LAURENCE JACKSON HYMAN
Baseball and the Blues
In the early forties, my parents, literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman and novelist Shirley Jackson, went to live a bohemian life in a rural cabin in New Hampshire for a time, collecting snakes, chopping firewood, drawing, and writing day and night. When Shirley became pregnant, they moved back to Manhattan, where I was born a few months later.
My mother loved to tell people that when I was a baby and we lived in a cramped, book-filled Greenwich Village apartment, the only thing that would stop my crying was boogie-woogie. So my parents would play their 78s to quiet me, and I developed a very early fondness for piano masters Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, and Jimmy Yancey. There were lots of parties, lots of music.
To say that my parents contributed to my later development as a musician, photographer, and writer is a vast understatement. Growing up in our houses in Vermont was a highly unique experience for me and my three younger siblings.
My parents loved music and collected and played lots of records. They sang, as well, as did my sisters and brother, and my mother played the piano and guitar. We listened to everything. As I grew up in the fifties I became fascinated with my father’s record collection, his famous blues collection as well as jazz. My mother preferred classical music, and there was lots of that in the house, but it was the jazz that really grabbed me, and by the time I was eleven I knew I wanted to be a trumpet player.
My parents were very encouraging. I rented a horn, and started taking Saturday morning lessons at our local school, a single brick K-through-12 school common in small New England towns in those days. I took some other lessons here and there, but I was mostly self-taught; I learned to play blues and jazz by playing along with records. At first my playing was pretty rough and I was sent with my trumpet out to play in our big, cold barn. But learning tunes was fairly easy, and I soon began jamming with a few older kids from the school’s marching band.
Our house was often filled with company, sometimes musicians, and there would be parties in our living room, with guitars and piano playing and singing. Sometimes we would have famous guests, folksingers, and they would sing and play for us. Occasionally I would be awakened by my father, calling me to come down at one or two in the morning to play my horn with singers at parties. I would use mutes, which I had learned how to shape from listening to Muggsy Spanier and Cootie Williams records. I became quite proficient at backing up singers in their often-challenging keys.
Novelist Ralph Ellison was a regular guest in our house. When I was seven he made a series of portraits of me with his new twin-lens camera, and made prints in his own darkroom. I still have the book of prints he made of me. I was most inspired by this, and soon my parents gave me a Kodak camera. I loved photography from the start, and spent my allowance on rolls of film and flashbulbs. I made photograms. Later I acquired some skill at taking sports pictures for our high school, as well as family portraits, landscapes, snowscapes, and set-up compositions. It would be years before I bought myself a real SLR camera, then an enlarger and darkroom equipment, and began a serious career as a photographer and teacher.
My parents were devoted Major League Baseball fans. My mother loved the Giants, and Willie Mays, while my father thought the Brooklyn Dodgers was the only sensible team in the Majors. He did a lengthy magazine interview with Jackie Robinson. My grandfather was friends with a Brooklyn Dodgers coach, and was able to get us front row seats at Ebbets Field, and I went to many World Series games there with one or both of my parents. They always came to watch me play Little League, and often were among the loudest voices over close plays, or when I was at bat. I think they hoped I would become a ballplayer. Baseball was always being talked about in our house, and we even had Sunday morning softball games with guests on our front lawn. My mother was a very good hitter.
