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Sunday, May 05, 2013

Giant Steps - a jazzlife memoir by Murray Jennings

                                                        GIANT STEPS
                                                    by Murray Jennings

    Being a Journey from Perth to Birdland, Beyond & Back, via Melbourne, Trad Jazz and
                                                   two 1959 Wall Posters      

Old  memories came rushing back last year, in front of a street stall in Paris, backing on to the parapet alongside the Seine. While my family selected postcards, I stared at the facsimile of a poster advertising “In Person MILES DAVIS, Club Diamond, Beale Street, Memphis with Guests including Lee Dorsey, Jimmy Reed...Two shows: 10:00pm and 1:00am. SUNDAY JUNE 7th 1959
   What a night that must have been! By 1:30, Jimmy Reed would have warmed the joint up with ‘Big Boss Man’ and ‘Bright Lights, Big City’, two of my favourites, a pre-‘Ya Ya’ Lee Dorsey might have followed with some hot New Orleans R&B and assuming it was his sextet, Miles would have followed the other five members slowly from the shadows at around 2:00am, to the cheers and whistles of a very hip crowd. The black and white picture on the poster showed just him, expressionless, trumpet clasped loosely over his chest, a white, open-necked shirt, cuffs and cufflinks peeping from under the sleeves of an obviously expensive, grey-striped Italian jacket.
   Naturally, I bought the poster to bring back home for my study wall. Not just because it was Miles, but I had noted the date of the show. The Miles Davis Sextet had recorded the ‘iconic’ album,’ Kind of Blue’ earlier in the year but it hadn’t yet been released. The date was significant because I was holidaying in Melbourne around that time, walking on wobbly legs after my contemporary jazz epiphany, courtesy of the Dave Brubeck Quartet.

