The epigraph for this blog includes these lines:
Listen ain't you heard the newsThe two existing recordings of these verses by Langston Hughes, set to music and played by James P. Johnson, are pretty obscure, so it's hard to say if my father would have known the lines. Be that as it may, these words are at the crux of what drove him to live as he did. In these lines and in my father's mind, the world doesn't have to be this way: poverty and racism can be eliminated. It's all a matter of making choices, choices that may well mean putting one's life on the line. Underlying my searching the life and times of my father is the question, what leads to this kind of commitment? The song's answer is them hungry blues—the real physical hunger caused by deprivation, but also a spiritual hunger, different in each person.
There's another thing to choose
A brand new world clean and fine
Where nobody's hungry
And there's no color line
A thing like that's worth
This blog started out as a vehicle for me to write about my father. Knowing more about his life and his times has changed me and has consequently broadened the scope of what I do here. Lately, I have been writing very little about him and instead posting a lot about race and racism in America. Learning more about my father's participation in the Civil Rights Movement, reading Movement history, and getting to know Movement veterans has made me much more sharply cognizant of what they fought for, the risks they took, and the gains they made for America. This awareness makes witness of the Bush administration's assault on low-income people and people of color disturbing to a degree that I could not have anticipated. My liberal sensibilities were certainly offended by programmatic racism before, but in the last year it has had a radicalizing effect on me. My father's own sense of his life's purpose was deeply wrapped up in the social transformation he and so many others made sacrifice upon sacrifice to achieve. As I have watched their successes unravel, I have found my own sense of purpose becoming much more closely aligned with my father's.
The process of aligning my purposes with my father's does not actually begin with the Southern Freedom Movement. The process began in 1991, when I made my first attempt to understand my father's relationship with Frankie Newton, the mostly forgotten jazz trumpet player, whose career peaked in around 1939, during the period when his band backed Billie Holiday at the Cafe Society in New York. If you know the original 1939 Commodore recording of Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit", then you've heard Frankie. That's him on the melodramatic trumpet intro. If you also know Billie's 1939 version of "I've Gotta Right To Sing The Blues," from the same Commodore recording session, and you can remember the sophisticated interplay between the trumpet and Billie's voice (especially in the final verse), then you already have an inkling of Frankie's artistry.
I've written before about how circa 1944 my father, then a teenage aspiring jazz clarinet player, ran away from home in Brighton, MA to Frankie Newton's apartment on East 17th Street in Manhattan, just off Union Square. Frankie was an African American, political radical, who hung out with other artist-intellectuals like Paul Robeson, Beauford Delaney, Henry Miller, Canada Lee, and William Saroyan. On the trumpet, Frankie was a great and subtle stylist, a master of mutes and moods, who attracted a cult following of aficionados, critics, and musicians. It's hard to say what would have happened to my father if Frankie hadn't taken him in. During that year or so when they were roommates, Frankie introduced my father to life in the Communist Party and he taught my father to read James Joyce and John Donne and how to look at the paintings of Picasso and Matisse. And he taught my father volumes about what it means to be Black in America. Frankie was outspoken about race matters, often protesting injustice to his own detriment, losing gigs and being marginalized in the music profession. Being in Frankie's milieu got my dad his job at Jerry Newman's record store, selling records to likes of Pee Wee Russell and Cozy Cole and befriending them, and led to my dad's first union jobs, organizing tobacco workers across racial lines in North Carolina and textile workers in Massachusetts.
Frankie Newton died in 1954 at age 48, by then alcoholic and shut out of professional music. In those last years of his life, Newton painted and was politically active, and he was married to a white Jewish leftist, Ethel Klein. They lived in the West Village on Barrow Street, across from the Greenwich House settlement house, which had (and still has) a music school where Newton sometimes taught music to low-income city kids. Frankie died a poor man, under-recorded and largely forgotten by jazz history. To my father Frankie was one of the great heroes of jazz, as well as a stand-in parent, a brother, a mentor, a friend.
My oldest sister was born two and half years after Frankie died. Dad named her Francine, after Frankie. If Dad got your ear about Frankie, there was an urgency with which he had to communicate Frankie's importance, as an artist and as a human being. By the time I was in my twenties, my father was one of the few people alive who had such intimate knowledge of this national treasure whose life had not been documented, whose music had been stolen and undervalued.
1991 was the year I graduated from college. Home for the summer, before I moved out to Oregon for a while, I sat my father down with his Frankie Newton records and asked him to educate me. We made a mix tape of the tracks, and I taped him as he expounded on the music and reminisced about Frankie. I took the tapes with me when I moved out west, but I did not dwell on the music or what I'd learned. A year or two later, my first cousin Alan tracked down a British cd that collected most of Frankie's major recordings and sent copies to me and to Dad. But that was about it for me and Frankie Newton until 1997 when my father was dying of cancer.
My father died on Election Day, November 4, 1997. I had been driving from Boston to Albany, New York every other weekend to be there with him in the last months and support my mother who was his primary care giver. I was there the weekend before he died, but drove back to Boston on Sunday the 2nd, not knowing that was the last time I'd see him living. On Saturday night, we listened to Miles’ Sketches of Spain. “Music is the staff of life,” he said. On Sunday afternoon, I came into the sick room to be with him before I had to go back to Boston. As usual, he was in pain. I asked him if he wanted to hear some music. “I don’t know,” he said. I put on the Frankie Newton cd that Alan had found for us in England. My two sisters were there, too. We tried making conversation, hoping the blend of our voices and the music would lift him out of depression. But when The Blues My Baby Gave To Me [mp3] came on, we weren't allowed talk: that was Frank's masterpiece.
Photo: Frankie Newton & Sidney Bechet at Port of Harlem Jazzmen session for Blue Note, June 8, 1939 (Charles Peterson)