“Uncle Joey Blows Trombone at Le Jazz Hot” – a short story by Lawrence J. Klumas

December 4th, 2018

 

 

 

Uncle Joey Blows Trombone at Le Jazz Hot

by Lawrence J. Klumas

 

_____

 

You would think that for such a momentous occasion my memory would be crystal clear.  This is not so. I have no personal memory of hearing my Uncle Joey at Le Jazz Hot, that Friday night on August 27, 1942.

I was six years old when this occurred, and I wish I could conjure up the actual happenings.  But I can’t.  I’ll just have to relate my now poignant knowledge of the event as it unfolded for me, eight years later.

 

***

 

Le Jazz Hot was a tiny yet busy place nestled along 129th Avenue NE in Harlem. It boasted two venues, the first the premier attraction ten-to-one in the morning then the after-hours jam session till early morning. It was in a great location, not far from the Apollo Theater.

Its real name was Victor’s Supper Club, but was more appropriately called Le Jazz Hot, because that’s the way the players referred to it.  On this particular night in August 1942 the Clive Barrows Sextet was scheduled.

The sextet consisted of all jazz veterans, most from the big band era.  It was formed less than a year earlier and was becoming immensely popular.

 

Piano.  Clive Barrows. Lead

Drums.  Hosea “Bill” Williams

Bass. James “Plucky” Jones

Trumpet.  Willy Goetz

Trombone.  H. “Gordy” Goodman

Saxophone.  Cyril Synoco

 

Cyril telephoned Clive Wednesday morning with the bad news.

“He did what?” Clive exclaimed as Cyril told him. “He did what?”

“He got some bad dope.  Not dead, just out of it. Way out of it. Incoherent. Bad medicine.”

“And we perform and record Friday evening. That’s a hell of a thing.  What was Gordy thinking?”

“He wasn’t, like, he usually doesn’t”

“So…now what? Go with no trombone?  All the scores have a trombone part.”

“Nope.  I have it solved.”

‘           “Really?” Clive asked skeptically.

“There’s a kid. He’s about nineteen.  He’s…”

Clive cut him off, “You are kidding me.  Tell me you’re kidding me?  Ain’t no kid going to play for this session.  No way.”

“He’s good, very good.”

“Yeah.  Who says?”

“I heard him play.”

“Yeah, where?”

“At the Italian-American club, in Brooklyn. Last weekend.  I took his name and his phone number.  I think we should try him.”

‘You are out of your mind if you think…”

 

***

 

They met on the Wednesday afternoon at twelve noon, for a practice session.  The musicians were all there when the kid walked in. He wasn’t cocky, but he was self-assured.  He smiled broadly when he noticed Cyril on the bandstand.

He sauntered up to the group, “I’m Joey Tomasini.  I play the trombone.”

“Hey, Joey,” Cyril said.  “Meet the guys.”  He introduced each one.  Their physical posture and quizzical looks indicated skepticism.

Clive said, “I want to be brutally frank.  You better be good, or you’re packin’”

“I’ll do my best,” Joey said, taking his trombone out of the beat-up black case.

“Can you read music?” Clive asked,

“Yes.  Mostly.”

“What’s mostly?”

“If it‘s very complicated, I need to work it out.”

“Jesus,” Clive said, and handed him the score of the first song that would be recorded at Friday’s session –  “Josephine’s Blues.”

“Can I just…” Joey started to ask.  He put the music on the stand and flipped through the three-page score, studying it.

“Can you play it? Clive asked.

“Sure.”

His was only a minor entry in the introduction.  He blew it straight, note for note. It sounded strange, alone with no other instruments.

“Well, shall we just start?” asked Cyril.

They did.  Clive stopped the group numerous times, but only once for Joey, who hadn’t held his wailing notes long enough.  This was the simplest of the three pieces to be recorded, an old standard with not much innovation. Clive looked to the group for feedback on the trombone kid.  He didn’t get what he was looking for.

