Swing Men and Women

A series of poems on jazz personalities and jazz situations

© by Herbert Kuhner

Swing Men & Women contains poems about musicians and singers of the Swing Era. I started writing these poems because I wanted to put into words what Lester Young means to me, and the first poem I wrote was, of course, about Lester Young. I always seem to begin and end with the Pres. Accuse me of favoritism and I plead guilty. But as much as I am dedicated to the Pres, there are many others I admire such Billie Holiday, Chu Berry, Lionel Hampton, Arnett Cobb, Harry Carney and Big Sid Catlett and, to name a few. And it was imperative not to leave out those, who more or less got lost in the shuffle, like Jack McVea and Lil Hardin. I've always had a place in my heart for underdogs and dark horses, and I've done my best to include them.
Situations that these men and women were confronted with are also dealt with. Situations that these men and women had to overcome, such as Jim Crow are also dealt with. And last but not least, this collection is rounded out by biographical aspects of the author as a jazz devotee and drummer. "I have had a bumpy ride as a writer, but jazz has always provided me with joy and solace."

Ebony and Hickory

Jo's hands were made
to hold sticks.

His long slender fingers
never gripped the sticks,
they merely rested
in his hands.

The sticks just needed
Jo's hands
so they could touch or hit
skins or cymbals.

It was as if
they had a life of their own.

And you know that
the sticks could only do what they did
in the magical hands that held them.

The sticks that Jo held
were live wood
that belonged to him
and would never have served
another drummer
the way they served Jo Jones.

Lester In the Can

Jo Jones and the Pres
kept moving on and ignoring
their draft board notices.
In September of '44
the FBI caught up with them
at the Plantation Cafe in L.A.,
where they were playing with Basie,
and gave them their induction papers.

Lester's next venue
was Fort Gordon, Georgia.

Lester was cut out
to play the sax and clarinet
like no one else before or after him,
but he wasn't cut out to be a soldier.

The first thing the army did with him
was as put him in a the can
after they found alcohol in his blood.

When they let him out,
he didn't make the marching band.

No, the greatest tenor sax man
of all time
wasn't good enough
to play for Uncle Sam's Army.

Lester had the luck
of having a Southern racist captain
as his commanding officer.
When the captain discovered
a photo of a white woman
in Lester's locker,
a woman
who happened to be Mrs. Young,
that was it!

The captain rode Lester
and chose him for every chore
he could think of,
and Lester sought solace
by swallowing what provides it,
for a while.

Needless to say,
Lester ended up in the brig
and that was his address
for a year.

As an extra-added sadistic touch,
Jo Jones and other musicians
were ordered to guard him,
and not to treat him gently.

The word he heard most
during his prison term
was "nigger!"

After his dishonorable discharge,
Lester was never the same again.

The Dean

You could call Nat Hentoff,
the Dean of Jazz critics.

I've already expressed my
admiration for him.

Nat has always been politically minded
and he certainly knows how to write
a political sentence
as well as a sentence about music.

Nat is now pro-life.
He's opposed to,
what some refer to
as murder before birth.

Abortion is not exactly
a desirable procedure,
but to quote the title
of an instrumental number
by Lester Young:
"I'm fer it!"
Or rather I'm for
keeping it legal. If abortion is murder,
bringing unwanted children
into the world is murder double-fold.
Making it illegal
means bringing the knitting needle
into play again
and reviving the back street abortion.

Nat also is convinced
that Elian should have stayed
in the United States.

To recoup,
Elian is the boy,
whose mother drowned
while tying to reach the United States
with him.

I beg to differ.

I'd like to have had Elian
grow up in the land
that's great in many ways
and can be improved
if we work at it –
but not at the price of being
separated from his surviving parent.

Elian's father may be a member
of the Cuban Communist Party
and he may be a citizen
of a totalitarian state,
but it is not democracy's business
to break up families.

The South American juntas,
who regretfully were our friends,
forcefully separated children
from their parents
and presented them to like-minded couples
for adoption.

Let's not follow their example!

Nat lists the lack of liberties and chances
that Elian would have in Cuba,
and he's right.

However, Cuban children do have
have minimum social benefits
and free hospital care when they need it.

I was impressed with Fidel
decades ago
when he was photographed
in the mountains reading a book,
of all things.

Well, I rapidly became
and like Nat
I favor
freedom and democracy.
These things just ain't
in Cuba.

Nat helps underline this
by reminiscing.
Decades ago,
when he asked Che Guevara about elections,
"Guevara laughed derisively, and said in Spanish,
'Here?' And he kept laughing."

However, I don't think
that most of the twenty percent
who grow up in poverty
in our land,
will have the opportunity
of having access
to the rights we have.

Anyway Nat,
I dig what you have to say –
about music,
and like you
I enjoy swinging sessions.

