Voices from My Past: Heard Through a Blog Post!

It is amazing how small this world has become thanks to technology and the reach of social media and blogs. My posts are viewed more than a thousand times each month including a sizeable percentage of views from outside the United States. Two months ago, a mid-west reader responded to one of my earlier posts with the comment: “I believe we are related!” Inasmuch as I had long ago (1948), at age eight, moved with my family to California from Chicago, Illinois, I was surprised and intrigued.

It so happens that Mary is a “lost” second cousin of mine originally from Chicago whose Grandfather Elmer was my Uncle Elmer – the older brother of my dad. Here is Elmer standing in front of his father’s radio repair shop on Diversey Avenue in Chicago, sometime in the early nineteen fifties. His dad was also named Elmer, and he was my paternal grandfather.

It is my grandfather and his tiny radio repair shop, mentioned in that post of mine, which caught second cousin Mary’s eye. The last portion of the post contains a picture of my grandparents (Mary’s great-grandparents) standing behind the counter of their little shop in Chicago (circa 1947) – the only photo of its kind in the entire family, apparently.

Inasmuch as I grew up only a mile or two from my grandparents and their “mom & pop” store with living quarters in the back, I quite vividly recall that shop and have often wished there were another picture of it and them… somewhere. Mary fortunately was able to provide the first photo, used here, showing the exterior of the shop which no longer exists. I well recall the red/orange neon sign in the window announcing: “Radio Service.” My memory bell “rang” at first glance.

On a 2004 vacation trip to Chicago, my wife and I returned to the scenes of my boyhood. I was amazed to find that most everything was still there, including our old brick apartment building, all looking just as recalled some 56 years later. Sadly, the building which housed the little radio repair shop at 6755 Diversey Ave. had long ago been cleared away for a large banquet hall/restaurant which today covers much of the block. I had really hoped to find that little storefront, the seat of so much of our family’s history…and my boyhood consciousness.

Soon after “finding” second cousin Mary, I met her cousin Linda, via E-mail. We have begun to fill-in a number of blanks in the Kubitz family history by exchanging recollections and pictures. Interestingly, both Mary and Linda were not at all sure about the history/existence of my grandparent’s radio repair shop on Diversey Ave. I, on the other hand had no knowledge at all of their grandfather’s (Elmer, pictured in the first photo) later radio repair shop on Belmont Ave. in Chicago. And so begins an interesting quest to learn more about the family history!

I am glad that second cousin Mary “discovered” me and my blog and took the time to verify the family connection. As so often happens, family history gets lost as time and distance take their inevitable toll. For me, leaving Chicago in 1948 when United Air Lines transferred my father, meant severing close ties with my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. There were no overt reasons why that should have happened so completely as it did. Coming from a family of five kids, as in my father’s case, family dynamics are always a part of the equation, but, mainly, the effect of time and distance took their toll. The daily scramble for a better life takes time and attention away from extended family solidarity. That was especially true back then when Chicago seemed so far away from San Francisco, California.

Thank goodness I was old enough to have collected indelible images and impressions of my close relatives before leaving them. I have always remained curious about them and sad that I never really got to know them as well as I would have liked.

For more background on this post and my personal/family history, click on these links to other applicable posts of mine:

https://reasonandreflection.wordpress.com/2015/10/17/vintage-radio-tv-repairing-and-building-things-yourself/

https://reasonandreflection.wordpress.com/2013/07/14/chicago-returning-to-my-boyhood-roots/

https://reasonandreflection.wordpress.com/2013/09/15/the-work-ethic-and-the-dignity-of-excellence/

https://reasonandreflection.wordpress.com/2013/06/09/family-funnies-great-laughs/

https://reasonandreflection.wordpress.com/2014/04/27/a-most-unbelievable-encounter-thanks-to-lawrence-welk/

https://reasonandreflection.wordpress.com/2014/03/16/aviation-scrapbook-a-long-lost-treasure-from-the-attic/

https://reasonandreflection.wordpress.com/2014/04/20/cowboywestern-music-from-chicago/

https://reasonandreflection.wordpress.com/2017/04/13/ruth/

https://reasonandreflection.wordpress.com/2016/08/25/fifty-years-of-marriage-and-five-days-more/

https://reasonandreflection.wordpress.com/2014/05/10/my-wife-related-to-anne-boleyn-and-a-movie-mogul/

World Series, Game Seven: Oops…Power Failure!

Last evening, Linda and I were looking to enjoy game seven of the 2016 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians. It had been a good day for us…one of the better ones in recent months given frequent trials and tribulations related to the passing of Linda’s mother earlier this year.

