Who was your childhood hero? Page 1

April 5th, 2009

Childhood Heroes —  We all had them

Excerpted from exclusive Jerry Jazz Musician interviews, our guests talk of theirs.

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Chris Albertson

David Amram

Whitney Balliett

Tim Brooks

Thomas Brothers

John Callahan

Robert Cohen

David Colley

David Evanier

Will Friedwald

Gary Giddins

Peter Guralnick

Chuck Haddix

Lawrence Jackson

Warren Leight

Tim Madigan

Jeffrey Magee

David Maraniss

David Margolick

Karl Marlantes

Albert Murray

Cherie Nutting

Robert O’Meally

Phil Pastras

Barry Lee Pearson

Hazel Rowley

Nick Salvatore

Keith Shadwick

Alyn Shipton

Terry Teachout

Thomas Webber

Laura Wexler

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Heroes
Index

Heroes Page
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New Yorker critic

Whitney
Balliett

JJM Who was your boyhood hero?

WB I don’t know if I had any heroes as a boy. Until I got into jazz and began to understand it and listen to it in the flesh and in records, that is where I found my first group of heroes. There were certain poets that liked as a teenager though, Carl Sandburg and Steven Vincent Benet and people like that… The real non-musical heroes came along later: Edmund Wilson, Joe Liebling, James Goulds Cozzens, J.D. Salinger, V.S. Pritchett.

JJM Who were your jazz heroes?

WB Sid Catlett, Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Red Allen, Dicky Wells, Count Basie, Buck Clayton, Vic Dickenson, Don Byas, Emmett Berry, Jo Jones, Bobby Hackett, Jack Teagarden, Teddy Wilson, Erroll Garner, Duke Ellington, Jimmy Blanton, Oscar Pettiford, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navarro, Michael Moore, Gene Bertoncini, Bill Charlap, Joe Wilder, Jimmy Knepper, Jimmy Rowles, Zoot Sims, and on and on and on…

 

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JJM Who was your childhood hero?

AM I have written about that. In the novel Train Whistle Guitar, there were various people I wrote about. There was a piano player, a guitar player who seemed like a legend to me, and there was the great Satchel Paige, who lived on the outskirts of Mobile. Baseball was a big thing there, and he was the greatest baseball player in the world. In school, in the third grade, I started studying geography, and was encouraged by the teacher to look upon school as a way to open up my world. That was the start of me becoming what I have become.

JJM Is there a book that you read as a child that was particularly influential in your life that made you want to become a writer?

AM I didn’t realize I wanted to become a writer until I was in college. I was an all-around student, interested in drama and very much into athletics and language. I was good in Latin and French, also. By the time I was in high school they started grooming me for college. We didn’t have any money or anything, but the whole thing about that school was to find the talented kids and encourage them to provide leadership and become outstanding citizens. At this time, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, people of this level, were making their first national splashes. I was trying to learn to come to terms with all of that and how I fit into being an American.

Author, critic

Albert Murray

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Writer

Robert O’Meally

JJM Who was your childhood hero?

ROM I grew up in the 60’s, so I was dancing to the Motown stuff, and James Brown. I liked Maceo Parker in Brown’s band, the way he could dance with the alto saxophone. My real hero was Johnny Hodges, Duke Ellington’s famous alto soloist. When I was in the band, I was probably the only teenager within 1000 miles trying to make his horn sound like Johnny Hodges. I used to go hear the Ellington band, and when they came to town, to me, it was Johnny Hodges coming to town. It took me quite a while to begin to listen beyond the solo slot and realize Ellington had a pretty good band going too!

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JJM Who was your boyhood hero?

