1. Music: “Conversion on Thirteenth Avenue”
The man in the picture is my great-uncle, Danny Murrow. He and his brother, Johnny were pretty well known as musicians in the nineteen-twenties and thirties. Johnny played the piano and Danny played the guitar. Danny was adopted by Johnny’s parents, Jack and Mary when he and Johnny were both just eight years old. The two boys got to be as close as any brothers, but that took a while.
Danny was lucky to be adopted by a musical family. Johnny was already playing very well. Their father, Old Jack was an authentic stride piano man who had traveled the roads and rivers of the un-reconstructed South.
To provide for his family, Jack worked as a mechanic. He maintained a printing press. He was never able to get all the grease and ink off his hands, and Danny thought for years that every piano had those black and blue stains on the ivory.
When the boys started to become well known, some of the critics began to pay more attention to Jack’s playing. One writer said he thought Jack got his left hand in Kansas City. Jack got a good laugh out of that.
A friend, Joe Venuti always said that Jack seemed to get better with age. He’d say, “Age doesn’t always bring wisdom, sometimes she comes alone.”
2. Music: “St. Louis Blues and Jada”
But Danny was a troubled kid. For a homeless child, the streets of New York in the eighteen-eighties, was a pretty rough place. The old Five Points district was a perfectly good slum before it crumbled into the swamp and served mostly as a dump. Mary worked for the Quaker charities and they asked her to find a home for Danny, but there was nobody else who could take him. She asked Jack what he thought. Jack took one look at Danny, and he knew they had to help him.
But Danny was a hard case; it took a long time and a lot of patience. For hours he would curl up and listen to Jack play. Finally Mary taught him to read, but that was a slow process. Danny always said it was the music that really brought him into the world. Jack was very good with him, he’d correct him gently, he’d say things like, “nobody’s gonna wanta play chess with a twelve year old who thinks the king can do anything he wants.”
Danny’s first instrument was a beat up old guitar, and he played that like a drum with strings for the longest time. Learning to play the guitar from two piano players gave his style some quirks. It’s the drive of that old stride piano that you can hear him reaching for.
The instrument itself is just pieces of wood and steel, but when one string begins to ring with another, it changes something. It doesn’t change time itself, but it changes the way we perceive time. It brings us to the moment, liberates us from anxiety, opens us up to transcendent joy. As Danny would say, “You have to be present to play.” And play they did.
3. Music: “Cordovan Boogie”
Johnny was getting quite a reputation as a player when he was just a teenager. You could hear the influence of Old Jack, but Johnny had taken it to a place of his own. He and Danny were hired to play for a homecoming party in October of 1900, and the guest of honor turned out to be Samuel Clemens.
Mr. Clemens was a fan of the stride players. He recorded the boys on one of Mr. Edison’s cylinder machines. You could say that he and Edison were the first collectors of Jazz recordings. But Edison said that he played his jazz records backwards because they sounded better that way.
Years later Danny worked for Paul Whiteman as a coach and an arranger. He wrote charts for many of the greats, but he would hold off releasing anything until it had the benefit of Johnny’s interpretation. He would always say that Johnny makes it presentable.
4. Music: “Impetuosity”
By 1905 people were talking about the influence of the blues. Two people came into their lives that summer. Betty Austin was a gifted singer, a lovely girl. She admired Johnny’s playing and he admired her singing, and when they performed together there was a definite sense of something wonderful happening.
They had not moved beyond this platonic admiration, but it seemed inevitable that they would be lovers, perhaps a great love story.
The gangster, Billy Iron’s reputation didn’t do him justice. The Iron was a rusted army issue Colt .45 that he carried in a harness beneath his coat. Some said it was an unreliable weapon, prone to mis-fire. This gave some comfort to his enemies, but seemed to contribute to an inferiority complex for which he was always compensating. There was concern when he began to pay attention to Betty.
His intentions might have been platonic as well, but then, Plato didn’t carry a gun. He and his friends couldn’t help but notice the steamy sweetness of Betty’s duets with Johnny, and having had enough of it, he put three bullets into the old upright piano, one of them shattering one of Johnny’s ribs. One inch to the left, the bullet would have destroyed his elbow and ended his playing career. One inch to the right and it might have pierced his heart. Of the two, he probably would have chosen the latter.
Betty visited Johnny in the hospital late that night, kissed him for the first and last time and disappeared without a trace. We feared the worst, but rumors began to circulate that she had gone to live with the family of a secret cousin somewhere in Kansas. She must have known that Johnny could not protect her from Billy Iron, and she couldn’t allow him to try.
5. Music: “Sunday”
Besides the pain of losing Betty, Johnny was very troubled by his brush with death. Jack and Mary needed to let him know that he had always been the center of their world. They felt a new appreciation for the precious joy of family life.
For his part, Jack knew full well the elements of the underworld that were denizens of the night life. He wanted something better for his boys.
