At the Garden

I was reading an article about jazz in the Time-Life special edition on the Roaring Twenties [1] that I recently purchased when I read about a band in Chicago that was tantamount to the rise of that particular music genre.

Of course, that got me thinking about my W-I-P, as all things related to that era do, and my character Charlie Brockway.

You’ve seen Charlie in some previous posts [2], but he is still a relatively unknown character for me. I know he’s originally from Chicago; that’s there’s some big secret in his life; and that he’s a musician. But this Time-Life article got Charlie talking about his past a bit.

I thought I’d share what he had to say…

[Note: Charlie is recounting a meeting in 1924 Chicago where he met Louis Armstrong and his wife Lil Hardin Armstrong.]

I was twenty, I think. I’d gotten in the habit of getting to the Gardens [3] early to catch a bit of the black set. I wasn’t allowed in, of course, but I’d wander back to the stage door and listen. That door was kept propped open, even in winter. But this was the dead of summer so it was wide open in hopes of cooling off the bandstand. It maybe wasn’t the safest thing to do, hanging out in the alley, but I never really considered that at the time.

This particular day, I’d just gotten settled on an old crate and was letting the music wash over me when the band stopped for a break. Before I knew it, they were pouring out the door for a smoke. The last thing they expected to see was a white guy lounging in the alley. They didn’t take too kindly to it.

“You trying to sneak in here, cracker?” one of them said.

“No, man,” I answered. “Just appreciating the riffs.” I turned toward Armstrong. “You got the best chops I’ve ever heard.

“What do you know about chops?”

“Enough to know good ones when I hear ’em,” I told him. “I play piano,” I added, pretty lamely I must admit. Then I turned to Lil. “Like you.”

What hubris, comparing myself to the great Lil Hardin. But she just laughed. The bass player, however, took it a lot more personally. He bowed up and came toward me. “How ‘bout you go back to your Ivory tower where you come from, boy!”

He towered over me. Plus, I’m not a muscle-y guy, as you can see. So, I didn’t want trouble, but I couldn’t back down either. I stood my ground as he came closer, hoping, at the least, that it would remain a fight between just the two of us.

As luck had it, Lil stepped between us. “Lay off, Bill. He ain’t startin’ no trouble. He just bein’ carried away by the music. No crime in that. Ain’t that what we all lookin’ for, anyway?” She turned toward me, then nodded at the stage door. “I’d like to hear what you can do, Mister…?”

I stuck my hand out like a real sap. “Charlie, ma’am. Call me Charlie.” Then I followed her inside.

Notes & Sources

  1. Big Sound from the Big Easy; Time-Life The Roaring ’20s: The Decade that Changed America; Time, Inc. Books; New York,NY; pgs 50-53.
  2. Previous posts about Charlie: Finding Just the Right Gift; Valentine’s Day; A Shriek of Radio Static; House Parties… and promises.
  3. The Gardens (officially the Royal Gardens and later known as Lincoln Gardens) was a real club located in the predominantly black south side of Chicago in the 1920s. The club offered an early show (8-11pm) to black patrons, then beginning at 11pm repeated the show for whites only. The band at the time was King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, which did, in fact, include Louis Armstrong and his wife Lil, along with many other famous New Orleans jazz greats of the era.
  4. Featured image of King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band from The Newberry Digital Collections for the Classroom.

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