GG Well, (Louis) Armstrong, from the time I was 15. Aldous Huxley is the other boyhood hero I have never let go of. I often think about writing a book about him. For years I went about collecting first editions of fifty some volumes of his. Dwight Macdonald had a huge influence on me as a critic when I was very young. Bach and his “B Minor Mass” really changed my life in a way, and it was in fact because I knew the “B Minor Mass” that I think Armstrong had the impact that he did on me, because that was the first music I had heard since the “B Minor Mass” that moved me in quite that way, that gave me that same kind of emotional excitement. It’s funny, it’s all kind of circular, because I got to Bach through Huxley. I had read “Point Counter Point,” and in the third chapter there is a description of the flute and strings “Suite in B Minor,” so I ran out to buy that and that’s what started me on Bach. I loved Gershwin, and got into “Rhapsody in Blue.” I heard some jazz live, bought Armstrong’s 1928 recordings and that was really the central religious experience of my life. Nathaniel Hawthorne was big for me, “The House of the Seven Gables,” which was the book that I think first made me want to be a writer. All my heroes were either literary or musical.

 

Bing Crosby biographer

Gary Giddins

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Tony Award playwright

Warren Leight

JJM Who was your childhood hero?

WL Mickey Mantle. Although I also liked Groucho Marx, and Charlie Parker. Then Thurber and Runyon.

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JJM Who was your childhood hero?

CN Davy Crockett!

JJM Davy Crockett? Why? Was it because you shared his adventurous spirit?

CN Yes. I wanted to be Davy Crockett. My grandfather on my mother’s side was another hero of mine. He was a pilot and a political writer and he had an adventurous spirit as well.

 

Paul Bowles biographer

Cherie Nutting

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Ralph Ellison’s

literary executor

John Callahan

JJM Who was your childhood hero?

JC  I loved Whitey Ford. I was a left-hander and wanted to be a pitcher and identified with Ford. Also, there was a black athlete named Levi Jackson who was the first black captain of the Yale team. My father took me to games. Levi Jackson broke my heart twice in one year, when I was about seven years old. It must have been 1948 or ’49. There was a football game that year, and Holy Cross was ahead 13 – 7. They had the ball on the Yale one yard line in the fourth quarter, but they couldn’t get the ball in. Jackson played both ways, offense and defense, and made the tackle to stop Holy Cross from scoring. They subsequently got the ball, and Jackson carried the ball for the winning touchdown. Later that year, during the basketball season, which was Bob Cousy’s great year, Holy Cross was ranked #1 in the country. We went to the game against Yale. Holy Cross started out in control of the game, going ahead something like 20 – 12. Yale called a time out and put Levi Jackson in the game. He immediately made a couple of quick baskets, even stole the ball from Cousy once, and Yale upset Holy Cross. I realized Jackson was very special, and I looked up to him after that.

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JJM Who was your childhood hero?

PP Probably the Brooklyn Dodgers. Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider and those guys. They were big heroes of mine, and when the Dodgers left to go to LA, they broke my heart.

JJM Since you live in LA now, are you a Dodger fan now?

PP Well, sort of. I am still a big baseball fan, but I think that experience cured me of being overly loyal to any one team. As far as music is concerned, my first heroes were Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.

Jelly Roll Morton biographer Phil Pastras

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The Burning writer

Tim Madigan

JJMWho was your hero when you were a child?

TM I have never been asked that question. It would have been a sports figure, probably someone who played for the Minnesota Twins during the Killebrew, Oliva and Carew era. Probably Harmon Killebrew. I was pretty much a sports fanatic, and still am. I wanted to be a big league baseball player. I always was a fairly avid reader as a kid, too, and my favorite books were the Sherlock Holmes mysteries by Conan Doyle.

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JJM Who was your childhood hero?

HR Pippi Longstocking. I’m quite serious. Ok, she’s a fictional character, but the effect she had on me was real. The Pippi books make exhilarating reading for young girls. You know that whatever happens to her, Pippi will always come out on top.

Pippi is 9 and lives with her monkey and horse in an old house with an overgrown garden. Her mother died. Her father’s a sea captain, who comes back every so often and gives her another trunk full of gold coins. Pippi is carrot-haired and freckle-nosed; she wears one brown stocking and one black stocking and huge men’s shoes. (She likes to be able to wriggle her toes.) She’s so strong she can lift her horse, so you can imagine how she deals with interfering police officers, or boys who bully people. She goes to school one day, but she finds all that “pluttifikation” stuff quite absurd, and never goes back. Congenitally incapable of submitting to authority, she’s funloving, warm, heroically generous, and brave.

