Sunday, May 15, 2011

Jazz and Baseball

"I think there are only three things that America will be known for 2,000 years from now when they study this civilization: the Constitution, jazz music and baseball. They're the three most beautifully designed things this culture has ever produced."
—Gerald Early

It’s getting so that you can’t read anything on jazz and baseball these days without running into that quote. It’s a beauty though, one of my favorites, and worth repeating. I can tell you that if you spent any time whatsoever looking me up and down trying to suss out where I keep my sense of patriotism, Early’s words would guide you there unfailingly. I’m fascinated by the Constitution, and I spend many of my waking moments thinking about jazz and baseball. 

Jazz and baseball. Baseball and jazz. I even like just saying the two words together. In my heart, my mind, my imagination, those two all-time American greats form a partnership unrivalled. There’s San Francisco and the Golden Gate, St. Louis and the Arch, New York and Liberty. For affairs of the heart there’s Antony and Cleopatra, Hepburn and Tracy, Dagwood and Blondie. For affairs of the stomach there’s fish and a fry pan. Bourbon and a lowball glass. Blueberry pie and a fork. I do go on! Fine partnerships all, but none hold a candle, none are even in the same league, if you will, as baseball and jazz. A person might object, purely on a technicality. “Tony,” he or she would point out, “Baseball and jazz are separate institutions, they are not actual partners.” “Poor child,” I would say, compressing my lips and slightly tilting my head to the left in the time-honored expression doctors use when they’ve done all they can do. It is true the stories of jazz and baseball are most often told separately. And it’s no wonder; Babe Ruth or Louis Armstrong, just to pick two, can each command 20,000 words or more. But no amount of intellectual segregating will ever convince me that the two weren’t born of the same family. Just type “baseball and jazz” into your search engine and you’ll find I’m not nearly the first person to contemplate the relationship. There’s an English guy, Julian Joseph, who has written a jazz opera about the Negro Leagues called “Shadowball,” for crying out loud!…ahem…I’ll come down off the pulpit for a moment and tell you how I came to my fervor.

As a boy I had two career paths. I was very optimistic about my chances of weaving them together. I would be a baker, and I would play left field for the Minnesota Twins. My plan was flawless. Baker’s hours are early, so I would be able to finish up at the shop and still have time to get out to Met Stadium to play the game. To further my vocational education, my mom taught me the virtues of Tollhouse, and every now and then my pop would drive out to Bloomington and purchase seats in the left field bleachers. I would be there with my glove studying every move by Lyman Bostock. 

By the time I was nine, however, I had two years of playing clarinet behind me. I took lessons from a teacher, Jeff Youngstrom, at MacPhail Center for the Performing Arts. Though I was being classically trained, I had somehow stumbled upon the idea of “jazz” and asked him what it was and if clarinetists ever got themselves involved in perpetrating it upon the public. He played for me some recordings of this guy named Benny Goodman. Then and there the world lost a baker, although to this day I can still fashion a mean chocolate chip cookie. I was decided: Left Field for the Minnesota Twins and Professional Clarinetist. 

Eventually Mr. Youngstrom also told me about The Hall Brothers Jazz Band, who played at The Emporium of Jazz out in Mendota. He told me about Butch Thompson holding down the clarinet chair. I should go see this band if I wanted to know how it’s done, Mr. Youngstrom instructed. I pestered my parents until I found myself in front of men who, little did I know, would begin mentoring me twenty years later. I was wide-eyed and astonished at the music and the role the clarinet played in it. An unforgettable formative experience, that. Several years before my revelatory night the Hall Brothers had recorded “We’re Going To Win, Twins!” sold on a 45 the other side of which was grooved “Go For A Goal Northstars!” Though Hall Brother alumnus Charlie DeVore doesn’t necessarily categorize that record as the high point of his career, I think it’s the best version of the song ever made, and it allows me to maintain a tenuous grip on my theme. 

My athletic career came to an inglorious end just a few years later when my high school football coach (I was a two-sport kid) set me down in his office. Some of the extra-curricular band activities were conflicting with football practice. “Tony,” he said with one of those sonorous, booming coach voices, “it’s either football or band.” I hadn’t yet experienced my growth spurt, so I suspect the coach was shouting in his head, “Say band! Say band! Say band!” I won’t ever know if he possessed an inner wisdom in giving me the opportunity to choose a path he knew I should choose, or if he just didn’t want a skinny clarinetist on his football team. At any rate, I chose band. And when baseball season came along I chose band again. Then and there the world lost an all-star left fielder, although to this day I can still sit in the left field bleachers with the best of them. 

