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8/24/09

High in a Basement Penthouse

Ma Rainey once sang, "Take me to the basement, that's as low as I can get." Well, substitute high for low and come with me to a most unusual basement.

In a previous post, I recalled the time Ida Cox came to New York for her final recording sessions. I’ll start this post at the first session, April 11, 1961. Pianist George Wallington’s wife, Billie, was Riverside’s PR person. She and I had become close friends, she found for me my first apartment (on West 44th Street, next door to Actors Studio) and we frequently dined with George at his favorite Chinese Restaurant, the Peking on 125th Street. Billie loved the idea of Ida practically stepping from the grave to record for us. She was also overwhelmed by the response to her press releases—it seemed that every important jazz writer wanted to be there—she had never seen anything like it.

Time magazine even wanted to do a story, but Billie turned them down. When I heard that, I couldn’t believe it, turning down a Time story? It made no sense to me, especially since Billie was so excited about Ida, but there was an explanation and it taught me something about the PR side of the business I was in. Time, Billie told me, was almost ready to commit to a cover story on Cannonball, then Riverside’s biggest artist. It was something she had worked on for a long time and it would be killed if they now focused on another of our artists. Billie used the opportunity to confess that she had, for the same reason, turned the magazine down when it expressed interest in a feature on the “Living Legends” sessions, which I had recently produced in New Orleans.

Disappointing, but I understood. I also knew that with so many top writers attending Ida’s sessions, there would be no dearth of coverage. There wasn’t. Whitney Balliet’s piece in The New Yorker was my favorite, and it still pops up in his books. I think the sessions went well, although Orrin Keepnews, who had been against me going to Knoxville in the first place (he was overruled by Bill Grauer), suddenly and shamelessly seized what he saw as an PR opportunity. He all but pushed me aside and took over the sessions, arriving at the studio with stopwatch in hand. Orrin knew how to assemble the right people for a session, but he never had much input when it came to the music. He loved the old jazz styles and—I suppose—developed a taste for that which evolved from it, but I had the impression that he was insecure, so musicians pretty much called the shots while he kept track of time.

One of the visitors to Plaza Sound Studios during the Cox sessions was my old friend from Denmark, Timme Rosenkrantz, others included John Hammond, Martin Williams, Whitney Balliett and, I think, Nat Hentoff. Oh yes, someone had dragged in Louis McKay, Billie Holiday’s opportunistic widower, which moves my story closer to the basement. Between takes, Timme and I were having a conversation in Danish, when Louis came over and asked what we were talking about. “Oh,” said Timme, “nothing to do with music, Chris and I are both looking for apartments.”
Norman Brokenshire in his basement penthouse. 

Louis’ eyes lit up and he told us that he had just the place, a great furnished basement apartment on West 84th, right off Broadway. We hadn’t thought of sharing a place, but Timme and I decided to take a look later in the week.

272 West 84th Street was a well-kept brownstone that once had belonged to Norman Brokenshire, a popular radio announcer whose career, according to Time magazine, “had been on the radio almost as long as static.” His initials were still inlaid in metal on the sidewalk in front of the house. He had referred to it as his “basement penthouse” when he made it his den, and—I suspect—remote broadcast location.



The house at 272 West 84th Street.




The walls were acoustical tiling, such as one finds in sound studios, and a row of microphone inputs gave one of the floor panels a distinct look. Adding to that, were the furnishings, which we were told had been Billie’s. They were, mildly put, a bit on the gaudy side. On a small bar, dimly bathed in lights of every rainbow color, rested a red telephone, perfectly matching the blinding crimson drapes that covered the south wall. In the middle of its dial was Billie’s picture, surrounded by rhinestones, and there were other items that might have come from a Times Square novelty shop, but the stand-out was an air-cushioned bubble seat made to resemble a fish bowl, complete with rotating, glittery residents made of the finest plastic. The place was, basically, a large elongated living room with a remarkably orthodox green-tiled bathroom on the left and a no-nonsense kitchen at the far end. That's also where the apartment's only exposed window was found, heavy drapery, black with silver threads, covered two front windows—it all added up to give the place had the look of a lower scale after-hours joint.

Having taken all this in, Timme and I exchanged smiley glances and accepted a rent figure that seemed slightly steep, but doable. Louis explained that his aunt, Mrs. Wilson, would come from Harlem once a month to check the boiler and that we were to pay the rent to attorney Flo Kennedy, .a feisty character who wore cowboy hats, worked from a desk chair with a bullet-proof back, and represented the estates of Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday. This was not your usual rental situation and therein, I suppose, lay its appeal.

A Baron and a Duke in Copenhagen.
As promised, Mrs. Wilson came by to check the boiler once a month. She was a delightful elderly lady who usually joined me for a cup of coffee and morning conversation. On one of her visits, I told her that her nephew had dropped in the day before, to pick up some tapes. That’s when I learned that this was actually her house, so she was Louis’ landlady, not his aunt.

That morning, I was rather taken aback when Mrs. Wilson asked me how the diamond business was going. It turned out that Louis McKay had been keeping the rent we paid to Flo and stalling the all-too-patient Mrs. Wilson with a tall tale: the rent would be paid as soon as he and I received an expected million-dollar diamond shipment from Africa! To make matters worse, Louis was charging us twice the amount of the actual rent.