So, they went into the second song – “Whooping it Up” – an up-tempo piece with instrument solos weaving in and out.  Joey would have to make it on this song or crap out.  He didn’t bust.  His solo was clean, on tempo and the group gave acceptance with body language and facial expressions when Clive gestured for their reactions.

Now the third song, “Riding the El in Harlem,” was to be the ‘A’ side of the recording, one of the other two pieces the ‘B’ side.  It was the most complicated, most involved. It took the most precision and timing, and was the richest presentation, a full-bodied treatment with each instrument important to establish the cosmopolitan bite in the musical-metaphorical ride. This certainly would take out the kid if he faltered.

He didn’t.  He was acceptable – no, okay. – no, all right, no – good, as Clive finally concluded.

“You can play and record with us Friday night,” Clive said.

“Thank You.  I am honored and excited,” Joey answered.

Cyril said, “Better practice some more between now and then.”

“I will”

The smiles, the murmurings of the other members indicated concurrence.

 

***

 

Joey burst into telling all that had happened at the Wednesday audition to his family as soon as he slid into the front door of the house in Brooklyn.

“Mom, Marianne, guess what?  I made it.  I’m going to play for real this Friday night at Le Jazz Hot with the Clive Barrows Sextet!”  No one heard him.

His mother came out of the kitchen. “What are you so excited about?”

He repeated his exultation.

“That’s wonderful Joey!  How much are they paying you?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t ask. They didn’t say.”

“Well, you certainly need to find out.”

“I’ll I bet I’ll know by Friday. But I have to practice a lot between now and then.  Where’s Marianne?”

“’She’s not back from work.”

“Where’s little Pete?”

“In his room.”

Joey ran to tell Pete what had happened.  Pete said, “Hey, that’s great,” but without quite the enthusiasm Joey expected.

When Marianne came home Joey told her the whole story.  They sat in the kitchen and Joey bubbled over with enthusiasm. “Imagine, a real session, and it’s going to be recorded! You’ll need to be there on Friday night watching me and listening,” he added as he began to come down from his high.

“Okay I will, and I’ll bring Pete with me. He’ll be thrilled.”

All day Thursday Joey practiced his part of each of the songs.  Somewhere along the way his part began to make sense in its timing and placement.  Then the whole score began to take on new meaning. In “Josephine’s Blues” he could now sense the woe, the strangulation of no future for her in her marriage and life.  In “Whooping it Up,” the jubilation of the group at the party, slow at first then reaching a high, came through clearly.  In “Riding On the El in Harlem,” the conversations between the riders at each of the stops, as passengers got on and off, showed different emotions, until finally there was only one passenger left and the ride, for that rider, was over.

 

***

 

Marianne was apprehensive, so she took her six-year-old son along for support. For protection against someone trying to pick her up, she reasoned.  She hoped he would be thrilled – and he was.

Marianne and little Pete stood before Victor’s Supper Club at 9:35 p.m.  The noise from inside of the building spilled out on to the sidewalk.  It was happy; it was excited; it had an intimacy to it.  It also smelled of cigarette smoke and alcohol.

The head waiter, the greeter, asked, “And what can I do for you, Madam?”

It sounded a little stiff. “I came to see and hear my brother Joey Tomasini with the Clive Barrows Sextet tonight.  He’s playing the trombone.”

“Ah, yes, the new kid.  Let me find you a table so you can watch.  Follow me please.”

Pete added, “He’s my uncle.”

“Nice.”

They were seated by the dance floor, which now held the special recording instruments for taping the sextet.  Marianne ordered a chianti red wine and a coke for Pete.

“How much?” Marianne asked.

“Not for you, ma’am. Not for the players family. It’s taken care of.”

Really, she thought.  Joey must have taken care of the bill. Actually, it was Cyril, the saxophonist.

One of the recording engineers stood up, and, microphone in hand and announced what they were going to do.

“We will be recording three songs from the Clive Barrows Sextet.  While we are recording we don’t want any talking or shuffling about.  When a song is completed you may clap.  To begin with we will take about fifteen minutes to finally set up the equipment, based where the players are placed.  Quiet during that time is also needed.  I will tell you when we are starting.”

