Saturday, March 13, 2010

A Lesson Learned; A Lesson Remembered

My youngest child is nearing 13 years old, and like tens of thousands of American children her age she likes to watch the Disney and Nickelodeon channels. I do my best to limit her viewing and am very selective about what programs she sees, but don't believe I can forbid everything. Instead I try to watch some things with her and make an occasional comment here and there. I also try to play a lot of Mozart, Brahms, some Gilbert and Sullivan and even Prokofiev and Stravinsky for her to counter the prosaic pablum that makes up the steady diet of mediocrity offered on these and other channels. (She loves Gilbert and Sullivan and Mozart, and wants to be an opera singer, so I'm not doing what might be called cultural force-feeding by any means.)

Anyway, not long ago I was watching a program with her that ended in the usual musical performance by the star, who looks like another cookie cutter model straight out of some fashion magazine singing (well-miked, of course) while other teens in the audience cheered and gyrated chaotically, lights flashed, loud electronic music blared, special effects were generated, and the youthful principal danced up, down and across the stage with several dancers behind her and back up singers gesturing, and all in glitzy stage dress. As I watched I was taken back to an event that happened to me many years ago when I was still in high school.

The year was 1964 and our high school band had traveled from the coal mining area of southeastern Kentucky westward to the grand southern city of Memphis, Tennessee, overlooking as it does the sprawling Mississippi river. The Mississippi at Memphis was a striking change from the creeks and rills that meandered snake-like down the hollows of my mountain home land. None of us had seen anything quite like it. The Great River dividing these United States is fast moving, narrow and deep as it flows through Minnesota, but after being joined by the Ohio river at Cairo, it grows amazingly broad and slow moving by the time it reaches Memphis. It is almost as if Nature Herself is giving happy acknowledgment by means of this great river that it is now entering a very different land than the one it has left, a land with a warmer climate, a more genteel and neighborly people and leisurely, agrarian life.

Most of us in the band had never really left the region of our birth. Memphis was amazing to us. We were there to take part in the Cotton Carnival, which included a big parade with floats and bands from all across the Southland. I hated marching, but, as I saw it, seeing a large city like Memphis was worth the sacrifice.

Much to our joy we had a few days where we could see the sights and sounds of Memphis. For instance, I recall a trip to the Memphis zoo. In the evening we were even allowed something unheard of in our own time: unsupervised time in the big city. I was unsure what I would do but some how I learned the Preservation Hall Band was going to be giving a concert at a certain address.

I played clarinet in the band and began playing clarinet largely because of listening to my great uncle's Lps of Eddie Condon, the Dukes of Dixieland and many others. My great uncle was a barber in town, but had played trombone and toured as a young man with circus bands, and played the popular big band music of the time with many small time professional dance bands. He introduced me to Benny Goodman, Bunny Berigan, Bix Beiderbeck, Glenn Miller, Hoagie Carmichael and, of course, Tommy Dorsey. I liked the big bands, but I liked Dixieland best and the clarinet was my most favorite of all the instruments.

I would spend hours in Cumberland Valley Music going through the recordings and listening to them with a few of my friends. I was always glad that very few people there in the mountains liked jazz, because I could get the recordings at a discount.

I was friends with one of the best trumpet players in our high school band. His mother had graduated from Cincinnati Conservatory in piano and took a real interest in the kids in the band that showed enthusiasm and talent. She had even taken several of us to Knoxville to hear Al Hirt and his band in concert. Hearing him live made me even more enthusiastic about music and being a musician. I had heard Hirt before on Lawrence Welk's show, where he regularly appeared with my most favorite musician of all: Pete Fountain.

Pete's playing on Welk inspired me and I lived through the week looking forward to Saturday night and the segment of the Welk program that featured him. It broke my heart when he left Welk to return to New Orleans. At that time there was no internet. If you wanted recordings and no local stores had what you were looking for mail order record clubs advertised in magazines were your only recourse. Consequently, I looked through periodical after periodical in search of companies selling Pete's recordings. I still have them today––but no record player.

Jazz wasn't all I had ordered from those magazines. I had even had purchased a recording that had a stranger, modernist painting of a man's face on its cover––just because it looked cool. When I got the album I loved it and played it over and over. It became one of my most favorite (Years later I would learn to love more of Schostakovich's music than his fifth symphony.)

I relate all this to let you know that despite my decidedly parochial, isolated upbringing, I wasn't altogether unfamiliar with the music of the past. So it shouldn't be surprising that I had heard of the Preservation Hall Band and was really excited to hear they were coming to Memphis during Cotton Carnival. What made it even better was the concert was free!