I’ve given Pippi books to dozens of little girls. I don’t really know what the impact of those books were on me, of course, but I’ve always admired people who do not conform to the more absurd social pressures, people who are not bowed by overreaching institutional authority, people who speak out for what they believe, people who stand up to bullies.

Richard Wright biographer

Hazel Rowley

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Bill Evans biographer

Keith Shadwick

JJM Who was your hero?

KS  Not sure what “boyhood” entails. The first jazz record that really excited me was an EP of the Benny Goodman Quartet ‘live’ from the 1930s – my father bought that for me when I was about 8 years old and I loved their frantic workouts on ‘I Got Rhythm’ and ‘I’m A Ding Dong Daddy’. In my early teens I discovered John Coltrane. As for many others, it was a life-changing moment.

 

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JJM Who were your childhood heroes?

DA  One of my first heroes was Leopold Stokowski, the conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra. In 1937, when I was six years old, I was taken to hear them, and I fell in love with that whole group of musicians and all the music I heard, including the performance of Peter and the Wolf. A few years later, my Uncle David took me to the Earle Theatre to hear Duke Ellington. I learned from my uncle that jazz, like symphony music, was built to last. So, I was introduced to the idea of making music by these two men, who were among my early heroes. I also admired the first oboist in the Philadelphia Orchestra, Marcel Tabiteau. In 1976, I wrote a piece in his memory for the Philadelphia Orchestra, Trail of Beauty, based on American Indian music. I just wrote a new piece for the flutist James Galway, Giants of the Night Flute Concerto, which was written in memory of Charlie Parker, Jack Kerouac and Dizzy Gillespie. What I have tried to do during the course of my lifetime is honor many of the people who influenced and inspired me, and in the process of honoring them it will hopefully create interest in their work, as well as being a thank you letter from me.

Composer

David Amram

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Ralph Ellison biographer

Lawrence Jackson

JJM Who was your childhood hero?

LJ  My own father, Nathaniel Jackson, Jr, who passed away twelve years ago. I also have a cousin who was best man at my wedding, a public school teacher named Charles Dugger. Charlie has run for mayor of Baltimore about three times, and is a left wing, black nationalist presence in the political forums and debates. He raises issues that normally wouldn’t appear. I always admired these men very much. As a young guy, I was also very much taken with military figures.

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JJM  Who was your childhood hero, Will?

WF  Hugh Hefner.

Stardust Melodies author

Will Friedwald

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Free Speech Movement historian Robert Cohen

JJM Who was your childhood hero?

RC  I grew up in New York City during the late sixties and early seventies, at a time when we were organizing against the war. I was heavily influenced by the Civil Rights Movement. I admired Martin Luther King when I was growing up, as well as the students in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, in particular Bob Moses. I was also very influenced by the generation of journalists who reported on the Vietnam War, and showed that our government was lying to us about the war, especially reporters such as David Halberstam. I also admired protest music and the people who made it, like Bob Dylan and Marvin Gaye. Those are the people who had the most influence over me.

JJM You really followed that into your career, didn’t you?

RC  Yes. My first book, When the Oldest Was Young, is about student protest during the Great Depression, so I have always been interested in student activism. Since I grew up during the Vietnam protest era, I assumed everybody was somewhat politically active in high school. When I went to college in upstate New York, it was kind of jolt to me to find many people weren’t active in high school or even in college. It was an unusual political climate, one that was highly polarized by Vietnam.

 

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Fire in a Canebrake author Laura Wexler

JJM Who was your childhood hero?

LW  Probably Laura Ingalls Wilder. I read all the Little House on the Prairie books, and loved that she was an adventurous young girl, striking out for the territory with her family. The pioneering of it interested me.

JJM  What books did you read as a young woman that sparked your interest in writing Fire in the Canebrake?

LW  Probably the works of Toni Morrison, which I read during college. I don’t remember reading any books about race in high school, but once I got to college I had this sort of cliched awakening. I read Richard Wright’s Native Son — which really knocked me for a loop — and then I read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and everything by Toni Morrison. All of those books affected me in numerous ways.

 

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JJM  Who was your childhood hero?

