The Babe


At Italian fiestas a concert band would be playing from a gaudy makeshift bandstand, in an open place such as the Jenner Schoolyard. A typical Chicago fiesta was announced in the newspaper Italia of June 25, 1926:

"During the coming two days, the Cimmina Society, one of the strongest organizations of the North Side will commemorate the Crucifixion at St. Philip's Church. The varied program will be attracting a large crowd. An Italian Archbishop, here for the Eucharistic Congress, will celebrate a solemn Mass at the Church. Fireworks of the latest type will be exploded. There will be a flight of angels. An impressive procession will follow the customary route through the Italian neighborhood. Musical functions will be carried out by the renowned De Grazia Concert Band, with excellent programs..."

Sometime before this occasion, the Dad got the notion that the Babe should conduct the Band in a concert march, "The Little English Girl," and the Babe, who could be relied upon to accept any foolhardy task, was presented with a baton, a phonograph record of the March, produced in Italy, and the Conductor's Score of music.

He had been studying music for two years. One year had gone into Solfeggio, so that he could chant and clap his hands in the classical style to fairly complicated music scores at first sight. Brother Bus had undergone the same. Half an hour a day had produced roughly similar effects in both of them. It was demanding and tedious work; they couldn't speak Italian, "the Language of Music," but they could rattle off pages of drill in the strange tuneless rhythmical Italian jargon of music.

"Do-o, mi-i, re-mi-re-mi-la-la; Do-o, mi-i, do-o-o." The phrase is in 4/4 time, four bars, with the beats by the voice, and a voiceless beat at the end (a rest).

The Dad taught them, and it was true that he had a fine resonant baritone voice and a rare talent for identifying any note heard or played by its pitch. Although he could play the clarinet and saxophone beautifully in perfect pitch and full richness of tone, unsurpassed by classical standards, and when Turandot was presented at the Opera House, he would be hired to play its unique solitary saxophone solo from behind a wing of the stage, still he could not properly carry a tune; he could not sing.

The Babe liked all kinds of tones, timbres, rhythms, volumes and tempos. Noises didn't bother him. He liked to use his voice and learned to carry many tunes before he received an instrument. However, he did not much like to hear a singing voice unless it conveyed in rhythm or at least short order an intelligible message in English. But the message ought not be romantic or sad. He did not like opera: Caruso, Galli-Curci, Gigli, left him cold and impatient. He liked the march music and the ballet music of "Aida" but disliked the singing: the words seemed to get in the way of the music. Although, as I indicated, he produced a lot of different noises, he was very early conditioned to enjoy only music in the Western major and minor scales, played without wavering or quavering, or glissandos leading nowhere and, like his favored stories, with a firm and definite ending. This was by the age of five, 1925, when he first thought of himself as a complete person and in retrospect seems to have been so.

In the second year of training at Solfeggio, a heavy upright pianoforte was carried up three-and-a-half flights of stairs and edged into the parlor. Katie tried out on it the only song she could remember to play. (The Dad had suppressed her early efforts by his jeering and complaints: this she announced to whoever asked what instrument she played.) It was a waltz, "Over the Waves." Two waltzes: the other was "The Blackhawk Waltz," following cries of "Encore! Encore!"

Next the Mom and the boys tried out the mechanical player that the piano contained. They stuck perforated rolls labelled as popular and classical tunes inside the box in its front, opened another door to let down the foot pedal and pumped out vigorously one tune after another. The total system was impressive, and fun to operate for a while, but its automatism was boring. Soon the piano was turned over to Bro Bus, and the next day a curvaceously cushioned woman of a certain age appeared to commence his lessons.

The Babe got a tougher teacher, Maestro Ettore Gualano, and an instrument detestable to his macho tastes, a violin, three-quarters sized, nicely varnished, made in Italy and carrying inside a label giving phony information about its being made by Antonio Stradivarius, or was it a company name? It was capable of an infinity of squeaks, especially when he jumped positions.

Mr. Gualano was short, bushy-haired, owned an aquiline artistic face and a comic spirit. He carried a mock mouse that he let jump out of his sleeve to frighten the ladies. But when he was teaching the Babe, he became fierce and relentless, pushing the small fingers down painfully to close them on a stretched string and rapping the knuckles smartly with his own bow, switching to knocks on the head when a refusal to comprehend, rather than a technical deficiency, seemed to be the root of the trouble. Further, to instil the point that a violin was to be held between the chin and collar bone as by an iron vise, with the left hand left free to dart swiftly over the strings, he would slap the instrument to the left or right, or up or down, in the middle of a passage, to determine how firm was the clutch, invariably striking it hard enough to prove that it was not, and with the effect of administering an upper-cut to the jaw.