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One-half hour before game-time, as we busily completed our last chores for the day, I noticed that the light bulbs in our dining room hanging fixture looked rather dim. Even with the dimmer control “full-on” they still looked dim. A check of our bathroom lighting fixture confirmed that, indeed, something was amiss!

e26-bakelite-st64-lantern-filament-led1Those lights were also dim… and flickering. The worst-case scenario would have been that our utility-to-house electrical connection was, somehow, faulty – big bucks? We called P.G.&E. (the utility) and verified that there was a system problem localized to our neighborhood. Within minutes, the power went completely off, just before game-time!

We proceeded to follow the baseball game the same way our parents did decades ago…via radio – battery-powered, of course. Sitting in the darkness of our family room, we listened intently as one of baseball’s all-time great games unfolded in Cleveland. We constantly shook our head in dis-belief at our rotten luck in the matter.

Hours later, as we still sat in the dark, our despair deepened, and the game entered the fateful ninth-inning of play, the house suddenly came alive as numerous lights throughout instantaneously received their life-blood surge of electrical current. Within minutes, our television DVR came back to life and transported us directly to the stadium in Cleveland where the final drama of game seven was about to unfold.

What crazy timing for an electrical power outage and what a fantastic, rain-interrupted finish to game seven we were finally able to witness. We will not forget the day and the game, nor will the faithful Cubs fans who waited since 1908 for a World Series Championship. It was truly fascinating fun to witness not only the expected excitement of the victorious Cubs players, but also the extreme emotion of the fans during and after the contest. This series and, particularly, game seven, constitute sports and baseball at their finest. I could not help but note the earnestness and sportsmanship of the entire fan-base in attendance at the stadium, Cubs and Indians fans alike. The whole of it all? Most definitely a positive commentary on major league baseball, the fans, and the players.

My dad was a big fan of the Chicago Cubs as a young man growing up in Chicago and playing some ball. I recall this from a few of our long-ago conversations. I was only eight when Dad was transferred by United Air Lines from Chicago to the San Francisco Bay Area, but I retain certain mid-west edges to my persona along with many vivid recollections of my youth, there. Chicago was the center of both my parents’ family roots.

In 2004, Linda and I took a long-anticipated vacation trip to visit the places of my boyhood and to enjoy the sights of Chicago. We had a fabulous trip while visiting the important scenes of my early life, most of which were, surprisingly, still there and largely unchanged over fifty-six years! We hired a driver (Steven) and his town-car for the day of my sentimental tour around Chicago and, along the way, had him stop at Wrigley Field, home of the Cubs. I had never been there. Here is Steven, his town-car, and the home of the yet-to-be World Series Champions, the Chicago Cubs. Congratulations to the Cubs and to my home town!

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Vintage Radio & TV: Repairing and Building Things…Yourself!

Telefixit_ARummaging through some old files from my father, I came across this gem from 1953 and immediately recognized a great blog-post opportunity! Yes, there once was a time when any sufficiently motivated (and clever/handy) individual could actually troubleshoot things like radios and televisions. Those WERE the days – a time when life was simpler and technology was not totally beyond the grasp of 99 per-cent of the general population.

Today, auto repair is the identical twin to radio/TV repair – well beyond our reach, and residing only in the realm of trained, technical specialists. There is one glaring difference between the two twins, however: Can you guess what that is? The time/money aspect of specialized, technical know-how today renders electronic repair largely pointless. In today’s world, replacing electronic “somethings” is almost always cheaper (and more convenient) than repairing them. The same cannot be said of the automobile – for sure.

The universal image of a greasy pair of overalls protruding from the underbelly of a vintage car being repaired on one’s driveway is long-gone from the auto scene, along with the image of smiling, uniformed Texaco service station attendants swooping in to offer full service on your car as you pull-in for a fill-up.

Repairing Your TV Set Could Kill You!

Really? Even if you first unplug the set before working on it? Yes, especially back then when TV screens were of the high voltage, cathode-ray tube variety. In those days, large electronic capacitors were used to store electrical energy for powering these picture tubes. They could retain thousands of volts of electric charge even though the set was turned off or unplugged. Do-it-yourself manuals took great pains to point out the dangers and to explain how these devices could be safely discharged before working on the set!

Radio – TV Repair Shops: Extinct Dinosaurs;
Today’s Throw-away Society

Radio & TV Repair ShopThese shops, with their signs out front, were once ubiquitous. Today, they are gone because repairing any but the more valuable vintage electronics is largely a fool’s errand today – it just does not make economic sense. The reality is that today’s consumer electronics is a huge factor in our “throw-away” society. Not only is repair not economically feasible, the aggressive “newer/better” syndrome which characterizes today’s electronic devices (especially phones and computers) obsoletes most devices long before they ever need repair!

