The Book, “The Man.”
In the Fall of 1939, Danny Murrow wrote a memoir of his time in the burgeoning world of jazz in the frantic twenties and trying thirties. Danny turned out to be a pretty good guitar player after all, starting from an awfully deep hole as a battered and abandoned street waif in New York in the eighteen eighties. Along the way, he got to know many of the luminaries of the time, had thrilling adventures, won the love of a wonderful woman and raised an exemplary child. . .
My wife, Loraine would always say, “Danny Murrow, you’re a diamond in the rough.” I could never decide if she was thinking about the diamond or the rough. More time to think about all that now.
It was hard to get the fire going in the wood stove this morning. All the wood’s pretty wet. It’s been miserable the last few days, but sunny and crisp now. Beautiful, if you can stand the cold. This old house was built almost a hundred years ago in 1843.
It’s so quiet here, since Rainy’s gone. It’s just me and her books and my music. I’ve just got a couple more charts to finish and then I’ll take the local down to Albany and catch the night train to California. The studio will pay for a sleeper if I don’t do the round trip more than once a year. I’ll be in LA by Friday.
That’s about as often as I can stand to go. It’s good to walk in the sun, but I don’t look forward to donning the hair shirt again. It’s hard to live in a town like Hollywood without your loyalties being pretty well known. There are a lot of people I won’t work with again, and not many are pained by that fact.
I do ok. I’m just a tune man, a journeyman, not really concerned with who gets the credit or the money. At least I’m spared the committee process. I’m happy to let others decide what it represents and how it plays on the screen, I just focus on the notes. I guess that’s why it comes so easily. I don’t ask for more than just that it comes.
A strange thing started happening a few years ago. A gift, certainly, but a heavy handed one. It comes to me as I walk, sometimes so furiously, so relentlessly that I don’t even know where I am. Sometimes it’s all I can do just to stand up and stay out of the road. They say it afflicted Schuman, that it got so bad at the end of his life that all he could hear was a single tone, a constant “A.”
To me it’s just one rushing-swirling mass of sound, chants, fugues, operas, symphonies. I recognize a lot of it, not that I’m stealing it, but I know where it comes from, mine, theirs, all of it. It comes from listening over a lifetime, and from giving myself to it so completely that I make no claim to it.
It comes from someplace else as well – that mysterious sidereal opus that so many have tried to circumscribe. Superstition seems to have occupied that territory, and I’m not the one to dispel it. But then I don’t need an explanation, any more than a young bridegroom needs to be told why he’s a fortunate man.
As a child I didn’t have much of a chance to have a sense of who I was. I was, as they say, troubled. Who I am I owe largely to the woman who rescued me from the streets and volunteered to become the only mother I’ve ever known. She brought me into her little family and risked a great deal to give me what I have. I was to have a childhood after all, and a new start.
That childhood had a special grace always available to us in what most would say were difficult times. Mary was the source of transcendence, mostly through her Quaker heritage, but she really knew how to embrace the world too.
There were four of us in that little apartment. Mary and Jack and their natural son, Johnny. Jack, did his best to keep body and soul together for us all. He worked on the big press at the New York Post. He claimed that tuning up that old press was a lot like tuning the ancient piano that was the center of our musical world.
He could fix anything with his hands, but sometimes he couldn’t get them clean of the grease and ink before he came home exhausted. Still, he would sit down at the old upright, and play for a while. I thought every piano had those black and blue stains on the ivory keys. He’d bring a copy of the paper home every night, and we’d pour over it to learn to read and to see what was happening in the world.
Mary was the lady who looked in on so many struggling social programs in the city in those depression times of the eighties and nineties. She pulled me out of a desperate and brutal setting where my small life could have been lost in any number of ways. I believe she brought me out of a depressed state, a stuporous relationship with the world that was perhaps my only defense in a life so uninhabitable.
Her own son, Johnny, became my brother. Even though we are the same age, I was never a match for him in a fight. That was just about the first thing I found out about him, although if it hadn’t been my idea, I’m sure he never would have raised a hand to me. Always a quiet kid, more at peace than I, he spent so much time in his music, that he seemed somehow complete. We have had some wild times, though.
I miss Rainy. It’s been three years. We had such a good life together. She had been very privileged as a child. She learned to live with me on the slender means I could provide, and made it seem like success. She brought the day to me in a form that I could handle.
She had a surprising worldliness. I used to tease her that she was contributing to the delinquency of a minor talent. She had embraced a complicated world with a sense of balance and proportion that inspired me to be more patient with it. She was my guide. Since she’s gone, I walk only the familiar paths.