The squeaking violin had only this advantage, that, while practicing over his music book which was held on the piano, the Babe could sidle over to a window and cast an envious eye upon the open spaces and any street-play progressing. Even so, within a year, he was rendering passably Beethoven's "Minuet in G", for if he paused for more than several bars, he would hear his Mother's suspicious voice from the other room calling, "Are you practicing like you should?" A determination that he was not would result in compulsory over-time practice. Nor was there much hope, indeed there was added risk, in appealing to the higher court. Summer vacation would begin by extending practice to a full hour.

Now it was time to conduct the Savoy Concert Band, and his Father announced to the crowd, as he had earlier informed the musicians, that this young man, Alfred Joseph De Grazia, Jr., would conduct the composition entitled "The Little English Girl." The Babe stepped forward out of the front rank, climbed the bandstand, accepted the baton from his Father, looked out at the musicians, who, to a man, regarded him seriously and expectantly, and decisively brought down the baton.

Surprisingly, ecstatically, the Band burst forth symphonically; it lifted him up on the crest of a profound booming friendly wave. He called up the clarinets on the left, brought in the trumpets from the right, signaled the drums when to crash from the rear. It was passionate and amazing. His lips tightened as if he were swimming full speed and although at first he could hardly keep from bending backwards, now he leaned forward, looking keenly and gratefully into the eyes of the musicians, not their fingers or the bells of their horns. Therein he found a message of cooperation and encouragement.

Sooner than he thought possible, he shivered his baton for the final chord. He stood for a moment. The crowd applauded. So did some of the musicians. He let his Father take the baton, he stepped down, and he dropped into the shadow of the stands, content to be forgotten. He had done very well, he was told, but he was already rather indifferent to the whole affair. He was not inspired to become a conductor, not even to be a musician. He did not ask for another chance to direct. That was it.

Next came the trumpet and it was to be his boon companion for a long time. It began simply with this, that in 1932, quite out of tune with his fiddle, although it had grown to full size, he approached the Dad to say that he would like to play the trumpet as a second instrument, useful at schools that had bands for marching and concerts.

Finding an instrument was no problem for the Dad. A silver cornet made its appearance in a few days, and the Dad, who knew the fundamentals of all western instruments, showed him how to suck in his cheeks, breathe from the diaphragm, compress his lips into a rubber band, and pronounce the letter "t" while punching out a gust of air. All kinds of blats issued forth, which turned into the open notes C-G-C-G-C-E, once the air flow and lips came under control. Holding his fingers nicely vertical to the three pistons to keep the valves from sticking, he pressed the first one, getting various sounds, then the second, then the third, then all the combinations, all of which issued tones of some clarity except three fingers down and low that mustered murky muttering.

Since he could read music effortlessly, the mastery of the cornet a pistons became mainly a technical problem, a cruel infliction on everyone within hearing for a month or so, which was suffered because of the importance of the Birth of a Musician and because they were intimidated: the cornet is imperial; full Authority must be mobilized to halt its imperative blast.

Before this could happen, the Babe was past his elementary lessons and moving with sonorous tone into the large volume of exercises in the style of the Italian masters. Now it was he who pressed the issue, one hour a day of hard practice, day in and day out, his lips blubbery and swollen at the end of a session. No teacher, nor did he seem to require one.

Soon his fingers worked too fast for the sticky valves of his old cornet. The Dad recognized a serious interest and, with little prompting, brought home one day a golden trumpet, snuggled in the purple plush of its hard leather case, a Holden by make, sold to the Dad by a musician who was quitting the game. Never, not if he lived to be a hundred, should the Babe say that he needed a superior instrument.

On it he quickly played much better. He bought Edwin Frankl Goldman's book of massive exercises. He blew the chromatic scale from low F-Sharp to high C and back in five seconds and one breath. He penetrated the great mystery of sound to discover that no two tones were ever alike in pitch, timbre, duration, or volume, just as no two words are ever spoken with the same breath and meaning, or as Heraclitus said about the universe, it was that you could never step into the same brook twice.

