March 2, 2014
I recently got a job as a blogger, for a hotel group in Chicago. My friend, Earl A., is the manager, out of the Chicago Lake Shore Hotel in Hyde Park. I drove up for an overnight visit, to meet the staff and stay at the hotel. I had my own fourth floor suite, overlooking Lake Michigan. The highlight of the day was Earl and me going to the seafood buffet in the charming Lake Shore Cafe and listening to Friday Night Jazz. Which is how I came to meet and have dinner with eighty-two-year-old John “J.J.” Jarrett, the gregarious black band leader for The Jazz Masters.
J.J was dressed to the nines in a black dress shirt, white tie and a frayed suit from a bygone era. I was dressed Gene-style in a black sweat shirt and jeans. I have never apologized for being me, but I did to J.J. He waved off my concern with an affable hand. We became brothers when I mentioned that my town, Alton, was the— “Birthplace of Miles Davis,” J.J. said. I told him I knew Josephine Beckwith, Miles’ babysitter, ninety-five and living on her own in Alton. We hit it off.
J.J. is a self taught drummer. He began playing professionally when he was twelve, sneaking away from home and school and playing with the likes of Billy Eckstine, the great singer and swing band leader, and the angel of song Sara Vaughan, in the glory days of Chicago’s thriving black south side jazz clubs and theatres. Tall and thin, J.J. plays for Mayor Rahm Emmanuel gatherings, at the UnitedCenter during Bulls games, he teaches, is a former greeter at a casino and is a walking oral historian of all things and persons in jazz.
“I will always play for Earl, Gene, always be here for Friday Night Jazz. This tradition. . . must go on. Um-hm.”
We talked about the Tuskegee Airmen (I was a Department of the Interior interviewer on the National Tuskegee Oral History Project and was friends with many Airmen), Civil Rights, the pending war in Ukraine, Miles and Dizzy and Billy, women . . . For me, it was a magical night: old men of a bygone era, women in finery, scallops and pasta and pecan pie and shiraz, great music, the room an advertisement for the rainbow society we all dream of. And I was—am—a member of the family.
The rest of the Jazz Masters, most dressed in seen-better-days suits of a bygone era, some sporting porkpie hats (Sinatra would have been home here), wandered in and were introduced to me. The vibraphone player’s ancient instrument had a malfunctioning foot pedal but Earl A. saved the day with duct tape. There was a standup bass, a pianist (he plays restored pipe organs at silent film festivals in the Midwest), a sax man and a trumpet/coronet player—three black men and three whites; four old guys and two young Turks—and a force of nature black girl singer.
What a crowd, ninety per cent of which was well-dressed couples and groups: University of Chicago professors (the girl singer kept talking to them between songs) in retro suits and 50s hats, mates out on the town, birthday and anniversary parties, jazz aficionados, women without spouses drinking and laughing—and most of them stopping by our table to pay homage to J.J.
One black family dressed casually like me sat down front. It was the son Michael’s birthday. He looked bemused, possibly a member of the Hip Hop culture, his dreadlocks flowing over his shoulders. He was locked into his smart phone—until J.J. took the stage and began hammering the drums. Michael became transfixed, his lips parted as he clapped and marveled at the old jazz men.
“Wow,” I said to the band members, “Look at all the single women.” It was a silly thing to say, as the musicians had already identified their groupies. We admired a table of three lovely middle aged black women and I allowed as how I might join them. “They’re here for J.J.,” Earl A. said. Boy, were they.
At seven sharp, J.J. and the Jazz Masters took their places. They opened with “Fly Me to the Moon.” J.J. never stopped smiling as he kept the beats, all the while listening to asides from adoring fans. Three songs in, J.J. walked to the mic and introduced the band. Then: “Peace all over the world is what we need. President Barack Obama—let’s have a hand for Barack! He is taking care of business—B-I-Z!”
The girl singer took over. She might have been forty-something. What was memorable was her white husband, his frail body lost in the folds of his suit, sitting at a table by the window with its spectacular view of Lake Shore Drive. The gentleman might have been eighty. He sat and tapped a foot and watched his comely wife.
“Peace all over the world.”