The copy of Jazz Gentry: Aristocrats of the Music World on loan from the library of a prestigious music school doesn’t even have a crease across its spine. Every page is crisp, they all rest perfectly flat on top of one another and all of their corners are still sharpened into a prickly point. There’s also no evidence of fingers, or for that matter sunlight or lamplight, blemishing Bobby Hackett’s earnest face on the cover. The virgin stamp card at the back seems redundant; it’s immediately obvious that this book has never been picked up off the shelf, let alone left the building.
Apparently in the fourteen years since it was published, Warren Vaché’s collection of interviews and insights from dozens of prewar jazz musicians hasn’t sparked the interest of any of the students attending this renowned institution. To be fair, most of the musicians that Vaché interviewed weren’t associated with any styles taught in a classroom. They had already faded from jazz’s collective memory by the time he first wrote these pieces for various magazines in the seventies. Yet the musicians themselves were still around. Now esoteric pursuits with names like “Chauncey, Challis, Cork” and “Doc” were still people with brains to pick and memories to mine.
It would be easy to assume that Vaché’s subjects played too many melodies or too few amplifiers to attract contemporary music students. Yet that’s an assumption based on generalization and laziness. History is a hard sell for a lot of people, regardless of age, taste or how many Coltrane tunes they have memorized. Many of the current descriptions of prewar jazz, or lack thereof, haven’t helped matters.
So instead of lecturing on the importance of Bix Beiderbecke or opining on Vic Dickenson‘s singular sense of humor on the trombone, I’ll just offer that young musicians are missing out on stories like this one:
The [Vincent] Lopez orchestra went on tour, and when Joe [Tarto] learned they would play the Mosque Theater in his hometown Newark, he sent word to his mother so she could come see him perform-something she had never been able to do before…Joe had a featured spot on the program doing a slap bass chorus on “Milenberg Joys.” As a finale, and to add a little showmanship while in the spotlight, he got into the habit of kicking the bass into a spin. All the kicking had finally worn a hole into the back of the bass, and between shows at the Mosque a stray alley cat found the hole and crawled in. Nobody was more surprised than Joe during the next rendition of “Milenberg Joys” when the frightened cat began screaming and trying to claw his way out through the F holes of the fiddle. For a moment he thought a ghost had taken up residence in the old bass, but like a real trouper he kept on thumping away right up to the finale. But when he launched the customary kick, the hole in the bass opened up and released the cat, which took off for the pit musicians, knocking over music stands and winding up in the lap of the pianist. The audience howled, thinking it was all part of the act, but the SPCA didn’t think it was funny. Joe had a hard time convincing the humane society representative that the cat wasn’t part of the performance.
Tuba player, bassist, arranger and composer Joe Tarto was about seventy-one years old when he told this story to Vaché, and it is heartwarming to picture him as a young, green musician, excited by the chance to perform for his mother and encountering some harmless bas luck (and also to know that even back then, a diligent member of the SPCA was on hand to look out for that poor animal’s welfare). The image of the Lopez band opening up a chart and letting a rhythm instrument solo is also telling. Bass solos are still relatively rare, so in 1925 this must have seemed postmodern. While a bass is now more likely to walk rather than slap, the bottom line remains musicians making music. Not “commercial music, “serious music,” “art” or “entertainment” but music they enjoy. Reading Vache’s book is less a matter of respecting one’s elders than simply conversing with a colleague. Don’t get hung up on labels like “dead” or “alive,” just get to a library!