Friday, July 14, 2006

The Great Society

Come Let Us Reason Together--Coincidences
I moved to New Orleans in the spring of 1964. It was the spring of the beginning of the New South--integration had been ordered by the Law, and though New Orleans white folks didn't give up easy, they weren't as insistent about it as were the coonass whites who lived in the swamps or in Plaquemines Parish, just up north of New Orleans, the worst, the home of that great Amurican white trash terrorist, Leander Perez. In fact, Leander Perez WAS Plaquemines Parish. To Leander, everyone who wasn't white wasn't a human--they were, of course, monkeys, but he called some of them aligators and one-legged roosters. Leander got nationally famous by being the manufacturer of those wonderful objets d'art that carried Confederate flags with the yell, "Hell, Yes, the South Will Rise Again." What a man! What an evil old swamp devil.

When I got to New Orleans CORE had already had a sit-in at the local Woolworth's dining area and Woolworth's had given in with no rebel yells, burning crosses, harangues--peaceful as pie. And my first job, with the Orleans Parish Court, had an integrated staff, though black caseworkers didn't handle white cases.

I had had one bad experience in Dallas a year before when we tried to integrate a club there and I was thrown out of the club, kicked a couple of times by the bouncer who had called the Highland Park, Texas, police, who got there quickly, nightsticked me some more, enough to cover me in blood from my hair down to my waist, then hauled me in the paddy wagon over to the Highland Park jail to wait for transfer to the downtown city jail, where I was released without any charges at four o'clock in the morning to find my way home as best I could; and by then the blood had caked in my hair, I had two black eyes, my nose split open and covered in blood, and the blood that had streamed from my nose and down my shirtfront--I was wearing a suit and tie--had caked hard to the point it looked like I was wearing a red shirt with a matching red tie.

I expected the same treatment in New Orleans, especially after my wife and I got involved with the Congress of Racial Equality, pre-Roy Ennis goin' almighty egomaniacal, and my first project with CORE involved working with the Free South Theater helping them find a New Orleans site since they were founded over in Jackson, Mississippi, having just decided to move into New Orleans where they thought they could do more good putting on their free plays for all people.

I swear we also worked to bring Moses Gunn to New Orleans and he performed Ossie Davis's play Pearly Victorious with the FST, but I can find no substantiation of it and I may be dreaming; we're talking 42 years ago, folks, but I'm pretty sure.... Gunn's dead. Ossie Davis is dead. I don't know if Tom Dent and those FST people are dead, maybe not, they were college kids then so they could be still alive, but my wife is dead--so my substantiation is only my memory of it and being there when the play was performed.

One night at a CORE meeting, I met this black lawyer who told me he was working with Al Hirt, the trumpet player (once Al Hirt was Mr. New Orleans) on integrating Al's nightclub he had just opened in the French Quarter, where I lived, a fairly integrated neighborhood even back then. Our neighborhood cleaners was owned and operated by blacks. He told me they were going to integrate with Dizzy Gillespie and at that time the hottest jazz group going, a sextet consisting of James Moody on tenor, Chris White on bass, Les Spann on guitar and flute, and a 20-year-old pianist named Kenny Barron, and, of course, John Birks on the trumpet. The guy handed me a card and he wrote on the back of it a note to Al Hirt saying I was in CORE and to give my wife and me a front-row table. I went down to Al Hirt's the afternoon of that famous evening--the first time in modern New Orleans history it would be legal for whites and blacks to mix in a club. No more rope between the races. No more dirt floor area for the blacks. No more standing at a back window in the alley, now blacks could come in the front door with the white folks and pay their covers just like white folks and then sit and dig the entertainment right alongside or among white folks.

Al himself came up to the ticket office and met me. He said he was excited as hell about this and it was about time everybody could enjoy the music New Orleans's blacks had created and he was proud he was the first white club owner in New Orleans to integrate. [His main rival for the "Mr. New Orleans" title was Pete Fountain whose club was right up the street from Al's but wasn't integrated--I don't know, but it probably integrated soon around that time. So, Al said, "Here, kid, here's a couple'a extra tix, bring some friends."

