Thursday, August 4, 2016

Dream Lucky: When FDR was in the White House, Count Basie was on the radio, and everyone wore a hat.

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

During my undergraduate college days, I took the mandatory 20th century US History course and purchased the required textbook. On the first day of class, the instructor assigned additional books including a couple of novels which he said would help give us “the flavor of the times.”

“It’s important for you to get a feel for the periods of time as they were happening,” he said. “A great way to do that is to read the literature, listen to the music and look at the art.”

Over the years, I’ve found that another way to experience the “the flavor of the times” is to read books about social and cultural history of a particular period, especially those associated with the various Jazz ages.

Dream Lucky by Roxane Orgill is one such book. I recently came across a copy of it in a used book store and I bought it because I was intrigued by its subtitle - When FDR was in the White House, Count Basie was on the radio, and everyone wore a hat.

In digging around the internet for more information about the book, I came across the following review of it by Eddie Dean and I thought I’d share it with you.

The book is available in used hard cover formats from Amazon which also offers it as a Kindle download.

When America Had a Soundtrack
June 2, 2008; Page A15
Dream Lucky
By Roxane Orgill
(Smithsonian, 342 pages, $25.95)

"One day I heard Count Basie on the radio and that's when I flipped," jazz arranger Bill Potts once told me in an interview, his fervor undimmed more than 60 years later. "The secret to Bill Basie's piano playing was simplicity. He'd leave open spaces and play one note, but exactly the right note at the right place – it was just a ding."

Potts's teenage epiphany launched him on a career that saw the twilight years of the Swing Era, ranging from his landmark 1959 big-band arrangement of "Porgy & Bess" to scores for Alpo dog-food commercials. But Potts was by no means unique in falling under the spell of William "Count" Basie, who stirred an entire generation that came of age during the late 1930s and early 1940s, when the sound of Swing swept the nation.

It is hard to overestimate Basie's effect. He was the pioneer of a revolutionary crossover music that stayed true to its blues origins even as it won over white mainstream audiences. It stands today as perhaps the most enduring – certainly the least frivolous  –  American dance music ever put on record. Just a ding, but when combined with the full-throttle fury of Basie's 13 sidemen – who included saxophonist Lester "Prez" Young and trumpeter Buck Clayton – what a beautiful thunder it made.

The rise of Count Basie forms the heart of Roxane Orgill's Dream Lucky, a firecracker of a book as tight, ebullient and raucous as a classic Basie arrangement. The Swing Era has inspired a voluminous literature, not least some lovely miniatures, like Gene Lees' elegiac essay "Pavilion in the Rain" and Bobby Scott's "The House in the Heart," a haunting remembrance of Young. Dream Lucky deserves a place on the shelf next to such gems. But the book is also a cultural history, with a wider range than those tender portraits – and it will interest readers who may not be big-band aficionados and Prez cultists.

Ms. Orgill centers on a two-year period, starting in November 1936, when Basie arrives in Chicago with his rag-tag Kansas City band, and ending in July 1938, with his first coast-to-coast radio broadcast from 52nd Street in New York. Basie's struggle to reach the top is Ms. Orgill's narrative thread, but along the way she describes a Depression-era America in political and social upheaval. She makes the case for Swing not just as the soundtrack of an era but as one of the forces transforming American society on the eve of World War II.

In Ms. Orgill's episodic telling, the events of the mid-1930s unspool on the page like one of those March of Time newsreels. This nifty device allows her to cut from scene to scene, build up dramatic tension and, most important, let loose the dizzying cast of characters who dominated the headlines and crowded the airwaves, from Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and Amelia Earhart to Joe Louis, Jack Benny and the Shadow.

Round-the-clock radio is, for Ms. Orgill, a key to understanding the era's wild collective exuberance – the melting pot come to a boil with the lid sent flying. The fare included the eloquence of FDR's Fireside Chats, and yet it was mostly (as Ms. Orgill shows with vividly recreated dialogue) a chatterbox of madcap hijinks, racist comedy routines and screwball acts, epitomized by a lecherous wooden dummy named Charlie McCarthy. For a black musician like Basie, radio was the way to reach a new, vast audience beyond segregated clubs and ballrooms, an audience that would include white kids like Bill Potts in suburban Washington. Until then, the King of Swing was Benny Goodman, with his more polished sound. The Count was ready to attempt a coup d'├ętat, but first he had to win in Harlem.

And he did. Ms. Orgill takes us inside the Harlem jazz clubs where Basie solders a molten-hot dance beat onto the blues. Not so far away we see Jacob Lawrence creating black-liberation paintings with dime-store supplies, Langston Hughes launching a bare-bones community theater and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. preaching a "social gospel" from the pulpit and taking to the streets to lead a strike against the electric company.

Ms. Orgill mines reports from contemporary black newspapers – mainstream outlets often didn't deem the events uptown worth covering – to give blow-by-blow accounts of Harlem's famous battles of the big bands, routinely performed before integrated crowds. As Ms. Orgill puts it, describing the Savoy Ballroom: "White could dance with Negro here: hold hands, touch cheeks, bump hips." After one memorable battle, in which Benny Goodman's band was trounced by Chick Webb at the Savoy, Gene Krupa, Goodman's drummer, said: "Chick gassed me, but good. I was never cut by a better man."

Ms. Orgill makes the sounds come alive, too. She captures everything from the historic session in which Basie made his first hit record, One O'clock Jump, to a studio orchestra rendering Rossini's William Tell Overture into the theme song for "The Lone Ranger," complete with "gunshots" made by snapping mousetraps.

Among much else, Dream Lucky shows how adversity can be the handmaiden of achievement. With millions in poverty and a war looming, FDR put meticulous care into the texts of his national broadcasts, using the microphone not to harangue and pontificate but to deliver phrases of iron resolve with the casualness of a dinner companion. Meanwhile, Lester Young, a sensitive soul adrift in a racist society, made his saxophone into an instrument of intimate conversation that could reveal deep wounds underneath the gorgeous melody. As the fascist leaders across the sea used the new communications technology to whip up crowds into hateful mobs, both of these Americans took a mass medium into the most private realms, speaking from one human being to another, of loss and hope and love and dignity.”

Mr. Dean is co-author of "Man of Constant Sorrow," a memoir by mountain-music legend Ralph Stanley, forthcoming from Gotham Books.

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