Foto by tgw, New York City, February 2012
Say goodbye to: Mike Melvoin, a truly fine jazz pianist with a lot of blue notes in his competent style. I first heard him in L.A. with old crazy Frank Rosolino, the absolutely unbelievable trombonist (crazy because he came in one night and shot and killed his wife and kids and then himself) and then later Mike appeared with Frank on one of Oscar Brown, Jr's, 1962 jazz teevee shows, Jazz Scene USA. I hate to see these cats leaving the coil; jazz pianists don't live much past their mid-seventies. Mike Melvoin, 74, American jazz pianist and composer, cancer.
Say goodbye to: Red Holloway, the tenor sax man who was on all those old blues jump recordings that the late Etta James made back before she hooked up with Houston Pearson. Red Holloway, 84, American jazz saxophonist (Etta James), stroke and kidney failure.
Say goodbye to: Maurice Andre, the great classical trumpeter. Maurice André, 78, French classical trumpeter.
Say goodbye to: Louisiana Red: Last time I saw Lawsbanana Red was at a WBAI-New York benefit. He was married to Odetta and they were working together. Louisiana Red, 79, American blues musician, stroke.
Leonard Feather was a rather foppish Brit dude who came to this country as a jazz pianist, promoter, journalist, and jazz aficionado who rose to a prominence in the field especially being known for his "Blindfold Tests" in Down Beat in which he played jazz recordings for famous jazz people and then had them try and identify who they thought were the cats playing on those records. In 1945, Dinah Washington with the Lionel Hampton Sextet recorded Leonard's "Blow Top Blues" (Leonard's on piano on the recording). The last verse was:
Last night I was five feet tall/
Today I'm eight feet ten/
And every time I fall downstairs/
I float right up again/
When someone turned the lights on me/
It like to drove me blind/
I ended up in Bellevue/
But I left my mind behind/
I'm a gal who blew a fuse/
I've got those blow top blues
As a very young kid in the process of becoming a jazz aficionado myself and crazy about anything Lionel Hampton put out, I bought a 45 rpm Decca recording of "Blow Top Blues." And that was my first impression ever of Bellevue Hospital. Yes. Bellevue was a crazy house. A rubber room. A funny farm. And then once I had Bellevue pegged as such, I heard the comedians and Hollywoodians making fun of the little men in white jackets from Bellevue coming to get us all.
In jazz, crazy was a big word. "Crazy, man, crazy." And a lot of jazz guys went crazy off and on. A lot of jazz guys had to visit Bellevue. Some were in the crazy bin there; others were sent there by the NYC cops after drug busts.
It is a city hospital. Oldest hospital in New York City. It's the oldest public hospital in the USA. Founded in 1736.
Bellevue Hospital, 1878
But, yes, Bellevue still rhymes with "loose screw" and "purview" and "boo-hoo" and
"unstuck glue" and "fuck you." But also it is a "free" hospital. Did'ja hear me? A free hospital.
Getting to Bellevue
When I was a loose screw, around 8, 9, 10, my family once took a trip over to Palestine, Texas, to visit one of my maternal grandmother's cousins, a man named Mack Dockery. Palestine, named for the Holy Land (truth up: Palestine, Texas, was named after Palestine, Illinois (the oldest city in Illinois--1811), by a weird-side Baptist preacher named Daniel Parker (check out his Wikipedia entry to see how weird he was) who had moved to Texas from this Illinois area (near the Indiana border) named by French explorer Jean Lamotte who first gazed upon this region in 1678. He gave it the name Palestine, as it reminded him of the promised land of milk and honey, as written in the scriptures)--and, yes, Palestine used to be the Holy Land, though now it's the lowest most dog-driven-down country in the Middle East; Israel having taken over now as the Holy Land (a huge portion of the Columbia spacecraft wreckage (remember, it crashed during G.W. "Georgie Porgie" Bush's faux-first-presidency)(in 2003) came to earth just outside Palestine, Texas; ironically, this was the flight on which the first Israeli astronaut died).
When I was young, Palestine, Texas, was home to an annual dogwood festival celebrating the dogwood tree, a Middle Eastern tree that was said to once grow as tall and mighty as an oak tree with a wood so hard and solid, the Romans used it to make the crosses they hung criminals on. Some backwoods Christian legends say Jesus himself was hanged from a dogwood cross and that three days after this fabulous man's death and after his fabulous resurrection all the dogwood trees in Palestine began to wither and die and that after that, too, the dogwood flower had the sign of the cross burned into it.
