Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Once Upon a Tune

By Marc Stengel and Michael Sims

NOVEMBER 3, 1997:  At first, the contrast is striking: The photos show a young Paul Broome, handsome and fresh-faced behind his jazz drum kit, while today a gracious, faint-spoken Broome lies bedridden in his Donelson home. Even after a moment's conversation, however, a vivid spirit reveals itself unbowed by time or disease.

Broome, now 77, collaborated in 1990 with the late Clay Tucker to compile The Other Music City, a book-length text-and-photo-essay that is easily the most comprehensive look at Nashville's band era from the 1920s to the '70s. Once a trumpeter at the U.S. Naval Academy and occasionally with Tom Hewgley's band in the '50s, Tucker was dean of liberal arts at Middle Tennessee State University. To him, Broome attributes the actual writing of the book, claiming for himself merely the supporting role of researcher and assistant. But it is clear that he is much more of a conscious--and conscientious--historian than he credits himself to be.

"We'd gone through these war years with all of this wonderful music," he remembers at a pace measured in draughts of bottled oxygen, "and people danced during the war. Dancing was a...well, it's a romantic thing. I know every bandleader had medleys of songs--of pretty songs--so people could dance slow...and hug, you know.

"Now, the Nashville sound, as far as the dance bands went, wasn't jazz. No, it was 'sweet music.' There was this category of bands called hotel bands; they played at big hotels, and their primary thing was usually to play for a noon luncheon session, then for dinner and dancing. Francis Craig was at the Hermitage for about 25 years, on into the '50s, and Beasley Smith was at the Andrew Jackson from earlier than that. And then Jimmy Gallagher, of course, was at the Andrew Jackson later.

"Really, the one truly jazz-oriented orchestra was Karl Garvin's. The Karl Garvin Band meant to play swing jazz in all its respects. There were two brothers: Karl, a trumpeter, and Clint on saxophone and clarinet. Karl wrote all the arrangements, and I probably played with him most of all. He was the most respected musician in Nashville--not only a fine horn player but just a very nice guy. The pianist 'Papa John' Gordy was another one--had a big jazz Dixieland band at the Celtic Room down on 13th and Broad, I think. In the '40s, I played with him and with Garvin, and it was college boys who would put up the money.

"Nashville, jazz-wise, was primarily black. Sure, there was an awfully fine contingent of white jazz musicians; it's just they never did get the chance to play jazz. Mostly because the hotels...they didn't want loud music. Only the clubs and the small rooms--like the Palms, Hettie Ray's on top of 9-Mile Hill--they played some jazz. The ability was there, if there'd just been a place to use it.

"But the blacks, now--Nashville was loaded with black jazz. Oh yeah...that's who we white musicians went to the clubs to see and maybe jam with after working the ballrooms earlier in the evening. We were musicians; of course we wanted to play jazz."

It doesn't take long before Broome's reminiscences assume a significance that is more than merely musical. Looking back upon his own postwar heyday when he led a band at the Skyway Club near the old Berry Field airport, Broome's memories resolve into vignettes of changing sensibilities and circumstances that must have been too obvious to perceive at the time.

"The biggest big-band celebrities in Nashville didn't stay. They moved on," he says. "And the one who deserves to be remembered most is [trumpeter] 'Doc' Cheatham. 'Doc' Cheatham probably is the best Nashville ever had to offer. He probably went further than anyone else--he damned-sure went longer. I've always felt the bicentennial commission should have mentioned him. They should have at least had him down here, but they did not mention jazz one iota in that whole durn celebration. It wasn't mentioned. And I thought, 'Here you are; you've got this famous trumpet player who grew up in Nashville'--but they didn't invite him...or anyone at all.

Back in the day Paul "P.J." Broome keeps the beat while guitarist Hank Garland jazzes on

"Then there was this group of fellas who went to Fisk. This was Jimmy Lunsford, a saxophone player named Willie Smith, and four or five others. That big Lunsford Band was sure something to see: They all wore white tuxedos. Jimmy was this very tall, stately man, and he wore full-dress white and had a baton that was, I guess, three feet long. It was really...classic.