When I was still twelve, on one of our family trips to New York, my parents took me out. As my mother wrote to her parents in 1955: Stanley and I decided that Laurie ought to hear some real jazz, so we took him to (dinner and then)...four nightclubs where they were playing jazz. We went to the Metropole, which he loved, because it was loud and noisy and had two alternating bands, and then to Jimmy Ryan’s, which is small and very fancy, and where they stopped us at the door because Laurie was too young to go in. Stanley convinced them we were Laurie’s father and mother, and not going to let him have anything stronger than Coke, so they finally let us in, and the waiter checked very carefully to see that Laurie had Coke and nothing else. Laurie went up and talked to the trumpet player, and would have been perfectly happy to stay there all night, but we went on to Nick’s, where they also stopped us at the door, but finally let us in. At Nick’s Laurie asked if we could please sit near the band, so the manager—whom it turned out we used to know slightly when we lived in the Village—put us at the front table right under the band. Stanley had one elbow on the stage and when the band started to play it turned out that we literally could not hear anything. Stanley kept having to duck his head because he was right under the trombone and Laurie was delighted, because he was about two feet away from the trumpet player and presumably able to watch his fingering. When they stopped playing Stanley and I were both limp, but Laurie was applauding wildly. We finished off at Eddie Condon’s where Laurie, who had had eight Cokes, decided he was hungry, and nearly fainted when he discovered that a hamburger cost two-fifty. At one in the morning we looked at Laurie and he was sound asleep sitting up at the table, but we nearly had to drag him out to get him home. He kept asking to stay for just one more number. It was the most successful evening he’s ever had.
When I was thirteen my father was invited to participate at a jazz and blues symposium at the Music Inn and Music Barn run by Stephanie and Phil Barber in the Berkshires. He asked me to come along, and to bring my horn. The first afternoon, during cocktails in the Inn’s lounge, we were amazed to discover the legendary Kansas City-style pianist Sammy Price playing with a quartet that included the great trumpeter Herman Autrey, from Fats Waller’s band. During a break my father started talking with Sammy, and boasted that I played a “mean” trumpet. Well, sure enough, Sam invited me to sit in with the band. I was terrified, and unprepared, but got up there and blew a few warm-up notes. Sammy asked me what I wanted to play. I said, “The blues, any key,” and he winked at Herman and called out, “Tishomingo Blues” (a complicated 16-bar non-blues). I was stumped, but Herman picked me up and showed me the way. Then we played a couple of standards and “Tin Roof Blues,” and they seemed impressed. After that I got very good at picking up tunes and riffs, and I was really learning to improvise. Sammy and my father also became dear friends after that, and we would see him often in New York.
Almost from the start I had the good fortune of playing with older musicians. When I turned fourteen a local adult Dixieland band, the Sage City Six, heard me play at a school event, and invited me to join them as second trumpet, playing with their spirited, but limited, lead man. Though I quickly eclipsed him and took away his job, we remained dear friends for years, and later he would often drive me to roadhouse gigs in New York State, since I could not drive and there was no public transportation. As a teen most of my friends were in their twenties and, most valuable, they drove. When they couldn’t, I would hitchhike, carrying my horn case, sometimes standing forever in snow or rain, wishing I were living in California.
The following summer, before I turned fourteen, I was offered a job at the Music Inn as a bellboy. That year the Barbers also started their School of Jazz, and suddenly the place was filled with great jazz musicians, and eager, talented students. It seemed to be the center of the jazz universe. For reasons I will never un-derstand, the Barbers asked me personally to take over running the colored light board for all the nightly concerts in the Music Barn, a tented concert hall seating about 2000 on folding chairs and many more on the outside on the grass.
I had never run anything before. Someone gave me a short lesson and I was on my own. The first concert I lighted was not my best. But soon I had the hang of it, and was even encouraged to “get creative” with the lights and colored gels. So I did. I hung lights in different ways, in different combinations, and they liked what I did. So at the age of fourteen, and again at fifteen, I was designing concert lighting for the Duke Ellington Band, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, the MJQ, Sonny Rollins, and a dizzying array of world talent, every night someone new. I remember Mahalia Jackson, rehearsing with her pianist one afternoon on the stage, stopped and called to me, on my ladder adjusting lights, “Now you watch out for yourself, boy. You be careful!” I certainly was. I was especially careful when I positioned my microphone up among the lights, and ran a wire to my reel-to-reel tape recorder so I could make bootleg tapes of concerts.