In retrospect, the house on West 84th was a positive sidebar, a place where I got to know Timme better. He was always enjoyable company with wonderful stories to tell and great acetates to play. If you ever read Linda Dahl’s biography of Mary Lou Williams, please disregard the portrait she paints of Timme—the lady had a shameful agenda and, in true Ken Burns fashion, distorted facts in order to maintain it. I caught on to Linda’s agenda when she came to interview me for her book. She was visibly disappointed when I spoke positively of Timme, whom she would portray as an unscrupulous thief who earned the nickname, “The Robber Baron.” That was actually funny, because Timme was perennially poor, the black sheep of his noble family. Yes, he was a bonafide Baron, and that had helped him make important contacts in a country that was wonderstruck by such titles. Timme was a very regular guy who munched on Milkbone dog biscuits, but he often dined in the finest places and rarely had to pick up the tab. No robber baron he, but they did call him “The Baron of Bounce” relating to his passion for jazz, and the “Barrelhouse Baron,” which partly referred to his problem with alcohol. The latter became a problem on and off, but I never saw it make Timme offensive. He was almost a paragon of sobriety in our remarkable basement.

An unidentified guitarist looks over shoulders
as Billie Holiday poses for Timme's box camera,
in the alley behind Harlem's Apollo Theater. She
is flanked by Ben Webster and Johnny Russell
with pianist Ram Ramirez crouched in front, he 
co-wrote "Lover Man", one of Billie's many hits.

Timme had many friends from his early days in Harlem, when he mingled with, and sometimes recorded, the mighty. He also took some great snapshots with his box camera, some of which Frank Driggs "acquired" and published without due credit.

In October of 1961, we were visited by Doug Dobell, who owned a great little record shop at 77 Charing Cross Road, in London, and a fledgling record label, “77 Records”. Doug wanted to do a small-band session for his label, so he visited all the places where he knew he could find jazz players hanging out, including The Copper Rail bar, and that great cheesecake spot, The Turf. With some help from Timme, he put together a fine five-piece band headed by guitarist Bernard Addison. Trumpeter Johnny Letman and altoist Pete Brown were up front and the rhythm section was completed by bassist Hayes Alvis and Sonny Greer.

Doug’s budget was tight, so Timme suggested that he save the studio cost and have the session at our place. He would get his wartime buddy, Jack Jacobsen to bring a tape recorder. Jack was then chief audio engineer on the TV series, The Defenders, and he loved jazz enough to offer his services gratis. Because Doug originally intended to include a pianist, I rented a good upright, but it wasn’t used—not for the session.

Entrance to our basement apartment. The red
light is long gone, but the music and memories
linger on.
Of course, Timme and Doug being big party people, a bunch of guests were invited, so the place was crowded. I remember Dan Morgenstern being there and having a very good time, also Frank Driggs (but it was Sonny Greer who left with my photo of the Washingtonians). With all these people and all that booze, the session eventually morphed into a party. Several musicians dropped by after work, Tadd Dameron played some piano, and a good time was had by all.

At the apartment's entrance I replaced the regular light bulb with a red one and put up a sign to prevent anyone from ringing the doorbell during a take. Unfortunately, I forgot to switch the bulbs back when I removed the sign.

At one point in the early hours of the morning, I went out to Broadway to buy some ice. By that time, the place was thick with smoke, legal and otherwise, so you can imagine how I felt when I returned and found a uniformed member of the NYPD standing just inside the door. I was certain that we had been raided and prepared to do a perp walk when Timme popped up with a large tumbler of liquor in his hand. "Is this alright, officer?," he asked, handing him the drink. "That's fine," replied the cop with a smile. Imagine my relief as I now invited the cop to come in and join the party. He smiled again as he declined and told me not to worry about a thing. He had heard the music emanating from a basement's darkened window and spotted the red light above the door. As it happened, he dug the music and decided to check out what he at first thought was one of New York's many informal after-hours establishment. With Billie's decor, it certainly had that look and, yes, the album we made that night was correctly named




Addendum: Timme Rosenkrantz was truly an unforgettable person to those of us who had the good fortune of knowing him. He was a witty, delightfully eccentric Baron (the real thing) who often wrote of his addiction to jazz and those who performed it. Timme's writing has now been  translated into English and lovingly assembled by Fradley Garner. The book, Harlem Jazz Adventures, is finally here. For details, visit the dedicated site, The Jazz Baron .





3 comments:

  1. Great story, Chris! I'd love to hear this album now... but I guess it's pretty rare, huh?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Yes, it probably is. My only copy (a vinyl) is cracked. Thanks for posting a comment.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Chris, thanks for the comment and Lonnie Johnson's worth more attention, one of the founders. Sad that I never heard him live, althoug he played in Stockholm in 1963, but I was too young then. I have the book BLUESLAND where with your piece about Lonnie, and there's definetly a need for a book about him.
    I also have the 77 records LP above an a great disc. Swings like...
    Very best... Per Oldaeus
    PS I plan to cross the pond in October and do some research.

    ReplyDelete