Fast-forward a couple of decades. The Twins had been playing baseball indoors for most of that time. The Saint Paul Saints baseball organization, however, plied their trade under the sky. My band at the time, Fidgety Feet, was hired to play for fans as they filed into Midway Stadium before a game. The Southside Aces would be hired for the same purpose a few years later. We were, of course, setting no precedent playing jazz at a baseball stadium. King Oliver, in fact, played during games in the stands of Chicago’s Comiskey Park in 1919, the year of the infamous Black Sox scandal. One of my favorite clarinetists, Willie Humphrey, was in that band. A popular waltz tune of the day was “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles.” Writer Ring Lardner, who began to suspect the White Sox of throwing World Series games to the Cincinnati Reds, parodied the song by singing, “I’m Forever Blowing Ball Games.” 

In February of 2009 my jazz life would once again intersect with the Saint Paul Saints. VitaMN magazine organized the inaugural Crispin Iceball Adventure Series. They cleared the base paths at Midway Stadium and played a few innings in the snow. The Twin Cities had been on the receiving end of a blizzard a few days previous, so the snow was fresh and white. And on this day the sun was bright and warm. Perfect for winter baseball!(?) Connected with the game, VitaMN put together a promotion for one of its heavy advertisers, Gabe’s Roadhouse. Gabe’s sits just down the road from Midway Stadium on Lexington Avenue and Energy Park Drive. Fans were handed blue shoestrings as they poured into the stadium that could be redeemed for a free beer at Gabe’s following the snowy diamond recklessness. And the management was talked into hiring the Southside Aces. This persuasion was provided by VitaMN’s event planner, who felt that a baseball promotion at a roadhouse should have a jazz band involved. Again I wish to point out how mine is not the only human brain making this connection. I walked into the joint, a dining room to my right and one end of a long horseshoe bar to my left. Straight ahead of me there was an approximately twelve-foot deep by eight-foot wide alcove with a large flat screen TV hanging on the deep wall. The Aces set up beneath the TV and our songs shot out of the alcove like shells from a jazz shotgun. We were looking to take down some big bucks. Well, we took down 500 of them. Not big, but pretty good for a restaurant. 

Imagine still-shivering sniffle-nosed baseball fans turning in blue shoestrings for free beer while they try to puzzle out why they’re being fired upon by a jazz shotgun. A couple of women in their early twenties, adorned in St. Paul Saints regalia and obvious benefactors of the Blue Shoestring beverage, found themselves caught up in the novelty of the situation. I like to think that they were just allowing their natural born instincts to take over, and the pure joy of watching baseball and hearing jazz in the same day overwhelmed them. They kept letting out little screams and bouncing around any time we played a parade tune. I kept calling parade tunes. Between songs one of their gentlemen friends leaned toward me at a drunken seventy-five degree angle. He stared at me silently for a long seven seconds before finally blurting loudly, “Is it easy to swing dance?” The fellas in the band simultaneously recognized the potential for farce. Without conferring, and with straight faces, we all assured him it was among the easiest of things to do. He and his girlfriend collided with each other to the music for a minute before he realized that the beer in his hand was empty. His priority quickly reasserted itself; he gave up on his brief sojourn into swing dancing and wove his way back to the bar. 

These days, part of my musical rounds finds me two Tuesdays per month playing jazz at Bennett’s Chop and Railhouse in St. Paul with the Bill Evans New Orleans Jazz Band. Bill, the aforementioned Charlie DeVore, and Mike Polad are three of the guys I get to play with who are both Hall Brother’s alumni and played on the recording of “We’re Going To Win Twins!” During baseball season my eyes are trained on one of the several televisions around the place, even while the band plays on. Bill and Charlie are guilty of this as well, but are not nearly as often led astray by the bright and shiny baseball box as I am. This has, on occasion, caused some missed entrances, once by the entire front line of the band. I mean, what’s more important: starting the last chorus after a bass solo or seeing the result of a bases-loaded, 3-2 pitch? I actually don’t know the answer to that one. Despite the distracting nature of the situation, it is truly a bit of heaven. I’m playing jazz and watching my Minnesota Twins. That kind of combination has to release extra endorphins, even during the Twins miserable beginnings of this season: last Tuesday, as I held down the clarinet chair at Bennett’s, Target Field was pelted by hail and the Detroit Tigers offence. A low baseball moment to be sure, but it was baseball and jazz. Jazz and baseball. Two of the finest things…ever.

1 comment:

  1. Jazz and Baseball. I thought I was the only one in this town. These two mighty institutions helped desegregate this nation without a court hearing or a vigil or a rally. Jazz HAD to integrate to make the art form grow. And baseball had to integrate because Willie Mays, well, you know...
    Thanks, Tony, and let's talk baseball real soon!
    --Tom Zosel