A Pink Dogwood Blossom--like all Christian legends, it takes a huge imagination to believe them--like this blossom, do you see the sign of the cross in it?
Palestine, Texas, was also a major railroad town back during the 19th and into the 20th Century and is still to this day home to the Texas State Railroad, one of the oldest Texas railroads, which is now a railroad museum and historical site.
Uncle Mack Dockery had worked on the railroad. I, as a little kid, was one curious little dude. I poked my nose into anything that caught my desirous fancy, and Uncle Mack was one of those fancies. When we drove up in Uncle Mack's yard--very few people from that era ever had car garages or driveways with their houses that had been built back before the automobile was invented so you simply parked your car up in their yards--very few houses had grassy lawns; only hardscrabble earth. Trees, yes, and Uncle Mack's house had two huge dogwoods at each corner of the house. Hung on the front of his house was a huge wooden porch embraced by flowering vines like honeysuckle and many pot plants of gardenias, a shady place for cooling off during the hot Texas summers. Like most porches, too, in those days, Uncle Mack's porch had a porch swing and a clustering of other chairs, mostly straightback kitchen chairs.
As we got out of the car I thought I heard a heavenly music. I'd never heard such music before. My ears perked up and I couldn't wait to find out where the music was coming from. Out of the car, we were soon met by Uncle Mack's wife, Aunt Dosie. "Oh, my goodness," she said, "Cousin Elfie and the Wolfes. My goodness gracious alive, I ne'er thought you folks would ever make it over here to see the likes of us. Come on in the house and rest your weary bones." Damn the greetings, I was looking for the source of the music. It got louder as we trooped up onto that porch and soon Aunt Dosie was saying, "Mack, Cousin Elfie and her daughter and her husband and chile are here." The music stopped and soon we were in the presence of Uncle Mack Dockery. "Hickory, Dickory, Dockery, a bunch of Dockeries ran up the clock; the clock struck 15, but another 30 got away."
Uncle Mack was a short man very neatly dressed in a starched white shirt, buttoned up all the way to the top but without a tie, and tan gabardine pants, highwater pants since the cuffs ended way above his shoetops, and were held up even higher by a brace of plain brown suspenders. His hair was solid white grey. I was poking with my nose trying to see if Uncle Mack had been the source of that heavenly music I'd heard on exiting the car. I looked at his hands. In his right hand he held a small metal-looking object; it was shining silvery in the afternoon sunlight.
"What's that?" I suddenly asked with wide-eyed curiosity.
"That's'a French harp," Uncle Mack replied, holding it up high so I could see it clearly.
"It makes music?" I asked.
"Yeah, pretty music," he said, lifting it to his lips and blowing.
Yes, that had been the heavenly music I had heard, Uncle Mack playing his French harp.
I watched intensely as he finished the tune I didn't recognize at all. I watched him huffing-and-puffing blowing on that small silvery metal and wood object. Another matter though soon caught my attention as I watched him take the harp down from his mouth. Uncle Mack didn't have all his fingers on either of his hands. Finger stumps on both hands, mostly long fingers, his little fingers and thumbs still normal.
"How did you hurt yourself?" I asked.
"You got no fingers...."
He laughed. "Oh, that. I was a brakeman on the old Groveton, Lufkin, and Northern. As a brakeman, I had to hook the cars together. We used what they called a link and pin coupler in those days, which meant as soon as the engineer backed the train into the uncoupled car, I had to quickly drop the pin into the hole that hooked the cars together. Occasionally I got a finger caught in the coupler while trying to drop the pin in and a piece of my finger would be pinched off." He held his hands up. "I lost first the top of a finger, then the next joint, then the middle joint and so forth."
Then Aunt Dosie came out of the house. "Are you two comin' in? We're having some lemonade right now and I'm fryin' up some chicken for supper. Mack, would you go out to the well and bring me in some water. And bring in some ears of corn from the cellar."
