by William Minorcopyright © 1998, William Minor
Having drained our ginger beers, J.D. Fox O'Donnell and I sauntered out of Ritter's Liquor Store, swaggered up the street and stopped, next to Cunningham's Drugs, to look at the drums in the window of Grinnell Bros. Music Store.
"Remember, Kid," O'Donnell said to me. "Drummers is a dime a dozen."
When he made this statement, he was thinking of himself, a drummer - and with uncustomary modesty. He was freshly arrived at our high school, and he wasn't dime a dozen. He'd wriggled clear of the mold, the prescription, the customary lot, and that - in Detroit in 1951, the year I made his acquaintance - was no small trick.
Let others contemplate streets of gold, fleecy clouds and pearly gates. The windows of Grinnell Bros. shaped my view - and continue to on occasion - of Heaven. Rich ebony clarinets, svelte spun tenor saxophones, guitars that shone like hardwood floors, a stand-up bass as proud and deep mahogany dark as my aunt's gift of the antique desk in the hall. All this was surrounded, showcased by silver triangles, glockenspiels, Chinese wood blocks and classical instruments I didn't pay much attention to but liked having there simply because they were musical: flutes, bassoons, oboes, piccolos. Then, smack behind it all, above, towering, like an acquiescent king amused by the foppery and flurry of court life beneath him, sat . . . the drums.
"Dig those sixteen by sixteen inch toms," J.D. said, speaking through one of his small Dutch import cigars.
The cigar was a novelty he'd introduced to us, along with stories about Japanese girls and Turkish soldiers (mysteriously discharged, he'd returned to high school during the Korean War): anatomical information on the former which, as far as I then knew, further investigation on the part of the West had failed to verify and, on the latter, wild tales about how they buried themselves alive, let the enemy pass over, and then rose up - en masse and bearing scimitars, making a terrible noise that struck fear into the hearts of not only the Chinese and North Korean soldiers, but the Americans as well.
When J.D. Fox O'Donnell talked, he talked from one side of his mouth, even without the cigar. Whether this was an affectation, a genetic accident or the result of improper dental care, I didn't know. The only occasion I'd seen the mannerism duplicated was when, chock full of fatality and quiet Moroccan desperation, Humphrey Bogart advises Ingrid Bergman that, in this crazy world, the problems of three small people don't amount to a hill of beans, and that she'd damn well better get on that plane with Victor Lazlow. Who got there first, I didn't know either - Bogart or J.D. But I was betting on Fox O'Donnell.
"Sixteen by sixteen inch toms?" I chirped. He was teaching me math now, not just hip talk and ginger beer. And he was teaching me heresy, new and dangerous heroes, like himself.
In Detroit, in those days, the first present one received in a Christmas stocking was a toy car or, in the case of some people (the Happy Few, or Unhappy Few), a real one. Detroit was the automobile. The automobile was King. I loved cars as I, a native son, was expected or required to. However, that love affair ceased the first time J.D. Fox O'Donnell led me over to Grinnell Bros. to see those drums. The Simonize job, the finish on those sets, voided whatever Chrysler, Ford and General Motors had to offer in the way of smart production. The name "Slingerland" replaced DeSoto in my pantheon. "Gretch" and "Ludwig" cancelled out Studebaker, Packard and Nash. That was my heresy, and I was willing to go all the way - to the stake and be burnt there - for it. No two-tone Merc or Buick could compete with a sparkling Red Pearl (my favorite), Black Diamond, White Tiger, Blue Agate or Champagne drum finish. I abhorred decadence (a word I didn't even know at the time; I just didn't like things too jaded fancy or precious), but I would even have settled for a set of Lavendar Satin or Tangerine Pearl drums.
There they were! Smack in the back of that window, complete with cardboard mockups of my new heroes: Max Roach, Shelly Manne, Jo Jones, Buddy Rich, Sonny Igoe, Louis Bellson, Cozy Cole, Gene Krupa. I had immediately chucked my infatuation with the piano. You always had to find one of those, and they were seldom in top condition. You couldn't take a piano with you, from gig to gig, the way you could a car or a girl or a good set of drums . . .
My weekly allowance was too slight for what I saw at Grinnell Brorthers. So I made my own set at home. They were no match for anything I'd seen in that window, but they were a sort not likely ever to be seen again. Before they fell apart, they should have been sent to the Smithsonian Institution. The snare was made of half a Quaker Oats box with tissue paper taped to the bottom and crossed by lines of thin wire. One cymbal was the lid from a Number Ten can of beans; the other, smaller, was from Campbell's Soup (Cream of Mushroom, I believe). I made a set of wire brushes out of bristles I plucked from my mother's prize broom, and J.D. gave me a pair of sticks he claimed had been given to him in Chicago - by Gene Krupa! This may or may not have been the case. Truth didn't matter (I was learning that); inspiration did. And luck. The sticks were too heavy to use on my cardboard snare, so I just let them sit beside me - for luck. I spent hours woodshedding in the basement at home, accompanying LP records by pianists like Teddy Wilson, Joe Bushkin, Eddie Heywood, George Shearing, Bernie Leighton, Erroll Garner. Finally the top of the Quaker Oats box - repeatedly massaged, punched, stroked - gave way. It just caved in. So I decided I was ripe for bigger and better things.
