by Art Hodes
There used to be (but it's not there anymore; I looked) a barbecue place at 48th and State. Louis Armstrong took me there one time; after that I found my own way, night after night. It wasn't the food that charged me, though I'd strip those bones bare. No, it was the music, the people, the atmosphere. There was an old electric player piano that I'd feed nickels. The music came out blues. Oh, how I longed to be able to play that way. I was in love with a music. It turned into a life-long love affair.
Some years before that, I found myself on a summer resort engagement. Although I'd always played with a beat, I was very acceptable to this leader, who featured a mixed bag: sweet, waltz, one-step, and hot. But one of the players (Earl Murphy, the bass player) had a wind-me-up and a handful of records. I listened. My ears met Earl Hines, Armstrong, Bix, Bessie Smith. From then on, things were never the same. I changed my style of playing, and the time of change was a time of turmoil for all concerned. I left behind what I could do best, and I was far from the point where I could play my new bag.
In the years that followed, work avoided me. But I'd been born to the purple. My first Jam session, as a teenager, had been with a pretty good kid clarinet player, Benny Goodman, at Hull House. When New Orleans Jazz music and jazz players hit Chicago, I was discovered by Wingy Mannone. So I became part and parcel of the Windy City scene that included the legendary Frank Teschemacher, Davey Tough, Bud Freeman, George Nettling, Floyd O'Brien, etc. Eventually I jammed all one evening with Bix.
All this brought me a tightened belt and a bigger appetite for this music. When Chicago became a Jazz ghost town, I followed the music to New York City. Twelve years there...from Stuyvesant Casino (where I followed Bunk Johnson on the stand) to Carnegie Hall, from 52nd St. to the Village. I'd found me a town where I could do something about keeping my music alive. Mayor LaGuardia had a city radio station, and I had a position (unpaid) there to play the music I believed in (spun the records). I even started a Jazz magazine (Jazz Record ran for some 60 issues--five years). Pee Wee Russell and I got us a room connected with a pub and started our own night club...Pee Wee & Art's Back Room. You could do something about keeping the music (and yourself) alive.
My music? It's people's music. It never had a color to distinguish it; it did have tints and hues. From the very beginning it was a happy marriage of varied cultures, but it came to us from the insides of a downtrodden race. My music is spirituals that speak of hope, promise, better ways. It's the blues...Leadbelly singing "when you got chicken on your plate an you can't eat, you got the blues." It's the street corner washboard band...the Jug band...the piano man keeping the left hand going as the right connects with a drink...the Jazz band that hits you down the middle, inside...Muddy Waters saying goodnight to Sarah Vaughan (after she'd spent an evening in his place, listening) and reminding her, "now, you all come back, 'cause this is where the sure-enough is." My music is from down home, my music is.
My music? Listen to Ellington's Dear Old Southland, King Oliver's Dippermouth, Louis Armstrong's Muskrat Ramble, Jimmie Noone and Earl Hines' Sweet Lorraine, Pine Top Smith's Boogie Woogie, James P. Johnson's Snowy Morning Blues, Bessie Smith's Yellow Dog Blues, Leroy Carr's That's All Right. There's no describing my music...there's only the listening and the enjoying.
Yes, today I hear something (just now and then) that turns me on. Not like yesterday...but now and then. Today the musicians are, by far, greater musicians, but for "my music," we had a lot more to say yesterday. I could walk the streets of Chicago's South Side and hear fellows whistling to one another, and, oh, it was such music. Don't shed any tears, though. I was around when the music was around. And I gave it a home...inside me. It's still there.