It was now, too, that he discovered the marvel of a simple, single tone, that to strike a note and maintain its pitch exactly, full, round, pure and open for thirty seconds was a difficult achievement, rare and fine, though seemingly easy to the casual listener, like Giotto's stepping forward to draw sweepingly a perfect circle for the Pope who asked him for proof of his skill. Listening to his own large and unwavering tone, to himself, set up a coherence of ear, instrument and brain, a oneness, yet a separately existing sound and its auditor, a schizotypical experience.

A year later, upon entering Lake View High School, he signed up for Band, was given a try-out by Captain Walz, the Bandmaster, and placed in the second chair among a dozen trumpets. The next year he occupied the First Chair. He received a soldier's uniform, too, for the Band marched and played along with the R.O.T.C. He had reached the formidable ranks of the grown men who had marched in Seward Park before his admiring infant eyes.

The High School Bands of Chicago were to render in competition Tchaikovsky's "Overture to 1812" that year, a piece to ennoble the trumpet above all instruments, with its staccato calls and complicated arpeggios. The Lake View Band won a minor prize. Then an announcement went out about instrumental competitions for students of the City and he entered. Now he felt that he must be coached, and appealed to his Father, who arranged for several sessions with the great Maestro Arrigone, who received young Alfred at his home. He was polite and serious.

After a few minutes of warm-up he pointed out a fault that the boy had himself recognized but had been trying to ignore: his teeth were not correctly emplaced for an easy natural embouchere. The upper teeth protruded excessively beyond the lower, in consequence of which he was positioning the hard metal mouthpiece to the right center of his mouth and bringing a continuous hard pressure to bear upon the red of the lip, without either the support ordinarily provided by the tougher flesh and muscle above the lip, or by the lower lip and teeth. The result was twofold: the upper lip tired easier and was assuming the function of a base for the pressure of the mouthpiece as well as supplying the flexible source of vibration from tightening and loosening the lips.

No amount of discipline and development, declared the Maestro, would overcome the problem. He recommended at best the repositioning of the mouthpiece so that some pressure base could be found above the lip, and produced a special mouthpiece he had designed with a concavity molded into the brass to let the bottom of the cup extend inward farther toward the lower gum. More drastically, he advised taking up the flute or oboe.

But meanwhile there was the contest to confront and he selected for the Babe an unusually difficult composition, with small display of tonal quality and interpretative opportunity, but a liberal display of triple-tonguing and technical features that stressed the limited flexibility in jumping steep intervals that was the boy's main problem, the unadjustable embouchere.

With the experimental embouchere, the concave mouthpiece, the inappropriate selection, the awareness of a natural inferiority, and the first performance of a solo, the Babe did not shine. He won no distinction at all. He appreciated that Arrigone was correct, and that he would never be a great trumpeter. Still, for this reason and others, he knew too that he would not follow music as a career. After all, he could have turned to another instrument, or to composing or conducting. He enjoyed his horn; he was well-equipped to get much out of it for the requirements of ensembles and orchestras, with only some extraordinary effort, a quality that he found ordinary, here as in other affairs. So he stuck to the trumpet.

Besides, sometime before the ill-fated contest, he had received the Revelation of Jazz! The Dad had brought it on innocently when he dragooned the brothers into attending a concert he was directing at the Municipal Pier. The long concrete platform extended far out into the Lake; there ships exchanged freight; concert bands played; there was a small park; and excursion steamers arrived and departed for Lincoln and Jackson Parks.

The boys helped set out the music for the musicians and listened as the concert got under way. Then Bro Bus said to the Babe, "Come on, let's listen to some jazz." Jazz was not new to the Babe; he had heard it on the radio, seen it performed in the movies, and run their few records of it on the Victrola. But he had never seen jazz played! Bro Bus led the way through the cavernous warehouse hall to where the excursion steamers docked, and there was heard the sound of music.

"That's Real Jazz," said Bus. Three men were playing on a boat destined for Jackson Park while it was soliciting and embarking passengers. They wore rumpled suits, they were black, they were casual. One played piano; a second played drums; the third, trumpet. The trumpet held his instrument down at an improper angle; his fingers were wrongly placed flat upon the keys; he slouched upon his chair. What they played was blues and dixieland. They improvised freely, they passed the lead back and forth. Their rhythms were wildly yet perfectly, impeccably, syncopated. The Babe's heart jumped and his ears tingled.