"Among the Nashville musicians, there was a mixture always. There was never any problem between the white and the black musicians. We didn't have a black musician's union in Nashville, nor did we allow black musicians in the union until, oh, the late '40s. But Birmingham did, and the musicians from here could join the local in Birmingham--the black musicians, I mean. Then they could come in here and play for Birmingham's scale, and there was nothing in the world this local could do about it.

"I remember one day," Broome recalls with a chuckle, "when the president of the union told me, 'There's no two ways about it. We've just got to take 'em in.' Believe me, it hurt him to do it too, because he was...one of those"--Broome will only hint at the thought of it.

"I'm pretty sure I can tell you when we broke the color line in Nashville. It was at the Woodmont Country Club, oh, back in the early '50s, I guess. They once called me for a job; and, well, Nashville at that time didn't have many piano players. So if you got an offer for a job, before you took it, you found out if you could find a piano player.

"There was this piano player in town, Brenton Banks--fantastic. He was professor at Tennessee State. He was a violinist and head pianist. He went on to become the second black to join the Nashville Symphony, after W.O. Smith. Brenton was probably one of the best musicians I ever saw.

"Well I called the club manager first, and I asked, 'Do you think we'll have any trouble?' And he said, 'I don't think so; come on.' Of course, this was the Jewish country club--you know, over where the Sugartree development is now. Man, that was a good place to play. They fed you good there--oh yeah. So we go over there to play, and I'll never forget that young Red Werthan: He just hung over that piano all night long. He couldn't get enough of Brenton's playing. Now, that mix was a very successful evening."

During a recent encounter, "P.J." Broome didn't disclose the nature of his present illness; then again, he was never asked. Heart surgery some time ago perhaps yields a clue; in any event, Broome is ever candid about his prospects, and he gives no sense of leaving loose ends untangled. The self-described small-town boy from Clarksville who made Nashville his big-city home is also at home with his memories, and with the way he acquired them.

"Now, I'm not going to be around too many more months, but I can tell you this. I'm just so grateful for the way I was brought up, thank God. My folks simply didn't teach me any other way, you know? I'm just so glad, because believe me it's nice to go through life not having to hate. And I'd imagine it's a dog the other way 'round. Because it's something you've got to worry about...all the durn time."

Signs and events

Rev. Will Campbell, And Also With You: Duncan Gray and the American Dilemma, 2 p.m. Nov. 2 at Davis-Kidd Booksellers Mt. Juliet's Will Campbell, pastor presumptive to Middle Tennessee, will discuss and inscribe his latest book, an homage to Duncan Gray Jr. Gray, who served as Episcopal Bishop for Mississippi and as chancellor at Sewanee's University of the South, stood in the vanguard of Mississippi's civil rights movement. Campbell interweaves his reverent respect for Gray's moral leadership with a poignant account of the University of Mississippi students who served as the Confederacy's University Greys. The result is a wrenching examination of loyalty's "honor unto death" in the thrall of cherished ideals.

K.C. McKinnon (a.k.a. Cathie Pelletier), Dancing at the Harvest Moon, 7 p.m. Nov. 5 at Davis-Kidd Booksellers

First, she changed her address from Maine to Middle Tennessee; then she changed her name--and her genre--to deliver the "blockbuster" modern readers seemed to be hungry for. Although Pelletier is widely admired for her literary fiction of manners and mores, alter ego "K.C." was determined to outspan Madison County's seven bridges with a "commercial love story" of more mercenary proportions. There's good reason to go dancing; McPelletier has apparently harvested a cool $1 million advance for stab-at-it No. 2, expected next spring.

Walter Durham, Volunteer Forty-Niners: Tennesseans and the California Gold Rush, 2-4 p.m. Nov. 9 at Vanderbilt's Jean & Alexander Heard Library

Gentleman-historian Durham illuminates one of the state's most shadowy chapters at a reception and gallery talk in the Library's Special Collections Gallery. Durham's trademark supple prose belies an exhaustive scholarship that defines Tennesseans' sociopolitical midwifery during the birth of California statehood. The reception is free, but reservations are requested via phone at 322-2807.

Horning In

Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life, by Laurence Bergreen (Broadway Books, 564 pp, $30) "This is the first biography I have written," Laurence Bergreen remarks, "in which my opinion of my subject kept improving as I worked." Bergreen's affection for Louis Armstrong never wavers, but it doesn't prevent him from painting a warts-and-all portrait of a legendary musician.

