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Bessie and Bix? You in there?

I was working at Riverside Records in 1961 when a young organist named Paul Renard spent many hours at Plaza Sound recording an album of George M. Cohan tunes. Plaza was Riverside’s regular studio (I conducted sessions with Ida Cox, Meade Lux Lewis, and Elmer Snowden there) and it was the only studio in New York that had a mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ. Well, it was piped into the studio, shall we say, because Plaza Sound was located in the building that houses Radio City Music Hall.

When he finished recording The Amazing Paul Renard Plays Music of George M. Cohan, Paul stopped by the office and told us how great he felt about this album. “You know,” he revealed to me in a lowered voice, “I had help from Mr. Cohan.”

“How so?” I asked.

“He was right behind me most of the time, and he directed my feet to pedal positions I never would have thought of.”

At first, I thought Paul was putting me on, but he wasn’t. Totally convinced that Mr. Cohan had been his copilot on this trip, he could hardly contain his enthusiasm. That intrigued me all the more, so I pressed for details. He said it all started when he began making regular visits to Dr. Austin, a clairvoyant lady who had direct access to the departed from her residential hotel suite on West 57th Street. I didn’t believe in that sort of thing, but I thought Bill Grauer ought to know that he had a major music figure working for his label.

Bill loved it and, typically, came up with a wild idea to exploit it. He had a vivid imagination, whether it came to bookkeeping or product concept, his fantasy button was always lit—and blinking. Most of the unorthodox projects he dreamt up never came to fruition, but it wasn’t because he didn’t try. At one time, he had a law firm looking into a loophole in the law that forbids bull fights in this country. His fantasy was to import tough bulls, hire the very best Spanish matador and a sprinkling of toreadors, then take over Yankee Stadium for what would become a stereo spectacular. There were no loopholes.

Starting with Sounds of Sebring, a 1956 release, Riverside was having some luck with albums that went in one speaker and out the other. Stereo was something new and stuff was being bounced all over the place. The Riverside automotive division (a desk over in the corner) probably did itself in when a crew went to Germany to record a couple of Mercedes-Benz motors for a simulated race that actually never could have taken place. It was an expensive project that yielded six minutes of sound. As I recall, it was also released on a subsidiary label, mastered to play from the center to the edge, pressed on red vinyl, and advertised as “A buck a minute.” I sometimes wonder what happened to the two or three copies that were sold.

Getting back to Messrs. Renard and Cohan, Bill told me to make an appointment with Dr. Austin. He wanted me to go there and have a little chat with Bix Beiderbecke and Bessie Smith. Of course, I was to wear a wire, so he told our resident audio engineer, Ray Fowler, to look for a recorder that could be concealed on my body. Ray came up with as small a reel-to-reel tape recorder as could be found in 1961, about the size of a two-sandwich lunch box. They taped it to my stomach where it just looked like another fold in my bulky Icelandic sweater, and fed it through my sleeve to a wristwatch microphone. It looked real, but I would have been in trouble if asked for the time.

Not the exact model, but close.
Thus equipped, I arrived at Dr. Austin’s suite for my appointment. Being a realist, I had not prepared any questions for Bessie or Bix, but I figured I could always request a song. As far as Dr. Austin knew, I was just someone to whom her services had been recommended. Following Bill Grauer’s advice, I had deliberately kept this covert project from Paul Renard, just in case he might tip her off.

I had no hopes of accomplishing this mission to Bill's satisfaction, but I was a bit nervous as I anticipated the possibility of being found out—I was easily embarrassed. Dr. Austin opened the door and greeted me with a warm smile that strained the flexibility of her pancake makeup. She was a lady past her middle age and she spoke with an accent that I couldn't quite pinpoint. As she led the way into a larger room, a cosmetic cloud seemed to follow her and I was reminded of Menotti’s Madame Flora. Would she, I wondered, have a Toby or a Monica pull strings from the shadows. My imagination was running on overtime. The room was quaintly old-fashioned, the furniture could have dated back to a time when my mother was a child. The shades were partially drawn but there was enough light to see a chair in the middle of the floor. Dr. Austin gestured for me to use it and seated herself behind an easel. As if reading my thoughts, she explained that she would be drawing my aura and, indeed, for the entire time I was there, her arm moved in circular motion, pausing only to pick up a different-colored pastel stick.

For awhile she remained silent, her eyes fixed upon me. Her right arm began orbiting my aura, making a soft, dry sound that blended with faint traffic noise seeping in from 57th Street. There was something surreal and discomfiting about all this, so I felt relief when she finally spoke. “If there is someone you wish me to contact, bring them to the forefront of your mind,” she said.

I thought of Bessie and wondered why I was even going along with this. “There are two people standing behind you,” said Dr. Austin. Bessie and Bix? I wondered silently, but not for long. “A nun and a priest,” she continued.

“Have you recently joined the church or had a religious experience,” she asked. Well, I had dabbled in Catholicism four years back, only to become a dedicated atheist, but I just shook my head. That stab in the dark not having worked for her, Dr. Austin moved on, “I see a camera before you.” I felt my face blushing. Had she really spotted the recorder? It could easily be mistaken for a camera, but.... “It is a camera,” she said, to my great relief. You are interested in photography. This time I nodded. She seemed pleased and I think her hand movement accelerated—my aura was happening.

Now Dr. Austin got down to the nitty gritty. “You are here to make contact. Do you seek a friend or relative?”

“No,” I replied, “Bix Beiderbecke and...”

She interrupted me. “Who is that?”

“A jazz musician,” I said, discretely pressing my sweater where I thought the start button was. I was afraid that the machine might make a noise, so I coughed, but there was no noise and I felt no movement. Just as well, for Dr. Austin obviously didn’t know how to get in touch with Bix. She closed her eyes, rested her arm and all but told me that he wasn’t in. I was about to mention Bessie, but I decided that she was probably also unavailable that day.

Dr. Austin rolled up my aura, put a rubber band around it and gave it to me in exchange for the $15 fee. Bill Grauer was disappointed—there would be no recorded conversations with Bix and Bessie, and not even George M. Cohan had made a reappearance. Bummer!


  1. I'd be Scared to death in a situation like this!!!

  2. What a hilarious story. It couldn't have been funnier if Bix & Bessie had actually made their presence known!
    F. Kunst

  3. Mr. Albertson - first of all, "Bessie" is a delightful book! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. One of the characters in it, Porter Grainger, played a key role in a song I spent several years researching, St. James Infirmary:
    and I was delighted to read your accounts of Grainger, especially your description of the Van Vechten gathering. That is certainly the most complete account of Grainger that I have read anywhere; he's a character who seems all but lost to history. I assume your chief informant for that account of Grainger was Ruby Walker?
    I would be delighted to hear if you have any further information about Grainger's life, or suggestions as to where I might look for more info.

    Many thanks - both for your attention to this letter, and for having written a really fine book.

  4. A great story, Chris. I esp. like how Dr. Austin just drops the nun and priest angle when it doesn’t seem to be working.