Right about now, Dad’s probably in the basement, watching the news or a home repair show, Ginger, the German Shepard, at his side. He’s in a well-worn ottoman, the only place to sit down there. The tabletop TV is on top of a piece of history: an old combo black & white TV/record player that might actually still work; it was already plenty old when I used to watch it down there in that basement as a kid. Behind him is a pool table that hasn’t been used in years. On the wall are two team portraits from the Cleveland Browns’ championship run in the ‘50s; I had them framed as a Christmas gift. Next to him is a cage, from back when there were two dogs. There are old magazines and newspapers on top of virtually every surface, contributing to the overall vibe of lived-in clutter in what used to be a nice little party room.
In the other half of the basement, surrounding the washer, dryer, deep freezer and furnace, are remnants of a working man’s life; old tools, electronic parts, oscillators and converters and other gadgets long since claimed by dust, box after box of fuses and nails lining the long shelves that you barely notice are there. There’s a worktable, my sister’s old bike, and goodness only knows what else, buried amidst all that stuff. It’s all testimony to the two great themes of Dad’s working life: his years as a TV repairman, fascinated with the inner workings of stuff, and the pride he’s had in owning this house, this piece of territory, this place he could claim as his own.
Once the weather breaks, he’ll spend more time outdoors, tending to his yard. Because the driveway is shorter than the others on the block, the backyard is larger, and every inch of that yard has been used over the years. It served as a neighborhood playground when I was a kid, because that was the only patch of green space in the immediate vicinity (except for the corner the dogs claimed as their bathroom). The fence he built along the back years ago still stands, weather-worn but still sturdy and solid. Dad lovingly landscaped every available inch front and back, with shrubbery along the sides, flowers in the front, and a small patch of garden in the back where the picnic table used to sit. He grows tomatoes every year, and sometimes other veggies, too. He also loves to barbeque, and years ago had a gas grill installed in the back, upgrading from the reliable charcoal grill that produced the tenderest barbequed steaks I’ve ever had.
This has been his yard since 1963, when we were one of the first black families to move onto the block. There was no big high school nearby back then, and the shopping center was much more modest – two grocery stores, a big department store, a drug store, a record store later on, and a bunch of smaller shops, all of them long gone, as well as the actual buildings. Really, there wasn’t much more than a bunch of other middle-aged, middle-class black couples and families on our street, moving into our own homes in one of the sections of Cleveland’s East Side where there was still room to grow. As kids, we could play up and down the street, without worrying about any weird stuff happening. Everything felt new back then, full of possibility.
The matchbox-sized fire station is still on the corner of the main drag, and there’s still a dry cleaner across from it. There are still competing gas stations on two corners of the main intersection, but just about everything else about the neighborhood is a lot different now. A lot of the trees were removed from tree lawns on one stretch, giving it a much more barren, wide-open feel. The library was moved from a storefront near the old department store to a standalone building next to the high school. They tore my old elementary school down last year. And crime is an issue – why wouldn’t it be, in these hard times in a city as hard-hit by the recession as Cleveland?
But one thing has not changed about the neighborhood, and that is Dad. My parents are among the last original homeowners in the neighborhood. Our immediate neighbors, the Browns and the Jacobses, moved many years ago, and not much of an effort was ever made to get to know the rotating households who moved in and out since. There are still homeowners around, but probably not many of the original residents who helped build the neighborhood into a sturdy beacon of black middle-class accomplishment.
Of course, Mom’s character is all in the house as well, but that piece of property, that plot of land, that bungalow with two bedrooms, a semi-finished basement, and a former “teen suite” that’s now an attic – that house is Dad’s statement to the world that he is here, he’s been here, and he still matters.
Dad turns 90 this month. That would be a remarkable achievement by any measure, but considering the arc of his life, hitting 90 is more than just a nice round number.