Later I would find out what Uncle Mack was playing was more commonly known as a harmonica. Yes, they were also called French harps or just plain harps. I would not see another one until I was married and living in New York City--we had just moved here from Santa Fe, New Mexico, and that fall we got an invite to visit friends on Cape Cod in South Wellfleet. While there, one day we drove into Provincetown and went to the Atlantic House whose music venue at the time was the Blues. In one counter in the store area, they had a bunch of harmonicas for sale. On a whim and remembering Uncle Mack's French harp, I bought one. It was a Hohner Marine Band and for several hours I just looked at it, afraid to try and play it. I had no idea really how to play it.
I don't know what happened to that original harp I bought. All I know is I didn't figure out how to play one until further down the line. I really got into harp playing during the 1980s, after being a keyboardist and vocalist with a downtown cult band and with bands that theryefarmerfromqueens and I put together. I have an old recording of my playing the harmonica with the rye master and it's not bad but it's not good either. One other time I suggested I play harmonica with him and he said, "Do you really think you can play a harmonica?" I put it away and that was that for several more years.
Eventually, late 80s and into the early 90s, thebigrig and I formed a band called the New Gringos. We didn't want any keyboards in the band, so I suggested they let me try blowing a harp with the group. Our first gig was a total success. It worked. I was a harmonica king. I blew the dust out the thing and gave it a new life. (Actually, I now carry around 12 harmonicas to my gigs.) I might add here that the harmonica is one of the most difficult instruments to truly master in terms of sucking and blowing. In playing blues, you suck up for your key--like if you are blowing on a C harp, to play the Blues you suck up on it and you're in the key of G. It takes a lot of power and wind to blow on steadily correctly.
The New Gringos lasted several gigs and then thebigrig moved to Chicago and that was that.
Friday one week ago, thebigrig, now back in New York City for several years, called me and said he had gotten a gig at a downtown Manhattan joint (in SOHO) and he wanted me to come sit in. And that's what I did.
My gal and I trucked down to SOHO to the joint and we got a table in front of the bandstand and ordered drinks and food and then the band started playing. About midway through the first set, the Rig Man called me up to do a tune, "Natural Ball," a really open-eneded wild Otis Rush version I had done years ago with this band--up tempo, vigorous, mean--and I went up and started blowing. Immediately I felt myself losing strength. I had to sing wide open, exhausting, but then I tried to take a wild harp solo and halfway through it, I realized, I was totally out of breath. After the tune finished, I went back to my table and I had a bad case of heartburn, I thought.
Sitting there gasping for breath, I remembered one time years before I had gone in my fav bar at the time and I said something about having an upset stomach and the bartender said, "I've got the answer to your problem," and he went and made me this drink and I threw it down and soon my stomach was mellowed out and I felt great. "What was that you gave me?" "A Campari and so-deee," he replied. So remembering that I stopped drinking beer and ordered a Campari and soda and after one sip, my heartburn went away and I felt like a king on a throne and soon the band was calling me back up and I did two tunes, Herman Parker, Jr.'s, "Drivin' Wheel," followed by Fats Domino's "Josephine" and I starred like the champ I am and got great rounds of applause and went back to my table and people started coming over and telling me how great I was, which I love. No musician can resist praise and all that praise made me feel invincible.
I got home that night and my babe left me saying she'd be back the next day late and she came back around 8 at night and stayed here until around 10:30 and I left with her and we parted and I trotted on around on Fifth Avenue and got me a big meal, came home, and chowed down heartily.
At one in the morning I awoke with a tiny stabbing just behind my breastbone. I tried to belch it off but it wouldn't go away. Around three I felt terribly sick at my stomach and I got up and I vomited mightily, upchucking food I didn't even know I had eaten. And then I went back to bed but a few minutes later I was back up throwing up again. The slightly little bugger of a pain still stuck behind my breastbone. I couldn't sleep the rest of the night.
Around 10:30 am, my girl came back bringing with her some Starbucks java. She immediately on seeing me said, "God, you look awful, are you all right?" I macho-ed it up and told her, "Yeah, I've got a little touch of heartburn...it should go away as soon as I get up and get active." But it didn't go away. Finally, my glorious woman said, "I'm calling 9-1-1. I think you're sicker than you think...like you could be having a gald bladder attack...blah, blah, blah." In my best male machismo stance I told her, "Naw, don't do that, I'll be OK." She was by now in a panic mode and I was berating her, "Come on, babe, don't fret over me, I know my body, this will clear up. All I need is a little sleep and I'll be alright." So I went up and got in bed and soon I had dozed off into the netherworld and lost track of civilization. Then I heard my lady waking me up. "I called 9-1-1 and the EMS crew will be here any minute now." I again donned my most male peacock arrogance and said, "Oh, baby, call 'em back and cancel it...besides, I can't afford an EMS trip...they charge out the ass." She went out into my hall pretending she was canceling the order and came back in and said, "It's too late, I can't cancel it, they're already here."