The New Masses and Cafe Society

What did The New Masses and Cafe Society have in common?
Cafe Society, as posh as it sounds,
was sponsored by the Communist Party.
And there was no mystery
about The New Masses.
With a name like that
you didn't have to do much guessing.

Cafe Society was a great jazz venue
like the Famous Door and Minton's Playhouse.
It was the first integrated club in New York
where blacks and whites could play,
as well as listen and mingle.
The question is who didn't play and sing there?
A number of jam sessions survived on record
to show what was going on.

The New Masses backed
John Hammond's From Spirituals to Swing
in Carnegie Hall in December of '38.
Hammond and The Masses
had a black gig onstage
with the Basie Band with the Pres, Buck
and Hershel, shortly before his death.
But listen to this!
The sponsor insisted that blacks
be allowed to listen to blacks,
and they got their way.
For the first time,
blacks sat with whites in Carnegie Hall.

If you love jazz,
you couldn't be opposed to that.
In those good old days,
when whites listened to jazz
at classy venues like the Cotton Club,
the blacks made the music
but couldn't listen to it.
So again kudos are due.

Here's the fly in the ointment,
contributions went to the Loyalist's in Spain.
To my mind, that was fine
since the loyalists were fighting
Spanish and Italian fascists,
as well as the Nazis.

But the Comrades
who were doing marvelous things
in the Cafe and the Hall
were admirers of Uncle Joe,
who was purging the Loyalist
of non-Stalinist elements
while the Count and his men
were swinging on the stage of the Hall.

The Comrades were opposed
to capital punishment,
but they attempted to justify
the execution of Stalin's fellow revolutionaries
and the purging of the general staff,
and I guess the mass murder
that was occurring in the Soviet Union
just didn't register with them.

And the irony of ironies
is that jazz
was on Joe's list
of music not to play,
which was one of the many things
that Joe had in common with Adolf.

Joe and Adolf were enemies at the time,
but they were soon become buddies,
until Adolf terminated their friendship.

The Hitler-Stalin Pact
had not yet come to be,
but when it came,
it didn't daunt them

Like all good believers,
they stuck to their guns,
no matter what their deity
and his acolytes did.

The difference being
that Stalin was a real life deity,
not an imaginary one.

And here's the point I'm getting to.
In spite of their dopey views,
you can't ignore their good deeds.

I have CDs of the Carnegie Concert
and gigs at the Café,
and I wouldn't
want to be without them.

So, thank you Comrades
for your contribution to jazz.

Taking Europe By Storm

In '39 the Duke
took Europe by storm.
Crowds greeted him everywhere.
Concert halls were full
to the brim.
Name a big city,
and it was at his feet.

There was only one country
that barred him.
He and his men
had to transgress it,
from Holland to France,
in railway cars
that were literally sealed shut.

Yes, the Duke was the ambassador
and leading exponent
of "Nigger-Jew Music"

Goebbels had served up
some films to show
what things were like in the USA.
There were clips of mad jitterbugs,
dancing to a prancing Cab
decked out in white tails
as the band blew the roof off.

The viewers in Teutonic theaters
were aghast at Yankee decadence,
while softly tapping their feet.

German doors may have been locked,
but the Duke came through
to spread the good words
and music.

But unfortunately,
he did not provide a prelude,
but rather a swan song.

The spirit he brought,
did not prevail.

After his boat left Le Havre,
Storm Troopers took Europe
by storm,
and their boots trampled
everything underfoot
that the Duke,
and men like him,
stood for.

Military Music,
marching feet,
and spilled blood,
would be the order of the day
for six long years.

Stalin, Hitler and Music

Stalin dug jazz
and was a fan of Eddie Rosner,
its leading exponent in the Soviet Union.
Once he listened to Eddie
in a theater all by himself.

But at the advent of the Cold War,
Stalin politics
took precedence over his tastes,
jazz was condemned,
and he sent Eddie to a gulag

Hitler had the same kind of integrity.
He never let personal preference
interfere with his politics.
His favorite operetta
was The Land of Laughter
by Franz Lehar.

In 1940 there was a gala performance
at the Vienna Opera House,
which he attended as a guest of honor.

He sat there and enjoyed the music
as well as the book,
laughing in the right places.

The composer was feted,
but the librettist had the bad luck
of being a Jew,
and while his words were sung,
he was languishing
in a concentration camp.

Eddie Rosner managed to
return to Germany in the Seventies
to die,
but Fritz Beda
ended up in Polish skies.

Fritz and the Bananas

You've heard it
hundreds of times.
What would the Twenties
have been like without
Yes, We Have No Bananas.

You just couldn't imagine
the Jazz Age without Bananas.
They're as much a part of
the Roaring Twenties,
as flappers and bath tub gin.

