STORY: THE FORGOTTEN JAZZ SCENE

A series of miscellaneous articles on the Sixties in general and Ann Arbor, Michigan in particular.
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STORY: THE FORGOTTEN JAZZ SCENE

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STORY: THE FORGOTTEN JAZZ SCENE
February 19, 2014
By Michael Erlewine (Michael@Erlewine.net)

How could the repeal of prohibition in 1933 affect the onset of The Sixties in Ann Arbor? It sounds like Chaos Theory, where the flapping of a butterfly wing in Brazil affects the amount of snow that falls in Greenland. But such an effect did occur. And the sad thing is that the scene I am about to describe is hardly remembered. I keep waiting for someone to write about it, but it might have to be me! That is a scary thought, because what took place back then is pivotal to understand how Ann Arbor grew up in the late 1950s and early 1960s, so here it is:

Prohibition was repealed at 6 P.M. May 11, 1933 at the Court Tavern on 108 East Huron Street, and simultaneously at some nineteen other Ann Arbor beverage businesses that day. But there was a catch. Although Ann Arbor would no longer be a dry city, liquor by the glass could not be sold at bars, but only in private clubs like the Elks and the Town Club, so that meant that most bars were cut out of it. And here is how it affected the onset of The Sixties:

Because liquor by the glass (a cash cow) was illegal, it meant that bars did not have the extra money to hire musicians and their bands. The result of this was that for a long time the jazz scene in Ann Arbor was not in the bars, but instead in private houses (usually student rentals) around town. This “liquor by the glass” law was finally repealed on November 9, 1960, but up to that point there was a special music atmosphere in Ann Arbor that only existed privately. Even after the law was repealed it took time for music to move back into the bars again.

As a high-school student interested in all things Beat, including jazz, I found my way into that private scene, albeit only as a tolerated bystander, a youngster. So here was this vibrant music scene happening in private around Ann Arbor for those who knew about it.

I can remember one large rental on the north side of the street in the first block or two of
E. William Street, just west of State Street. Hanging from the second story, out over the front steps, was an enormous flag with a photo of Thelonious Monk and (if I remember right) just the single word “Monk” or did it say “Thelonious Monk?” Then again, it may have only had Monk’s image. It was in houses like these that the forefront of jazz was taking place. Jazz players like Bob James, Ron Brooks, Bob “Turk” Pozar, Bob Detwiler, and many others played there. Small informal groups formed and improvised far into the night. Yet you couldn't find this music in where you might expect, in clubs or bars. It was hidden away in houses, and it all depended on who you knew. Not everyone found their way there or was invited.

As a high-school kid, I was allowed in, but had to keep a very low profile, sitting along the floor with my back against the walls and just taking it in. No one offered me any of

the pot they were smoking, but a friend and I used to snort the ashes left by their joints. Or maybe we would find a roach or two in the ashtray, but very rarely. That was how dedicated we were in our wish to emulate everyone there. Aside from smoking pot, there was lots of wine and always the music. When they were not improvising jazz, they were playing classical music on the stereo, and a little bit of folk. And although the atmosphere of those parties was not pure Beat, it was all serious and “down” as the beats liked it. The sunlight and nakedness of The Sixties was nowhere to be seen. "This was heavy stuff, man, so be cool."

The point of relating this story is to point out that these underground jazz sessions were just one of several indicators that pointed the way from the end of the Beat movement forward to what was to come in just a few years, the full-blown Sixties Movement. I am talking here of the late 1950s and very early 1960s. What we call The Sixties didn't start until the summer of 1965.

These houses and their jazz parties were usually held in one or two largish rooms. The jazz players would set up in a corner…. drums, a standup bass, and a horn, usually a saxophone, but sometimes a flute. And of course a piano, if one was present. There was very little vocal jazz as I remember. The drink of choice back then was wine, red wine at that, and you would usually find it out on the kitchen table in gallon jugs or bottles. We just helped ourselves or chipped in if we had any scratch.

And, as mentioned, there was pot, something that a high-school boy like myself (who was reading Kerouac) desperately wanted to get a taste of. And these parties went late into the night. Time was something we had back then, with nothing better than that particular night waiting for us the next day, so we were not in a hurry to sleep. The right- now of the late nights was just about perfect. And it was so serious. All of the dark mood of European movies, art, and literature had rubbed off on us until “down” was our form of cool. The word “cool” says it all. We were not hot, not even warm. We were cool.

And let’s not forget the poetry. Words were big with the beats, and literature and poetry were the coin of the realm. It was not all about music; it was cigarettes, coffee, and endless talking until the bennies or Dexamyl wore off. And it is not like we had any real experience in life at that point (at least not me), so it was pure speculation. We were all entrepreneurs investing in the promise of the future. And it was hard for me to be cool or "down," when the future looked so bright.

If I was on speed and also drinking wine or coffee, some sort of high nausea would take hold of me as it got toward morning. My hands would shake, but I also knew that in that state no sleep would come for a long time yet, and any attempts to rest would find me lying there wide awake, slightly in the zone, when dawn came, staring at the ceiling. Any sleep would only be a half-sleep. By that time I would be telling myself that I never wanted to take speed again, but I probably would. And I am talking about those little rolls of Benzedrine wrapped in aluminum foil… about ten or so, the size of aspirin. It was like a tiny roll of Lifesavers, only these weren’t life savers, but life burners.

So those were the two places where I felt (at the very least) the presence of the Beat muse, in those all-night house parties in Ann Arbor and sitting in the Michigan Union Grill (MUG) by day. For Ann Arbor, that was it. And although the beat stereotype image might be of the solitary thinker, the beats (or wannabes) I knew were remarkably social. They seemed to like gathering together. Of course there were one-to-one talks in apartments or even single rooms, but as often as not they were about administering drugs. The rest of the time we grouped together… somewhere.

And many of the Ann Arbor Beats were just university students, although students that were conspicuous by their berets, long hair, and Navy Pea Coats. And of course the folks I hung with seemed to always be older than I was. That was because there were. I so much wanted to be older and to be part of all that.

And then there were the women. I was too young to really deserve much attention from the Beat women, although they were so beautiful. As I was really just a townie, I gravitated to the townie women who, like myself, hung at the edge of the student scene. And there were not many of us and we were treated a bit like a minority, which I guess we were. We townies knew each other on sight.

I remember a tall skinny blonde name Francis that I kind of hung out with. Fran was shared by a number of us, and she was more a friend than anything else. I do remember spending the night with her at this or that place, but we were just crashing together; probably nothing much happened. She was also a townie.

And places to have sex or even cuddle in Ann Arbor when you were in high school and living at home were very hard to come by, the empty room or apartment, the tiny side room off from where others were partying, the back seat of a car, the summer grass – anywhere possible. It was a constant problem. I can remember my grandmother who lived at the corner of East University and Hill Street had a little basement room that she would rent out to students. Sometimes it would be empty and I would sneak in with my current girlfriend (if I had one), file down the basement steps and past the old furnace and slip into that tiny room. What a godsend it was to be out of the elements and alone with someone you wanted to make love with. Of course grandma, good Catholic woman that she was, would have hated the goings on there, or would she? Yeah, she would.

Back in those times the world was vast, but the places we met were few. This was before coffee houses and there were no dance clubs. There were places like Drake's Sandwich Shop at 709 N. University, but these were preppy student tea houses, where you sipped a soda or had a sandwich from which the crust had been cut off. They did have booths with tall sides, so private conversations could happen there, but none of the folks I knew ever went there.

Really it was only the Michigan Union Grill and live music at private houses on the weekends back in the late 1950s and early 1960s where we hung out.
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