CA  I don’t think I ever had one. I grew up in Iceland and Denmark, so I wasn’t exactly surrounded by the media. There was nothing really there to create a childhood hero for me. I think the closest person answering to the definition of a hero would be my maternal grandfather.

Bessie Smith biographer Chris Albertson

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They Marched Into Sunlight author David Maraniss

JJM  Who was your hero?

DM   I loved baseball when I was a little kid, and my hero during that time was Roberto Clemente. Even though I grew up in Wisconsin and loved the Milwaukee Braves, there was something about Clemente that seemed so beautiful and graceful.

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JJM  Who was your childhood hero?

BLP  That is easy to answer — Elmore James. I thought he was a really great musician. When I was a child, I never really wanted to be an athlete or a fireman, because it was music that interested me, and Elmore James was the musician I most admired.

JJM  Are you a musician?

BLP  Yes, I have been a musician. I was in a group in Ann Arbor, Michigan during the sixties called “The Fabulous Driving Wheel Blues and Soul Show Revue.” I recently toured with John Cephas and Phil Wiggins, a Piedmont blues duet, playing as the Bowling Green Blues Trio — essentially working for the State Department. So, I play the blues, which is one of the reasons why I got into this project. My experiences with it shaped the way I look at things.

Robert Johnson: Lost and Found author Barry Lee Pearson

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Tim Brooks, author of Lost Sounds:  Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890 – 1919

JJM Who was your childhood hero?

TB I was always fascinated with music and television. In music, I would have to say that Elvis was a childhood hero of mine. When I was growing up, he was just becoming popular, and was the voice of my generation. Fortunately, I didn’t adopt all of his lifestyle choices, or I wouldn’t be here today. As for a hero in broadcasting, early on in my life I liked James Garner. I liked actors and people who had an off beat sense of humor about them.

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JJM  Who was your childhood hero?

TW  As a child, I went through several stages where heroes were important to me. The earliest hero I had was the Lone Ranger. He came on the radio every night at 7:30, and my brother and I would lie in bed and listen to the show. I loved the idea that his unknown identity helped him right the wrong and help the weak, and then at the end he would ride off into the dust without letting anyone thank him. It was great.

During the 1953 World Series, I wanted to be like Jackie Robinson. I still remember how he danced off third base, and how he then stole home. I was about six years old at the time, and I would tell people I was Jackie Robinson.

JJM  What was their reaction to that?

TW  They would sort of laugh and look at me — this little blonde, freckled, blue-eyed kid. The world has changed a lot since then. White kids today can say their hero is Michael Jordan without anyone batting an eyelash. It would have been rare in our day for white kids to have a black hero, but today kids have the ability to identify with whomever.

When I was a teenager, my father was my hero, and I wanted to be like him. He taught me that giving back to others and helping those in need is what is important in life. That was his identity. He used to laugh at the idea that people would work solely for the purpose of making money. Who would want to spend eight to twelve hours of their day for that reason? He felt it was more important to be doing something to make the world better, to have fun while doing it, and you will consequently feel good about yourself. He would always say that he was not a minister for some ‘do-gooding’ purpose, but because he enjoyed it, he found it fulfilling and made his life more significant. After having spent all my life working with so-called “troubled” teenagers, I find myself saying that as well.

Later on in my high school and early college years, I went through a period where I rejected the idea of working with individuals — if you did that you would never change the system. So, John Kennedy became my hero for a while during that time. Heroes change as you change. I don’t really like the idea of heroes now. We all need role models, but I certainly wouldn’t want to be anyone’s hero. To be someone’s hero is a pretty heavy burden that I am not sure any of us can carry. We all have feet of clay.

Thomas Webber, author of Flying over 96th Street: Memoir of an East Harlem White Boy

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Fletcher Henderson biographer Jeffrey Magee

JJM Who was your childhood hero?

JM  I grew up near Pittsburgh in the seventies, which was a great decade for Pittsburgh sports. The Pirates won two World Series and the Steelers won four Super Bowls during this time. I was in the heart of my childhood, and in my prime of being a sports fan as well, so it was a magical time for me. Every time I hear the names of the great players of those teams — Willie Stargell, Roberto Clemente, Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann, “Mean” Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, not to mention guys who aren’t remembered as well any more like, say, Richie Hebner and Rocky Bleier — it conjures up a whole range of feelings and memories.

