Tuesday, July 12, 2016

`A Great-Sized Monster of Ingratitudes'

We drove to the Deep Ellum neighborhood in Dallas for dinner Saturday evening. An acquaintance of my oldest son had recommended Pepe’s and Mito’s Mexican Café on Elm Street. Outside, on the wall to the left of the restaurant entrance, is a cast-iron plaque commemorating Henry “Buster” Smith (1904-1991), the alto saxophonist credited with writing “One O’clock Jump” (though Count Basie gets formal credit), the theme song of the Count Basie Orchestra, and with mentoring Charlie Parker. There is no attribution on the plaque and no reason given for the designation of that building. Did Smith live there?  Work there? We don’t know. I find no online mention of Smith’s plaque. Even being remembered can sometimes be turned into a form of forgetfulness or oblivion.

The facts of Smith’s life blur into mythology and rumor. Ross Russell in Jazz Style in Kansas City and the Southwest (University of California Press, 1971) calls Smith “the musical father of Charlie Parker,” though Russell’s biography of Parker, Bird Lives! (1973), is notoriously unreliable. In Jazz Style, he is typically vaporous:

“The entertainment district of Afro-American Dallas was then a lively place with small clubs and a supply of floating musicians, blues singers, string trios, jug bands, itinerant pianists, and instrumental trios. The rural blues singers were coming into the cities and becoming urban blues singers, and the blues themselves were undergoing a change. Blind Lemon Jefferson was in Dallas in those years and so was T-Bone Walker, although Buster Smith remembers the latter as much for his dancing as his blues singing.”  

Russell outlines Smith’s tenure with Walter Page’s Oklahoma City Blue Devils (the alma mater of Basie, Lester Young, Oran “Lips” Page, Eddie Durham and Jimmy Rushing, among others) and Benny Moten’s orchestra. In Deep Ellum and Central Track: Where the Black and White Worlds of Dallas Converged (University of North Texas Press, 1998), Alan B. Govenar and Jay F. Brakefield report:

“Smith started his own band, which included a teenage alto player named Charlie Parker [b. 1920]. `Well, he used to tell me he wanted to play like me,’ Smith said. `He used to call me his dad, and I called him my boy. I couldn’t get rid of him. He was always up under me. . . . He did play like me quite a bit, I guess. But after awhile, anything I could make on my horn, he could make too, and make something better out of it.’”

Govenar and Brakefield tell us Smith returned to Dallas in the early nineteen-forties, continued working locally and made his only recording under his own name for Atlantic in 1959 (thanks to Gunther Schuller). Because of dental problems, he gave up playing alto and taught himself the electric bass, but stopped playing professionally around 1970, and worked roofing houses with his brother, the piano player Boston Smith. To read such accounts of once vital and influential artists is dispiriting. The plaque outside Pepe’s and Miko’s is a small, generous,heartfelt effort. Smith’s role ought to be remembered by anyone who loves American music. While in Dallas I was reading Troilus and Cressida, in which Ulysses says:

“Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back,
Wherein he puts alms for oblivion,
A great-sized monster of ingratitudes:
Those scraps are good deeds past; which are devour’d
As fast as they are made, forgot as soon
As done: perseverance, dear my lord,
Keeps honour bright.”

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