Bittersweet feelings swept over me, a child of swing, during a recent walk down Manhattan’s Times Square after an absence of several decades. At the end of the walk (Broadway and 42nd Street) two other feelings emerged: there’s a permanence in things notwithstanding change. And all of us are, inescapably, creatures of culture.
I felt pain seeing the spot where the Strand Theater had been (where I had had the pleasure of seeing and hearing Artie Shaw, his clarinet and orchestra, play a dazzling arrangement of Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine”). Pain seeing the location of the once-Loew’s State Theater (where I had been transported into swing heaven by Duke Ellington, his piano, his orchestra, and the haunting blues of his “Mood Indigo”). And pain walking by the Paramount Building with its tacky street-front stores hawking tourist gimcracks and discount consumer wares. For gone is the big Paramount Theater, the glamour of a theater in which, it seemed, I practically grew up, with its grand marquee bespeaking of giants of the stripe of Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Jimmie Lunceford, and Tommy Dorsey. In person! On stage!
And what a stage, as the first faint spine-tingling notes of the big band’s theme music sounded—Goodman’s “Let’s Dance,” Miller’s “Sunrise Serenade,” Lunceford’s “Jazznocracy,” Dorsev’s “I’m Gettin’ Sentimental Over You”—as the curtain parted, as up slowly out of nowhere rose the stage with the leader and his band into partial, then full and glorious view, as the ever-louder theme number reached a crescendo, as the audience, myself included, clapped and stomped when not (as at early morning shows for an army of truant high schoolers) standing and screaming and then dancing and jiving in the aisles. Jitterbugs, the press labeled us.
Pain in not becoming a swing musician at age 16 came in 1937, when Mom discovered a pair of drumsticks in mv bedroom closet. That night when Pop and Brother George, more than seven years mv elder, got home from work there was the devil to pay. An explanation was demanded. Trapped, I confessed that, yes, I was taking private drum lessons from a professional musician at the Loew’s Jersey City Building. How much a lesson, they wanted to know. Four dollars an hour, I replied, conceding, sure, it was a lot of money but proclaiming that the world needed another Gene Krupa or Lionel Hampton.
Mom declared me crazy in her native Swedish (the Swedes have four different words for crazy, and she used all four). “What’s to become of him?” she asked, looking up, presumably to God. Pop said I should seek a more practical career. Brother George concurred. Close to tears, I agreed to drop the lessons and study harder at Dickinson High School.
Even so, high school pals saw how lost in swing I still was, as I clicked my fingers to some inaudible tune going around in my brain. They urged me to enter Deejay Martin Block’s competition for student critics to review new swing records at WNEW’s “Make-Believe Ballroom,” a popular radio show with teens and other swing addicts in its day. My three-page application letter must have clicked, for I got to represent Dickinson High with a counterpart from Brooklyn High. That night I put Dickinson and Jersey City on the map. I was famous. Kids told me so the next day in class and in the hallways.
Once the great Jimmie Lunceford orchestra came to a Jersey City dance hall. Without a date I spent the entire evening at the bandstand, swaying to the rhythm, enthralled by great Sy Oliver arrangements like “Annie Laurie” and “For Dancers Only,” collecting autographs from leader Lunceford and every band member. Jimmy Crawford, Lunceford’s superb drummer, seemed to take a liking to the gawky swing-struck kid, winking at me as he pretended with puffed cheeks to blow a drumstick around and around, a stick he was spinning with his fingers. Wow!
Another coup came when I got a writing assignment—my first ever. It was from Swing Magazine to interview Duke Ellington at Harlem’s Apollo Theater in 1941. Thrilled but rattled, I checked with my journalism professor at New York University (major economics, minor journalism). What do I ask? How do I know when the interview is over?
The easy part was taking in the show. It brought down the house with, according to my write-up (only four inches but with my proud signature-initials, WHP), “Creole Love Call,” “Take the ‘A’ Train,” and “Sophisticated Lady,” with the lyrics sung by the lovely Ivy Anderson. After the show, I knocked nervously on the Duke’s dressing-room door. How shocked I was at the closet-sized room but how charmed I was at the Duke’s generosity, his famous smile and joie de vivre.
I tried not to act awestruck but plainly was, I recall, as I sat in the presence of this jazz immortal—swing’s composer-pianist-arranger-leader extraordinaire (who composed some 3,000 orchestral pieces). Just like the reporters I had seen in the movies, I popped questions and made notes in a pocket-size notebook. I learned how, for example, trumpeter Cootie Williams helped devise the growl horn technique and earn an Ellington classic, “Concerto for Cootie,” which evolved, with lyrics, into “Do Nothing ’til You Hear From Me.” My eyes nearly popped at the sheer wonder of such Ellingtonia and at the Master himself. The Duke took it all in graciously, and as we stood up he thanked me. Me? I mumbled appreciation. Back on 125th Street, story in hand, I jumped for joy. What a triumph at age 20!
Things changed in 1942. Painfully. It was the beginning of the end of swing, though I didn’t realize it at the time. Vocalists like Frank Sinatra and Perry Como began to overshadow the big bands. Giants like Glenn Miller and Claude Thornhill along with millions of fans went into uniform. Gasoline rationing shut down top dance spots like New Jersey’s Meadowbrook and New York’s Glen Island Casino. A two-year musicians’ strike against the record industry also hurt. Swing never quite recovered even with a bit of a comeback after the war. Instead, something called rock came along. An era had ended.
They say nothing is forever. Swing tells me otherwise. Sure, life is irreversible and Heraclitus was wise in saying that only change endures, that you can never swim in the same river twice. But living is experience and the mind can freeze experience into memory, forever if you let it.
Sic transit gloria mundi. To my way of thinking, swing’s more than a phase of jazz history, a culture past; it’s part of my life and I’m part of it. Still. I low well I recollect swing drummer Jimmy Crawford throwing that wink my way more than a half-century ago.
Recollections, nostalgia, the past becomes the present and future. Youth. Swing. Bliss. Lost and found. Forever. Partly thanks to the genius of records, CDs, and audio cassettes. Mostly thanks to memories that light up the years of long ago. As a Fred Astaire-Ira Gershwin movie lyric puts it: No, no, they can’t take that away from me.