One night Billie Holiday was to perform. Everyone was ready, and excited, but as time passed, no concert. Half-an-hour went by. They knew she was there and the place was buzzing. Suddenly the dressing room door opened and a man waved frantically to me. I ran over, across the stage, and he told me Miss Holiday—who I could see lying on a couch along the far wall, covered with furs—wanted some gin, and he told me to go get some, now. So I ran to the bar in the Inn and told my friend who was bartending that I needed gin and ice for Billie Holiday, and he gave me a tray. I ran it back and knocked on the door. The man quickly took the tray and closed the door. The place was really noisy by now and people were standing around, curious, worried. Announcements were made. At last, about twenty minutes after the gin had been delivered, the band came out and started to play her theme song. Then out she came, smiling and looking stunning. She sang her heart out, and I had the honor of lighting her and her band.
When I was fifteen I got my first Musicians Union card so I could play with union bands without getting “caught and fined” by Frankie, the fearsome union agent who in those days toured roadhouses looking for non-union players to bust. By then I was playing just about every weekend, with several different adult bands. We played Elks Clubs, Moose and others, Polish clubs over in New York State (I got good at playing polkas, and loved the food), and college concerts around New England.
That fall, on one of my trips to visit my grandparents in Brooklyn, I managed to convince my arthritic grandmother to take me into Manhattan to the Copacabana Club to hear Louis Armstrong and his All Stars. My grandfather refused to go. So the two of us took the subway and got to the club two hours early, at my insistence, because I hoped to get a good table. Indeed we were the first ones admitted, and I grabbed us a table right in front of the foot-high bandstand. We ordered food and waited while the place filled up. Pretty soon my wildest dreams came true: the legendary Pops came out with his gorgeous trumpet and band and I was ecstatic. I knew almost every note they played, from their records. They couldn’t help but notice me, and I knew Louis liked the fact that some little white kid had hoodwinked his granny into bringing him here. He was, as always, magnificent. I will never forget sitting five feet from Louis as he closed his eyes and played “West End Blues.”
My father had run a legendary faculty poker game for years, and every six weeks or so the game would be held at our house, on our dining room table. It started at about nine, and often lasted all night. It was loud and raucous, and visiting lecturers or musicians or actors would often come join the regulars, who included the college president, teachers, poets, musicians, painters, mathematicians, and some locals.
One night Rex Stewart, the iconic cornet player in the Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington bands, came to join the game. He had recently “retired” and moved to a nearby farm. Rex won that first night, my father reported, and soon joined as a regular. After a while he began playing his horn again on weekends at a local roadhouse, and I was taken to hear him play Sunday afternoon sessions, when minors were allowed entry with adults. He knew I played, and invited me to come back the next Sunday with my horn. I spent that week woodshedding like crazy, and by the following weekend I figured I was ready for Rex. He invited me up first thing and counted out “Caravan” at a very fast tempo. I tried as hard as I could to keep up. I took what I thought was a pretty good solo, and Rex smiled at me before half-valving and growling four or five choruses to show me up entirely. That’s jazz. I was honored.
Life in my parents’ household was very busy and creative. Conversations at dinner were like masters classes in countless subjects. My father, especially, was a virtual encyclopedia of information about just about anything. We children were often challenged to tell stories, jokes, sing songs, express ourselves. The environment was full of the arts, and lots of writing was going on, with typewriters pounding away late into the night. My parents both encouraged my music greatly, though my father always extracted from me all but $5.00 of whatever pay I had earned the night before, to go into a savings account.
Rex got invited back to New York to star at the new Eddie Condon’s club on 54th Street. I often went to Manhattan by bus to go to the theatre, and would use my fake draft card to go hear Rex play. Once I told him I had come to buy a new trumpet, and he insisted I try a cornet instead. He told me to meet him the next day at Manny’s Music store. We walked in together and Rex told the manager: “This is my son; take good care of him. He wants the same horn I have.” I got a King Silversonic with my saved up “music money,” and I was very happy. I played that horn for thirty-five years, and still have it.
The next time I went to New York I brought my new horn with me, and sure enough Rex invited me to sit in with the band. I still have the photograph on my wall: There I am, blowing away, in my then-fashionable madras jacket, standing between Rex and the powerhouse Chicago trombone player Cutty Cutshall. To one side pianist George Shraeder has turned to grin approvingly. Rex let me play almost a whole set, and by the time I got down off the stand I was sweating, and I got a good hand. At least I remembered my manners: I bought Rex a double scotch with the few dollars I had left in my pocket.
