Louis Armstrong, Bach's River Boat, Robert Bateman, Kevin Patterson - Captains CourageousSunday, February 10, 2008
When I was 21, and in Mexico City I thought I was young and avant-garde. So I had a black girlfriend from from Chicago (Jewish,too) called Benjamin ("Call me Benjie"). She gave me a subscription to Downbeat and two Angel records. The records were J.S.Bach Suites for Cello performed by Pablo Casals.
In Vancouver in the 70s the records were never released as tapes. When CDs came around I eschewed the whole idea of having to scrap my records and tapes for them. But when I noticed that Angel (now EMI) re-released the Bach Suites as two CDs I promptly purchased them and waited a few years before I broke down to buy a CD player.
I never much appreciated Louis Armstrong. I grew up in the 50s and 60s and I thought Miles Davis was cool and Dizzie Gillespie (because of his attraction to Latin music) bearable. I could not appreciate Armstrong's loud trumpet. I preferred Davis's muted horn close to a microphone or Art Farmer's sweet and gentle approach. In 1970 when Rosemary and lived in a little apartment on Calle Estrasburgo in Mexico City's Zona Rosa I ran into Louis Armstrong on the street. The black man, who was to die the next year, was casually walking like a tourist and enjoying the sights. I was much too shy to talk to him.
Six or 7 years ago my eldest daughter gave me the Verve CD recording of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. It is the only Armstrong record I own and I have never played it much. In the mid 50s I bought at a service station a special jazz recording issued by Texaco in the US (I was in Austin) for $1.99. I remember distinctly that my favourite cut was Louis Armstrong (and trombonist J.C. Higginbotham) playing St. Louis Blues with a tango rythm. The record disappeared from my collection many years ago.
Last Wednesday Rosemary and I were enamoured and fascinated with the Vancouver East Cultural Centre's production of Hans Böggild and Doug Innis's The Satchmo Suite. It was so good that I brought Rebecca to see it Saturday night.
But I had to prepare Rebecca for it. On our way to a birthday party yesterday morning I played the Bach Suite No 1 in the car. Returning from the party I played my daughter Ale's CD of Louis Armstrong with Ella Fitzgerald.
The play is about a stuffed shirt black musician (Hubert Clements played by Andrew Moodie) who has a block for playing the suite. He must play it at a performance with a large orchestra and if he is unable to play it right he will lose his cello chair in the orchestra. Louis Armstrong's (Jeremiah Sparks) ghost walks through Clement's hotel bathroom mirror to rescue him.
There is a moment in the play where I laughed (there are many other moments to laugh) Hubert tells Louis, "Bach would have never played like that as he was never on a riverboat steamer." Armstrong replies, "Of course, they had not been invented yet." This brought to mind a slide in my files featuring a man whose name I never recorded holding a model steam boat in Kitsilano Beach.
Returning from the performance we had more boats in our agenda. Rebecca and I watched the 1937 film Captains Courageous based on a story by Rudyard Kipling. I had not seen this film since I had seen it with my father as a child. It featured Freddie Bartholomew, Spencer Tracy, Lionel Barrymore, Melvin Douglas, Mickey Rooney and a terrific and young Jack Carradine.
Unlike the film Rebecca and I watched the other day, A High Wind In Jamaica where children tame a crew of pirates in Captains Courageous, the crew of a Grand Banks fishing schooner turn the unlikeable Freddie Bartholomew into a man with skills. When Spencer Tracy is about to willingly drown (to save the ship) he tells Bartholomew:
Now listen to me, leetle feesh. I go now...We had good times together, eh, leetle feesh? We laugh. We sing. So you smile...Manuel - he be watching you. You be best fisherman ever lived.
I think that Rebecca (by then it was one in the morning) was shedding some tears and I realized we had had a wonderful day. Rebecca had had pleasant chats with actors Jeremiah Sparks, Andre Moodie and cellist Colin Matthews ("It is important Rebecca that you learn to read music.")after that night's performance.
I suddenly thought of men with boats. I photographed author and doctor Kevin Patterson (Journey At Sea) and Robert Bateman with boats. But I was always nervous about getting seasick. I always had Dramamine in my pocket.
Perhaps men with boats were ancillary to my growing up. Will Rebecca have a more intimate relationship with boats? Or was Louis Armstrong and the We're Here schooner enough? And exactly what kind of music would Bach have composed on a river steamboat?