J.D. and I combed the hock shops on Michigan Avenue and came back with an old wooden snare, the kind he loved, and no bargain really, for I could probably have bought the same thing, new, for a similar price at Grinnell Bros. Yet I'd seen my first bums up close (I'd even given one the proverbial dime for a cup of coffee, or more likely something else) and that made the trip worthwhile. I felt like a genuine down-and-out died-for-love broken hearted jazz man myself, even though I knew I wouldn't stay that way for long. I was also feeling the itch of ambition. At night, instead of girls, I dreamt of Red Pearl drums. I also dreamt of fifteen minute drum solos. I'd been to my first Jazz at the Philharmonic concert, the whole balcony of us teenage brats bopping about with our hankerchiefs curled in the shape of tenor saxophones, imitating the drawn out duels of Illinois Jacquet and Flip Phillips. But it was drummer Jo Jones who thrilled me, teasing the crowd with soft prolonged rolls - just as girls were teasing my stay-at-home friends in basements all over town - flirting, needling, ragging until cries of "Go, Jo, go!" ignited a percussive outrage, a flurry of wood on skin such as I'd never heard before.
J.D. Fox O'Donnell scoffed at such exhibitionism. He preferred the steady modest beat of Dave Tough. "Drummers should be seen but not heard," he said.
"What the hell does that mean?" I retaliated.
"It means what I said."
"What you said doesn't make any sense."
"It will someday, Kid. It will."
The "Kid" bit was beginning to rankle. I was trying everything on for size and ripe for what was most obvious, dying to imitate it. I wanted to make some noise, my own noise. I could feel my fledgling wings, and J.D's paternal attitude bugged me, just like that (probably more deserved) of my father.
"Are you always right, J.D.?" I asked.
He thought for a moment and then nodded, Yes.
"Kid," he said, "in the brute scramble and sweat of living - and I do not intentionally intend to sound braggadocious - I've been in some big towns, and heard me some big talk. I put a few good creases in the old knowledge box, and now I just try to stay off the sulks, Man, and make thick, not thin, gravy." I still loved it when he talked that way, but I refused, sniffing my independence, to get back in thrall. I didn't even feel all that down and out blue when Fox O'Donnell flunked out of high school and reenlisted in the Army. I took an after-school job as a stock boy at Grinnell Bros. When the manager agreed to a generous discount (I had something on him: he posted me at the head of the stairs leading to the basement, when he phoned his Pontiac girl friend there, his wife at work in the store's China department), I bought a full set of Slingerland Red Pearl drums. I hadn't told anyone - my father, my mother, not even J.D., with whom I was now a highly irregular correspondent. I'd have to work a full year at Grinnell Bros. to pay the drums off, even with the discount, but I didn't care. That set was the most beautiful thing I have ever owned in my life. The day the drums arrived at the store a friend from work drove me home. For safety's sake, he stayed in the car while I carted my prize, item by item, into the house. My mother was preparing meatloaf in the kitchen.
She smiled approvingly when I passed through, snare in hand (She was proud that I was holding down a job, and I'd told her I was thinking of buying a new snare, to replace the now battered hock shop version). The smile vanished when she saw the bass drum. It was replaced by a look of terror when I walked by with the two toms. When I carted in the large glistening ride cymbals she was crying, and I think she was hysterical by the time I traipsed past with the hi-hat. I set it all up - four solid bodies and tons of spun brass - and then, out of courtesy, closed the door to the basement. I commenced to play my first fifteen minute drum solo. It lasted an hour. I beat the living shit out of those drums. I was Jo Jones, Max Roach, Louis Bellson and Buddy Rich all rolled up into one. The effect must have resembled an ill-designed, or non-designed, cacophonous Fourth of July fireworks display. When I emerged from the basement, all smiles and sweetly smarting with the aftermath of multiple musical orgasm, my mother was phoning the police. They said they couldn't respond to what appeared to be a matter of mere domestic discord.
"Some snare," my mother said to me, wiping her tears.
To pay off the drums, I formed a band. We played dance music at proms throughout southeastern Michigan. We even had a vocalist: Cheryl Scanlon, a stunning girl, pretty as a creature of seventeen can be, no Lee Wiley or Chris Connor of course, but a subsistent voice. She already had a boy friend, but that didn't stop me from falling in love with her the way I did with any pretty woman I was around for more than five minutes.
