How did Diane Kessler and I find ourselves up at the Annapolis Fine Arts Festival seeing Duke Ellington and his Orchestra in Dahlgren Hall at the Naval Academy?
I’m really glad you asked!
I have always been a music nut, primarily a soul man in the 60s before psychedelia knocked the earth off its axis. (It didn’t? Are you sure?). My parents liked big band music, and we heard lots of Miller and Goodman records at the house; I dearly love that stuff.
For most people my age in Baltimore, there wasn’t much jazz to be heard in the 60s, however, and we knew precious little about it, except… Except…
Except that there was this guy who had a radio program called The Harley Show. He bought his own airtime and broadcast jazz from 10 PM to midnight on WBAL, the channel that carried the Orioles (back when games used to finish at a reasonable hour). Harley Brinsfield was his name. He was a legend in Baltimore, and not just for his show. He was the founder and owner of Harley’s, a chain of hamburger and sandwich shops back before fast food. Ask any Baltimoron (-morean, whatever); he’ll tell you. THE BEST. Period.
This man knew more jazz than anybody, it seemed, and he shared his collection. He bought the airtime and did what he wanted, including having a taste or three while on the air. And his signature tune, indelibly burned into my brain, was “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be.” I had never heard anything so visceral, so emotional, so magnificent. I can STILL hear it just the way he sent it out over the airwaves. It was an Ellington small band with Johnny Hodges on the tenor sax.
I listened to the Harley show whenever I could, with my little transistor radio dialed to the subpar AM broadcast. It didn’t matter; it was deluxe.
Fast forward to the summer of 1970. I still didn’t know much about Ellington. Of course, we were familiar with “Take the A Train,” but not much else. Nobody had hipped me yet to Ellington at Newport (July 7, 1956). (WHAT?!? You don’t know that record? Possibly one of the greatest records of all time? Quit reading this right now and go out and BUY it, for Pete’s sake!)
Diane and I had gone to grade school together and then through high school. We never dated but were true friends. Somehow, we were talking in early June after our first year of college, and we decided to give each other the birthday present of a ticket to see Duke Ellington. I think I’m giving her the credit for scoping this out.
Ellington had just finished recording New Orleans Suite, a superb outing for the band. Part of the album had been recorded in April, the remainder in May. The album jacket laments that the above-mentioned Johnny Hodges died two days before the second session.
Dahlgren Hall was at the time an armory with a high ceiling, glass around the top, as I recall, with myriad flags hanging from the rafters. I have no remembrance of what Diane and I wore except that we were drastically underdressed. Most of the people who paid their $3.50 were in Sunday best, really styling. We sat in our seats and absorbed the first set of music.
Big band music, similar to classical music, washes over you with unamplified power. There was something so warm and embracing about the saxophone section, most doubling on clarinet at some point. This was my first big band performance, and I was in awe. Diane was, too. Trombones and trumpets could blare and talk meekly, seemingly in the same sentence. And the bass and drums were wonderful.
And then there was Duke. The Man. He had a ponytail, which I thought was great, given that I was working on one myself. We sat where we could see his hands on the keyboard. More than anything, however, I remember his sweet, saintly smile. He let us know that he was thrilled that each and every one of us was there.
There was a set break, and Diane and I made a radical decision. As the band came out for the second set, we left our seats and sat down right at Duke’s feet, just beyond the riser on the floor, as he looked down at us. THAT smile I’ll never forget. The second set was pure magic.
At some point, a little girl, maybe six, in a beautiful dress, bounced away from her mother and father and plopped herself right down on Diane’s lap! Duke’s smile somehow got even bigger.
Then it was time for the vocal portion of the show. I don’t know who the young man was, but he was a superb singer and extremely handsome in his tuxedo. After he finished his set of songs, he began to run off past Duke. Suddenly, he veered and came over and… touched the girl… on the nose! Her hands were folded as if in prayer, and her eyes were like saucers.
I don’t know if she still remembers it. Me? You think?