In his recent biography of Ella Fitzgerald, Stuart Nicholson quoted Cocteau: "Legends are lies that become history in the end." This quip applies equally well to the life of Louis Armstrong. It was commonly thought, for instance, that he was born on July 4, 1900--a myth that Armstrong himself apparently believed all his life. Only after his death did a scholar find a birth certificate proving Louis entered this world on Aug. 4, 1901.

It is ironic that Armstrong celebrated his birthday on the most hypocritical of American holidays. He did not live in a land of the free. He was a child of Jim Crow, a grandchild of slavery, born into the lowest stratum of New Orleans society. He was in his 50s by the time the Brown ruling overturned institutionalized segregation. According to Bergreen, this timing is part of the triumph of jazz in general and of Louis Armstrong in particular. He demonstrates how Armstrong helped the new music chip away at racial barriers long before legislation could make a difference.

Bergreen opens his biography with a portrait of New Orleans at the turn of the century. By the time the infant Louis arrives, we foresee that the world will not welcome him and will offer him nothing. His father has abandoned the family, and his mother is sometimes forced to turn to prostitution to support her children. We imagine how such a life must turn out. But we are too pessimistic. In that most musical of American cities, Louis Armstrong was simply drawn to the music.

How do artists discover their own genius? Louis Armstrong maintained that he first learned to play music from the same source that taught him that not all whites were vicious racists--a family of immigrant Lithuanian Jews who practically adopted him. As a child, while delivering coal for a nickel a bucket, Louis would peer through the cracks in the walls of such rowdy Storyville dives as the Funky Butt. Sometimes he'd linger in the coal cellars of whorehouses, listening to the magnificent piano-playing in the parlors above. He maintained that this was where jazz began, with street bands and whorehouse pianists, many of whom were pimps first and piano players second.

Bergreen analyzes the gradual development of Armstrong's uneasy role as liaison between white and black cultures. Armstrong liked to say, "You see that horn? That horn ain't prejudiced. A note's a note in any language." Yet frequently the aging legend drew fire from his own camp. Bergreen shows how Armstrong behaved when faced with the arrival of bebop. With Darwinian adaptability, the trumpeter had turned himself into a swing-band leader, but he could not metamorphose into a bebop improviser like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Meanwhile, rising beboppers denounced Armstrong's smiling stage persona; some even called him an Uncle Tom. As Miles Davis himself said, the new generation could afford to scorn the antics of their seniors because "they had already opened up a whole lot of doors for people like me to go through." Saddened and frustrated, Armstrong lashed out at bebop as an abomination.

Noble failure may be the stuff of tragedy, but success inspires. Bergreen follows Louis Armstrong from triumph to triumph, from his early years with "King" Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, to leading the Hot Five and other groups, to his work in films. But Bergreen omits one famous tribute: the way Ralph Ellison wrote of Armstrong in the opening chapter of Invisible Man. Ellison's narrator listens to "What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue?" and thinks, "Perhaps I like Louis Armstrong because he's made poetry out of being invisible." Armstrong made his poetry so well that at an early age he ceased to be invisible, and he helped many others to follow him into visibility. His was indeed an extravagant life.--Michael Sims

The dog-eared page

"The battered Toyota Landcruiser bucketed over the uneven, churned-up surface of the track, sending flobs and globs of liquidised mud high in the air. This sludge rained down on the bodies of the six chimps who were huddling together in the vehicle, necessitating ongoing and exhaustive grooming activities. Simon Dykes, once an artist, then a mental patient and now a chimp with a most unusual quest, was wedged in between the sound recordist, Janet Higson, and Bob the gofer."--Will Self, from Great Apes (Grove Press, 1997)

"But water is water and it flows/Under the image on the water the water coils and goes/And its own beginning and its end only the water knows."--Robert Penn Warren, from "The Ballad of Billie Potts," New and Selected Poems 1923-1985 (Random House, 1985)

"The Kentuckians were the first half-horse, half-alligator Americans, nature's premature attempt to create Texans. They viewed their fellow countrymen and the foreigners across the river with equally contemptuous disregard."--Bernard DeVoto, from The Course of Empire (Houghton Mifflin Co., 1952)

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