A Related Point: Why Jobs are Lost
 and the Labor Force Transformed

Although my post has a sentimental ring to it, it serves to showcase a serious aspect of societal change – specifically, the shift from manual labor in manufacturing to high-tech know-how. Here is how the chassis-guts of a television set looked some sixty years ago:

GE_RF_Chassis_New[1]

This tangle of electronic components – primarily vacuum tubes, resistors, capacitors, and inductors – was hand-soldered together on an assembly line comprised of a small army (mainly women) who sequentially added each piece until the whole assembly was complete. This approach was both time consuming and very labor-intensive (semi-skilled labor). Today, that long assembly line is completely replaced by robotic assemblers which pick, place, and solder components to a so-called “surface-mount” printed circuit board with designated pad positions for every part connection to the board. All wire connections between parts are replaced by thin metallic traces on the board which connect the components. Fabrication/assembly costs are much less than the old hand-wired approach while quality/reliability is exponentially better with the new technology. Individual components known as “integrated circuits” are highly dense groupings of microscopic components (multiple thousands of transistors, resistors, and capacitors) all on one single semiconductor “chip.” These circuits are identifiable by the multiple “leads” on the package. No wonder the radio – TV repairman could not keep up with the burgeoning technology!

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The money formerly paid to those armies of semi-skilled assemblers is now funneled to the relatively few highly educated, skilled and gifted engineers who designed the process and its robotic equipment. This money/job transfer away from lots of manual (often union) labor is inevitable in manufacturing facilities – a key reason for the unemployment and the sinking fortunes of the semi-skilled middle class, today.

The Heathkit Era: Build Your
Own Electronic Equipment

Heathkit VTVM_CROPI still have two pieces of electronic equipment that I built myself from the Heath Company’s famous electronic kits. All parts and detailed, step-by-step assembly instructions were provided. “Heathkits” were lab-quality and were very popular from the nineteen-fifties through the eighties. When I was working on my Masters Degree in electrical engineering in the late sixties, I built one of their biggest kits – a full-blown, vacuum tube, lab-quality oscilloscope. I sold that long ago, but I still have the vacuum tube voltmeter (VTVM) and the small solid-state (transistorized) power supply that I built long ago.

When you built a Heathkit and could read an electrical schematic, you pretty-well understood the guts of your equipment and how it worked. Not so much in today’s world, however, thanks to the miracle of integrated circuits, etc. It was a wonderful time, in a way, because it was a simpler time – a time when technology was still within the reach of a determined grasp. Whenever we visit our good friends, Dave and Patti, down in Santa Barbara, Dave inevitably offers me my coffee in his well-used mug with the simple brown “Heathkit” lettering. He, too, recalls those old days, and we reminisce a bit.

Heathkit VTVM Manual  Heathkit VTVM Instr

Radio and Radio Repair – A Family Heritage

My father and his family had an early relationship with radio. My grandfather, Elmer, operated a small radio repair shop on Diversey Avenue in Chicago in the nineteen forties and the early fifties.

Elmer & Martha Kubitz, 1947 _A

Elmer’s wife, Martha, had a small toy and candy store in the adjacent, connected space to the repair shop. The picture is a rare family photo (circa 1948 – the year my dad was transferred to California) of the two of them at Elmer’s front counter. In the background is a small selection of boxed vacuum tubes. A large shop would have had a much bigger stock/selection. Their joint radio/candy enterprise barely paid the bills for them, and I recall that they lived in rather dark surroundings behind the curtains visible in Elmer’s storefront, here. Theirs was a “mom and pop” business venture if ever there was one! I am very sad that we have so few pictures of my grandparents.

My father got his feet wet in radio as a young man by dropping by to help his dad in the shop on occasion. My dad was particularly good at restringing troublesome “dial cords” which connected the radio’s guts with the station tuning dial. In 1942, Dad left Schwinn bicycles and went to work in the Radio Lab at United Air Lines. A heart murmur kept him out of wartime service, but he completed an extensive radio course at the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1944.

Dad's IIT Radio Diploma

I still have several of his early radio textbooks – one with a gift inscription from his young wife, my mother:

“To the finest husband in the world, and may he reach every goal he strives for.”

                         “Alice”

Better to Pursue One’s Passion or a Practical Profession?

First Flight_1 Crop

The Wright Brothers from Dayton, Ohio, pursued their passion of manned flight. In 1903, their dedication and efforts created not only a practical profession for themselves, but the entire aviation industry! In case they were not successful, they had an established backup plan: Their profitable bicycle shop back home. They were quintessential examples of successfully pursuing a passion.

The working world offers many career choices. Within any given category lurks the tricky task of choosing “passion” or “practical profession.” The question is: “Shall I pursue my passion, or shall I choose a more predictable profession which will offer financial security?” The expense of a college degree or other training which is required is often a significant factor in the whole equation. Let us look at another, less dramatic example of passion vs. profession involving aviation.

