Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues, Part Two: 22nd July

The song for today: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fsjFi4KkOZc Man, I’m telling you there is nothing scarier than a woman with a car. That’s why the Beach Boys dedicated a whole song to the joys of watching a woman get her wings clipped. This song is a bit better than that, though, he just wants her to slow down for him a bit. (Though I’m guessing its all really a metaphor for sex, right?)

Which brings me back to Bessie Smith. The below is an extract from this excellent article: http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ug97/blues/katz.html.

“. . . Just before the troupe got ready to pull out of Ozark, a chorus girl told Bessie that while she was in New York, Jack had “messed around” with another chorus girl.

Without taking time to check out the story, Bessie jumped the girl, beat her up, and threw her off the railroad car, which was still parked on a dead track…. Then she stormed through the railroad car looking for Jack….

Bessie didn’t find Jack on the car . . . but she found his gun, and when she came out of their stateroom, Jack was standing over the sobbing girl, trying to find out what had happened.

A shot rang out. Bessie stood on the rear platform of the car, gun in hand.

“You no good two-timing bastard,” she shouted, waving the gun in the air. “I couldn’t even go to New York and record without you fuckin’ around with these damn chorus bitches. Well, I’m gonna make you remember me today.”

Jack started toward her. “Put that gun down, Bessie.” Another shot sent him racing down the track. Bessie jumped off the platform and went after him, emptying the gun. “I’ve never seen Jack run so fast,” recalls Ruby. “Everybody was scared to death that Bessie would kill him this time, but I think she missed him on purpose.” A couple of hours later the troupe left Ozark without Jack.

Bessie had been on good behavior for several months, and now she was ready for some fun. Jack’s departure after the alleged indiscretion provided both the opportunity and the excuse”

In case you don’t read the rest of the article, the fun it refers to is her sleeping with pretty much all the chorus girls. Maybe I have a soft spot for this story because I love the idea of all these mad blues women like Ma Rainey and Ethel Waters and Bessie and all the gang travelling round the country in their own railroad cars (which was how musicians got around back then), creating havoc. Bessie originally traveled around the country as a dancer, and also had an abortive attempt at running away from home to join a theatre troup when she was a teenager.

Today was spent wandering around East Harlem. I saw the Cotton Club and the Savoy Ballroom and sat on the step where this was taken http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Great_Day_in_Harlem.jpg and

In the evening I headed to a club called Paris Blues, and here everything started to happen. I would like to firstly note that Paris Blues (On Adam Clayton jr Boulevard by W 121st) is quite possibly the greatest bar in the world, and I had one of the greatest nights of my life there, though perhaps the odds are unfairly stacked since- due to the high price of alcohol in New York- I can actually remember most of it.

When I went in at about 9 in the evening the four piece jazz band  (drums, guitar, jazz organ and and sax) were all at the bar, and apart from them and the bartender there were maybe 4 other old men in the place (one of them the owner.) As you go in the bar is on your right, and then there are these red leathered tables and chairs under a sort of wooden canopy on the left, and then you go through them to get to the stage. The place is tiny. I felt slightly self-conscious as I went in, given that everyone else there was clearly a regular, but the girl behind the bar kept smiling at me and wandering over to where I was sitting at one of the tables to check I was alright, so I stayed.

Then the band got started, and fuck they were incredible. They were initially playing to four people including the bartender (two of the old men were sitting outside) and they were still mad on fire. A couple of minutes into Take 5 the sax player switched to playing these really lazy 6/8 strings of notes over the top of everyone elses 5 beat and it was the weirdest thing I’ve ever heard anyone do to that song and it was complete genius. The girl behind the bar would cheer the loudest (later the drummer made everyone give a round of applause for “his biggest fan”) and would dance across the room when she had to get something from the back.

The keys player was really where it was at though. When the whole band was playing his fingers just hovered without really seeming to do anything, but when it was his time to solo he played all these edge-of-the-seat dischords getting higher and higher and more mad, with his right hand just a jittering blur, and more and more and more until it was completely unbearable, and then after a final punch up the keyboard to the top when you felt that you were going to split, or something, everyone came back in again, and aaah. It was just awful. I’ve never heard anything like it.

At about 10.30 they had a break, and everyone clustered round my table, and drank and talked. They clearly all knew each other, and by this time the bar was filling up, so every couple of minutes I’d be introduced to someone else. I’m not going to chocolate box it, there was some dedicated sleazing going on (the only other woman in the bar at this point, aside from the bartender, was this 40ish year old woman who’d just come in), but mostly people were just stupidly friendly, and the other people round the table took it upon themselves to guard me from the more serious culprits.