When I got home I called a guy I worked with, a big strapping black handsome man and his absolutely beautiful stars-in-her-eyes wife, and said, "Hey, Jackson, we're goin' to hear Diz." He couldn't believe it. He and his wife had just called Hirt's and were told they had sold out.

We arrived at the club about an hour before showtime and the line was stretching out of Al's and stringing out down Bourbon, blacks, whites, and if I'd a been a photographer, what a great photo that would have made. As we walked up to go on into the club without waiting in line, a black man came up to me and said, "'Scuse me, you got a cigarette?" My wife gave him one of her Salems. He stood there. Just stood there. Not saying anything, holding the cigarette, and just standing there. "What's up?" "Do I owe you anything for the cigarette? I've got some money here somewhere." I said, "You're surely kidding, pal. You don't have to pay for that cigarette." "Well, then can I have another one?" My wife coughed up another Salem. Then he turned and walked into the club.

We went on in, took our table, ordered a dinner and drinks, rejoicing in our integrated success, the joint filling with blacks and whites, the blacks, yes, suspicious, beginning to sit at the back of the room. Soon my black friend got up and he boomed over at several tables of blacks at the back of the room, "Hey, my sisters and brothers, you can sit up here with me now; you all don't have to sit in the back of this room--come on, get your bunny wagons overhere." Every black he hollered at got up and came and sat in the front-row tables around us. Later one of the waiters told us those tables had been reserved for some politicians but that Al said, let 'em keep those tables, the F-ing politicians can sit in the kitchen.

Then Dizzy's band came in and took the stage. How surprised we were to see the guy who had bummed the cigarettes off of us out in the street was up on stage with them, carrying his tenor. It was James Moody--"Moody's Mood for Love"--that James Moody--"There I go, there I go, there I go, pretty baby with all my heart and soul, everytime you're near me, I never can forget...." King Pleasure's words followed James Moody's famous recording of "I'm in the Mood for Love."

Dizzy was absolutely fabulous. The band was absolutely fabulous. Chris White so impressed me I rushed out the next day to see if I could find every album he was on with Dizzy; what a bass player; and then Kenny Barron. I had no idea at that time who the hell Kenny Barron was; nobody did except Dizzy, who had hired Kenny two years before, when he was 18, without hearing him play a note on the advice of James Moody who had heard him playing in New York at the Five Spot and thought he was the greatest. [Kenny has a cool Website; check it out.]

They played the repertoire Diz had created on his 1959 album called Have Trumpet Will Excite (a play on the title of a Bob Hope book, Have Tux Will Travel), except Junior Mance played piano and Sam Jones played bass on that album.

The group that night did the ones I wanted to hear, "My Man," "My Heart Belongs to Daddy," "The Saint Louis Blues," "Woody 'n You," "I Met a Million Dollar Baby," "There Is No Greater Love,""Moonglow"--WOW. It was an amazing night. Everyone got happy. At the break I went out to get some air and saw Dizzy standing near the box office. I went over and shook his hand. I said, "Hey, Diz, you're kickin' Miles's ass tonight, man," and Dizzy said, "Yeah, I am aren't I."

Later after Jackson and his wife left us, my wife and I walked back up Bourbon heading over to our apartment on Dumaine. We passed a small bar. Nobody was in it except the black woman bartender and a black man sitting at a small upright piano. My eyes froze on the piano player. I told my wife, "That's Dizzy in there playing the piano, come on..." We went in the bar. It certainly was Dizzy playing the piano. After he had finished tooling around, we invited him to come have a beer with us--he ordered a Heineken--I've drank Heinekens ever since.

We jived around, talkin' shit. Suddenly my wife said, "What are you doing!" I looked. Dizzy had his hand in her purse. "Sorry," he said, "I was reverting to my old ways." I laughed my ass off over it but my wife didn't think it was funny; after that she never liked Dizzy again.