Another Aviation Example: Passion or Profession?

For a youngster looking to the future who loves airplanes, the prospect of flying them might entail both a passion and the most enviable of professions – at least until a reality check makes it clear that a smooth path to a steady, well-paying flying career in the airlines is a thing of the past. Many career airline captains in past decades received their flight training and flying experience while in the military, a point of entry which is, today, almost non-existent compared with years past – especially the World War II and Korean War eras.

Private aviation flight schools are no less expensive than most colleges and universities; a degree/certificate from one of these comes complete with very tenuous employment opportunities with the major airlines. Flying for a small feeder line guarantees very poor pay, long hours, and no job security – if one should be so lucky to even find such a position. For some, their innate talent and the dedication to pursue their passion will overcome any practical considerations…and Godspeed to them!

A more practical alternative for the aviation buff might be to enroll in a college or university which offers a degree in mechanical or aeronautical engineering. With such credentials, the chances of a stable and rewarding career in aviation are significantly improved – compared to flying. My father had such a career.

My Father and the Perfect Solution

My Father had a lifelong passion for airplanes and aviation along with virtually no initial chance, whatsoever, to embrace his passion or even to experience a rewarding career in the field. He had but one year of high school before coming face-to-face with the necessity of going to work to help support his family during the Depression. He went from the bicycle assembly shop at Arnold Schwinn in Chicago in 1940  (the year I was born)  to senior mechanical design engineer/engineering manager at United Air Lines many years prior to his retiring (comfortably) in 1981 from United. He accomplished this very difficult feat through dedication, study, and hard work over many years.

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My father was a most uncommon man: You may read my prior posts on him for the details. Click here for: Aviation Scrapbook: A Long-Lost Treasure From the Attic (3-16-14); The Work Ethic and the Dignity of Excellence  (9-15-13); Family Funnies / Great Laughs! (6-9-13).

The point, here, is that he was able to do important work in aviation and to be around airplanes for the better portion of his career by making judicious choices along the way. Ultimately, he made his youthful dream come true by earning his private pilot’s license and flying single engine airplanes under the auspices of United’s employee flying club. Although he would have loved to fly for United as a career, he forged an alternate pathway to get up-close-and-personal to his great passion – airplanes and aviation. His career with United spanned thirty-seven years, capped by a comfortable retirement of eleven years before he passed away. He had aspects of both passion and stable profession over all those years.

Is the Passion vs. Profession Quandary Always Easy to Resolve?

Not really. For would-be artists, dancers, musicians, and athletes whose passion is  to reach the upper echelons, there is no compromise with the all-out dedication and effort those fields require. Although there is inevitably a fallback position available to those who fall short of reaching the top in those fields, the long-term prospects and the financial security of those alternate livelihoods are typically problematic.

It would seem that only those imbued with extreme confidence in their innate talent (and dedication) – Charles Lindbergh, for example – should “risk all” by entering a potentially dead-end, one-way alley. The rest would be well-advised to hedge their bets and plot an alternate path – just in case! Even Lindbergh, with his warranted, great self-confidence and his passion to make aviation history, had a fallback position: As an experienced air-mail pilot. He did not need it.

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From Bing to Bix: Beiderbecke, That Is!

Last week’s post profiled Bing Crosby, an entertainer whose name is still widely recognized but whose historical importance and versatility as a performer are rarely appreciated. I like a good story – one with real interest, and the short life of this week’s subject easily fills the bill. So….here goes!

Bix Sig

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Few of you will recognize the name or the image. Most of you with an interest in music history and early jazz will readily identify the “Young Man With a Horn” as the enigmatic, genius Cornet player from the nineteen-twenties, Bix Beiderbecke. In the early nineteen-twenties, jazz was still in its formative stages as a musical art form. Emanating primarily from New Orleans after the turn of the twentieth century, it was begun and shaped by black musicians who imbued it with deep-south cultural experiences, primarily the blues tradition which echoed the travails and sorrows of the field hands who worked barely beyond what were once slave conditions.

If you follow my blog, you are aware that Louis Armstrong was one of those born into the New Orleans culture which gave jazz its start. The jazz art form was subsequently refined up the Mississippi River in bustling, vibrant Chicago.

Bix Beiderbecke was born in 1903, in Davenport, Iowa, to respectable, upper class parents – far from the breeding grounds of jazz clubs and speakeasies in New Orleans and Chicago. At two years of age, Bix was already showing signs of musical precociousness. He was playing the piano by three, and soon, he could play by ear after hearing the piece once. By ten years of age, Bix was spending time at the end of town, down by the riverfront dock, waiting for the excursion boats to come in from down south replete with on-board bands playing the new, infant jazz. He reportedly heard the cornet playing of Louis Armstrong who regularly worked these excursion boats early in his career.

