Sarah, Billie, Duke and Me

by | Aug 9, 2005 | Special Features | 0 comments

SARAH, BILLIE,


DUKE, and ME

Both of my parents were deeply committed to music, and as a result I
developed the itch early.  In fact one of the earliest memories I
have from childhood was listening to Mr. Williams, our neighbor blues
guitarist and singer. His music gave me a kind of  serenity, a
feeling of  happiness and calm. A kind of  feeling inside me
such as I’d not had before. It said “Pay Attention, this is Something;
Something Special!”

But it was my mother and  her lifelong love of jazz that was the
beginning of my own long love affair with the art form. Sarah, The
Count, and Duke were early and often visitors inside our house. She
stayed loyal to these icons although she did stray to Miles, Diz, Monk,
and many of the other modern jazz stars. The fact that these greats
were African-American was important to me. The time was after all the
50s and to say that we were not celebrated as a group is putting it
mildly. The skill and verve (no pun intended) that was so clearly
evident made me feel better about myself and my place in the social
order.

The years slip by but the music I heard during that time stays with me.
The music my mother brought to my life I still find myself humming.
Sarah’s Live at Mr. Kelly’s, Ella’s Live in Berlin, Ellington’s Indigos
and more have remained special. Wonderful sounds pulling me ever more
surely into a world separate and apart from the world I inhabited. Jazz
then had an even more special place than it does today. I remember
classmates questioning why I was reading that weird Downbeat magazine.
By the time I graduated from high school in 1960 I could hardly wait
till I was 21 and could go to clubs freely go to the clubs to hear this
wonderful music.

I remember Ella’s lovely elongation of the phrase “our love is Is here
tooo stay”. I think of Billie’s struggles with heroin and booze. In a
poem I wrote about her I see her at the end reaching toward hope. In
fact hope is what I have gotten from jazz. Growing up in the Eisenhower
era presented me and other young black people with very little of an
affirmative nature. In fact claims of superiority were so pervasive
that they were widely used to justify discrimination. Indeed these
social, political, cultural, and economic changes found an echo in the
jazz world. After the war it was much better to go to hear small
groups. Also as classrooms became slowly integrated so did the jazz
ensemble. It was in this context that I started listening to modern
jazz: Bird, Diz, Miles, Clifford Brown, Mingus et al.

This process was helped by my becoming friends with a young man I’ll
call Carl. Carl was in college while I was still in high school. I was
flattered by his interest – even if that interest was tainted by his
interest in my sister. Not that I faulted him; I have always thought
highly of my brainy attractive sister. He introduced me to Dave
Brubeck, Herbie Mann, and the genre of  the smooth West Coast
sound. Modern jazz appealed to me because of the muscular
intellectualism I found in the music.The achievements of these great
musicians seemed to have wedded the concepts of the intellect and the
emotions. Night in Tunisia, Round Midnight, Straight No Chaser, spoke
to me loudly and with a kind feeling that put me squarely in the Amen
corner. Some of the most enjoyable music of this period for me was that
of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and Horace Silver and his bluesy
piano.The funk and soul of these groups as well as Cannonball
Adderley’s made new friends for jazz. Silver’s The Preacher, Sister
Sadie, and Doodlin’ became jazz classics. Along with these artists such
as Jimmy Smith, Brother Jack McDuff, Richard “Groove” Holmes helped
establish the organ/guitar/drums trio sound and made it popular.

When Trane recorded his sensational My Favorite Things and Mingus
pointed at Faubus. I took heart that we seemed to on our way to another
kind of promised land. Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP lawyers were
mounting the challenge to separate but equal practices in the South and
the de facto discrimination prevalent in the North. Jazz, the jazz
played by the before-mentioned greats, countered the prevalent
stereotypes. Greats such as the Modern Jazz Quartet and the
ever-sophisticated Duke Ellington showed just how urbane jazzmen could
be. Fusion came on the scene with such wonderful players as Herbie
Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Chick Corea. I saw this as a healthy
development in the music. Jazz was continuing to be a progressive
enterprise.       

Jazz continues to change to get a broader audience. High school jazz
bands are the bright lights for their communities now and many colleges
have outstanding jazz departments. In both jazz and ethnic relations we
are in the words of Langston Hughes “…reachin’ landins’ and turnin’
corners. Sometimes goin’ in places where there ain’t been no
light.”  And indeed, for me, for us all, life ain’t been no
crystal stairs. Certainly, in the words of Father Gensell the jazz
priest and (Fatha) Hines, “to swing is to affirm.”   

— Everett E.
Goodwin

 
[Everett Goodwin has produced a series of jazz posters incorporating his art work and poetry. His web site is https://www.everettgoodwin.com ]
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