On questions of mortality, Jack was pretty forthright about his beliefs. He had no use for preaching. He swore that his days on the revival circuit had soured him for what he called, ‘snake oil tonic’ and ‘sixteen John.’ His idea of a perfect Sunday involved nothing more than the windows wide open to a summer morning breeze and the sounds of the piano drifting into the street. The music was his church.
6. Music: “Sweet Loraine – Ain’t Misbehavin’”
In 1914 Danny married a beautiful girl named Loraine. They adored each other, they were the Nick and Nora of Christopher Street. They weren’t the first or the last to furnish a fifth-floor, cold-water walk-up apartment with love and little else. They were immensely happy. Soon they had a son whom they named after Johnny. They called him Little Johnny.
Loraine gave up her teaching job so she could be home with Little Johnny, but she occupied herself with some tutoring and what they called her ‘politics.’ She was pretty active in trying to get the vote for women, which miraculously came about in 1920. It was not achieved without a long and difficult struggle, she even stood on some picket lines with little Johnny in her arms.
Marcus Garvey had founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association, known as UNIA. Loraine volunteered to do some editing for their poetry magazine. Once she brought home a young poet named Andy Razov who had written song lyrics for Eubie Blake and James P. Johnson. He brought a friend with him, a young fellow named Fats Waller.
Fats became so famous, partly because of his phenomenal playing and his great songs, but partly because of his wild antics and wonderful sense of humor. Once he was kidnaped by members of the Capone Gang in Chicago. They took him to Capone’s hideout, the Hawthorne Inn, where he was forced at gunpoint to play for the notorious gangster’s birthday party. They say he was held for three days before they let him go, exhausted, very drunk, and with thousands of dollars in tips stuffed into his pockets.
Fats loved a good joke. He told a story about a young drummer who just couldn’t keep a job. He had a time problem. He didn’t rush the beat, that would have been bad enough. No, he would fall behind, ever so imperceptibly. But it was maddening for the guys trying to make the song really cook. They hated to let him go, he was such a sensitive guy. They were afraid he would do something drastic. Sure enough, one dark night, he threw himself behind a train.
7. Music: “You’re Feet’s Too Big.”
Fats adored Loraine. He’d look at her and say, “Who dat walkin’ around here.” “Sounds like baby patter, hmmm, baby elephant patter, that’s what I say!”
8. Music: “Old Jim Crow.”
Probably the most famous black performer up until then was Bert Williams who worked with the Zigfeld Follies. At one point they said he made ten thousand dollars a week. Story was he and Florenz Zigfeld when out for a drink and when Ziegfeld ordered a martini, the bar tender said that’ll be fifty cents.
Ziegfeld put a five dollar bill on the bar and said, give us each one and keep the change.” But the bar tender pointed to Bert, and said, “His’ll be fifty dollars.” Bert said, “that’s good,” and took a roll out of his pocket. He peeled off five one-hundred dollar bills and said, “I’ll take ten.”
9. Music: “Whispering.”
Danny got the job with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra in 1923, not as a front line player, but as a rehearsal coach and arranger. It brought him into the world of big time show business.
John Hammond was just fourteen years old when Danny noticed him hanging out near the stage at Small’s Paradise at 135th Street and 7th Avenue. This was in 1924 when Danny’s own son was only nine. But the young Hammond knew what he was listening to, he’d been buying jazz records with his allowance money since he was six years old.
He became a fan of old Jack when he heard him play. He wanted to know all about Jack’s travels and his influences, and of course, Jack spared no eloquence in recalling the early days. I suspect he left out some of the real hair-raising details. But he had known so many of the greats.
10. Music: “Cradle in Caroline.”
Frankie Trumbaur introduced Danny to Bix Beiderbecke. Bix was a cornet wizard, soon to become a legend. Frankie played the C melody sax in addition to the alto, which hardly anybody played and nobody could play it like he did.
Danny loved playing with those guys in spite of the keys like E flat and B flat that the horn players seemed to favor. Once Bix went to dinner at his sister’s house, and his little seven year old niece was staring at him the whole time. Finally he got a little self conscious and he said, “Missie, why are you looking at me like that?” She says, “I want to see you drink like a fish!”
11. Music: “Creole Belle Medley.”
When Danny started hearing recordings of other guitar players he was fascinated by all the ways there were to play. But left on his own, he’d gravitate toward what they called country blues. He especially loved the finger-style players . . . the drop thumb alternating bass where the thumb would keep the bass going while the fingers played melodic elements and counter melodies and harmonies. That’s what you’d hear him playing in an unguarded moment.
He might not have realized that Jack was doing something similar with the stride left hand on the piano, octaves and tenths. Mississippi John Hurt had a hit record in 1927 with a song called, “Avalon.” Danny learned a lot of his tunes including this one, Creole Belle.