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Around 1918, Bix’s older brother brought home a Victrola phonograph along with records featuring the “Original Dixieland Jazz Band.” That seemed to be the seminal event in young Beiderbecke’s life, for he was soon hooked by the hot dixieland jazz sounds like Tiger Rag which poured forth. He sat in front of the Victrola for hours playing along on his cornet.

Beiderbecke floundered in high school as he began to play cornet in local bands at the age of seventeen. His refined, merchant-class parents had always looked down upon the new music and those who played it: For them, the music and those who immersed themselves in it bordered on the degenerate. They saw no good future for their son in such avante-garde activities.

Bix was sent to an exclusive boarding school in Lake Forest, Illinois, to get his schooling back on track – an unfortunate choice on the parent’s part due to Lake Forest’s proximity to Chicago where, by the nineteen-twenties, all the real jazz action was happening. Chicago was the welcoming ticket for the many aspiring black musicians who took a chance and traveled up the Mississippi River seeking greater fame and fortune. Chicago filtered out the best from the rest of these.

Beiderbecke was attracted like a moth to the bright lights of Chicago and the aural pleasures it offered. After a few weeks of cutting classes and spending late nights in Chicago’s jazz clubs and speakeasies, Bix was expelled from Lake Forest and sent home. He made it a point while in Chicago to get to the South Side to hear King Oliver and his jazz band at the Lincoln Gardens. It was about that time, in 1922, that Louis Armstrong arrived in Chicago from New Orleans to join his boyhood mentor and idol, Joe “King” Oliver at the Gardens. It was from that point in time and place that Louis Armstrong’s long, storied career in music was launched.

By 1923, Beiderbecke was now living in Chicago after a brief stint back in Iowa with his parents. He had acquired a strong fancy for alcohol (Gin preferred), a taste undoubtedly reinforced during his earlier sojourns to Chicago. His drinking, along with his academic failure, combined to doom his tenure at Lake Forest. After working odds and ends of musical gigs while living in Chicago, Bix joined the Wolverine Orchestra in late 1923. The group took its name after their signature piece, “Jelly Roll” Morton’s Wolverine Blues.

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The Wolverine Orchestra with Bix on cornet: Early 1924

Then as now, “cutting a record” was the ultimate achievement for any performer or musical group. On February 18, 1924, the Wolverines made their first recording at the famous Gennett Records studio in Richmond, Indiana.

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The Wolverine Orchestra at Gennett Records: Feb. 18, 1924

I love this photo showing a young Bix, second from right! Look carefully at the Gennett “recording studio” where they, and so many other jazz pioneers made their first recordings. Note the “air-conditioning” in the form of two fans on the shelf. Note also the large “horns” which feed a black hole into which the sound travels to a stylus which grooves the master disc. Pictures of the “studio” show few changes during these years – from 1923 on; the same two fans are always present!

In those days, there were no microphones and no electronic amplification of the music being played. The recording process relied on adequate sound-pressure coming from the musician’s instruments to cut record grooves.

An interesting sidebar at Gennett Records: When King Oliver’s group with Louis Armstrong first recorded their classic discs in 1923, Armstrong, with his power-playing on the cornet, was moved back away from the pick-up horn and into the hallway of the studio to prevent his robust sound from drowning out the rest of the group on the recordings!

Bix in the Big-Time: The Making of a Jazz Legend

In October of 1926, Bix Beidebecke joined the Jean Goldkette band out of Detroit. The band which was headquartered at the Graystone Ballroom in Detroit was well-known and regarded. Bix and the band opened at the famous Roseland Ballroom in New York City opposite one of the best jazz ensembles of the time – the all-black Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. The resulting “Battle of the Bands,” as it was billed by Roseland, left Goldkette’s group with top honors – quite an upsetting experience for the seasoned Henderson group.

These were the early days of jazz when bands were segregated – either wholly white or black. Black musicians had literally birthed and raised jazz to its adolescence by 1926, and they still largely defined its direction.

The boyish-looking young white man from Davenport, Iowa, playing cornet for Goldkette was, by now, turning heads in the jazz world with his pure tone and his innovative jazz phrasing. White and black musicians alike were very impressed with his fresh style, reminiscent in some ways of the pioneering innovations of Louis Armstrong. By 1926, Louis, himself, had made it a point to see and hear this young white player perform his very own pioneering jazz style.

“Ain’t None of Them Play Like Him Yet”

Adolphus “Doc” Cheatham, a legendary black musician whose trumpet playing spanned from the early nineteen-twenties to well into his nineties, and who knew all of the great ones, stated that many cornet/trumpet players back then, white and black, tried hard to imitate Beiderbecke’s unique tone and style of playing: As hard as they tried, they found it impossible, he concluded.

