Monday, March 7, 2011

Salty and Incorruptible

I remember when I did a project on George Gershwin in sixth grade. The requirements were to pick someone or something that made an impact on history—everything was pretty broad and vague (like most middle school projects), but I managed to center in on one person I thought made a significant change in path in the string of moments and eras before us. After some what I thought was strenuous research, I compiled the basic George facts and then some. I found out that he was a roller-skating maven, that he worked as a song-plugger and piano-roll changer, and that until his teens he was embarrassed to admit his magnetic attraction to music. Like all lower-school projects, I felt like George and I were best friends. I could smirk as I read about him soon after that project, with the thought “Oh, George,” going through my head, remembering the personal details I knew about him that seemed secret to me. I soon realized that the 10 page paper I wrote on him was no erudite feat and I certainly couldn’t be a Gershwin scholar, but I still felt an underlying connection with him, the way you would with a character from a beloved childhood book. This small emotional spot for George surfaces whenever I listen to music from the 20s and 30s.

The brothers
                I spent a lot of today carrying around a 8ish pound Crosley record player in my severely weak arms.  My friend generously gave it to me along with a Creedence Clearwater Revival vinyl ready to go inside. I felt incredibly naïve and young, having to have a lesson on how to use it, but quickly after I couldn’t wait to get home and plop down on my bed for what my friend calls a “music coma.” I soon discovered that we have a miniscule but existent pile of 45s and one record, an album of “Pick-A-Rib Jazz” (Ben Pollack and his Pick-A-Rib boys). This album cover is decorated with blocks of yellow and grey and a large, saloon-font title and a somewhat art deco saxophone. On the reverse side, the yellowing, text-filled cardboard screams "20s." My favorite sentences from the description are:

“Muggsy Spanier’s driving trumpet and Bob Laine’s rough-house piano round of the picture that the name ‘Pick-A-Rib’ suggests, for ‘ribs’ are the musicians’ favorite dish and this music is musicians’ music. The happy, hell-for-leather ensemble rock simple means that the boys are enjoying themselves.”

“Salty and incorruptible on the drums, Pollack’s chief virtue is a single-minded devotion to a steady, driving rhythm.”

                Cradled in the cover, the album felt incredibly powerful in my hands, like a small, disc-shaped version of the monolith. I could feel it radiating music before I even placed it on the spindle.  Unlike CDs where all I hear is a meek and electronic “rurrr” for a few seconds after unceremoniously pushing them into my computer, this had real sound, it crackled like a fire from the woven speakers and made me feel like I was enveloped in the spirit of the buttery, gooey, warm thing that is swing. Even more powerful was the sound and feeling of placing the needle on the edge of the record. It felt like I was making the music happen; the fuzziness from this little metal pick vibrated through and traveled its way around my whole skeleton as the first trill from the piano and brush strokes of the drums began. I suppose this is all very typical post-millennium talk, but I couldn’t help the feeling of being pushed back to an effervescent time.


Ben and the P-A-R Bs

                The record consists of eight songs, starting with “Boogie Woogie,” a lively and presto whirlwind of 32nd (or faster) note runs from the saxophone and piano backed up by colorful chords from brass in the background. Pollack’s percussion is very metallic and woolly. The third song on the album is “Cuddle Up A Little Closer, Lovey Mine.” This consists of a singing clarinet that couldn’t get closer to vocals; it has vibrato and frequent chuckles. Peggy Mann provides the vocals, and the relaxed, smooth tone of her voice vibrates among the instruments like a spreading puddle of water (she also sings the next song, “You Made Me Love You,” with sassy tones and dips).
                On side two, the song “My Wild Irish Rose” is a jigsaw-puzzle of clarinet, trumpet, piano, percussion, and accompanying brass. The drum solos by Pollack include snare and a dry slap that sounds almost Afro-Cuban. “The Snake Charmer” has a similar tempo but starts with the same A-C drum rolls and has the clarinet outline harmonic, Egyptian-sounding minor scales; it allows for a few more of those jazzy pauses.
                The experience of sitting on the floor of my room with my cherry wood Crosley was more about the process than the product. It allowed me to dig through my brain to my sixth grade self, my best-friend-days with George Gershwin. I will always carry a personal connection with him, even if I know just as much about him as the next guy. And as Glass’s “Metamorphasis” plays in the next room over, I know that those burgundy-colored, licorice-tasting, spicy-smelling chords wouldn’t be possible without Pollack, those rib loving boys, or Gershwin. Just now, the record fuzzed up and faded to a stop, clearing up the smokiness in my room, and I remember I’m a 21st century kid with her hands on a laptop keyboard. But with my Samsāra beliefs, I know that there was a time when my real, tangible elbow could have bumped into George. I can feel it. 

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