February 15, 2018

An old friend, Dave Tuck, asked if I might offer a young undergraduate any useful suggestions for a thesis she was planning on aspects of rock ‘n’ roll. Now where r ‘n’ r is concerned my knowledge is only that of a casual listener; however, one of the facets being considered for the thesis was an exploration of how parents reacted to their offspring’s embracing of the new rebellious music of the 1950s. Through her own background, she knew how white adults and teenagers in the UK reacted to rock ‘n’ roll, but she was curious to know if black teenagers in the USA had similar experiences to hers. And did black adults also view this new musical fashion as controversial and sinful? I had no idea, so I raised these questions with two black American singers and their replies, while maybe not too helpful with the proposed university thesis, offered some insight into the making of a jazz singer.

One of these singers is Sandi Russell, who performs concerts and makes albums as a jazz singer (see my review in Jazz Journal in December 2007), Sandi-Russell-CD-150x150 and has also toured her one-woman show dealing with aspects of being a black woman in a white-dominated society. sr book2 In her reply to my query, Sandi commented that she was “somewhat interested in rock and roll, Bill Haley, etc.,” but “mostly listened to doo-wop and rhythm and blues, and my parents didn’t seem to mind or care. I don’t think the black community paid that much attention, and not many kids I knew liked Elvis at all!” Sandi’s father, though, did take marked exception to her playing Jerry Lee Lewis’s Great Balls Of Fire, which he promptly broke in half, saying that “this kind of music is not allowed in the house”. Sandi added that at the time she had “no idea what the song meant, except somebody was happy and excited!”

Sandi, who was born in New York but has lived in England for many years, published her début novel, Color, in book

I expect there are many who encountered related confrontations with parents. In my case there were parental objections to the double entendre lyrics of some of the blues records I played and yet, confusingly (to the teenage me), the blatantly single entendre lyrics of the musical hall ribaldry my parents loved were deemed acceptable.

The other singer is Sandy Graham, born and still based in California, who has been closely involved in the jazz world most of her life and has made several albums, one of which I reviewed in Jazz Journal in April 2004.sg1 In her reply to my inquiry, Sandy remarked that she could offer little insight into rock ‘n’ roll. “I was exposed to gospel music and jazz as a child. When I did listen to music other than gospel or jazz I listened to pop or classical music.” Sandy’s father “played saxophone and loved Johnny Hodges, so I was exposed to jazz all the time. The first record I ever bought was Charlie Parker’s All The Things You Are. I was eleven or twelve years old. The pop music I heard was by Peggy Lee, Patti Page, Rosemary Clooney, Johnny Mathis, Sinatra, Como, the Four Lads, the Four Aces, the Four Freshmen, the Hi-Lo’s et. al. I did like some R&B groups, such as the Clovers, the Temptations, the Impressions, but was exposed to very little of it when I was a child. I didn’t like Little Richard or James Brown and those folks. So as far as the parent/child relationship is concerned there was no rebellion in my home. My family was musical and when I lived in foster homes prior to living with my Dad, they were also listening to jazz, gospel and very little R&B.”

The years Sandy spent with her father were in Oregon and it was there, at the age of sixteen, that she won the opportunity to sing on television. “I sang Little Things Mean A Lot. It was a pop song recorded by Teresa Brewer. I was scared to death. But I did it beautifully, so they say . . . I hardly remember. Anyway, my father was very proud and used to wake me at two o’clock in the morning to sing Four Brothers for his friends who would come by the house after work. Ha ha! I loved bebop. Still do.”sg2

It was in Oregon that Sandy met Elise Bly and it was through her that when she was back in Los Angeles she met trumpeter Clora Bryant. Elise and Clora had played together in Oklahoma and these musical generation-spanning contacts of Sandy’s can be seen in Judy Chaikin’s award-winning film, The Girls In The Band. When she was in Los Angeles, Sandy was never far from music. “We lived off Central Avenue where jazz and blues played anytime of the day and night. I remember when people would come from all over Los Angeles to go to the clubs in the Central Avenue area.jc girls They would dress up in shiny dresses, pearls and furs. I always said when I get big I’m going to dress like that, smoke cigarettes out of a long cigarette holder and go to the clubs and listen to the beautiful music. Of course when I got old enough to go to Central Avenue all those jazz clubs were gone. Oh, but I’m rambling on because I still think about the places that I missed. I was born too late for those glorious, glamorous times. At least, it seemed glamorous to me. But it probably wasn’t really. My eyes were full of stars.”

Those images of Central Avenue are much more than half a world away from many. Speaking for myself, I was born and raised in a city in the North of England where there were no jazz clubs and only rarely did a jazz artist make a concert appearance at the stately and quite unsuitable City Hall. Gradually, as the years went by, jazz was heard; the trad jazz boom of the 1950s at last giving pub landlords something to do with those cavernous first-floor rooms that had lain empty and echoing for decades.Door with jazz and graffiti So different are these memories from Sandy Graham’s Central Avenue recollections and yet, somehow, I feel a surprisingly strong kinship with her and others who saw and heard those sights and sounds, be they in Los Angeles or Kansas City or on Chicago’s South Side or New York’s 52nd Street. If her eyes were full of stars, then the same might be said of my head. Hopefully, the make-believe will stay in my head among the images of reported but unrecorded moments of magic: Joe Turner singing behind the bar of the Reno Club; Louis Armstrong and Lionel Hampton playing a 30-minute duet on trumpet and drums in a Los Angeles nightspot; Dizzy Gillespie happily sitting in and playing fourth (!) trumpet in Bill Berry’s band at Carmelo’s in Hollywood; Chick Webb routing Benny Goodman in a battle of the bands at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom. All these are real events but the aural and visual images they evoke are entirely imaginary, and yet are all so real to me.

This same imagination drew me by way of jazz to other aspects of American culture. Among the results of this is my stage play, The Colors Of Your Life, which centers upon the mistreatment of black women in the USA from slavery through to the present day.bc colors Also, three of my recent crime novels, Harlem Nocturne, Harlem Madness, and Harlem Blues, are set respectively in 1939, 1943 and 1963. Although fiction, these tales touch upon real issues of those times, including the rise of fascism, the Harlem riots, and the impact of the Civil Rights movement. I am immeasurably grateful that jazz and my (perhaps overly active) imagination led me into these other worlds.bc h blues No bad thing; because imagination is what someone in my trade needs. Just as it is needed in the much richer and more important work of the jazz giants we all admire. Perhaps, once in a while, imagination overflows a little beyond acceptable boundaries, but I certainly hope that such lapses can be forgiven, if only because in so doing I can sneakily forgive myself when I do it. And why not? After all, without imagination, the world can be a very dull place.

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