Then the band got back to it, but now a couple more saxophone players and an electric bassist had emerged to join them, and they’d drag people up from the floor to sing with them (they’d branched out, by this point, from Jazz into Blues and Soul and this girl about my age who was clearly a regular occurrence sung a couple of R&B songs.) The band was led by the drummer, and he was- without a doubt- the coolest person I’ve ever met. At some point this tiny old guy took to the mike, at which point me and the aforementioned woman were dragged up to the front by the drummer as well to sing back-up .

And I mean dragged. Not an embarrassed but secretly loving it Oh No, I Couldn’t Possibly, Oh Well Fine Then If You Insist. “Do you sing?” he shouted over (the other woman had already been summoned) “No. Definitely not.” I yelled back, the latter half clearly being a mistake, because then he said “but you can sing two notes? Yeah?” at which point I was pushed to the front. So this tiny, bent-over guy sung Mustang Sally far better than Wilson Picket, and we went “Ride Sally Ride” at all the right moments. Then my co-back up (who I later discovered was called Esther) sung, and she was gold as well. Sadly nothing for my project though, since after she’d finished singing she started boasting about how she’d been born and bred across the road on 121st.

Also (and yes this night is so cliched and corny I couldn’t be making it up) they played this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OGd6CdtOqEE  Half the people in the bar were dancing by this point, and then the owner bought out a massive dish of cold banana pie, but wouldn’t let me pay for any because I was a visitor and a friend of the band, which was a pain because I’d quite happily have eaten 3 slices, but restricted myself to one.

The bar was supposed to close at 12.30, so at 1.30 we were all kicked out. Then 7 of us (the sax player had to go home, but the rest of the band were still there) got into this big guy’s car and headed 20 blocks south where there was allegedly still a jam going on. When we got there he banged hard on a metal door and we were let in(!). The jam was happening in what looked like the basement of a club- there was a nice stage with proper absorbent stuff, but no bar- and the guys brought in their instruments from the boot and joined it. At some point the keys player’s keyboard was taken over by someone else, and it was ridiculously hot in the basement so we went for a walk in Central Park, and talked about music and he talked about growing up in Brooklyn (in brief: not a lot of fun.) When we got back a couple of hours later people were still playing (though in diminished numbers.) In case it wasn’t clear, this was a *Monday* evening, though they were all either professional musicians or pretty old, so I guess they didn’t have anywhere to be the next morning. When I left to go to bed at 5ish the guitarist (who had been going pretty much solidly since 9) was still jamming with this guy on a soprano sax.

Oh and in the morning before Harlem happened I went to some museums and some art galleries too, but they were boring. Though going to the Guggenheim did mean I had “So long Frank Lloyd Wright, all of those times we harmonized til dawn” stuck in my head all day.

Don’t worry. Normal cynical service will be resumed tomorrow.
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8 Responses to Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues, Part Two: 22nd July

  1. Amy V says:

    CAT WHAT DID WE TELL YOU ABOUT GETTING INTO STRANGE MEN’S CARS IN HARLEM

    where are you going to be for the next week or so??
    also my project is basically on graveyards and trust me, I am already soooo depressed about it

    • SH says:

      Amy, my mother approves so much of you after that comment. And memorials are NOTHING like graveyards.

      I’m going to be in Canada til Sunday and then Washington. What about you? ALSO can post your blog address here, or send it to me or something- I’ve forgotten it.

  2. dominicwells says:

    Love it! (As well as the description of New York in the last blog, which won’t get you a job with the Tourist Board anytime soon: “The Empire state building is ugly, the Rockefeller centre is ugly, broadway looks like it is a set for a budget movie, The Chrysler building is ugly, Times Square is ugly.”) I wouldn’t be so bleedin’ obvious as to mention On The Road, but have you ever read Michael Ondaatje’s http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coming_Through_Slaughter? It’s been a while, but I remember it as one of the best jazz books I’ve read, also endorsed as such by an older colleague who was Melody Maker’s jazz critic for 20 years.

    • SH says:

      I haven’t even heard of it, which is odd because I love Ondaatje. Will try and find it in a second hand bookstore or something.

      And I think I could definitely land a job with the tourist board. I could run “New York is ugly” tours. It could be my thing.

  3. Alex says:

    Cat, your blog posts are absolutely fucking fantastic, although they make me very envious. Please keep writing them, posting songs, and making recherché references.

    • SH says:

      Alex, I meant to write to you. I picked up a copy of Moby Dick in the airport and have been rereading it. Given the vast amounts of homo-romanticism in particularly the opening chapters its position on the chart definitely needs reconsidering. Please make the necessary amendments!

  4. Isaac says:

    Oh man. This is sensational. (although I realise I am a bit late discovering this).
    The organ player sounds like a total boss, that sounds like one incredible solo. Incidentally, it reminds me of a band called The Lounge Lizards, who are the best jazz group I have ever come across when it comes to making discordance something beautiful.
    Try this one for starters, although admittedly this is perhaps at the most melodic end of their stuff. I love it. Make sure you listen to it loud with no other distractions!

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