I’d have to add at least two other people to my list, although I didn’t think of them as “heroes” at the time. One is my uncle Alan Magee, an artist. I look back and realize that I studied his illustrations and paintings — and his independent way of life — for clues about how I could live. The other is my father, Richard Magee, who read my early attempts at writing and, by making marginal comments, showed me that choosing the right word is a serious business, that writing is a painstaking process, a challenging craft. Also, my father — my whole family, really, including my mother Joyce and brother Rich — is liberal in a sense that seems to have been lost: open-minded, tolerant, generous, compassionate. I would say that my late-blooming interest in jazz — after growing up listening to seventies pop and learning classical piano — owes something to that background.

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JJM  Who was your childhood hero?

NS  My childhood hero was Roy Campanella, the catcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers, who was part African American and part Italian. I grew up in Brooklyn, and when I was a kid of nine or ten, I used to walk to games at Ebbetts Field with my mom and my brothers, and Campanella was a guy I just simply fell in love with. He was an incredibly good ball player, but even though he wasn’t particularly fast or handsome, he and “Pee Wee” Reese became the backbones of the Dodger team. I could identify with his Italian side, and I just adored him. I became a catcher because of him.

JJM  Oh, really?

NS  Well, I was never very good and don’t mean to suggest I had his skills. My wife has a funny quip about American men; she says that you have to treat them kindly because they all share the same experience of discovering at age fourteen that they are not going to achieve their dream of being a major league ball player. And, in a sense, that was me.

Campanella was a central figure along with Jackie Robinson, of course, in another important process during my childhood, and that was becoming aware of race in American society. I didn’t understand a lot of this at the time, but now I realize that when people went to Ebbetts Field, they went to cheer the team, but it was also one of the few places where a white kid like me encountered large groups of African Americans. We rooted for the same players and interacted with each other in the stands. New York City is like a series of villages, and when you are a kid it takes a while before you realize that you actually can walk outside your village. Ebbetts Field played an important role for my brother and me in understanding that you didn’t have to live within the boundaries of your own neighborhood. Ebbetts Field helped open up a new world to me, and Roy Campanella, “Campy,” as we fondly called him, was a central part of that experience.

Reverend C.L. Franklin biographer Nick Salvatore

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Bobby Darin biographer David Evanier

JJM  Who was your childhood hero?

DE  Al Jolson.

JJM  Why?

DE  I am finding that just about every little Jewish and Italian boy who wanted to be a singer – as I did – idolized Jolson. That was true of Frank Sinatra and Bobby Darin, as well as Jimmy Roselli and Tony Bennett, who would imitate Jolson just as I did. Even the playwright Arthur Miller, in his memoir, Timebends, writes that he actually had a weekly radio show on a tiny station at the age of ten, “The Artie Miller Show,” in which he imitated Jolson, singing Jolson songs. Darin’s manager Steve Blauner was another person who idolized Jolson, imitated him, and auditioned for Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour singing Jolson. Jolson apparently hit this nerve for many boys from that generation, and for me I suppose it was because of the paternal quality of his voice, and the passion in it. He was a like a father figure.

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JJM Who was your childhood hero?

TT I didn’t think in terms of heroes as a child, or at least I don’t remember thinking that way. Nor do I remember why I didn’t. I guess my mind simply didn’t work in those terms — which isn’t really an answer, is it? Not until high school did I run across anyone with whom I felt that kind of intimate identification, and then it was Samuel Johnson, Boswell’s Dr. Johnson. At first I was fascinated by the way he talked in Boswell’s Life, but as I learned more about him I came to understand that he was infinitely more than just a great talker. Dr. Johnson went to battle each day with crippling handicaps, some physical and others psychological, in his never-ending struggle to be as good a man as he could possibly be. Some days he won, others he lost, but he never gave up. I was stunned by that aspect of his courage — the everydayness of it. He’s been my personal hero ever since then, and still is.

Needless to say — at least I hope it’s needless — I think Louis Armstrong would make a pretty damn good hero, too.