"They play without music," the Bus pointed out. So they did. They had memorized it. No. "They can't read music," the Bus added solemnly. The Babe was astonished. "They can't read music?" He stared at them as if they were blind. No solfeggio! No satchels of music. Only three guys, and their wonderful free sounds. Dirty sounds, yeah, but true to themselves and conveying all kinds of feeling and meaning, especially a beastly excitement. The trumpet rasped, howled, and sobbed; it ranged every which way, all open, no mute. It ended in ecstasy and crashing cymbals. "They must be from New Orleans," the Bus commented wisely. "I guess so, gee."

The steamer shoved off and the boys went back to see how the concert was going. The Dad could not play jazz with the true jazz feeling; his musicians couldn't either. After a while, the boys felt embarrassed to hear them try. They were "straight" and "corny." It was heavy and awkward like a limping buffalo. The Babe began to emulate his brother and played more jazz.

Bro Bus unenthusiastically played the piano while he blew "Tiger Rag," "Saint Louis Blues," "Mexicali Rose," and whatever else could be squeezed into a few minutes every couple of days. In a corner of the school band-room, a clarinet, a snare drum, a tuba, anybody around, could pitch in on some popular tune with his trumpet before or after rehearsal. It was possible to play along with a "hot jazz" record, too. (The useful "Music-minus-one" disks, with a complete band and the trumpet missing but allowed for, were some years in the future.)

How did he ever get started in jazz? In a way like one got started with baseball, with the great difference that perhaps thirty boys played baseball for everyone that played a jazz instrument. He practiced alone. He listened to jazz on the radio and phonograph. Kids did not have large rooms with pianos that would admit or permit a drum traps, bass horn, and a hell of a racket. Pianos were kept well covered in plush parlors, not in basements. Church basements had pianos but banned jazz. The best place to rehearse would be off-hours in a saloon, but saloons were unlawful before 1934 and then were off-bounds to adolescents. One can begin to understand why jazz especially emerged from the stoops and sidewalks of slum neighborhoods and in bordellos. Why it burst out of funeral processions and proper weddings. The Babe had as hard a time getting together with a jazz combo as in breaking through the barriers to sexual experience.

Along with the revolutionary sensual flush of syncopated dirty sounds occurred a concern that was both mundane and metaphysical: "Can a fellow play classical and jazz both well?" He began to watch classical and jazz musicians to see whether there were some fundamental differences of character and outlook, of diet, of health, family, sexual conduct.

He had heard anti-jazz propaganda all his life: "Jazz was mere noise; it was sloppy musicianship; it was bad music, too; it was the last resort of a poor classical musician; it did not require self- discipline or much training; it was the music of the lower classes, degenerate; it was inferior, also, to 'true' folk music. Jazz was connected with 'bad company,' people who drank too much, smoked a lot, drove too fast, divorced their spouses, lived lives of sin, didn't read books, left school early, were sex-crazy and liable to catch venereal diseases, and of course, would not amount to anything in life." Most of this added up to the respectable view of the "Roaring Twenties," which Chicago appeared to represent all too well.

The atmosphere of anti-jazz by no means hung heavy over 365 Hill Street or later over 3525 Southport Avenue. Kate was raised in a jazz-prone environment, we might say. She knew all the popular songs, the fox trots, the intimate ballads, the funny galloping songs, and then all the downright jazz tunes like "St. Louis Blues" and "Bye- Bye, Blackbird." Dad actually knew all of these, too, but put them out of mind unless he had to play them, as at Stilson's Restaurant for a while, and at the weddings and balls that he had to take on more and more as the higher terraces of work became less and less fruitful. The Dad thought and talked jazz from a center-right point of view. He would not recommend it, played it awkwardly, giving the music a punctuality and precision that misunderstood its spirit. He believed, too, that "The Roaring Twenties" were carrying a disgusting bag of sins. Yet he did not prohibit jazz being played around him, which is not to say that it was easy to take off in his presence.

Jazz did not enhance the bonds of family. It was not a family affair; old and young could not feel alike playing the blues, ragtime and dixieland together, as they might when playing the ensemble music of Haydn and Mozart or even the Quartet from Rigoletto.

So jazz created a generation gap. Bro Bus, who converted almost totally to jazz, moved out of the Dad's psychological, musical and social orbit for several years. The Babe was still into band music and the classical orchestra, and though he liked jazz, he could not find a large place for it in his life. Besides which, he had other fish to fry.