He was the eldest son in a family of eight. They never had much, and they always had to share what they did have. He ran track as a teenager, briefly on the same team as Jesse Owens. He got a track scholarship to Alabama State University, but had to return home to work and didn’t finish school. He met my mother in the winter of 1946; they were married shortly thereafter, on Valentine’s Day (meaning they just celebrated their 65th anniversary – lots of family milestones this year!). Then they worked for years to build our family and make their way in the world, with him having the added responsibility of helping his siblings and their kids. They moved around a bit, living with my mother’s parents for a brief stretch, and in the tiny town of Cambridge, Ohio for a little while during his TV repairman dues-paying before an opening came up in Cleveland.
So buying that house was more than simply a measure of professional and economic accomplishment. It was, especially for Dad, a personal breakthrough as well. Finally, he had his own space, his own escape from everything. That house – our home – has been the place where he could be with the ones who’ve mattered most to him throughout his life, and still matter after all nine decades of it thus far: his family, his dogs, and Duke Ellington.
* * *
There’s one item in the basement I didn’t describe before. It’s a nondescript cabinet in that modernist design style popular in the ‘50s, about three feet high, with black sliding doors and a shelf inside in the middle. There’s all matter of stuff on top of it, so the casual visitor downstairs might not even notice it’s there. But open it, and the waiting treasure trove is simply astounding.
The cabinet contains stacks and stacks of old 78s, Dad’s musical collection from his young adulthood. A brief technology primer: before there were MP3s, compact discs, cassettes, 12-inch singles, vinyl albums and seven-inch 45s, there were 10-inch, 78 rpm records. They were made of very heavy and brittle vinyl, and would shatter if dropped. They contained about three minutes of music per side, which made the recording of longer pieces impossible unless serialized across two or three platters. They were how Americans consumed music from the early years of the 20th century, displacing the cylinders from the dawn of the recording industry, through the ‘40s, when new recording and record production technology made the 12-inch 33 1/3 rpm album (up to 20 minutes of music per side, roughly) possible.
I don’t know how many 78s Dad has; one of these days I’ll open an Excel spreadsheet and take a formal inventory. But they run the gamut of jazz from the late ‘20s into the ‘50s. There are original versions of Paul Robeson’s “Ballad for Americans” and Count Basie’s “One O’Clock Jump”. Glenn Miller (“In the Mood”) and Fats Waller (“The Joint Is Jumpin’”) are there, as well. There’s not much there past the mid-‘40s; a stray Thelonious Monk title on Blue Note and a Charlie Parker on Dial, an early Ray Charles side on Atlantic, some other early R&B. But there are literally hours upon hours of music from the height of the Swing Era down there, in the medium it was consumed in at its time, all of it still payable on the turntable in the living room, which has a speed setting for 78s.
Beneath Decades of Dust: Magic
Dominating the collection is the output of Edward Kennedy Ellington. Virtually every Ellington record of note from his first as a bandleader (“East St. Louis Toodle-oo” 1927) to the eternal “Take the A-Train” (1941) is there. I’d have to bump the collection up against an Ellington discography to measure its actual completeness, but it doesn’t seem like he could possibly be missing much from those years. It is an amassing of Ellington music, the likes of which I have never seen in anyone else’s music library in any format, let alone the original one. If Dad wasn’t the Duke’s biggest fan, he was certainly in the running.
As a kid I always knew they were down there, but they always seemed imposing. I was scared to handle them, and never actually all that interested in exploring them. I was much more fascinated by the R&B and pop 45s and albums upstairs in the living room (and there was a bunch of them too), music closer to my young frame of reference and in media far less delicate.
I didn’t dive into jazz until my collegiate years, and that’s when I truly became curious about those 78s. As I learned more about jazz history I finally started rummaging through them, better able to recognize names and song titles. I can’t tell you how many times I went “oh wow” or “oh my goodness” to hold in my hands some original artifact of our musical heritage, then to place it oh-so-carefully on the turntable, lower the arm, and marvel at how clear the music still sounded beneath the decades of dust and scratchiness. Virtually all of the music that came off those 78s, music whose time had come and gone years before I’d even been born, was a revelation to me. I sat on the floor near the turntable, as those old records got played for the first time in years, and heard anew for the first time since Dad acquired them in their time.