In eighteen minutes and at quarter-past-ten he stood up again and said, “We’ll start now.”

The room went quiet.

The first song was”Josephine’s Blues.”  It went smoothly.  When Joey slipped a mute into his trombone bell, it made the woe more believable, although it was a change from the score.  Every player noticed, but it didn’t interrupt the flow.  The song ended and was cheered enthusiastically.

Before the next song, Clive called Joey over. “Any other surprises?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Actually, it was pretty good kid,” Clive grinned.

The second song was “Whooping it Up.”  The song was interrupted by the recording engineer after thirty seconds, the brass section was too strong.  He repositioned the microphones and the group launched off again. It too went well.

The third song was “Riding the El in Harlem.”  There was a complicated interplay between each of the brass instruments as the conversations on the El. It went exceptionally well.  Clive Barrows was especially pleased because it was his composition.

At the end of the last recording, the room erupted in cheers and applause.  Many of the patrons, including Marianne, leaped to the front of the dance floor to take pictures.  Flashbulbs were popping all over.  Marianne asked the head waiter to photograph her and Pete in front of the group, so there would be a record of the visit with Joey at Le Jazz Hot.  Marianne shot the whole twelve-picture roll of black and white film. It was half-an-hour before the commotion settled down.

The sextet took another fifteen-minute break as the recording people gathered up their microphones, cords, tape recorders, sound board, and repositioned the tables and chairs to the side of the dance floor.

The group had another ninety minutes to play.  Marianne and Pete went to the stage before the group was ready to start again and told Joey they were leaving.  He introduced his sister and nephew to Clive and Cyril. Clive whispered, “Joey is good.  Thanks for coming.”

Joey played that night, and the night following as well.  He was paid forty dollars – twenty-five for the recording session and fifteen dollars  for the rest.  He played again the following weekend, as it was The Clive Barrows Sextet’s last session at Le Jazz Hot.  He received another thirty dollars for the two nights.

Joey was still on his high, excitedly recounting the beauty of playing trombone with the group — when he received his draft notice.  He had to report to his local draft board.  There he was given a date of September 30, 1942 to be inducted at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn.

 

***

 

On April 21, 1950, late afternoon, Cyril Synoco, saxophonist for the Clive Barrows Sextet, tracked down the address and telephone number for Joey Tomasini again through the Italian-American club.  They were back in New York City for the first time in years.  He and Clive Barrows made the call to the house.

The phone rang and Pete answered.

Cyril asked,” Is Joey Tomasini there?”

“Wait a minute. I better get my mother,” Pete said.  He was now fourteen years old. “Hey Mom, somebody wants to talk to Joey.  You better get this.”

Marianne asked tentatively, “Yes?”

“This is Cyril Synoco and Clive Burrows.  We have a number of awards we need to give to Joey.  He played with our group way back in 1942.

“I remember,” Marianne said, hesitating as she tried to figure out how to answer.  What was the right way to answer.  “You haven’t heard then, I guess? Joey was killed during the D-Day invasion on Omaha Beach.”

It still hurt to say it. Every time it brought back the memory of her younger brother dying on just his second day in action.  It also hurt remembering the visit from the army officer to tell her and her mother of their loss.  Saying it and thinking about it — hurt, which is why she tried not to think about it very often.

There was a long silence.  “I didn’t know.  I am so, so sorry.  How tragic.”  Then Cyril went silent again.  “But we do have some great news about Joey when he played with us and made those recordings.  Can we come over tomorrow and present them to you?”

“One minute.”  Marianne went into the parlor and talked with her mother.  Sophia at first shook her head no.  But then she said, “If it is good news, alright.”

“My mother says okay.  I say okay.  What time?

“Would three in the afternoon tomorrow be all right?”

“Sure.  You have the address?”

“Yes.  Once again, I am so sorry.”

“We’ve learned to live with it.  We’ll see you then”.