Perhaps the finest tribute to Beiderbecke and his talent came from the great Louis Armstrong himself: “Ain’t none of them play like him yet.”

Paul Whiteman: No Better Than This!

In October of 1927, Beiderbecke hit the top – an invitation to join the Paul Whiteman Orchestra…quickly accepted. When Whiteman came calling, few musicians turned him down. Even Bing Crosby’s young career got its kick-start as vocalist with the Whiteman Orchestra. Paul Whiteman, a violin player, had been billed as the “King of Jazz,” a decided misnomer even though he was a significant influence and his orchestra resided at the summit of the musical mountain. Perhaps you have heard that old tune, Whispering? Whiteman made that into a very big hit in the twenties. In 1924, he also premiered George Gershwin’s famous orchestral jazz composition, Rhapsody in Blue in New York City. Unfortunately, Bix’s arrival at music’s summit with the Whiteman Orchestra coincided with the beginning of his precipitous, personal fall.

Life in the Fast Lane – Then Suddenly Gone

Bix’s smooth run with Whiteman was to last no more than a year. By November of 1928, after a year of grueling touring and recording with Whiteman, Beiderbecke suffered a nervous breakdown in Cleveland. His troubles were unquestionably fueled by his love of gin and uncontrolled drinking which by this time had affected his health and his playing. Whiteman sent him home to his parents in Davenport to recover. When Beiderbecke returned after two such attempts at alcoholic recovery, Whiteman finally had to let him go. Beiderbecke spent his last months in a New York apartment in Queens where he died at twenty-eight years of age from failing health and pneumonia on August 6, 1931. Alcohol had literally robbed the cradle of one of music’s most illustrious, inventive musicians.

A Sad and Poignant Sidebar to the Bix Story

Bix’s body died from his flagrant misuse of alcohol, but his heart and soul likely were already dead from the steadfast lack of recognition and approval from his parents. In the euphoria of those occasions when Bix recorded with the Goldkette and Whiteman bands, he proudly sent copies of his records to his parents in Iowa to share with them his success. While he was at home in Davenport recuperating after his breakdown with the Whiteman band, Bix discovered the cache of records he had sent to his parents in celebration of his musical achievement stashed in a closet …the packages were never opened.

Knowing Bix: The Legend and the Cult

The life and career of Bix Beiderbecke holds a special fascination for most early jazz enthusiasts. For someone with so short a musical life, he has captured the imaginations of many fans over the decades – to the point of becoming a music legend.

I have his recordings, and I have listened. His cornet solos do stand apart from other players – I particularly love his rendition of I’m Coming, Virginia recorded with Frank Trumbauer in 1927 – a true classic. The fine jazz cornet player, Bobby Hackett, played that number in tribute to Bix at the memorable Benny Goodman jazz concert in Carnegie Hall, 1938. With respect to Hackett’s tribute, it is interesting for me to reflect upon my current, avid interest in Bix and my very first LP album purchased almost 60 years ago as a teenager – Bobby Hackett’s In a Mellow Mood! I still have that album – so many “connections” throughout life.

I had long wondered if the immense adulation heaped on Beiderbecke over all these years was, perhaps, a bit overdone. Was his legend the product of a cult mentality? After all, his short life has always seemed to me a series of shadows, barely glimpsed and recorded.

That all changed a few weeks ago when I stumbled upon a two hour DVD documentary on Bix filmed some years ago and released under the auspices of the Playboy Jazz Series. It is a film by Brigitte Berman, exquisitely crafted and featuring live interviews with many of the musicians who actually played with Bix, including Hoagy Carmichael of Stardust fame. I listened and heard the message voiced by so many who were there: Bix was a musical genius living in his own inner world. For him, music was life – there was nothing else…except alcohol. He never could “read” music in the true sense, something that bothered and hindered him, but a shortcoming that he overcame by virtue of his musical ear which allowed him to play anything he heard.

Bix’s improvisation skill was legendary. He often played without music even in Whiteman’s band. When asked to sit down with Beiderbecke and musically notate a piano composition of Bix’s, the poor producer found that whenever they had to run through a section of the piece several times, Bix played it differently each time through. The producer practically went nuts. Until he succeeded in getting some version down on musical staff paper, no one else could play the piece!

Here are the universally acknowledged attributes of his playing that the film highlighted through first-person testimony:

-His gorgeous tone on the instrument: “Each note like a small mallet hitting a chime,” to paraphrase his good friend, Hoagy Carmichael.

-His innate jazz phrasing and style which were so revolutionary coming from a white player in the early nineteen-twenties – and much of it was improvised on the spot! To repeat what Louis Armstrong said about the legions of  Bix’s contemporaries, white and black, who tried to imitate his playing: “Ain’t none of them play like him yet.”

