copyright © 2004 Sy Johnson
The Dixwell Avenue trolley ran past the New Haven Green and Yale University before its abrupt emergence just past the Payne-Whitney gym into the "colored" section, which for the short mile it covered, seemed a different world through the trolley windows. Then, just as abruptly, at the Newhallville traffic circle, it became home to white immigrants, some of whom worked at Winchester Repeating Arms up the hill, and for the railroad, and whose numbers included my maternal grand parents and many of my friends. The trolley then passed into the town of Hamden, where we lived, and ended a quarter of a mile from Hamden High School, where I attended.
I was first lured off the trolley into the colored section by a little speaker sitting on a chair outside a small record store, which was blaring what proved to be Illinois Jacquet's stratospheric tenor solo on Jazz at the Philharmonics "Blues part 2." I had to find out what that record was, and I had to have it. The store, where I later bought the first Ray Charles Trio sides where he still sounded like Nat Cole, and "Groovin High," where Bird changed my life with a 16 bar solo, would sell out "Blues part 2" as soon as it came in, and when they did get delivery, they would play it non-stop on the street as a clarion call — "Come and get it."
I bought many 78's by Jacquet's great little jump band — "Robbin's Nest," "Bottoms-Up" and I played them so often I had them memorized. Later, when I was in an Air Force Band overseas, I was able to arrange them from memory.
I had never seen a live jazz performance until my high school friend, Roger Brousso, (who practiced staying up late so he could have his own jazz club, and who later brought the Half Note uptown to 54th Street) told me that Jacquet's band was playing a dance at The New Haven Armory on a school night, and that he and the Loewenbaum twins were going, and that I should too. So I made up a white lie for my parents, got on the Dixwell Avenue trolley, and met them at the Armory.
The New Haven Armory is a huge place, and in the middle, a stage had been set up about four feet off the floor. We were very early and as the place filled with a mostly black audience, we staked out a position right in front.
Finally, the band emerged and climbed to the stage. My heart was pounding. Roger and I recognized musicians from the pages of Downbeat and Metronome — J. J. Johnson, Leo Parker, Joe Newman, Sir Charles Thompson, Shadow Wilson.
A short, plump black lady, wearing a colorful turban, was standing just to my right, and seemed to be alone. All was fine until the third number, when Jacquet began to work his way up his tenor into his altissimo register. When Jacquet started to screech, the lady standing next to me suddenly banged her head on the edge of the stage — a real windup and then thonk!! And as he raised the heat, she followed in intensity — screech, thonk — some head-shaking and refocus — screech, thonk. Nobody else seemed alarmed, but I kept an eye on her. I was afraid she'd kill herself. The band would play a ballad, some jitterbug stuff, some features for the great players in the band. The second trumpet proved to be Russell Jacquet. But then, Jacquet would reach for the skies, and she would begin again, thonk!! Eventually, she knocked herself out, and face covered in blood, she was carried away.
The music was beyond anything I could have imagined — J. J., Newman, Leo Parker, a great rhythm section, and magnificent mainstream playing from Illinois. They played for an hour and a half at least, and the crowd was dancing like it was the Savoy. Then they began "Flying Home" and Jacquet began with his famous 'Martha" quote, and suddenly she was back, a big bandage under her turban, and when Jacquet reached for the stratosphere, it was screech, thonk again. Mercifully, the band took a break before she could completely self-destruct.
We were drained, drenched, and exhilarated in equal measures. Air, we needed, fresh air. Roger spotted a side "Exit" door and we headed for it. I threw the door open and was blinded by bright lights coming down the alley.
"You boys, step back in. You can not come out here. Step back in immediately," demanded a police loud speaker. I looked down, and at my feet was a young man, stabbed to death, in a pool of blood.
I closed the door, and we stumbled over to some stairs to sit down. All I could think was, "If this is what being a jazz musician is like, then I want to be a jazz musician!!"
C o m m e n t s
Initiated by Jacquet 1 of 2 Rachael P Sugarman August 06, 17
Written in Sy's usual relaxed and charming style. Loved the quality of memoir that makes me want to read more stories of his life in Jazz.