In 1994 my father spoke during the week of Martin Luther King Day at Temple Gates of Heaven, a Reform synagogue in Schenectady, NY. In his speech, he commented on Black-Jewish relations in a way that illuminates his own relationships with Black folks.
I don't intend to raise the question of Black-Jewish relations in part because I think it has been addressed to little avail at length by our community and in part because I think what I will raise speaks to the question in a more meaningful way than the usual discussion that tries to rekindle a better past that I personally don't think ever existed. . . .In the same speech, my father recalled the experience that first made him clearly aware of his Jewish identity and first made him conscious of living in two cultures.
Simply put we who are conscious and actively Jewish live within two cultures Jewish and American. Our effort individually and collectively is to find a place of comfort and ease so that we can have both.
Let me say quickly and emphatically right here so that there is no misunderstanding. The Jewish American experience and the Black American experience are not the same nor can we find an easy equation between the two. I am indicating that we share this relationship to America. We want our own identity and we want to participate fully in our country's bounty and its decision making.
I don't remember whether I was seven or eight but the scene is vivid in the feeling part of my memory. We were living in Taunton, Massachusetts. Until that day (it must have been summer because I wasn't in school) I was only vaguely aware of being Jewish. I had heard the family stories, I was somewhat embarrassed by my paternal grandmother's accent and I loved Bible stories especially the Exodus tale.In the 1930s and 1940s antisemitism was still quite overt in the US. My father's tormentors may not have understood much about the culture he came from, but they stood ready to keep him out of theirs. Dad had a number of stories like this one, lessons in being on the outside. The most developed one, and the most fully fictionalized, is "Lonesome Blues", the story I posted in September, named after the song [RealPlayer] by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five. In "Lonesome Blues," the high school years of a suicide jazz musician, Mo Bartel, closely mirror my father's.
They were starting a baseball game. Sides were being chosen. I stood there expecting to be chosen around fourth or fifth. I was realistic about my ability. I wasn't the best but I was far from the worst. I made up in determination what I lacked in size. While waiting in pleasant expectation lightning struck. "Do you want Jewboy? I don’t want him on my side." It took several seconds for me to realize he was talking about me. JEWBOY! JEWBOY! JEWBOY! The word crashed through my being. My insides were raw with pain. "I am an American," I screamed in a tearful combination of fear and rage. "Jewboy!" " Jew cry baby!" "Mockie!" Christkiller!" "Scram, Jews can't play baseball." I stood my ground and yelled the most meaningful words I could find, "it's a free country!" I don't know who threw the fist blow but a general melee ensued. I was badly bruised and I would like to believe several of my tormentors carried home some effects of my frantic and violent surge of energy.
The other live factor in my life was basketball. I was going to show them that a Jew could be as tough as anyone. I made the team by determination rather than skill. Years later I asked Tony Nucola, who was our coach, why he put me on his squad and he told me that any one who fought that hard to play was worth having on the team. I don’t know whether he did me a favor or not. I was always playing 9 men. The opposing 5 and our other 4.This time around, he knows where he stands. His imaginative and intellectual powers are dominated by the activity of assessing boundaries, identifying gatekeepers and allies, and developing entry and exit strategies.
Do you remember my Tuesday to Saturday Blues? That's what it was all about. Keefe invited me on Tuesday and I had to wait until Saturday. I went and didn't over and over. I was sure they were putting me on. I would flunk the test and be the laughing stock of the school. They would remember I was Jewish and ask me to leave. One country indivisible with liberty and justice for all that crap and they would call me Jewboy and I would start a fight. I wouldn't know what to say. I hated popular music.He was in and still breathing but in is a state of mind and out was still where he was, and Johnny Dodds was talking about it and
On Saturday I walked up the hill to Keefe's house like a car with a couple of spark plugs out. By the time I got there I was shaking, inside my stomach felt like mush. Mrs. Riley, pretty, friendly, lovely Mrs. Riley answered the door and told me "the boys are down in the basement."
Eight boys looked like an army and sounded like two. I was trapped. Eight enemies of my privacy were looking at me, surveying me. I was searching for something to say when Keefe made it easy—easy like scaling Everest easy like dying. "Hi Mo. Guys this is the clary man I told you about Mo Bartel. Mo did you bring any sides?"
"Yeah, two my left and right." I made it. I was in and still breathing.
