All photos/art by Blair Kelly
A thin breeze blew up off the lake as I parked in front of the old manse. It was late summer; most all the summer folk had left, but there were a few hangers-on who hadn’t, as yet, drained the pipes and cleared the pantry shelves for the winter.
I let myself in, walked through the big old-fashioned kitchen with its aroma of casserole in the oven, toward the voices and the lights that seeped from under the living room door, closed to keep the heat in. Inside, a gathering of white-haired gentlemen, cradling martinis, sat around the crackling hearth fire.
On the big chest, an array of old LPs had been arranged in order, their frayed album covers set to the side. The gents were waiting for me, their year-round neighbor, to arrive before starting. Greetings all around, but let’s get to the music. Dick, our host and the keeper of the cherished albums, scrutinized a center label to be sure. The turntable, perhaps from the 1970s, wasn’t really an antique, but it seemed nostalgic to hear the familiar sounds–placing the platter on the tall spindle, securing it with the holding arm, and advancing the lever to start the robotic process. The needle arm rose and tapped the record, which dropped down onto the turntable with a slap. The needle moved over onto the edge of the thick, vinyl platter and settled there, allowing first a band of rhythmic static, once the prelude to all recorded music, before the drumbeat. Jazz Night had begun.
For the past several years, it’s been my privilege to be invited to Jazz Night, an otherwise all-male affair. No cigars are smoked, but wives are sent off to the movies, jazz not their thing. It is mine, though, and has been since my earliest years. The first LP I ever bought was a recording of the Dukes of Dixieland, all while my contemporaries were buying Elvis Presley and The Supremes. Jazz has always spoken to me, inspiration provided by my Uncle Jamie. With his help, I built my own collection, and learned the importance of Louis Armstrong.
Jazz has always been my pleasure, but that night it was my ticket to this exclusive evening. Here we were, a gathering of jazzophiles, rapt by the sweet notes that jammed the wood-heated air. Peter sat back in his easy chair and closed his eyes in bliss. George tapped his foot with enthusiasm and sipped his cocktail, eyes focused on the middle distance of another time. We were no longer in this cheerful room at the end of summer. Peter remembered New Orleans in the 1930s. Yes, they’d all been to the French Quarter, to the clubs, before the war, but, shhh, we’re not here to talk, we’re here to listen.
We stopped talking and fell into the spell of the music. Bix Beiderbecke, Paul Whiteman, King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, Gene Krupa–they were all in Dick’s line-up. Bix’s mellow cornet eased into the room. “Singin’ the Blues” (“Can you hear the difference between the cornet and the sax?” Peter asked), “Mississippi Mud,” “Riverboat Shuffle.” Satchmo’s infectious scratchy voice and his soaring trumpet took over.
From time to time, Dick squinted at the faded labels to tell us who was playing what, which mostly the old guys already knew. The casserole burned, but we served it up with gusto, in the spirit of the past, in the grip of a time I can’t recall but they surely could. Eventually the stories emerged anyway. War stories, love stories, times spent on foreign shores.
Another log on the fire, another record on the deck, till late in the evening, the music carried them off to those faraway times. I felt like an audience of one at a performance of memory, with a seat at their life’s opera. Stories told, music heard; in opera, one is nothing without the other, and we were all here for that final act, before the old house was shut down for the winter.
Edie Clark’s new book is States of Grace: Encounters with Real Yankees, a collection of her profiles of unique personalities, available at edieclark.com and selected bookstores.