Eddie Condon (2nd left) with Fats Waller (right)
When I was discovering jazz as a teenager in the 1950s, I was lucky enough to discover at the same time a book we called We Called It Music by Eddie Condon.
Most books about jazz are deadly serious, because most of the people who write about jazz and who adore it and who preach about it are deadly serious and crashing bores, but Eddie Condon was different. He was a musician, for a start. And he was funny. And he loved telling stories. And he was there, in the heart of American jazz in the 1920s and 1930s, seeing Prohibition from the inside, working at clubs owned by Al Capone, scuffling for the next dollar, meeting his white heroes (Bix Beiderbecke) and his black heroes (Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller) and being hired and fired by club owners so often that he ended up doing what Ronnie Scott did i.e. starting his own club to have somewhere for himself and his friends to play at, and if you think that running a club brings you peace of mind, then you’re crazy enough to open and run your own jazz club.
There was one line which has stuck in my mind for fifty years since I first read that book, as follows. ‘I arrived at the club in a perfect state of equilibrium: half man, half whisky’. Gosh, as a teenager I thought that was the perfect American wisecrack. I think I still do. But until I came across a stray copy of We Called It Music in my biography shelves the other day, I had no idea if the book was anywhere near as good as it glowed in my memory, and it was with an appalling fit of caution, discretion, misgivings and cowardice that I actually dragged it down and read it again.
Well, yes and no. As a picture of an immigrant nineteenth century Irish family to America, it starts off brilliantly. As a saga of early unknown jazz bands in which he played (Condon was a competent rhythm banjoist, then guitarist who hated to take solos – what was he doing playing jazz in the first place?), it’s a bit dreary. As a picture of the Roaring Twenties – summer seasons, pick up lake-side dance bands, hocking instruments for the rent – it’s rather good. As a succession of his best anecdotes, polished and rehearsed for the book, it ranges from sweet to repetitive to brilliant…
One of his best stories was about Fats Waller. Some time in 1929 a record company executive in New York got the idea that Condon was good at organising other musicians (which did indeed turn out to be Condon’s great talent in life) and hired him to make sure that Fats Waller made a record date the next Sunday.
There would be $75 in it for Condon if he did. It sounds a lot to me. It sounded a fortune to Condon. So he made his way up to Harlem, where Fats Waller was rehearsing some new all-black stage show at a club called Connie’s Inn, and shadowed him for three days, trying to match Waller’s capacity for drink. Without success.
‘Things grew faint and finally dark. When I awoke I was lying on the wall cushions at Connie’s Inn, fully dressed. It was half past ten in the morning. On another cushion Fats was curled up, also fully dressed, asleep. I staggered over to him. He opened his eyes and smiled.
‘ “It’s half past ten,” I croaked. “We’re due at the studio at noon”.
‘He sat up, stretched and yawned.
‘ “That’s fine! Wonderful! Perfect!” he said. “Now I’ve got to see about that band. Look around for some nickels so I can make that telephone go. . .” ’
Well, Fats Waller makes three phone calls and three musicians arrive, and they all set off in a cab downtown, pausing only to pick up Eddie Condon’s banjo en route, and Fats Waller hums over a couple of tunes to them in the cab, and they memorise their parts, and they get to the studio at noon, to be greeted by the executive, Mr Adams, and they make the records.
‘ “We must have some more of these dates,” Mr Adams said. “This is an excellent example of the wisdom of planning and preparation.” ’
I thought this was such an excellent story that I read it to my teenage son. He roared with laughter.
‘I wonder what the record sounded like?’ he said.
It suddenly occurred to me that somewhere, deep in the archives of my old jazz LPs, I must have that very recording somewhere, and although it took me a day or two, I finally tracked it down, and listened again toHarlem Fuss and Minor Drag, and the two piano solos Fats also recorded.
My son was polite but thought it was just scratched old history.
I thought it was rather good.
And it was history in a way, because it must have been one of the first mixed record sessions ever– Fats and the other players were all black, whereas Condon, whose banjo you can just hear clanking away like some bit of industrial history, was just a white boy.
And it has changed my life as well, because having once gained access to my old LPs, I have now started playing them all, and finding my way back to music I never thought I would hear again in my life. I can remember my father coming home with our first ever 12” LP in the late 1940s, exultant not because it played so much music but because it was unbreakable, unlike all those 78s. It was an LP of Horowitz playing Chopin and Liszt, and it converted me to a lifelong Chopin addict, and a take–it-or-leave-it Liszt man.
I still have that old LP, and you should see the scratches on it. But there is a whole treasure house in that stack of hundreds of LPs. Why, only yesterday I found myself listening to the first record session that Andre Previn ever recorded as a jazz pianist. The year, 1946. His age? Sixteen years old. The standard of his jazz piano? Fast, flashy, fleet and forgettable. Then I discovered a singer I had forgotten, Lee Wiley, after which I found a whole LP of poetry readings by George McKay Brown, the Orcadian poet, which I regret to say I never heard when I bought it and still haven’t heard yet . . .
We regret to say that Mr Kington is turning into a crashing vinyl 12” LP bore, and is about to undergo treatment for the condition. He will be back soon, with no memory of this passage in his life. Please do not remind him of it, for fear of reversion.