Journalist Terry Teachout

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Kansas City Jazz:

From Ragtime to Bebop — A History author Chuck Haddix

JJM  Who was your childhood hero?

CH  My childhood hero was Ray Charles. It was through Ray that I first heard soul music and became introduced to African American music forms.

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JJM  Who was your childhood hero?

PG  Probably both my father and grandfather, for a variety of reasons — mostly because they represented a kind of certainty, uprightness and character, as well as a sense of exploration and an openness to self-expression that I very much admired.

Sam Cooke biographer Peter Guralnick

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Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink author David Margolick

PH  Who was your childhood hero?

DM  I suppose the closest thing I had to a hero was John F. Kennedy. I don’t think that anyone’s death, even to this day, has upset me as much as his. So, on some level I must have really loved and admired him. I also looked up to anybody who was helping the Boston Red Sox win games, so I guess I liked Carl Yastrzemski and some his teammates as well, but I can’t say I ever worshipped them. I suspect that journalists are not hero worshippers — we are always on the sidelines watching, never allowed to truly cast our lot with anybody.

 

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JJM  Who was your childhood hero?

TB   I think it would have to be Brooks and Frank Robinson.

JJM  You’re not going to tell me you are an Orioles fan, are you?

TB  Of course I am. I grew up in Pennsylvania, about an hour-and-a-half from Baltimore. We went to games once or twice a year, and I watched them on television. I was about eleven years old when they played in the 1966 World Series, the year they were a fantastic team. I grew up in the Appalachian Mountains of Pennsylvania, and was very naïve about race, so naïve, in fact, that I once asked my mother if Brooks and Frank were related. She explained to me that it wouldn’t be possible, but I said that it could be, couldn’t it?

Thomas Brothers, author of Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans

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Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War author Karl Marlantes

JJM

 Who was your childhood hero?

KM   The first person that comes to my mind is Captain Horatio Hornblower.

JJM  Why him?

KM  I was always very shy when I was a kid, and am still pretty introverted. So, here’s a guy who’s awkward and shy and yet he’s the bravest naval captain in the British Navy. It is the perfect seven or eight year old boy person to identify with. He’s always terribly concerned about his crew and fairness, and then he does all the brave deeds. At the same time, he’s bumbling around and can’t talk to any girls. So, he is who popped into my mind just now – assuming it’s fair to use a fictional character.

JJM  Sure it is. Did you carry him with you on the battlefield?

KM   Oh, that’s interesting. Of course! He is one of the great models of an ethical warrior, and my definition of an ethical warrior is one who is not out there just to slaughter people, he is trying to accomplish things for his crew and his country. He’s a leader. In an unconscious way, I think he probably was important to me on the battlefield. I haven’t thought of those novels for years, and your question got them to pop into my head.

 

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JJM  Who was your childhood hero?

RK  I have two childhood heroes. My real childhood hero when I was about five years old was Admiral Lord Nelson. I remember that my mother actually ended up making me a sailor’s costume and a hat, which was very difficult because Nelson lost his arm at the Battle of the Nile, so the jacket only had one arm and I had to pin mine down inside. But I was so fanatical about this great sailor that I wanted to be him when I was about five or six years old. So he was my first great hero, and it all came from a book that my grandmother gave me, which is a Victorian book called The Little Book of Heroes. I think it over-egged the pudding about what a hero he was, but I certainly believed it when I was a very small boy. So that’s my first one.

 My second one, which was my first musical hero, was Fats Waller. That’s because when my father came back from the war – he served with the RAF in Hong Kong – he brought with him a huge collection of 78 rpm gramophone records. I have no idea how they survived the voyage, but they did. Mainly they were Duke Ellington, Earl Hines, and Fats Waller, and that’s what I was played when I was a little child to keep me quiet. They used to put on stacks of 78’s on one of those things where the records would drop one after another and just play, almost like the precursor of the bands of an LP, and so I’d hear five or six Fats Waller tunes in a row. Now, of course, at that stage, being very small, I listened to the words and the funny lyrics, and I wasn’t really taking much notice of the music, but I suspect it must have crept in.

Alyn Shipton, author of Hi-De-Ho: The Life of Cab Calloway

Heroes
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