the mainstream pop, then as now, was pretty dreadful. But we were kids and went with whatever we found; “How Much is That Doggy in the Window,” or Guy Mitchell’s, “There’s a Pawnshop on the Corner in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania…”

The arrival in our house of the Webcor phonograph coincided with the first mass marketing of thirty-three-and-a-third rpm long-playing records. With almost twenty minutes of music to a side, vast catalogs of music suddenly became available in an accessible format. The old 78s’ had been a pain in the ass for serious music lovers. A single Brahms symphony meant interruptions every three minutes as the brittle, eight-inch discs dropped into place. The new LPs were convenient, durable and even we could afford them.

The first LP that my father brought home was Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. As the only record in the house, it was played incessantly, and at the age of twelve, I was hooked, and fell seriously in love with music. H. L. Mencken wrote in the nineteen-twenties that the moralizing critics of jazz had it all wrong. He believed that no respectable maiden, so-called, could sit through a performance of Richard Strauss’ Salome and emerge untarnished. In my case, the maiden was a befuddled teen-aged boy. On winter nights, instead of doing my homework, I would drift away from reality on a triple-header of romantic overload; the piano concertos of Grieg, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky.

Leaving school to go to work at thirteen, my father had been required to attend “continuation” school one day a week, and part of that included “music appreciation.” Music became one of his antidotes to what I came to realize was a difficult, stressful and unrewarding job in a carpet factory. Over the years, he developed an after-dinner routine that involved going upstairs to the small back room, putting a stack of LPs on, lying on the floor with a pillow under his head, and floating off for an hour or two on the piano music of Chopin, Mozart or Debussy.

As my father brought home more and more LPs – he had discovered a carpet and flooring store in Germantown, owned by a music fan who sold discounted classical records on the side – my brother and I became relatively knowledgeable about music. My approach was entirely instinctive. I liked what I liked, but I did discover that things you thought you didn’t like could grow on you with repeated hearings. My tastes were basically the romantics, but not in any systemic way. I knew two of my three Bs, not really hearing Bach until much later in life. Chamber music eluded me, but by the time I finished high school, I was sniffing around some of the more esoteric stuff like Bartok, Hindemith and the later Russians. I was still a sucker for schmatlz, and at one point had gotten all moony over a series of Andre Kostelanetz orchestral versions of operas, particularly the Puccinis.

FM radio was still a novelty, and the opportunities to hear serious music on the radio were limited. At odd spots on the AM band, I discovered eccentric programs broadcasting classical music. On a station targeting a black audience, the station owner, a George Jessel-voiced guy named Max Leon exercised his prerogative by blocking out an hour each weekday morning to play the music he loved. Max’s commentaries on the works were almost as good as the music. Another station played a half-hour of classics each afternoon, hosted by a Philadelphia stalwart named Frank Ford who remained on the air well into the 90’s, the decade and his own age. The dearth of opportunities to hear a greater range of serious music continued until WFLN, an FM station with an all-classical format and a stable of anal-retentive voiced announcers began simulcasting on the AM band.

As a kid, the idea of attending a real concert never entered my mind. But as I entered my teens, my father began clipping the newspaper coupons for the free, city-sponsored series of outdoor orchestral programs at the Robin Hood Dell in Fairmount Park, essentially The Philadelphia Orchestra on summer break. In the summer of 1955, after my father had gotten a car, and after I had gotten out of high school, we attended a half dozen of those concerts. What a sight we must have presented. My brother and I in our best juvenile delinquent drag; pegged pants, suede shoes and duck-tail hairdos sitting among the culturatti for an evening of Mozart, Haydn and Brahms, a bit like bikers at the ballet.

While it never occurred to me to attempt to make music, I soon realized that despite my inability to distinguish myself in any acceptable way, my growing knowledge of something as unlikely as classical music was a wild card that caught people, particularly grownups, off guard. I wasn’t above cultivating and enhancing that knowledge to surprise people who believed they had me pigeon-holed. Whistling Stravinsky as I stocked shelves at the A & P prompted some unlikely conversations. My explorations of classical music continued and expanded because the music itself provoked a genuine response. And in the absence of just about any alternatives, I realized that the challenges presented by serious music were actually rewarding. When I was about fifteen, other forms of music began to catch my attention. (to be continued)