Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A Review of Harlem Jazz Adventures: A European Baron’s Memoir, 1934-1969.

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

“This book is not a sociological or jazz-historical work; it is not a refer­ence book on the evolution of jazz over the ages. There are lots of those!

This is a book about my adventures during many, and sometimes long, visits to the jazz capital of New York; about the thrill it has been to meet the great and lesser jazz musicians and their friends. It had to be a happy book about happy people and their music, and it is written by a happy man who is happy because he has been lucky enough to get close to that world, even to live the life he had, so to say, chosen as his own.”
- Baron Timme Rosenkrantz

Every time I’m the least bit inclined to forget bassist and Jazz author Bill Crow’s admonition that “Jazz should be fun,” something comes along to remind me of the import of this remark.

Most recently, it came in the form of Fradley Garner’s superb English adaptation of Timme Rosenkrantz’s Harlem Jazz Adventures: A European Baron’s Memoir, 1934-1969.

As these dates denote, Mr. Rosenkrantz, a Danish baron, spent a good portion of his life in New York City when Jazz was first coming into existence and he offers exciting and enthusiastic glimpses of this time-gone-by in the thirty-six vignettes that comprises the chapters of his memoirs.

Each chapter is a short essay and collectively they form an episodic stroll through the Jazz clubs, theaters and gin joints of Harlem [and later 52nd Street] during its heyday as the “must visit destination” for any Jazz fan.

Mr. Rosenkrantz’s lovely stories are also a brilliant example of the power of one of William Zinsser’s key points in his On Writing Well when he enjoins us to “ … let the person speak to the reader in his own words.”

The very manageable chapters and the cozy manner in which the stories contained in them are told create a much welcomed first-person narrative at a time when many of the books being published on the subject of Jazz are overly analytic and coldly academic in nature.

Credit for the engaging “tone and tenor” of Mr. Rosenkrantz’s memoirs must be given to Mr. Fradley Garner for his brilliant English translation/adaptation which is replete with a number of explanatory footnotes that help make the book even more lucid.

And while Mr. Rosenkrantz’s commercial Jazz ventures [record producer, record shop owner, concert producer, Jazz club owner] ultimately failed causing him to comment – “You can say I was born under an unlucky star if you want to.” – he’s quick to also acknowledge: “But every so often that star shone brightly and made up for all the sunshine that I slept through.” [p. 186].

Mr. Rosenkrantz was to experience first-hand the old adage: “The best way to make a million dollars in Jazz is to start with two million!”

Yet, it’s difficult to feel too sorry for him, as based on the experiences he shares in his book, Mr. Rosenkrantz met everyone who was anybody in the world of Jazz during its formative years and had the time of his life while doing so.

If this book is a testimonial to anything, it is to the fact that Mr. Rosenkrantz definitely knew how to have fun with Jazz.

Judging from a reading of Mr. Rosenkrantz’s anecdotes, tales and yarns, perhaps the book might have been alternately subtitled: A Danish Baron’s Book of Enchantments, Revelations and Amusements in The Land of Jazz.”

Take for example the title of the work’s very first chapter: Get Off at 125th Street and God Be with You” which refers to the warning given by his midtown Manhattan hotel clerk when Mr. Rosenkrantz’s asked subway directions to uptown Harlem during his very first trip to New York in 1934.

“God certainly was with” Mr. Rosenkrantz for over the next thirty-five years he was to meet and, in many cases, become personal friends with Jazz luminaries such as Don Redman, Chick Webb, John Hammond, Benny Carter, Billie Holiday, Adrian Rollini, Benny Goodman, Willie “The Lion” Smith, Art Tatum, Fats Waller, Mezz Mezzrow, Eddie Condon, James P. Johnson, Slim Gailliard and Slam Stewart, W.C. Handy, Stuff Smith, Erroll Garner, Mildred Bailey, Bud Powell, and most especially – Duke Ellington – whom he [I think] correctly refers to as “The King of Jazz.”

Among the book’s many, other enchantments are the following stories from Mr. Rosenkrantz:

- “I'll never forget that first 1934 visit to Harlem!

I walked upstairs from the subway platform at the corner of 125th Street and Lenox Avenue and blinked twice as I stepped out on the sidewalk. I felt as if I had entered another world. Huge neon signs blinked around me and over me. Beckoning shop windows caught my eye. The traffic was frightening. Music blared from every open shop door. You might think you were standing on Times Square, Piccadilly Circus, or—stretching the imagi­nation—Vesterbrogade, Copenhagen's main street, except for the people around you. They were all people of color. A solid mass of blacks, browns, yellows, grays moved along the broad avenue with a swinging, rhythmic gait that held this Nordic visitor in a trance. Their clothing was gay, their faces animated, their voices rang in the February evening air, as they fairly skipped along under the trees (now uprooted) on Lenox Avenue.