The band was a success, but I didn't make any headway with Cheryl. She preferred her boy friend, a star halfback on the football team who responded - sometimes - to the name Tom the Bomb, solid muscle from cranium to metatarsals. Worse yet, he felt the band was interferring with his love life, so Cheryl left us. That hurt, but fortunately I had a wide stock of blues to sing in a life that - aside from music - was turning out to be made up of what Mezz Mezzrow (whose Really the Blues I'd just read) - called "the midnight blacks." And I had his advice on women in general: "You can't mix up the sweet talk and high-pressure fruiting with blowing jazz music." So, nursing a wound as big as my bass drum, I blew.
We played gig after gig, even without Cheryl, and I took cynical delight, after a night of watching the square couples shuffle back and forth over dance wax, the floor splayed with soft colored light, soppy signs glowing in the dark along the walls - Jim and Janet, Ted and Jane, Bev and Doug - the couples molesting, mugging each other in time to my music (that's what hurt the most); I took cynical delight in packing up after each of these dates: watching the last crinolined satin-sheathed lady, a wilted gardenia clutching her left breast, depart beside some smirking stud, nothing but basketball markings and busted crepe and the smeared winter tracks of dance wax left behind while I unscrewed the bolt on my ride cymbal - the echo of "Guilty," or "Nevertheless,""You Belong to Me" or "The Blue Room" or "Dream A Little Dream of Me" in my head - and packed my drums, item by item, away in their cozy canvas covers, assuring the male vocalist we were trying out that he was a more than adequate replacement for Cheryl (my God!), carting the drums, piece by piece, out to the car, watching the red summer exhaust of the lovers depart, knowing they'd all grown horny in their iceberg hearts to my music. Jesus! It was all so unfair. So sad, so evil, so lonely.
* * *
One night, toward the end of summer, we played a dance at my own high school. The band now had an alto man who was first-rate, plus a friend of his on bass who was pretty good too - semi-pros from another school. This was a good band, in spite of the piano player, who tended to doze off at certain tempos, and a guy named Eddie DeAngelo on solid body guitar (a rarity then) who was alright if you could keep him from jacking up his amp too loud (he also tended, in his adolescent pursuit of excellence, to hit more than a few wrong chords). I was oversteady on the rim shots that night, trying to keep the piano man awake, but it was a good gig: the square couples swishing back and forth over their dance wax, getting as submerged in one another as possible without getting obscene, immune in the soft light. I was steady on the rim shots, feeling smug above the couples, when I looked down and who should be standing there in front of the bandstand but J.D. Fox O'Donnell!
He was grinning as if he'd just been invented by Lewis Carroll. He even wore a suit: a regular Brooks Brothers suit with a thin tie and white shirt and fine appropriate shoes and everything. I, in my wide-shouldered midnight blue sport coat and pegged pants, panicked. I did something that, to this day, still makes me itch with shame. We'd been playing some sappy tune - "Thinking of You" or "Garden in the Rain" - and I signaled for the band to halt. I called for "The Shiek of Araby," a specialty number for me on drums. We'd stolen the best of it from Eddie Condon, the worst from the depths of our own pubescent hearts. I should say mine. It was my tune, my song. The sax man started out by singing "Araby," straight, and then I cut in with, "Don't you know that's all out of date, Gate?
"There's better ways to get your queens:
Here's what's won the gals in New Orleans."
The band, which up to this time had been chanting an insane chorus of "in a bathing suit" - a novelty addition we'd picked up from God-only-knows where - quit, and I rose from my drums, actually stood, just as J.D. Fox O'Donnell had once taught me to, and sang: "Some of you cats just ain't on the beam; I know what's wrong, you been cookin' with cream. If you wanna beat that's rugged and hard, Then fry me, Cookie, with a can of lard."
After this came the fifteen minute drum solo I'd been practicing assiduously for over a year, much to my mother's chagrin and distress. J.D. stood very still and listened, a look of serene inscrutable Chinese stupifaction on his face. I lashed out at every piece of calfskin in sight, and every cymbal. Nervous, excited, stupid, proud, I missed every rim shot I tried, dislodged two cymbals from their stands and sent them crashing to the floor, got a cramp in my left arm, knocked the snare drum over and watched as the bass - pulverized by my overanxious right foot - went gliding away from me and my so-called drum solo.
The more I'd tried to "percolate" (as J.D. Fox O'Donnell once called playing well, or hot), the more the coffee got cold. I even had the nerve to glance down at him for approval. I didn't get any, but I got the message. His eyes told me all he wished me to know. Not much had changed - aside from Fox O'Donnell and myself - since that day we'd stood in front of the window at Grinnell Bros. Music Store.
"Kid," his eyes said. "You got yourself a lot of cheap hardware."
When I called the drum solo to a merciful halt, the band came back in, saving me from total disgrace. I looked down and saw that J.D. Fox O'Donnell had disappeared. I never saw him again.
William Minor is the author of Unzipped Souls: A Jazz Journey Through the Soviet Union and Monterey Jazz Festival: Forty Legendary Years. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous national publications, including Best Little Magazine Fiction (NYU Press).