-His social/historical impact. Beiderbecke and Armstrong reportedly met on at least one occasion to jam into the wee morning hours. This was no so-called “cutting” session to see who could outplay the other; by all accounts, it was a friendly, joyful collaboration between two virtuoso musicians wishing to make great music together. Such informal fraternity between black and white players was not at all unusual in those early days, although it was not until the mid-nineteen-thirties that mixed musical groups were seen performing. Bix was one of the first white players whose abilities the black jazz pioneers could relate to and respect. In that historical and human sense, he was a most interesting and important character.

The film by Ms. Berman is titled, simply, Bix and wonderfully reconstructs the aura of the jazz age and what it was like to be a musician during this most exciting and colorful period. The interviews and the many photographs of ballrooms and band ephemera help paint the vibrant picture it so successfully projects. I am a “Bix believer” after listening to his music and viewing the film’s testimonials from musical colleagues who fully support the legend.

The opening photos of this blog show Bix and his Vincent Bach “Stradivarius” model cornet. The Bach “Stradivarius” instrument was a legend in itself among horn players in those early days. Here is the factory production ticket for one of Bix’s horns, dated Feb.,1927. Note the name “Bix” engraved on the cornet bell. The horn is one fine reminder of the life and legend of Bix Beiderbecke.

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A Most Unbelievable Encounter, Thanks to Lawrence Welk

I would like to relate one of the most interesting experiences I have ever had in all my seventy-three years on this good earth. It involves family genealogy – always an intriguing topic.

Just a bit of family background will set the stage. Our young family of four moved from Chicago, Illinois, to California in 1948 – when I was eight years old. Virtually all our relatives lived and remained in Chicago, except for two of my dad’s three brothers. One, my Uncle Gil, had settled in the Los Angeles area by the late nineteen-forties. In those days of infrequent travel and poor communications, Gil and his young family were the only relatives we saw to any extent after moving to California – and that occurred on only a few occasions over the decades. I, sadly, never saw my grandparents after 1951 when we made a short vacation visit.

Unlike my wife’s extended family and so many others that we know, I have only vague memories of my family roots in Chicago, and virtually no keepsakes in the form of letters, mementos, diaries, etc. from my distant past. I have done some sleuthing on Ancestry.com and was able to pull up immigration papers and old Chicago addresses concerning my forebears. Otherwise, much of my family history has remained an intriguing mystery to me; the personalities who comprise that history, live only in the shadows of my mind and memory.

I was long aware that there was one other distant relation living in Los Angeles in the early part of the last century, and that was the brother of my paternal grandfather – my Dad’s uncle who happened also to be named Gil(bert). He and his wife Louise had settled in the Los Angeles area by the nineteen-twenties. Chicago was his birthplace.

“Gil and Louise” were, to me, only names, having never seen them before even in photographs. Little did I know about a year ago, that I was about to meet them up-close-and-personal. How would I even know that I had met them? That is where the fun begins!

Last year, I was on our living room floor doing stretching exercises (yoga) in front of our television. One of Lawrence Welk’s many old, weekly, live television shows was playing on our DVR (digital video recorder). Being a big band fan, I enjoy much of his music; where else can one see and hear a top-flight big band performance these days?  Of course, the many Welk shows I have recorded from recent PBS re-broadcasts date way back from the mid-fifties to the early- eighties. Lawrence Welk loved his music, pretty ladies, and dancing, in that approximate order; accordingly, his live studio audiences were periodically caught on camera as they happily danced to Welk’s trademark “Champagne Music.”

The particular show I was watching was called “From Polkas to Classics.” The band was playing a somewhat mundane, but bouncy dance number, and the camera was panning the dancers, couple by couple, quite close-up.

All of a sudden the face of an older gentleman dances into the picture with his lady partner in-tow. In mid-stretch, I took one glance and sat up with a start! I blurted out, “That is a Kubitz!” I did not know who it was, but I knew it had to be a “Kubitz” based on body-type and, especially, the facial characteristics and expressions.

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Immediately, using that wonderful feature called “electronic rewind,” I went over and over the fifteen or twenty seconds of footage, even stopping at certain points to “freeze the frame.”

Who is that person? I knew almost immediately that, despite the strong facial resemblance, it could not be my Uncle Gil because this gentleman was too old, in the nineteen-sixties, to be him. After some thought, I settled on a possibility: My dad’s Uncle Gil…and his wife, Louise! These kinds of identity questions are often fraught with uncertainty: “Looks a lot like so-and-so, but…maybe not.” No, I was absolutely convinced – at first glance – that I was seeing a family ancestor for the first time – based solely on looks. It was truly startling.

I needed to do some detective work, so I set to it. To begin with, the Welk show in question was taped in Hollwood, in 1967. Further sleuthing revealed the fact that Gilbert Irving Kubitz died in 1969, in the Los Angeles area, at the age of seventy-nine. Age, location, and circumstances all support my belief that I had just met my Great-Uncle Gil through the magic of television and the subsequent technology which allows such images to be preserved and reproduced at will.