[In New Orleans also, I bought my first Mose Allison albums, Young Man Mose and Creek Bank, and my wife went crazy over them. She played those albums over and over they were so bluesy cool and like she said, they just laid her back and made her happy. Later in NYC, I took her to see Mose at the Top of the Gate. We sat up at a table right by Mose at the piano, at the left side of the old Top of the Gate stage. At the break, I leaned over and told Mose I'd like for him to shake hands with his favorite fan. He reached over and shook my wife's hand. The rest of the night she acted funny. When we got home she was still upset. "What's wrong, babe?" "His hand shake." "Whose, Mose's?" "Yes. It was awful. His hand was like it had been on ice for awhile, scaly cold like I was shaking hands with a fish. It was awful." I don't think she ever listened to Mose again after that handshake. I know one other time Mose was playing in town and I asked her if she wanted to go and she simply said "No," and that was that. My sensitive wife.]

Another quaint piece of this narrative happened after I was divorced and flying solo in the Big Apple going out every night to hear my precious jazz. A great small club called Sweet Basil had just opened on Seventh Avenue in the Village. Sweet Basil was great because you could sit at the bar free--no cover charge--which was an idea that started in Birdland so musicians could come and stand at the bar and have a drink without paying the cover, which was too steep for most working musicians and jazz fans. Same thing went on at Sweet Basil and though the bar was small and the bar area was crowded, you met really great, cool folks there--one night a lady lawyer from Phoenix who stayed over an extra week just to be with me--ah those golden days! Another night I met a famous black hairstylist in there who it turned out was best friends with one of my friends at Time Inc. He became not only a friend but also my hairstylist for a year or so when that aspect of my life changed and those friends disappeared from my life--except for that one or two years, my hair got me a lot of glory it was so coolly designed.

One night I went to Sweet Basil's to have a drink. Lou Donaldson was playing. Lou took the mic before the set began and said his regular pianist couldn't be with him that night so he had Kenny Barron sitting in with him. Wow. It was Kenny Barron, the young pianist with Dizzy in New Orleans then a decade back, now established, with his own record contract--not a major star yet but big enough he was very well known in jazz. At the break, I'll be damn, Kenny made a beeline for the bar and the only empty seat which happened to be the one by me. He sat, ordered a drink, and I said, "Kenny, I first heard you in New Orleans, at Al Hirt's, you were with Dizzy." He looked at me, "I know, I recognize you, dude." I said, "What?" He said, "I remember you. You and a white chick were sitting with a black couple right by the bandstand. I remember you clear as a bell." Damn. How about that? I've been especially aware of Kenny Barron since then. He's gone on to become one of the giants of jazz.

Oh, those wonderful days I lived in freshly integrated New Orleans. Like I said, there wasn't much trouble at all integrating New Orleans. Oh some Catholics bitched about integrating a school in a white part of town, but they were laughed down they were so stupidly Catholic and foolish.

Lyndon Johnson had said he envisioned a Great Society for Amurica, an end to poverty, and a great coming together of Amuricans under his Civil Rights legislation, a coming together he said so that we could "reason together." Lyndon was a lyin', crooked, tough old bird son of a bitch. Bill Moyers has said he really didn't like the Civil Rights Bill, but he signed it and took all the glory for it. "Come let us reason together" was his slogan in his campaign against Barry "Bomb 'Em Back to the Stone Age" Goldwater, an election that almost put the Repugnican Party out of business. Nobody in this country wanted to be a Conservative in those days. It was lookin' good, man, but the Conservatives managed to get it all back after Lyndon got us involved in the stupid VietNam War with the phony Gulf of Tonkin incident.

Note: The Yankees and White Sox game tonight is one of the most exciting baseball games I've ever listened to--over the radio--the best way, I think, to enjoy a baseball game.

for The Daily Growler

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