Someone shoved a coke in my hand and I was able to ward off questions about how long I was playing or who my teacher is when Keefe shouted above the din "let's get organized and start spinning some sides first one for Mo, Pops Armstrong's Lonesome Blues featuring Johnny Dodds on clarinet."
Love on first sound? Three minutes on another planet. I mean it hit me like where have you been all my painful life. This was what I felt. The truth head on. It cried without the tears showing, it screamed pain without being sent to the nuthouse. It was all about being alone, alone, alone.
After it finished I got up walked upstairs and out down the hill and with tears in my eyes I ran down the hill...I am interested in this complicated process of Mo Bartel née Paul Greenberg's identification with African American culture—among other things, that it occurred, at least in the story, in a room full of white high school boys. They knew about Louis Armstrong's mid 1920s breakthrough, modernistic refashioning of New Orleans jazz. Mo didn't, but they seemed to think he would. In their eyes a Jewish clary man had a touch of the exotic and was automatically identified with jazz rather than the classical music he was learning to play. They wanted to entertain him or prove they were in the know.
I am interested in the story's rough hewn prose style and in how Mo Bartel, and his foil, the narrator, fit into the literature of American Jewish urban experience, which should be familiar to anyone who has read Nat Hentoff or other jazz literature, like Max Kaminsky's forgotten classic My Life in Jazz. But when looking at this story as a text about my father, there is something else to know. The drafts of it, along with the other sketches and segments for the novel Long Days Short Nights it was to be part of, are handwritten on the backs of copies of the flier at right (click on image to enlarge).
Presumably Dad was the organizer of the event: William Douthard (aka Meatball) was his very close friend from when he was working for the SCLC in Birmingham, Martin Luther King was his boss, and James Farmer was a close associate, whom he revered. I don't know how well Dad knew Constance Baker Motley, but they were both part the Civil Rights Movement community in New York. My family lived in Co-op Village and Dad was highly active in left organizations on the Lower East Side. So the flier has my father written all over it in more ways than one.
During some of his most direct involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, his inner life was preoccupied elsewhere. He didn't treat the political fliers as documents to save for posterity, but as surfaces on which to write and fictionalize his life—as if his committed activism was only the backdrop for a personal journey. Of course the two things were not really separable. In fact, the suicides in "Lonesome Blues" may well be precisely what underlies my father's participation in the Southern Freedom Movement. From "Lonesome Blues," first paragraph:
They will say he was only 37 years old no one knew he was sick that he left a wife and two children and 300 records behind. They will find out he was broke and remember he was the first whiteman to tour with Prince Kingsley.In the summer and fall of 1963 Paul Greenberg was thirty-five years old and a one time aspiring jazz clarinetist; he had a wife and two daughters, and kept a sizable collection of records, a large portion of which were jazz. I said suicides, in the plural, because there are really two. There's Mo Bartel who seems to have taken his own life in a Chicago hotel room, and there's the journalist-narrator, whose method of narrative transmission spells a kind of professional suicide, a sacrifice of his means of publication in exchange for the hope that his revelation of Mo Bartel's inner life will see the light of day.
I don’t want the assignment. I wrote the Mo Bartel story 10 years ago and you didn’t print it. Enclosed is the carbon copy of the story filed with you then. Print it and buy all of his records with my check otherwise forget it. I won’t interview his wife or any of the guys he played with. Fire me—get a new Jazz Critic for our lousy magazine but I won’t do that kind of story.The narrator dies a professional death so that the biographical Mo Bartel, whose music is already immortal, can have life after death.
At my father's funeral, my girlfriend, now the woman I'm married to, said it's a good thing he couldn't carry a tune: otherwise he wouldn't have done all this important political work. Lack of musical talent had much to do with it, but for him jazz was "a way of walking, talking. / Had it in his soul." His story in politics was the story of a lonely, Jewish high school kid in Brighton, Mass. who was catapulted by Johnny Dodds' clarinet into Frankie Newton's apartment in Union Square and into the Communist Party, the unions, SANE, and the Civil Rights Movement. The jazz life was a fading, youthful dream, and Dad was at a painful threshold, a moment just prior to when loss translates the past into nostalgia.
The final thing to note here is that I can date the handwritten draft material for Long Days Short Nights with assurance only because there is an extended passage about Frankie Newton that locates the manuscript in time. That bit of prose will make up part IV of this series.