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.
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.
Stompin’ at The Grand Terrace
My father was playing something by Earl Hines—old—probably from the early ’30s, when he was still with Louis Armstrong. He mentioned the old Grand Terrace Café, where Hines and the great ones used to play. Preston was snapping his fingers and nodding along with the beat. “That reminds me of a dream I had the other night. It was beautiful, man, in the sense of lights and music. Fatha Hines and Satchmo was burnin’. Outside, a soft glow from the streetlights seemed like a Canadian sunset, while inside the crystals of the great chandelier were lit up like a thousand stars. Bean took a chorus. Then Prez. Then Bird. Then Diz. Art Tatum was there. Teddy Wilson, Bill Basie, Lady Day, Don Byas, Duke Ellington, and Baby Dodds. Big Sid Catlett and Little Jazz Roy Eldridge himself. Everybody was diggin’ it. People were dancin’, not to show off, but to put into movement what the musicians were playin’. Everyone was there. You were there, James, with all these egghead-lookin’ white cats. They weren’t lookin’ too hip, but could somehow dig it. The place got more crowded. You said, Look, Preston, it’s Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms returned from the dead to check out the scene! I turned and saw these cats in gray powdered wigs, all steadily diggin’ the show. Pops and Fatha kicked it into high gear. The place became so crowded I went onto the terrace to get some air. A cool breeze was blowin’ as music poured out the doors into the night. People were dancin’ on the terrace now, and it began to shake and vibrate. I thought, Oh, shit, this muthafucka’s about to crumble! And it was a long way down, too—certain death if you fell. Then there was this big crackin’ sound, and I thought, Well, that’s it. We began to list like the Lusitania or Titanic, and I shouted, We’re all goin’ down together! And then a miraculous thing happened—the music swung that much harder! Pops and Diz were approaching the stratosphere on the bandstand! We righted and were lifted up by the sound. We were saved! The music held us up, James! And that’s when I woke up.” My father reset the needle on the Fatha Earl Hines album. This time they listened and did not speak.
Liver & Onions: The Pianists
My father was alone.
Preston was supposed to come,
but sometimes without a prior call
My father had the weekly selections
picked out—piano players today.
He started at their regular time,
drinking malt liquor and playing
Unit Structures by Cecil Taylor.
My mother, meanwhile,
hated Cecil’s music and hated Preston more.
She was furiously chopping up onions
into a skillet of frying calf’s liver.
“Liver, again?” I protested. She looked up
and flashed a warning flare, pointing
the knife at me. “Don’t complain.
Some kids don’t even have this to eat.”
My father had gone through three of ten
selections he’d picked out. From Cecil
to Red Garland to Kenny Drew. Now
he was playing Tatum’s Humoresque
—that choppy beginning—
still hoping the doorbell would ring.
Tatum was almost mocking the
classical Dvorˇák, before he got down to
My dad looked out the window,
then at his watch, and took
another sip of his malt liquor.
The overpowering smell of
frying liver and onions
and my mother’s curses
filled the room.
Excerpted from Stompin’ at the Grand Terrace: A Jazz Memoir in Verse (Blueroad Press, 2009); www.blueroadpress.com. The book includes the CD A Stompin’ Suite, featuring the music of Carolyn Wilkins and poems by Philip S. Bryant.