   Green and only nineteen, getting over the breakup with my girlfriend, decked out in working gear trying to look like Jack London or Jack Kerouac, intent on melting into the Melbourne crowds. Army Surplus khaki cotton jacket, two deep inside pockets, one for a packet of Blue Capstan tobacco, Riz-La papers, a box of Swan matches and and a little notebook and a biro for jotting down  ideas for the first Australian ‘Beat’ novel. The other pocket contained my ‘bible’, a much-thumbed copy of ‘Protest”, an anthology of Beats and Angry Young Brits. As a bookmark, I used a folded note of introduction from a Perth clarinettist friend, Ross Nicholson to a Melbourne clarinettist, Nick Polites: ‘Please make him welcome...’ I wore my Postman’s issue khaki shirt and dark blue serge trousers rumpling over a pair of old desert boots, together with Ray Charles-style black-framed sunglasses, should the sun break through the misty rain, or even if it didn’t. Cool, eh?  
   Oh yeah, cool, swaggering down Flinders Street in charge of the world, but I hadn’t yet taken the first big step out of two-step trad jazz, except for a few 45rpm EPs;  Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Gene Krupa, Big Bill Broonzy, Leadbelly. I’d been to Sunday afternoon trad and mainstream jam sessions in Perth’s YAL hall and I’d heard Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Dave Brubeck, et al, on a friend’s record player, nodding to the rhythms, but with no real idea of what was going on. Back home I’d whack on my little EPs or some 10 inch LPs of Muggsy Spanier, Humphrey Lyttelton,  Bessie Smith, King Oliver...With those people, I didn’t have to think. My cousin played piano and tuba in a Perth dixeland band and on occasions I’d carry his tuba in through the stage door and thus score a freebie to the dance. Cool, or what?
   Not so cool were my Melbourne digs for the three weeks annual leave I’d taken; the Salvation Army People’s Palace (midnight curfew), a short suitcase-lugging walk from Spencer Street station. The address mightn’t have been cool, but the dimly-lit, sparsely-furnished, 4th floor room with a view of brick walls across the light well gave me enough atmosphere to scribble some naive, phoney  poems about being down and out in Perth and Melbourne. Besides, it was cheap and only about a ten minute wide-eyed wander to the Flinders and Swanston Streets intersection, the hub and hum of the city.
   Nick Polites played  clarinet with The Melbourne New Orleans Jazz Band and ran an up-market sweets shop opposite Flinders Street Station. After a day and a night of riding trams and exploring the city, I walked into the shop and showed him the note of introduction. It was a very friendly welcome. Nick told me where and when the band was playing and invited me to join them for a drink backstage. I was still 18 months away from the legal drinking age, but had already risked arrest by having one beer at Young and Jackson’s hotel, just so that I could see the famous painting of the naked Chloe. So a few private drinks backstage at dance gigs with a bunch of musicians was an attractive offer, which I accepted with gratitude.
   All of which happened in St Silas Church hall in Albert Park, where I should have taken advantage of the number of unattached Melbourne girls and asked one to dance, but was overcome by a mixture of shyness and sadness. I was missing my girlfriend. Anyway, I couldn’t imagine Kerouac cake-walking or jiving to a trad jazz band. Not cool. So I found a shadowy corner, dragged out my little notebook and biro and tried to scribble brilliant pithy observations, like a true writer.
Brunette, swirling red skirt, twirling under the arm of the square with the short back’n’sides, When she faces me her blouse gapes and I can see...
Nick, licorice stick pointing at the ceiling, doing the classic ’ High Society’ solo over Frank Turville’s cornet in harmony with Kevin Shannon’s trom, Mookie Herman thumping the bass and Willie Watt’s banjo syncopating with Graham Bennett’s steady rhythm on the snare...
   In the break I went outside, rolled a smoke, adopted a ‘cool’ expression like James Dean’s, hoping one of the girls smoking in a little group would come over, having spotted that I wasn’t a regular and introduce herself. None of them did. It started to rain and they squealed and rushed back inside, hands over their loosely permed hair-do’s.
   A bloke rushed past me up the path to the stage door. He had dark, curly hair and wore a fawn duffel coat and faded jeans. I was envious. No matter how often Mum washed my jeans, the bloody things wouldn’t fade enough. I followed him, plucking up the courage to meet the band.
   Backstage, my shyness fell away immediately as Nick put a hand on my shoulder and ushered me over to the rest of the band. Hands let go of beer glasses and shook mine. Big grins. Perth, eh? Do you know Dick Hattan?  Here y’ go, get this into you. You drunk Victoria Bitter before? Been here long? You went to school with Ross Nicholson? He’s young, but he’s goin’ places...Oh, Paul, come and meet a visitor. This is Paul Marks. He’s our singer. The man in the duffel coat shook my hand. You’ll hear him after the break. Bugger! Is that the time? Drink up, fellas! Down the hatch and let’s go!
   After the next bracket I wandered over to where some band wives were serving behind a corner trestle table with a few piles of records for sale. I couldn’t afford an LP, so I bought an EP of the MNOJB as a memento, especially as it contained two of the songs Paul Marks had just sung, ‘Walking with the King’ and ‘Dallas Blues’. My mouth watered over others by Graeme Bell, Ade Monsborough, the Port Jackson Jazz Band and bands I’d never heard of, most on the Swaggie label. I was just able to tuck the EP into my inside jacket pocket, having left my book back in my room, then went outside for another smoke. I overheard a conversation from a group nearby, along the lines of “You know Dave Brubeck’s in town this week?” “Yeah, but he’s too far out for me. I don’t understand all this modern stuff.”  “ What about ‘Take Five’? They’re playing it on the radio all the time. Just happy foot tapping music, like these blokes in here.” “Nah, you need three feet to tap to Brubeck.”
   At the end of the dance, I re-joined the band backstage as they packed up their instruments and Mookie Herman, leaning on an upright piano, passed round a flagon of riesling. It came to me, and with a swift swipe of my hand across the spout, hoping nobody noticed, I gulped down some of the sweet wine and passed the flagon on. As the jokes and laughter flowed, so did more wine and then more beer and so on... until it was time to go. One by one, they bade me farewell and went out to their cars. Nick autographed my EP and invited me to come to their next gig, the following Friday in Glen Iris. He also asked if I’d like a lift back into the city. I declined politely, saying as it had stopped raining, I’d enjoy a walk.
   .What I didn’t say to him was that I had never mixed wine and beer before and I was feeling a bit strange. I needed to walk. It turned out to be a long walk, punctuated by pauses to piss and puke as surreptitiously as possible in long wet grass and under hedges. And it started raining again.
    I sloshed up to the front door of the People’s Palace at around 12-45am. I rang the bell several times before a little elderly gent finally shuffled into view through the folding gate, glared at me as I told him my name and room number, swung the gate open and muttered a warning that he wouldn’t let me in after curfew again. I thanked him and took the lift up to my floor, went straight to the bathroom, did what I had to, returned to my room, hung my wet clothes up to dry and went to sleep with, of all things, the opening bars of ‘Take Five’ in my head.  
   My life was about to change dramatically in ways that I couldn’t have dreamed of.
   I counted about twenty of these posters the next morning as I walked downtown to find a cheap breakfast.
                                              ONE NIGHT ONLY! 
                                    THE DAVE BRUBECK QUARTET 
                                           Featuring the Worldwide Hit                                          
                                                    ‘TAKE FIVE’
                                                 FESTIVAL HALL
                                         Be quick! Tickets selling fast!
   When?  Friday night!. Risk it? Or go for what I know at Glen Iris with a great bunch of musos? My head still thumping in an odd rhythm, it occurred to me that to come all the way from Perth and not grab an opportunity to at least try something new, would be pretty unadventurous. Especially for an aspiring writer. After lashing out on a pack of American Camel cigarettes, I found a laminex and chrome greasy spoon cafe, devoured a fried egg and bacon and an awful coffee, then sat and smoked and scribbled some attempts at ‘Beat’ poetry in my notebook, feeling!

