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9/11/10

Scranton 1962


It was the day before Christmas Eve, 1962, a cold and snow-filled day. Elmer Snowden had scrambled up a booking for a concert at Scranton's Everhart Museum of Natural Science and gathered together a small band, a vocalist, and an emcee—yours truly. We were going there in Ray Bryant's station wagon, seven of us plus a set of drums, a tenor sax, banjo, and upright bass. Fortunately, the singer, Pearl's sister, Eura Bailey, came in from Philly, so nobody suffocated, but it was tight like that, as Thomas Dorsey sang before he became heavenly and rich. This was before the law required seat belts, but they would hardly have been necessary—by the time we had piled in and managed to close the doors, there was no room in which to move.

In order to be in Scranton by noon, we had to get an early start, so we figured we'd pick up some breakfast along the way, but that was before we squeezed ourselves into Ray's wagon. If you have ever taken a cigarette from a full pack and tried to put it back, you get the idea: stopping along the way would have been insane. Apart from that, Ray was not finding it easy to negotiate the icy road, so we wouldn't have had time to stop for anything anyway.

Somehow, we made it in time, worn out and hungry. But it was lunch time, wasn't it? There would be something there to eat. There wasn't. We were led to a table that held every kind of liquor you could imagine, but there was not a pretzel or peanut in sight. According to the notes I scribbled down the following day, Herman Autrey, Jo Jones, Elmer, and Ray's brother, Tommy were quick to forget breakfast, "This is the wrong thing to put in front of a man with Indian blood," said Budd Johnson as he scooped ice cubes into a glass, and Eura Bailey declared that this was just what we all needed on such a cold day. Sure, the perfect thing to have on an empty stomach. I never was much of a drinker, but neither did I run away from the stuff. I had knocked myself out only once, when some of my friends took me to a lively Copenhagen joint on my 18th birthday. That was also the only time I was ever thrown out of a place by a bouncer and I do mean thrown, literally. My good friend, Ib Clausen had to bring me home, but he had a difficult time finding a cab driver who would take me. The experience was sobering and I swore never to get that drunk again. Eura seemed to have a different idea.

The place was packed and, of course, there had been no rehearsals, nor had anybody made up a list of tunes to be played. It really didn't matter, this was a band of seasoned individuals who all spoke the same language, and by the time Elmer stomped the intro to the first number, the audience, too, seemed to be up there with us.
Jo Jones

The first set went well, the people applauded enthusiastically—perhaps too much so—and our little backstage "breakfast" table had frequent visitors. There was a man going around with a microphone, interviewing us and getting slurred, happy responses. When he came to me, I wondered why I didn't see a tape recorder, but Eura's liquid breakfast had shortened my attention span considerably, so I only wondered for a fleeting moment.

Elmer Snowden
Soon thereafter I spotted Jo Jones seated in the back and asked him why he wasn't mingling with the audience, like the rest of us. Jo gestured toward a dark corner with his head, and I heard Budd Johnson's voice coming from a small radio—we were on the air, live!

We had not been told that our audience would extended far beyond the museum auditorium, nor had we agreed to any such arrangement. Even the intermission interviews were being broadcast live and without any of us being told that fact.

By the time of this discovery, I was well on my way to a more careless state of being, so I put it aside, but on the following day, when I was back in New York, I allowed myself to become sufficiently angry to dash off a letter to the concert's producer, let him know how he had placed himself and the station in jeopardy, and demand a copy of the tapes. I received an apology to all and two reels of tape.

Having not seen the tapes in a few years, I was glad to find an aircheck of one of my WBAI jazz shows that contains, in full, the concert's closing number. You can hear it here, preceded by the lovely ending Budd Johnson gave to "Talk of the Town" and followed by a bit of my show's theme and a plug for the following week. When I find the tapes, you will hear it all, including Eura and sans my voice.
Ray Bryant

After the concert, we headed home to New York, still on an empty stomach. As you can hear on the tape, I was still standing when I announced the final number,but barely so. I believe I passed out in the car, regaining consciousness as Ray Bryant literally carried me through the chilly air and into a diner, Frankenstein style. Strong black coffee brought me back and allowed me to walk on my own into the building where I still reside and where, in some dark corner of a closet, the rest of the concert is tightly wrapped around two reels. Odd to think that I am the sole survivors at this point.
Here is the audio again.

1 comment:

  1. Budd Johnson was a fascinating paradox. I saw him play live a good number of times in the Seventies, and he always managed to seem deeply intoxicated, slurring his words and going on at length, getting his tenor mixed up with someone else's, but he played eloquently (if lengthily) at the same time. He had it by heart, I assume. Thanks for the audio clip: I hope you find the remaining music! Cheers, Michael Steinman

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