Marianne hung up the phone on the kitchen wall. “Peter, go into the hall closet and get the shoebox labeled PHOTOS on the top shelf and bring it back to me.”  He had been listening intently to the whole conversation.

She rummaged through the box and found the yellow-jacketed album of black and white photos with her writing on it – Joey at Le Jazz Hot.  Marianne flipped through the twelve photos slowly and tears formed in her eyes.  “Pete, here are the photos of the night when Joey played with the Clive Barrows Sextet in Harlem.”

Pete went through the photos with care.  “Hey, Mom, there’s two pictures of me in the set.”  He was surprised.  He had never seen these before.

“You were there.  I took you so you could see your uncle playing.”

“And who are the other people?  They are almost all colored folks?”

Marianne sat down with him, went through the pictures and told the story of each.” He listened, fully absorbed.

After each photo Pete could only say, “Wow.” Then when they finished he asked, “And, who are the guys coming over tomorrow?”

His mother showed him the picture of Clive and Cyril, specifically pointing them out.

Clive and Cyril were right on time.  First, they were introduced to Sophia and Pete, then were led into the parlor.  They could see that both Sophia and Marianne had been crying. Cyril put a box he had been carrying on the coffee table.

Marianne began, “Tell us about what you’ve brought for Joey?”

Cyril hesitated, “There is so much to say.  I don’t know where to start.”

Sophia, Marianne, and Pete all waited.

Clive asked, “Is there anything more we should say about Joey?  I mean about your loss?”

Marianne said simply, “Let’s wait. Tell us about why you came.”

Clive started.  “If you didn’t know it, Joey was an exceptional trombone player.  We were skeptical at first, but the truth is… the truth is…”

Cyril continued, “…if it weren’t for Joey there that night, these awards would not have happened.”

Clive cut back in. “Put simply, the recording of “Riding the El in Harlem” backed by “Josephine’s Blues” was voted the Best Redbird Jazz recording of the 1940’s.  The record was also listed in the top three jazz recordings of the decade by Downbeat.  All this happened in the last month. Those awards…never would have been given to us without Joey.”

Sophia and Marianne tried to absorb the weight, the impact of this announcement.

Cyril added, “Let me say it this way, because this is the way I feel it.  The jazz world and the field of music lost one of its outstanding trombone stars.  We have no way of knowing how far he would have risen, but it would have been to the top.”

Now, Sophia and Marianne were silently sobbing.

Pete said, “That’s amazing, my uncle.”

Clive added, “We also have a check made out to him in the amount of $500, which is his portion of the monetary awards from Redbird records and from the Sextet. We will make it out to either of you.  Let us know.”

Cyril added, “A copy of all the awards, and the magazine article is in this box, as well as a copy of the original first-cut recording of the two songs, and the most current copy of the record, the fifth release.”

“How fortunate Joey played with us,” Clive mused.

 

***

 

 

As I mentioned earlier I have no specific recollection of all these events when they happened.  But, with the photo album, Mom’s vivid recollection of that night, the visit of Clive Barrows and Cyril Synoco, and listening to the recordings, especially picking out Joey’s contribution, the event is now solid in my mind.

To this day I often visit Uncle Joey blowing his trombone at Le Jazz Hot, and his death in the war, and endlessly wonder what the jazz music world would be like with Joey Tomasini still in it – a jazz world of talent and inspiration.

 

 

_____

 

 

 

Lawrence J. Klumas has written poetry since 1958, and continued writing for his engineering profession — but, most recently re-immersed himself into poetry and writing with a passion.  He has been published in Que sais-je, on-line atJerryJazzMusician, Diocesan Messenger. He contributes a poem weekly to the Fallbrook, CA Episcopal Church newsletter. He has a chapbook submitted for San Diego Book Awards.

He is a retired USAF officer, an engineer, a Viet Nam veteran, and a past Assoc VP Occidental College (Facilities).  He has a BS In Business Administration (with a minor in Literature) from Eastern Nazarene College, and both a BS and MS in Industrial Engineering from Arizona State University.

 

 

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