Jam Today

Peter De Vries, Jam Today

The New Yorker, February 4, 1950: 34-35.

Music is a field in which I can't seem to keep up with the van. I no sooner cultivate a taste for Milhaud, Schoenberg, and Poulenc than I find the intellectuals talking about Bunk Johnson, Baby Dodds, and Cow Cow Davenport. I got into a jam by attending a jam recently--one of these phonograph-record jams, or platter parties, to which each guest brings his or her favorite hot or blues recording. The level and tone of any such congregation depend on how many collector's items turn up. A Westport couple my wife and I know, whom I shall call Chittenden, invited us to this one, a Saturday night affair.

My wife left the choice of our "ticket of admission" to me, and I settled on a Benny Goodman swing version of "Sweet Sue," simply because it happened to be my favorite at the time. I had no doubts about the acceptability of the arrangement, which is by Goodman himself--though the platter qua platter is certainly no collector's item--and since I was fond of the record, I jotted my name on the envelope it was in, to make sure nobody would go off with it by mistake after the party.

We arrived about ten o'clock, and, going into the living room, I deposited my offering on a table near the door. The phonograph had not yet been turned on, but the evening was well under way, with one large group trying to get a definition of "gut bucket." I eased over toward another, smaller knot and sat down beside a tall brunette, a student from Bennington who kept running her fingers backward down through her hair. The people around her were arguing about who the greatest trombonist of our day is. "Who do you say?" the girl asked, turning to me.

God knows the only trombonist with whose methods and repertory I can lay claim to any familiarity is Homer Rodeheaver, the playing evangelist. I used to go with other Calvinist youths to hear him in Orchestra Hall, in Chicago, and I remember a little joke Rodeheaver used to pull about his instrument. He would work it up and down a few times and then say, "This is a Methodist trombone--it backslides." I dined out on that in my old Dutch Reformed days, but one look at this girl from Bennington told me not to try any funny stuff. "That's a hard question for me to answer," I said thoughtfully.

I was safe for the moment, but real embarrassment presently pounced like a cat. The two or three groups in the room merged into one, like batter on a griddle, when Chittenden began airing his views on true jazz. "You can safely rule out 98 percent of what's played," he said. Several nodded. "But the lowest point of all is probably swing. I mean there are people who seriously think that's jazz."

"Excuse me," I said to the girl.

Grinning deceptively and from time to time bobbing my head at what Chittenden was saying, I edged my way around the room toward the table where my record was. I backed up to it and stood there casually, feeling around behind me with one hand till my fingers found the disc. I slipped quickly into the vestibule and opened the door of the closet where my overcoat was hanging. Holding the record in both hands, and pushing it deep in among the wraps so as to muffle the sound, I broke it into five or six pieces, shoved them into a pocket of my overcoat, envelope and all. I wasn't a moment too soon. As I sauntered back into the living room, the Chittendens were calling for the tickets of admission.

I heard some pretty esoteric things that night: Johnny Dodds' Washboard Band, Bessie Jackson, the Chicago Bucktown Five, the Dixieland Jug Blowers--items spanning the quarter century and more that one must go back in order to stay abreast. Chittenden had a Jelly Roll MOrton on which he had taken out a floater policy with the Equitable Insurance people. Of course, the records were all acoustical; that is, they were made in the days when performers sang or played into a large megaphone. Such waxes are hard to listen to--a factor that tends to screen out non-connosseurs, whose ears have been spoiled by listening to high-fidelity electrical recordings. As collector's item followed collector's item, I reflected on the humiliation I had been narrowly spared; mine would have been the only electrical recording there.

"Where is yours, by the way?" Chittenden asked.

"I forgot it, " I said, trying, I hoped inconspicuously, to semaphore "will explain later" to my wife.

On edge from all the strain, I said loudly and nervously, "Let's dance." People looked at me, surprised to have encountered a notion as heretical as taht at the Chittendens'. At Eddie Condon's, perhaps the "purest" of the places devoted to jazz, they haven't even got a floor.

The conversation became brisk and technical, and I dropped a remark that contained the word "colophony." I was sure at the time that it referred to modern counterpoint, but when I looked it up in the dictionary later, at home, I discovered it just means rosin. I resent this to some extent; rosin is a pretty flat thing for a word like "colophony" to mean. There was a sharp skirmish over what constitutes a true "dirty growl," and then the discussion settled on the relative styles of certain performers. As the haze thickened and the heat rose and the din grew, little was discernible to me but the sound of celebrated names. The girl from Bennington, still ceaselessly bathing her fingers in her hair, looked at me inquiringly after making an assertion I didn't get exactly, and I said, "Peanuts Hucko," which was the first thing that came to my mind.

"What?" she asked, bending an ear toward me.

"Peanuts Hucko," I said raising my voice.

She nodded consideringly. Emboldened, I said, "Slow Drag Pavageau," a reference I had picked up from another group earlier in the evening, and then threw in a few more names as they occurred to me from hearsay or reading. "Pinetop Smith, Mutt Carey, Big Eye Louis Nelson," I said to the girl and occasionally to other people. "Jimmy and Mama Yancey."

But all conversation must end. At last the party broke up and everyone spilled through the doorway on a bright tide of exclamation and farewell. Chittenden, who was going to drive some guests to their train, had got into his wraps, too. My wife started to inquire after our missing platter. "Shh!" I said, trying to steer her away from Chittenden, who was nearby, and as we walked out to the driveway I explained that someone had sat on it and that I didn't want to make him feel too bad. From the cool, sweet cisterns of the midnight air my spirit drank repose, unaware that the payeroo was still to come.

I have said that I slipped the remnants of "Sweet Sue" into a pocket of my overcoat. That, as I fumbled hastily among the dangling sleeves, was what I thought I had done. Thrusting a hand into the pocket now, I felt nothing--nothing, that is, but a sick swoop. Who had acquired the remains of the record? I was not left to wonder long. A light clacking sound on my left was followed by a puzzled murmur from Chittenden, who was fishing fragments out of his pocket and peering at them.

"What--in the world--is this?" he asked, examining the shards in the moonlight.

"Good night, all!" I said, bundling my wife into our car. I climbed in behind teh wheel and was off in a spatter of mud.

We rocked down Bayberry Lane in silence for some time.

"Why so quiet?" my wife asked, at last. "Sad about the record?"

"Yes, I am. I'd give anyting if we hadn't brought that one," I said, remembering just then that the envelope with my name on it was in Chittenden's pocket, too.