Frank Silver wrote the music,
and Irving Cohn wrote those snappy lyrics.

The German version
came from the pen
of an Austrian jack-of-all-lyrics,
who was as Viennese,
as Viennese can be.

Fritz Löhner-Beda.
was never at a loss for words.
He shook Bananas
out of his sleeve
in 1923.

Among other things,
he wrote the libretto for
Lehar's Land of Laughter.

Fritz was good-natured,
and he didn't think things
could be bad as they seemed
in March of '38,
when Austria became part
of the Third Reich.
After all, everywhere he went
he heard his lyrics being sung
or hummed.

But Fritz was wrong.
He was in the first roundup
that was carted off for Dachau.

And his career continued
behind barbed wire.

After being transferred
to Buchenwald,
he and Hermann Leopoldi
wrote The Buchenwald Song.

That tune was composed
at Commandant's request,
to be sung by the inmates,
while they engaged in slave labor.

Leopoldi's family and friends
managed to buy him out,
and he went on to play piano
and sing in emigré haunts
in New York.

But Fritz stayed on,
never giving up hope.
After all, his friend and collaborator,
Franz Lehar
wouldn't let him down..
The Land of Laughter
was set for the Vienna State Opera
to commemorate Lehar's 70th birthday
in April of 1940,
and Fritz waited.

Laughter went over the boards,
and Lehar was feted,
but his librettist remained elsewhere,
< and went unmentgioned
on the posters and the program.

Fritz had waited in vain.

Later he did leave Buchenwald
for new destination.

When his train arrived,
he heard the dolorous strains of
Oh, Donna Clara,
for which he had written the lyrics.

The inmate orchestra
played that melancholy tango
to welcome the new arrivals.
It had become
the theme song of Auschwitz.

The songs of Fritz Beda
had followed him
wherever he went.

In December of 1942,
Donna Clara ushered him out.

Information from Kein Land des Lächelns,
Fritz Löhner-Bäder 1883-1942,
by Barbara Denscher and Helmut Peschina,
Residenz Verlag, Salzburg, 2002.

A New Orleans Man

Werner is a New Orleans man.
It's impossible not to identify him
He has the largest collection
of New Orleans baseball caps,
T-shirts, polo shirts, and sweatshirts
ever accumulated.
and I suspect,
he wears the Calvin Klein line
of New Orleans BVDs.

Werner is a traditional music man.
He goes to guess where every year,
and plays banjo
with the local jazzmen.
Werner may have an accent
when he speaks English
but there's no accent, whatsoever,
in his playing.

He has a band, which is called
the Piccadilly Onions,
and he has gigs all over town.

Recently he had one
in the Tobacco Museum,
which is located in the new Museum Quarter.

I hate smoke,
but I love smoke shops,
and the accoutrements
that play a part
in making the gray haze.

The Museum had the look of
unsmoked tobacco
It was beautiful.

When they built the Museum Quarter,
they renovated the Tobacco Museum,
for good measure,
making it as white as a clinic
or a morgue.

The Quarter is built on the sight
of the Imperial Stables.

One of the choice comments
during the campaign to construct it
came from children's book author,
Christine N.
She remarked,
"There's enough
Fischer von Erlach in Vienna.
The horse stables
should be torn down."

The lady showed great feeling
for the past,
and her comment augurs
coming attractions
in the future.

Well, all but the facade
was torn down,
and as befits a stable,
the architects rode roughshod
over Fischer von Erlach.
A nd the walnut decor
of Tobacco Museum
was shaved smooth.

The best barber
couldn't have done a better job.

Werner made the mistake
of having his Onions
play the St. James Infirmary
for the "old" Museum.

Isn't it natural
for a man who plays
traditional jazz
to have a taste for the traditional?
And why shouldn't he
be able to play a dirge
for the death of it?

During the intermission,
he was told
that he'd played his last gig
at that venue.
No criticism allowed.

Putting George Down

Hans Weigel,
who was reputed to be
the dean of Austrian critics,
claimed that Uncle Sam
had committed "mortal sins"
in the music category.
Porter, Berlin and Kern
are named as the greatest sinners,
but the sinner of sinners,
according to Weigel,
was George Gershwin.
He calls Gershwin
"a second-hand syncopation profiteer."

Hans, there's a song I'd like to play for you.
It's called The Gentleman Is a Dope.
I'm sorry you're not around to hear it.

Weigel was off base,
but he got a little help
from tenor-man Bud Freeman,
who's in another league.

Freeman concedes that Gershwin
"was a damn good composer,"
but adds,
"I don't feel that he understood
a great deal about jazz."

Bud concedes
that his works had the black beat,
but tacks on, "We all copied the beat."