Next thing I know, the EMS guys were here and they put me in the little green-canvas chair with rollers on it and were wheelin' me out to the ambulance, which was parked across my street. In the chair as I exited the building, I was campaign shoutin' and waving at passers by like a Southern politician (from Chuck Berry's "Nadine"), having a young ball until they got me in the back of the ambulance and they got me laid back on a stretcher and one guy immediately hooked an EKG device up to me. The EMS guy, and they were great guys, too, I must add here, looked at me suddenly and said, "Pal, you're having a heart attack...we're taking you directly to Bellevue--they've got a cardiac team ready and waiting for you."
And off I went on my first-ever ambulance ride. Through the streets of New York City. And soon we arrived at the Bellevue ER where I was wheeled on through to the cardiac salvation center like a VIP and next thing I know doctors were inserting the angioplasty tools into my groin and I passed out and when I woke up I was in CPU and feeling fit as a fiddle.
"Wha' happened?" I asked the attending doctor on waking up. "You had a blood clot in the first of the three main arteries that enter your heart, right at the top of your heart. If you'd have waited another hour, you'd be in bad shape, brother, if not dead."
I had undergone angioplasty--the little balloon had been blown up and opened up my artery and after sucking the blood clot out they inserted a bare metal stent. The whole procedure had taken only a couple of hours. "We'll keep you here in CPU for two or three days and watch you carefully and we'll start you immediately on medications...we've got a nitro drip in you now. The problem is the lower half of your heart may be dead--we're worried it's not squeezing the blood out and we've got to thin your blood so a major clot doesn't develop in that end of your heart. You're lucky to be alive. Instead of two in the afternoon, you should have come here at two in the morning. The damage may be irreparable...."
Cool as a cucumber I was. "Do you know where you are?" one doctor asked me, a typical question all patients are asked after such a procedure, and I said, "Yeah, I'm in Bellevue...though I hope I'm not in the psych ward."
And that was that. I had a heart attack.
Five days later I was sent up to rehab and after a horrible night dealing with a crazed Puerto Rican roommate (he had a full-time guard sitting with him), the next morning I told my doctor, a Dr. Wolfe, by the way (remember my parallel-line theory of those you meet), "Doc, you better get me out of this fuckin' psycho's room or I'm gonna go psycho."
By five o'clock the Thursday after I'd enter the hospital on Sunday afternoon, I was released and sent packing after I picked up a paper sack full of medications from the pharmacy--seven different medications, plus an RN taught me how to give myself injections of coumadin, a blood thinner that is an amazing drug--it's also known as warfarin.
I've been back home in the saddle now for two days. I'm feeling fine. As fit as a cheap fiddle if not a Stradivarius. I just returned from a big dinner up at my fav Irish pub where they now have me my own table. I've had to give up beer for the moment; certainly no more whiskey; although my Doctor Wolfe said that in the near future, he thought a couple of beers with a very lean steak would be just fine--as long as I didn't overdo it. SMOKING is the big no-no and since the only cigarettes I've ever smoked in my life are Mexican roll-your-owns, and I've certainly giving those up, too, I'm told I should recover nicely and, if I'm lucky, the bottom half of my heart is just stunned and these injections of warfarin I'm giving myself may one day get it to squeezing the blood on through once again.
The Daily Growler almost had to give a "Say goodbye to: our own Wolf Man...blah, blah, blah."
My life was saved by a woman friend I've known for 22 years; I hired her as a proofreader but also got her into editing and got her an editing job where we worked after I was fired. After moving on up to become a director of editing with this world firm, she's now a successful free-lance editor working out of Poor Little Rhode Island. Her insistence to get me to Bellevue has me now obligated to her for as long as my new-old heart can hold on and continue pumping life into me.
And what a great bunch of friends I have; musicians are so lucky when it comes to friends for life and I'm no exception to the rule.
My closing remarks, "It's great to be alive."
for The Daily Growler