The facial features and expressions, in all respects, eerily called to mind my father – now gone since 1992. When that face danced into the camera range, I knew immediately that the message I was receiving was not merely electronic in nature, but genetic, as well. Along with my dad, the images ring true with my uncle Gil and my grandfather, Elmer Kubitz – even though I saw little of them both. Gil and his wife, Virgie, who are now both gone, were here for my mother’s funeral service in 1989. My vivid recollections of Gil, at that time, lend so much additional credence to my contention that the television images are those of Great-Uncle Gil Kubitz. The similarities to my dad, my grandfather, and my uncle are striking.

After viewing the pictures, my cousin Nancy – originally from Chicago, also – said she is convinced that the images are, indeed, of Great-Uncle Gil and Louise. Nancy spent many of her young years around Grandpa Elmer and verifies the uncanny resemblance that certainly would identify them as brothers.

If I have made a mistake in identity, I sincerely apologize to the person(s) in the images – but I do not think so! I could not be more certain. Genetics is a powerful force.

Note: I posted earlier on my Chicago and family background in Chicago Roots, July 14, 2013, available in my blog archives.

 

 

 

 

 

Cowboy / Western Music – from Chicago

Meet Clay, Bob, and Bill Mason of the Circle-J Ranch – from Chicago, circa 1946. I will always remember them and the several other performers of the Circle-J western stage show. Why? Because that singing/performing group first opened my eyes, as a lad of age six, to the spark and excitement of live music and entertainment; it was my first taste, up-close-and-personal of the “sparkle” of show-biz!

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The experience was personal because Chuck Maitzen (“Clay Mason” was his stage name), his wife and two little girls were close family friends in Chicago. Chuck and his identical twin brothers, Bob and Bill, headlined the Circle-J western music show which performed regularly in the Chicago area; they also had a weekly program on a local Chicago radio station. Because my father had training in radio electronics during World War Two, Chuck asked him to operate the public-address system at Circle-J performances.

I recall vividly the evening that my mother and I were in the audience at their performance in a local high school auditorium. Dad was working the public- address system for the show that night, as usual. I recall the footlights and the overhead lighting which bathed the stage in a brilliant light. I recall the colorful and stylish western outfits of the performers. Most of all, I recall the opening number when Chuck counted off the downbeat and the group launched into a swinging western number, steel guitar soaring above all. I was so enthralled by that sudden rush of western swing melody that my behind must have elevated an inch or two off the seat at that precise moment!

My younger sister and I never had much during those early years in terms of exposure to entertainment, the pleasures of eating-out, neat toys, and extra amenities. We did have two wonderful parents who loved us and slowly built a comfortable life after years of hard work. So…at that young age, the Circle-J experience hit me like a bolt of lightning. No one in our extended Chicago family had any musical background whatsoever, so the instant enlightenment brought about by the music and entertainment of that evening was deeply implanted within me. I never forgot the experience through all those years.

I suppose the band’s gal vocalist, an exceptionally pretty woman named Helen Anderson, was the very first “crush” I ever had. I just thought she was beautiful, which she was, and she sang so “pretty.” I noticed her a lot, that evening!

Helen Anderson, Circle J Ranch

One other fascinating character on stage was the bass player, a fellow who had a very good comedic sense, an expressive face, and a bow-tie with electric lights that would flash on and off as he played and periodically twirled that big bass fiddle on its little spindle-stand.

In many ways, the latter half of the forties was a great time in this country as people mobilized toward a new prosperity after sacrificing so much during the war. It was a simpler time than today in many ways, a time when a young lad like me from a working-class family could sit in the first ten rows at a western musical show in a large high school auditorium and be thrilled by the spectacle on stage. The entertainment environment was close and intimate – not like the high-priced, impersonal mega-concerts of today which too often feature more production and less pure talent.

Chuck Maitzen & Circle J Ranch

Thanks, Circle-J, for the wonderful experience!

Note the bass player at right-front with bow tie; also note the steel guitar, second from the end, right-back row. How I do love the western sound of a steel guitar – rarely heard these days – until last year, when I heard the legendary Bobby Black at Santa Clarita; more on that in a future post on the Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival. The festival is an annual event held at Gene Autry’s sprawling old cowboy movie set located north-west of Los Angeles. My wife and I will, once again, be attending this year’s edition, and we look forward to more fantastic cowboy/western music and poetry. Our first time there nine years ago awakened, in me, many fond memories of Chicago and the Circle-J.

For more on my relationship with music over the years since the Circle-J, click on “CATEGORIES” in the right-hand column of the “Home” page and click on “Music.”