I like your sax work Bud,
but I beg to differ.

The questions I ask are
what would George have been
without jazz,
and what would jazz have been
without George?

And here's the question of questions.
How can a musician avoid George?
The answer is
there's no avoiding him,
but then,
who would want to avoid him?

The First Singers and Musicians

The birds were the first singers
and musicians.
They ushered in spring
< with their songs
before man was there to hear them.

Their music
preceded man's chants
and his use of instruments
by millions of years.

The birds are the mentors
of every man and woman
who sings and plays an instrument,
whether the style be
folk, popular, classical
or jazz.

How could man have made music
without listening to them,
and what kind of world
would this be
without their concerts?

It's appropriate
that the most prestigious jazz venue
should be called Birdland.

Yes, I know the name came
from Charley Parker,
known as "Bird,"
which was short for "Yardbird."
The yard referred to
was unfortunately
the prison yard.

Bird became a jailbird
when he had the bad luck
of being caught with the stuff.

Birds usually symbolize freedom,
and not incarceration,
since in addition to singing,
they can fly.

Their songs are the songs
of freedom,
and man,
being the delightful creature
that we know him to be,
makes the singers
his captives.
He places them in cages
so that he can hear
those songs in his lodgings.

That says a lot about
the world we live in,
and the most sophisticated creature
that populates it.

An Austrian artist
launched a career
and achieved international fame
with the help of birds.

She used them as models
to create a work of art.

To achieve this
she poured scalding wax
over her models
made docile by tranquilizers,
petrifying their moment of agony,
and exhibited the result
as an art object.

That's how birds are treated
and that's how they are rewarded
for singing their songs.

Beauty is a thorn in the side
of those who love ugliness,
and they must destroy it.

An essential part of demolition
is making beautiful voices mute.

And here's the irony of ironies:
this artist was recently chosen
to design an anti-fascist monument.

Of course torturing and killing birds
is the best requisite
for commemorating
human victims
who were tortured and killed.

Sometimes I am ashamed
of being a member of the human race.

The Aristocrat of Jazz

I'm not talking about
the Count or the Duke
but the composer
Ferdinand Rudolf von Grofe,
also known as Ferde Grofe,
who has a place
in the front row of jazz history.

Ferde was born in Santa Monica in 1892
of Austrian extraction,
and as we know,
Austrians always have to get into the act,
be it jazz or what-have-you.

At the age of fourteen,
he belied his aristocratic background
by playing piano
in saloons and dance halls up north.

In San Francisco
he switched to the fiddle,
and in 1914 he joined
drummer Art Hickman's big band.
Ferde was the first creative arranger of jazz,
which brought him to Good King Paul
to play piano and arrange.

In 1924 he orchestrated Rhapsody in Blue
for Gershwin,
who was otherwise occupied,
and it was performed
with Whiteman holding the baton
and George at the keys.
which was fortunately recorded,
was faster and jazzier,
and more humorous
than later ones.

Could that have been partially due
to the participation
of Ferde Grofe?

George was the Orson Wells of music.
He juggled with songs, musicals, film scores,
concertos and an opera,
but unlike the Boy Wonder,
he didn't go downhill
after his first masterpiece
but carried through
to the premature end.

Needless to say,
Ferde Grofe
was also versatile juggler,
and he juggled till the ripe old age of eighty.

George and Ferde
had another thing in common.
Their parents came over on the boat,
but they were both as American as apple pie.

Could anything have been more homegrown
than Grofe's Grand Canyon Suite?

Saying Goodbye

It's Billie who introduces the song
in a cracked and broken voice,
explaining the blues
and what jazz means to her,
and failing miserably.

When she starts to sing
the music gives her voice strength,
and the singing is the explanation.

The music and the lyrics
are what it's all about
and they just happen to be hers.

"Love is just like a faucet,
it turns off and on.
Sometimes when you think it's on, baby,
it has turned off and gone."

Ben Webster follows her chorus,
with a great solo
that could only be paled
by being followed by the Pres.

He's the only one sitting.
And when he stands up
and places the mouthpiece
between his lips,
you know he could only be
the greatest.

He takes it high and slow,
slurring and dragging the notes,
blowing so tenderly
and so sadly,
so very sadly.

The solo is a summation
of all the solos he's ever blown.

He and Billie glow
while playing and singing,
they glow like they've never
glowed in life,
because they've never been able
to achieve the feeling
in life
that the music gives them.

The Pres and Billie
were masters of music and song,
but they both failed
at mastering life.

The slow strains of Fine and Mellow
on that dreary winter day
in December of '57
would be the last time
they'd ever play and sing together.

It was goodbye
and they knew
they were saying goodbye,
saying it to each other
and to the world.

Two years later
there would be no more
Pres and Lady Day.