At sixteen I started playing in roadhouses just over the New York state line, where the drinking age was lower, so it was the place to be on a weekend night. I started sitting in as second trumpet with a swinging quintet of professional middle-aged black musicians at a big dance club called the Merry-Go-Round. When the trumpet player moved to California they hired me full-time and I spent the next several years playing there every weekend. They were experienced, versatile jazz musicians (the tenor player had been in the Basie band, and the pianist-vocalist had toured with several bands). The drummer, Dave Hill, who had played with Rex for years, took me under his wing and helped me adjust to the rigors of playing hard jazz, be-bop and ballads, for five hours a night. More than anything, he taught me how to “swing.” On the bandstand I had to learn Ellington tunes, riffs, harmonies, pop song covers, and by the second or third chorus I would be on my own. And always we played the blues, in every key and tempo. Between sets, on cold nights, we would all pile into Dave’s big baby-blue Cadillac and turn up the heater, clouding the windows, listening to Dinah Washington on the radio.
Though I often had to hitchhike to work, getting home was easier, since lots of Bennington Girls—as they were called then—would always be at the Merry-Go-Round, drinking and dancing. I knew many of them, and they all knew me, so I could often bum rides back into town with them, and their sometimes-annoyed boyfriends. But by then I was a pretty good horn player, and used my playing to flirt with older girls, with surprising success.
When I was seventeen, I played for a week in Bermuda with a Williams College band, and that summer I went on my first European jazz tour for ten weeks. We left on an old-time Holland-America ship, filled with college kids. We had to play four gigs a day on the ship, starting at 11 a.m. on the aft-deck and ending at 2 a.m. in a beer bar deep in the bowels of the ship. It was hard work. Sometimes the ship would lurch so dramatically that the drum-set would roll across the dance floor, or dancers would fall into us while we played. There was a lot of seasickness, but the party never ended.
Once there, we played prearranged gigs at clubs in Paris and Rome, and spent a month in Frankfurt’s famed Storyville Club with British blues shouter Long John Baldry. When the band decided to break for ten days, the clarinetist, a decade older than I, invited me to come with him to visit his long-lost cousins in Athens. We decided to take the train. He used his pidgin Greek to buy tickets for us. Unfortunately, nobody told us we needed visas, and in the middle of the next night we were arrested and taken off the train at gunpoint in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. There, with everyone on the train leaning out of windows hooting and whistling at us, they took all our money, in exchange for bootleg visas. Eventually, after a week in Greece and many adventures, we reunited with the band in Florence.
During my senior year in high school, I was invited to take a freshman literature class at Bennington College—reading, and discussing, and writing papers about Shakespeare, Mark Twain, and James Joyce—with a very inspirational teacher. Suddenly I became a student, and discovered that I loved to write. I took a typing class. I was off and running. I decided to become a poet. I developed long, involved typewritten correspondences with literate people I’d met. I started journals.
That fall, at 17, I went to Goddard College, upstate in Vermont, but kept playing at the Merry-Go-Round every weekend, driving back and forth in my 1929 Model-A Ford, which I had bought with “music money” from my high school math teacher. I would often travel with an upright string-bass in the rumble seat. I would bring friends from college with me to stay at my parents’ house, enjoying lavish dinners of real food, and often we would play music around the dining room table, with me on bass, before heading on to the roadhouse and an evening’s hard work.
It was all happening for me then, and my options were innumerable. As things turned out I had careers in photography, teaching, writing, editing, graphic arts, printing, sound design, and even book and magazine publishing for many years. One of my first big clients was the San Francisco Giants, and I got to know Willie Mays and other Hall of Famers pretty well; I only wished I could have introduced them to my parents. And I still play my horn—I’ve played cornet and flugelhorn on and off professionally for almost sixty years, and this summer I am planning to jam with some of my grandchildren in Paris.