Following the crowd, I walked up the street, past several big movie houses, and suddenly, there I was standing in front of the Apollo Theater.

The Apollo was the last variety theater in New York City. Here the colossal show goes on at ten in the morning and runs nonstop until two the next morning—and to think I had wasted nearly my whole first day in con­versations, cafeterias, and clouds!

In the lineup were the greatest black artists in the world—singers, danc­ers, comedians, strong men and weak women, balancing acts, jugglers, and magicians. And the best Negro bands of the day—plus, of course, a line of the prettiest and darkest chorus girls this white man has ever seen.

And there was nearly always a full house. The program ran over two hours and changed every Friday. In between performances, they showed some Mickey Mouse films and newsreels and a feature film, something with lots of action. The black audience—and it's almost entirely black—demands action. Something has to happen!

Still and all, the films were so bad, I still believe they were chosen to empty the house. They usually succeeded.

My first night, there was a big revue with Don Redman's Orchestra as the main attraction, costarring with the Mills Brothers, those fantastic tap dancers the Step Brothers, and a funny, blues-singing comedian, Pigmeat Markham. He later gained TV fame on the Ed Sullivan Show….” [pp. 14-15] …

- “And then Billie Holiday came on. I shall never forget her, standing there in the dim spotlight. Young and beautiful as a dream, her sensitive, full lips half open; those almond eyes almost closed, as if she were having a blissful dream. Her voice wasn't big, but it crept under your skin and stayed there. She sang like an instrument—sometimes like the softest plea of a saxophone, sometimes like the shrill command of a trumpet. Never had I heard anybody sing like this. You sat there, almost clenching your fists in ecstasy. Her way of phrasing the words was so different, yet so right. You instantly knew that this was the way a jazz lyric should be treated. That voice clutched you like coiled fingers.” [pp. 43-44]

- “Anyone who knew Fats loved him. He had a heart of gold. No one came to him in vain when they were needy. No one could resist his always buoyant and contagious spirit. His laugh could be heard for miles around.

I remember one of our mutual friends, Adrian, a young Dutch composer of whom Fats was very fond. Adrian had come over to New York to try to make it as a composer and arranger, but nothing was happening. To make ends meet, he had taken a job as a wastepaper basket emptier in an office. One night, when the three of us were together, Adrian started dreaming out loud. "If only I could afford to rent a little piano, I could really start writing some tunes and working on arrangements, and get out of that office. It's killing me!"

The very next morning two moving men showed up at Adrian's doorstep bearing a new grand piano. With love from Fats. It had a great sound. I'm sure Fats had taken the time to choose it personally. In fact, he came by often to play it himself, much to the joy of everyone within hearing range on West 87th Street. At least Fats wasn't to blame for our European friend never mak­ing it. "The Flying Dutchman" managed to do a few arrangements and place them, but at last hearing, Adrian was still trying to get paid.” [p. 75]

And here are some of the book’s revelations as recounted by Mr. Rosenkrantz:

- “C-R-R-R-R-R-R-ASH! An ear-splitting drumroll unfolded into a cymbal crash at the other end of the ballroom. Then the orchestra fell in, heralding the arrival of a little hunchback drummer, the greatest in the world, Chick Webb. Something happened to me I shall never forget, impossible to put into words. Only to be felt. And I’ve learned a great drummer is to be felt before he is heard. Chick seemed to turn a light on in me.” [p. 19]

- “Young Garner's father was a singer who played several instruments, as did his older brother, Linton. Erroll was an entirely self-taught musician who hit the keys when he was three years old and never did learn how to read mu­sic. But he played like no other pianist, and his flamboyant style was a delight to the ears. He would start a ballad with a long, discordant introduction that didn't even hint at the melody to come. At last when he swung into it, his left hand lay down chords like a guitar, keeping up a steady pulse, while his right hand never seemed to catch up, improvising chords or playing octaves that lagged way behind the beat for the rest of the number. Just a pinch of Fats Waller added spice.

I was fascinated by this fellow's joyously swinging piano, and I sought him out while Louis Prima was on. Erroll was anything but happy. He didn't know many people in New York and was downhearted. No one was inter­ested in listening to him—Louis Prima was the showman attraction. And Erroll was only making forty dollars a week!

