Stompin’ at the Grand Terrace

Excerpts from a jazz memoir in verse

| July-August 2009

Picture two black Chicago working-class men living on the South Side of the city just after the midway point of the last century, slowly but steadily easing their way into middle age. They are part of that vast post-war army of working men and women who labored at the various factories, steel mills, slaughterhouses, auto plants, and other blue-collar industries that paid relatively well, but demanded grit, muscle, and endurance. Their class and race permanently marked their status, designated largely by an outside (white) world that surely welcomed their muscles and backs, but otherwise disdained and relegated them to the strict and closed confines of their ethnic and racial ghettos. The ghetto largely and at times narrowly defined the men and women who dwelled there. How they passed their time; what deep thoughts, hopes, dreams, visions, and aspirations they had; what lives they led; and what music they created, played, and listened to went mostly unnoticed and was usually dismissed as having little or no consequence or significance for the wider world that lay just beyond the borders of the ghetto. But for them, their Blues, Gospels, and Jazz were vital and of utmost importance, as seen here through these two aging African American men: Chicago Southsiders fated to a mostly obscure workaday life, trying to eke out a living in order to take care of families, wives, and children, while at the same time striving to kindle and nurture a deeper and more passionate sense of their own inner lives and the immediate worlds they inhabited—which for them was defined, expressed, and reflected in the jazz they collected, listened to, and loved. Music was their haven and oasis, for better and for worse. It gave them (if ever so briefly) a true sense of who they were as human beings. It affirmed a spirit flowing within and between them and throughout the world where they lived and would soon depart and vanish from forever. This spirit they rarely tried to articulate in words or speak of directly. But both men believed in it, in the same way they believed in the music they heard. This is the story of James and Preston—friends, confidants, and companions—in whose dark faces reflects this light and life, lifting and spinning and shining ever forth like music itself across the infinite.

 

Cook!

They were in the living room one Friday night listening intently to Booker Ervin’s Blue Book album. Booker’s scratchy, big Texas drawl of a solo was in mid-flight when all of a sudden, exactly on the downbeat, Preston shouted, “Cook!” James looked startled at first, then smiled and nodded as Booker began to descend the summit he’d just climbed.



I used to love to hear the sound of that word when Preston or my dad would shout it in the middle of The Sermon by Jimmy Smith or Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s biblical version of All the Things You Are or Shirley Scott’s appropriately named Slow Blues in the Kitchen.

Cook!” my dad would holler in the middle of her funky organ romp late at night, and I’d get a terrible hunger in the pit of my stomach. I thought I smelled my mother’s simmering collard greens and ham hocks on the stove, though she’d put away the food from dinner hours ago.