This was in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, before the inception of compact discs inspired record companies to empty their vaults onto the new consumer format. There have always been reissues of older music (some of the Brunswick sides in Dad’s Ellington library may have been reissues themselves), but not until the ‘70s did record companies (at least those with an appreciation of their assets) put some effort into properly documenting (and monetizing) their back catalogues and making selections from them newly available. Those ‘70s reissues introduced me to the range of jazz history to that point, from Louis Armstrong and Joe “King” Oliver, through Waller and Billie Holiday, to the beboppers, and then on to John Coltrane and the ‘60s avant-garde. They formed the backbone of my jazz education, before I realized how much original source material was already at my disposal.
But the reissue boomlet of the pre-digital era had not made its way to Ellingtonia by the time I started diving into Dad’s 78s. So I played dozens of them – especially the classic titles I recognized, like “Black and Tan Fantasy” and “Mood Indigo”. In time I would discover that he had the 1956 album In a Mellotone, which collected 16 classic Ellington songs from the celebrated early ‘40s, when bassist Jimmie Blanton and tenor sax player Ben Webster gave the orchestra an especially rich signature sound; the cassette I made of it of it fell into heavy rotation along with my funk and new wave tapes of the day. I made it my business to get RCA’s vinyl box sets The Blanton-Webster Band and Black, Brown and Beige, which document his studio output throughout the early-to-mid-‘40s, when they came out in the mid-‘80s. But Dad’s 78s represented something sacred in my musical awareness: they were music history made tangible. Being able to access the music with better sound quality and far less risk of irrevocable damage in another format did not supplant the singular sensation of blowing the dust off an old Victor side and feeling like I had a direct connection to a bygone, magical world.
And yet, if it weren’t for me, those platters would have remained silent from that day to this, and their music would never have resonated in the house where he’s lived all these years. Dad never played them – understandable, given their fragility – but he also never played that Ellington album I discovered in the back of the pile, nor did he ever seem interested in acquiring any other albums of Ellington’s music to play. One time, after he’d noticed that I’d been listening to some of those 78s, he made an observation about the genius of Ellington’s spare piano playing, how Duke would never play a flurry of notes when a single note perfectly placed would do. But that was the extent of our information exchange, or any other shared experience with the music.
He’s never told me much about his Ellington fandom, how many times he saw the orchestra perform, or anything that would explain why he acquired all those 78’s in the first place. That perspective might have helped me understand how people enjoyed the music I was just beginning to experience. More to the point, that insight might have told me something about who he was back in the day and how he moved through his world. I get the sense that the elegance Ellington expressed in his art and image was an aspirational thing for Dad, as it probably was for millions of young black men back then, the level of ultimate coolness to shoot for in manner and style. But without anything directly from him to confirm that, I’m left to imagine those connections in some idealized view of my father, and wonder if any of what I learned about black manhood that I learned from Dad, he had learned from Duke.
Clearly, those 78s mean a lot to him. He’s held onto them all these years, and I’m obviously glad he did. That’s not because the music they contain can’t be found any other way – almost all of it has been reissued somewhere by now, probably in three or four different packages for the major artists, and as information vessels of relatively low audio quality they have little value (as I sadly had to report back to him after asking around about them at a record convention). Their true value is as things in and of themselves, as ways to open up a connection to a guy I didn’t have a chance to know. Absent pictures and stories, they’re as close as I’ll likely ever come to a portrait of my father as a young man.
Dad’s 78s grounded my Ellington study and appreciation, no doubt. It helped me appreciate his later triumphs, like the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival comeback concert, featuring Paul Gonsalves’ famous 27-chorus tenor sax solo, and the major suites of the ‘60s inspired by the band’s global travels. Now it’s time for me to return the favor. For his birthday, I’m going to give him a boombox and a copy of Never No Lament: The Blanton-Webster Band, RCA’s three-disc set of the legendary ensemble’s work. I’ll take them down to the basement, clear off a spot, and hit “play”. Then I’ll let the stately bounce of “Perdido”, the mournful longing of “I Got It Bad (and That Ain’t Good)”, and the riff-happy jitterbugging of “Main Stem” work their charms on him once again. And maybe then, he might share something about why he loved the Duke so madly.