He told me he thought he'd go home soon, as it seemed nothing was going to happen for him in New York. Somehow, I had to stop him. I invited him home to 7 West 46th Street, showed him my rented Krakaur grand, and once he got started, it was impossible to pry him off the bench. Little did I know at the outset that he had a bad case of asthma and couldn't sleep lying down!” [p. 176]

- “An odd commentary on the vicissitudes of life is the fact that Ellington does not like the business of getting from one place to another. He cannot sleep on trains, ships, or in cars, and he especially dislikes flying. Constant traveling for forty years has not changed him at all. Approximately 14,650 sleepless nights account for those heavy bags under his eyes. Come to think of it, he doesn't like to go to bed at home, either. Life fascinates him so much, it seems a terrible waste of time. He just seems to thrive on not sleeping!

On the road, he prefers to play cards with the bandsmen, very often winning all their loot—but he is a gracious loser, too. Until recently, when he bought an apartment in a skyscraper on New York's Central Park West, Duke had a modest little flat on Harlem's Sugar Hill. He fell for New York the first time he glimpsed the bright lights—which, to his imaginative soul, were an Arabian Night's dream.

A born big-city man, he has a deep-seated dislike for expanses of green grass, saying they remind him of cemeteries. Can't bear any kind of outdoor sports; regarded the walk down three flights of stairs in his old Harlem apart­ment as his daily constitutional; laughingly describes himself as "a hot-house flower."

"You have to be careful, Timme," he once told me. "There's nothing more dangerous than fresh-air poisoning!"”[pp. 158-59]

The following excerpts are examples of the book’s many amusements:

- “Pod's and Jerry's, also known as the Log Cabin, at 133rd Street near the corner of Seventh Avenue, was usually the last stop for uptowners and down­towners alike. Here you could bump into celebrities like Tallulah Bankhead, Frederick March, Franchot Tone (or his mother, playing drums), and other New York theater people and Tin Pan Alley types. Many had been slumming at the Cotton Club, where they watched floorshows featuring the Duke El­lington, Cab Galloway, or Jimmie Lunceford orchestras. They'd show up in top hats and tails or dripping in ermines. As a rule, they circulated incognito, wearing oversize sunglasses to make themselves unrecognizable, which never worked nor was it intended to.

This scene inspired Don Redman to write a tune, "Take Off Those Dark Glasses, We Know Who You Are!" Confronted by one of those notables, Harlemites would chant the melody.”[p. 27]

- “A few years ago, Eddie Condon made a tour of the British Isles that is still remembered. With him he had his jug buddies Wild Bill Davison and George Wettling. The tour turned into a contest of how much liquor can be consumed while playing trad jazz. Who won I don't have to guess: Eddie had no peers. But nobody seemed to mind, for this was a very special occa­sion—the very first time the Brits had heard a stomp-down, sure-enough, live Dixieland band….

Arriving in a principal city, they were met early in the morning by the I press, who tracked them to their hotel. They found Eddie in bed with the hangover of all time. He could hardly move, but the interview was important, and the road manager let the scribes in. Eddie lay flat on his back with his hat on. "Go on, shoot!" he growled. Anything else he mumbled was lost as he faded away.

"Mr. Condon, wouldn't it be better if you sat up a wee bit in bed, so we can hear what you are saying?" ventured one of the chaps.

Condon's eyelids stayed at half-mast as he cracked open his lips and croaked, "What the hell do you think I am, man, an athlete?" [pp. 153-54]

- “The New York Herald Tribune [subsequently, The International Herald Tribune] once gave a luncheon in honor of Louis Armstrong at one of the fashionable Paris restaurants. Many prominent people from the literary world and theater were there, as well as music critics and reporters from all over the continent. Louis had asked me to come along.

It was a typical American luncheon with hamburger steaks and three different kinds of ice water. I think Louis had a side order of red beans and rice, his favorite fruits.

There were many speeches, and Armstrong was praised in as many dif­ferent accents.

Then it was Louis's turn to say a few words. Somebody had asked him what his greatest thrill had been on this latest European tour. Louis answered:
"Last week we were playing in Rome. We gave a great concert and those Italian cats went crazy. We could’ve filled the Forum, no question about that, if they had repaired it! Well, the next day my wife, Lucille, and I had a private audience with the Pope. And it knocked us out, man! I told His Holi­ness about my music and about my Swiss Kriss (a laxative), which moves me almost as much as the music, and he was real great, you know?

"'What a beautiful wife you have!' the Pope says. 'Do you have any children?'

"'No, Pops,' I told him. 'But we're still working on it.' And do you know, the Pope fell o-u-t!

And so did everybody at the luncheon party.” [pp. 127-28]

Socrates once said that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” to which, an acceptable corollary might be: the unlived life is not worth examining.

No words could form a better description of the “Jazz Life” lived by Baron Timme Rosenkrantz as depicted in Harlem Jazz Adventures: A European Baron’s Memoir, 1934-1969.

As Jazz approaches the beginning of its second century, don’t miss you chance to read about what it was like soon after it all began.