I was born in 1969 when my father was 41. From about age 18 to age 36 (1945-1963) he was directly involved in many of the political struggles that shaped the American left—labor, disarmament, civil rights. From about age 14 to age 41(1941-1969), my father had close relationships with some of the finest jazz musicians of the swing era—Pee Wee Russell, Max Kaminsky, Rex Stewart and, especially, Frankie Newton. In the years following my birth, my father continued to be active politically and remained a passionate jazz listener, but the formative experiences that he felt defined him were moving further into the past.
By the time I was growing up and could hear about my father's earlier, exciting experiences, they had an air of unreality about them. In the suburbs of Albany, NY, talk about Minton's and the Cafe Society or about labor or nuclear arms or civil rights activism seemed exotic. People Dad knew and worked with were names in History. At my public high school there was just the smallest handful of African-American students. At home, just a mile away from school, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was simply Martin, my dad's old boss. My father also was not one for keeping track of details or keeping chronologies straight. His memories were all in soft focus, warmed in the glow of his nostalgia.
I started researching my father's life and times by accident, through my interest in his friend, mentor and musical hero Frankie Newton. Newton was a great trumpet player who had a cult following in the late 1930s and early to mid 1940s and now is mostly forgotten in the history of jazz. Twenty-one years older than my father, Newton was an intellectual and a leftist and a kind, sensitive man. In 1944, when my father was 17 and living with his mother in Brighton, MA, he ran away to NYC and showed up on Frankie's doorstep. Frankie took him in and they lived together for a while. Frankie was a father and a brother, a friend and a teacher to my father. My father, who never finished high school or college, used to say, "living with Frank was better than ten college educations."
After my father died in 1997, I picked up his hobby of collecting Frankie Newton's recordings. As I learned more about the music I became increasingly curious about the man. I found there was very little biographical information about Frankie Newton. I had had the good foresight to interview my dad about Frankie back in 1991, during the summer I was living at home after college graduation. I went back and listened to the tape of our interview. I wanted to remember my father's stories and hear his voice again.
1998 and 1999. Any night. 1:30 AM. I'm lying on my stomach on the study floor. I'm transcribing bits and pieces from my interview with my father about Frankie Newton. I'm looking for narrative details and for language that can go into the poems I've been writing. Pages and pages of draft material pile up. I want to know more about Frankie Newton. Knowing Frankie's life and music becomes an important way to know my father.
Also in 1999. My mother receives documents she'd requested from the FBI under the Freedom of Information and Privacy Acts—my father's FBIi file. The documents include valuable information about Dad's activities in the late 1950s but little else. Nothing about his union work, nothing about his work for SANE in the early 1960s, nothing about his work as a high level employee of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. My father was on queue to go before the Senate's Dodd Committee on Internal Security, so the FBI was investigating his political affiliations to verify that he truly was no longer a communist. In the late 1940s he'd briefly been a member of the CP with Frankie Newton but broke with the party after one or two years. Ever after, Dad viewed himself as a democratic socialist and an avowed anti-communist.
After the initial results from my mother's FOIPA request to the FBI, my parent's lawyer broadens the scope of the request in hopes of getting more information. I somehow get the idea that I could request documents regarding people and organizations my father had had associations with, that the right requests might turn up further information on his activities or, at the very least, more historical background and other leads for research. I start making such requests in connection with my father and in connection with Frankie Newton. Soon I am tracking over sixty requests through different stages of the FBI FOIPA bureaucracy.
October, 2000. I get married to Ruth.
Did I mention I'm also working on a doctorate in English and American literature? I moved to Boston in 1994, got my masters degree in 1995 and have been here since, slowly progressing towards my Ph.D.
February, 2001. One of the few surviving friends of Frankie Newton agrees to an interview with me—in San Francisco. Friends start asking me if I'm writing a book. I hadn't actually considered why I'm doing what I'm doing. My friends are right. I am writing a book.
Summer, 2002. I force myself to stop researching Paul Greenberg and Frankie Newton so I can finish the proposal for my dissertation project. I submit the 40 page document to the departmental committee in the fall.
January, 2003. The graduate committee rejects my dissertation proposal in its current form. (Yes, they took an awful long time to read it and tell me.)
February, 2003. My son Aaron is born and I become a stay at home dad while Ruth works 9 to 5. I work evenings tutoring boys and girls for their bar and bat mitzvahs. I have a few thousand pages of FBI documents from my FOIPA requests stuffed into two of our bookcases. The bookcases now also have special sections for jazz history, Civil Rights Movement and other political history relating to the American left. I have notes from interviews with some of Dad's associates. I have timelines and organization lists. I've visited jazz research facilities to listen to unreleased Frankie Newton recordings and read old press clippings.
February, 2004. I've been ready to start serious work on a book about my father's life and times for two years. I have still more documents, more notes, more research leads. There are people I need to interview who are not getting any younger. In the last year of being with my son during the days and working evenings, my reading has slowed. I'm doing very little writing of any kind, except for e-mail. Mostly I'm reading news on the web in snatches while I feed Aaron and watch him play. I discover weblogs.
March, 2004. I've been following Jeanne D'arc's discussion of the recent events in Haiti. Her blog posts move from basic puzelment about what has happened in Haiti to palpable obsession. This is something I like about her blog—the way she uses the format and it's technologies as a critical tool. And then it hits me. I could use a blog to work on this project about my father's life and times. In a blog I can work on my material bit by bit, from the inside out, categorize and organize as I go.