   Friday night. I entered the foyer of Festival Hall and nothing could have prepared me for the next two hours. Squeezing past quite a few men in suits and women in smart frocks, at first I felt like an interloper, imagining that they might think I’d wandered in, mistaking it for a cinema. But if they did look down their noses at me, I didn’t notice. I bought a programme to read when I’d found my seat upstairs in the gallery, handed in my ticket and climbed the stairs.
   Memories get cloudy after many years, but I can remember Joe Morello weaving past his kit to sit behind the bass drum, Gene Wright bending to pick up his bass from where it lay on the stage, Paul Desmond almost floating on, to take up his position downstage by the stand holding his alto sax as the applause got louder. I can’t forget the whistles and roar as Brubeck himself entered, giving a short wave to the crowd before sitting at the piano. I also remember being surprised that it was a grand piano. I’d only ever seen a grand piano at classical concerts I’d attended with my mother in the Capitol Theatre back home.
   I can’t remember what they opened with, just that it was begun with a loud chord on the keyboard and a great thump on the bass drum before setting off at a rapid pace with Desmond’s alto trilling over the sizzling pinging of the cymbals and amazing treble runs by Brubeck. I sat, totally enthralled, eyes probably out on stalks and ears certainly desperately trying to decipher the sounds for my confused brain.
   I did recognise a couple of tunes, at least for the first twelve bars or so, before the band took off into another dimension; probably some Rogers and Hart, or Cole Porter. But I know that this was where it started to demand something of me. I found myself following Gene Wright’s bass lines, then consciously switching my attention to Desmond’s beautiful tone, Brubeck’s left hand, and so on. He occasionally spoke to us briefly, announcing titles or giving some background to a number and it was when he mentioned Mozart that I really took note of what he was saying. It was the briefest of introductions to Brubeck’s adaptation of a tune I knew so well. My mother, a pianoforte teacher all her life, played it at home.

   And there it was. My turning point.  Point of departure. My point of no return. All of those. ‘Blue Rondo a la Turk’. I possibly made a nuisance of myself to the people on either side of me. I’m sure I laughed as soon as I recognised it and realised what Brubeck was doing with it.  And I know I jumped around to its infectious trade-off between piano and alto with a shuffle beat from Morello, followed by some angular ensemble phrases before Desmond rode sweetly over the steady bass line and I was tapping both feet, feeling like Mr Bojangles. Ecstatic.
   I didn’t leave my seat during the intermission. I wanted to savour what I’d just heard and pick through it in my mind while I read the programme notes. There were brief bios of the four. I learned about Joe Morello’s limited vision and Brubeck’s classical influences since studying with Darius Milhaud, a composer I’d never heard of.
   The second half of the concert is a blur. I was so busy thinking about what was going on,trying to keep up with chord changes and the unusual rhythms of some of the pieces, that it was only when they finally got to an extended version of Desmond’s ‘Take Five’ and the crowd went crazy, that I became conscious of having experienced my jazz epiphany. I wouldn’t have used that word back then. Awakening, perhaps. My whole body tingled. I felt like part of the informed audience, instead of the feeling of alienation when I first arrived at the theatre. I couldn’t wait to tell my Miles, Diz and Bird friend back home. “Mouldy no more!”
   I did get to one more trad jazz gig before returning to Perth. I talked to the musicians about Brubeck and two of them said they were cursing that they couldn’t get to the concert. I felt liberated. Aha! So you don’t have to abandon the old when you embrace the new. If you open your mind and your ears, you will be rewarded. I’d taken some giant steps toward my rewards.
   By 1961 I had my own jazz programme on Perth radio, using ‘Milestones’ as the opening and closing theme and happily playing everything from Jelly Roll Morton to Lady Day, Basie, Ray Charles, Monk, Coltrane and even a live performance from the brilliant blues harmonica player, Shane Duckham, who just wandered in, one night. Oh yes, and Ornette Coleman’s ‘Change of the Century’, which took some getting used to. Several giant steps from New Orleans.
   All of which prepared me for Sydney in 1962 where I started all over again, via Graeme Bell in the Macquarie Hotel, Dick Hughes and Ray Price at the Adams, Graeme Lyall, John Sangster and Judy Bailey in the El Rocco...
   But that’s just the beginning of another story.   


Ken Harwood said...

Thank you Murray, took me back to an exciting time in my life.
How many young minds were expanded by "Time Out"?

Andrew Burke said...

Well, Ken, thanks for yr comment. YOU introduced me to 'Blood Sweat & Tears' which then took me to Erik Satie. And when I worked with Murray J at 6IX in the long distant past, he introduced me to Music from Big Pink by The Band (and Sandy Denny btw). How we all influence each other, like minded peeps sending out new tentacles.
It would be great for you to write a similar memoir, Ken, if'n you have the time (you could leave out our party exploits! they'll be in my second novel - ha ha!)