I can't recall if I was alone or if a friend came with me, but I do remember wandering through the streets using the directions I had been given by the concierge at the hotel. The concert was to begin rather late (9:00 PM) and the summer sun was just going down as I walked from street to street, pausing at each corner to check the street names to see if I was on track or hopelessly lost. The evening sky was perfectly clear and I could see all the buildings black against the thin sliver of orange-red on the horizon as it morphed into pale blue overhead and finally into the blue black of early evening that had already filled the eastern sky and which was creeping gradually and inexorably westward.

I was very excited to hear these legendary musicians live and so I came early––a habit of mine I retained until I was married. (Those gentlemen readers who are in like state will know well what I mean.)

I was perplexed, to say the least, when I arrived at the address. There was no marquee, no lights, no signs or billboards advertising the concert––nothing. There was only an open door showing a dimly lit room and people milling around outside on the street and others entering a few at a time. If you were just passing by you would never suspect a concert was about to start––not there, at least! I was in such doubt myself I asked someone standing in the small crowd outside if I was in the right place. He nodded indicating I was. So, I thanked him and went in to see if I could get a seat.

When I entered the room I received yet another shock. There were no seats to be seen except a few placed on a wooden, make-shift stage that looked like it had been hastily fabricated and shoved against one of the four bare brick walls enclosing an equally bare, concrete floor.

I noticed there was also an old upright piano and a beat up tuba on the stage, which looked so rickety that I would not have been surprised if the piano would crash through it to the floor at any moment.

This was very different from the plush concert hall I had heard Al Hirt in only months before. (At that time I did not know that the Preservation Hall band played in the exact same spartan conditions in New Orleans.)

I made my way so I was standing about ten feet in front of the stage. It was a good thing I had come early, because as the minutes passed and the performance time grew closer more and more people crowded into the hall and stood on the bare concrete floor facing the stage. I noticed there were people there from every social class and racial group. There was no resentment or hateful looks, no preening and posturing commonly seen at the symphony––this was as far as you could get from a "social affair." There were also no fire extinguishers that I could see, no official city supervisor making sure the room was not over capacity, no government employee going around with a noise meter or testing the air or inspecting for rats and other vermin. We were in a government-free zone, at least for a few hours. There was just a growing crowd of souls standing on a concrete floor, staring at a dimly lit make shift stage waiting to hear the music they loved.

Finally, from a side door the musicians entered without fanfare. They unceremoniously climbed the three or four steps as the stage groaned under their weight and sat down in their respective chairs. Most of them were old, among them were both blacks and whites. The tubist, as I recall, was the youngest and white. The leader was an old black man with hair as white as snow. He played cornet.

He did not speak or give introductions, though later the musicians were introduced. He did not announce the first tune, nor were there any programs. He simply raised the cornet to his lips, glanced over his shoulder for a moment to make sure every one was ready and kicked off the first tune. The reason the tune was not announced became clear the moment they began to play: it didn't matter. From the first note it seemed as if we were all suddenly lifted up, transported out of time and place into another state of being. We were all one, players and listeners, united by the wondrous sounds that echoed against the bricks and poured out onto the street through the still open entrance.

There was no fancy stage, no special effects, no dazzling stage lighting, no glitzy suits and dresses, no make up, no huge speakers blaring electronic sounds and sound effects, no back up singers or dancers, no microphones or amplification of any kind, no slim, trim, beautiful young people with perfect teeth and well coached stage presence moving with perfectly coordinated gestures, no shrieking, hysterical crowd of empty-headed teens gyrating back and forth. What we heard needed none of that, for it was real and true. It came with its own transcendent beauty, pouring from the musician's souls through their instruments and into our hearts.

As their music filled the room I was nothing short of ecstatic and I could feel tears involuntarily well up and pour down my cheeks. In my delight I managed to compose myself long enough to look around the room. Every person I could see was wholly focused upon the music and the performers. But there was more––everyone I could see, standing with me on that concrete floor, in that dimly lit, smoky room, listening to those souls, many in the twilight of their years––every one was smiling, and their faces beamed with a transcendent and unalloyed joy. A spirit of love had entered with the music and, miracle of miracles, it sustained us the entire evening.

As the final tune was played and the final cheers and applause of sincere joy and gratitude died away and we filtered slowly out of the door and into the street I noted the silence among the attendees was hardly broken, and the look of joy was still upon their faces.

The performance had been free, but was worth the combined audience's weight in gold and more. It was, as the credit card commercial says, "priceless."

After the performance I strolled down the dark Memphis streets the happiest I could ever remember being. Besides being filled with joy that night I had also learned a valuable lesson, and as I sat with my daughter and my ears were being assaulted with glitzy sound and fury signifying nothing (that which today's media moguls try to pawn off on our children as musical entertainment) a valuable lesson once learned became a valuable lesson remembered.

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