12. Music: “The Man Who Loves a Train.”
In 1929 the whole Paul Whiteman band boarded a train for Hollywood. Whiteman had written a best-selling book, “The King of Jazz,” and it was being made into a movie. This was a private train paid for by the sponsors of the Old Gold Hour, Whiteman’s weekly radio show, and thirty of the band members and staff, with reporters and tobacco company executives – there was even a box car for Whiteman’s Deusenberg.
It took a couple of weeks to cross the country, Eddie Lange and Joe Venuti, Bix Beiderbecke, Frankie Traumbaur, Bing Crosby, even a stow-away, young Hoagy Charmichael.
In one of those long afternoon bull sessions, somebody brought up the old idea that there was something special about sex on a train. Something about the vibration. Bix seemed particularly fascinated by that, and that’s how Danny happened to write that song.
13. Music: “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”
Loraine and little Johnny came out on the Super chief and joined the guys in Los Angeles for about a week. They had time to do some tourist things, Olvera Street and a couple museums, got to see the ocean at Santa Monica, took a train down to San Diego and went over into Mexico for the day.
While the band was in the West, they started hearing news of the stock market crash. When they got home it was just in time to see New York starting to slide into the depression.
Yip Harburg was a friend of Danny’s. He and Jay Gorney wrote the song that was to become an anthem of the times.
14. Music: “Good Old Wagon.”
Loraine seemed to derive such energy from the music of Ethyl Waters and Ma Rainey. Sophie Tucker made her laugh until she’d cry. She loved it when Danny would take her out to the clubs. She especially loved the music of Bessie Smith. She identified with Bessie’s outspoken, even sometimes raw presence. She sang with so much heart, and she could tease and scandalize and seduce you all at the same time.
Sometimes Loraine would say things that she’d heard Bessie Smith say, but she went too far one night when she whispered in Danny’s ear at the most inauspicious moment, “You’re a good old wagon, honey, but you done broke down.”
15. Music: “St. James Infirmary Blues.”
Danny heard from Hammond that Bessie Smith had died in a car accident in Kentucky. Hammond had produced Bessie’s last sessions and had done a lot to help her over the years. First reports said that she had been turned away from a segregated hospital. This turned out not to be true, but Hammond never quite gave up the resentment that it could so easily have been true.
16. Music: “Let the Rain Decide.”
Bix Beiderbecke died in 1931. He was only 28 years old. He had lived fast and burned bright. There was nobody quite like him. That same year, Eddie Lang died from complications of an operation to remove his tonsils. Danny had seen so many friends go on to the next world without really knowing how he felt about all that. He just had to let them go. And then in 1936 after little more than twenty years together, he lost Loraine.
In a nostalgic moment, Danny would throw his head back and the dream would come over him. You could see he was remembering.
17. Music: “Basie’s Boogie.”
After about a year, Hammond called Danny. He wanted him to come and help him with a new project. Benny Goodman had hired Carnegie Hall for a concert, and Hammond thought they could do a more varied program.
On December 23, 1938, John Hammond presented what he called, “Spirituals to Swing.” The concert featured Billy Holiday, Sonny Terry, Bill Broonzy and Count Basie. Danny said it was the greatest night of his life.
Johnny Hammond was such an interesting character. He was born into great privilege, his mother the granddaughter of Commodore Vanderbilt, the richest man in the country at his death in 1879. Hammond never made a big thing about his money, but he had the funds to help out some of the musicians he would encounter with a meal or a bus ticket. He paid for some recording sessions and wrote articles for the first jazz magazines.
But he had a special radio in his car, custom made for him by the Motorola Company. It had twelve tubes and was so powerful that it could pull in stations from a long way off, especially at night. He would often go out to his car to scan the dial, and one night in Chicago he heard an amazing sound on a broadcast out of Kansas City. He tracked down the young William Basie and devoted himself to making him a star.
18. Music: “God Is Love.”
Without Loraine Danny would retreat into his music with a kind of monk-like resignation. He lived for ideas, and for the perfection of a song. He and Johnny would work, but then he didn’t really have anybody else he could relate to. There was Young Johnny of course. But Young Johnny had graduated from college and was on his own.
Danny did a lot of his best writing during this time, but his search for some universal truth about the big issues, life and death, would take sacrifice, especially during the War. In the last few days of the battle for Europe, Little Johnny’s transport went down in the English Channel. Nothing was ever found.
Danny had to admit that he had learned very little about the world, and less about himself. A part of him was still that feral child cringing in some squalid crawlspace, swaddled in newspapers against the mean grey cold. Was there anything he could say about the eternal – something he could honestly pass along? He put the best of his thoughts into a song and then he never wrote another.
19. Music: “Wade In the Water.”
Years before when Danny and Johnny were just kids, Jack would pick up the tempo and keep things going with an old spiritual, a song that Danny thought was kind of an improbable hymn. He wondered what it meant, that “God’s gonna trouble the waters.” Somebody said that the song was a coded message for the runaway slaves to avoid trackers. But it also seemed to offer the idea that life was there to be experienced completely, and without fear.
20. Music: “The Sunny Side of the Street.”