MY FATHER SINGS
I grew up in a household where music was second nature,
always present, ingrained. My mother could sight read well and played not only
classical pieces on the piano (Schumann, Liszt, Chopin) but show tunes—the full
range of Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rogers and Hart, Irving Berlin, which she and I
sang together. The most joyous musical occasion was on holidays. My Uncle Max
Gail, who ran an orchestra agency in Detroit and was an excellent stride
pianist, came out to the house, along with his brother Bill, who played fine
alto sax and clarinet, Herbie the Drummer, and Max's beautiful wife, ex-Billy
Rose Aqua-Queen Aunt Betty, along with their seven kids, all of whom played
musical instruments and sang. We all took turns--as if we'd drawn numbers at
My own musical efforts began at age twelve, with a
homemade set of drums: the
snare made of half a Quaker Oats box with tissue paper taped to the bottom and
crossed by lines of thin wire. One cymbal was the lid from a Number Ten can of
beans; the other, smaller, was from Campbell's Soup—Cream of Mushroom I
believe. I made a set of wire brushes out of bristles I plucked from my
mother's prize broom. On this crude, strictly homegrown kit, I accompanied Teddy
Wilson recordings: Swish ta-da swish ta-da swish ta-da swish.
classical music, but I loved jazz. I would actually see and hear Art Tatum,
Erroll Garner, and Charlie Parker, live, at the Masonic Auditorium in
Detroit. I eventually switched from drums to piano, taking lessons from a
Pontiac, Michigan DJ named Dean Yokum, who came to our house. He liked to drink
and he would give my older brother a lesson for an hour, retire to the kitchen
with my father for an hour’s worth of Early Times, and when I got him for an
hour he was ripe. But he was an excellent teacher and after a year, I
could improvise. At age sixteen, I had
my own band that played for dances and proms in southeastern Michigan.
the years that followed, I would play at various venues with names such as the
456 Club (Brooklyn), The Hook and Ladder and Main Street Station (Wisconsin),
Cannery Row’s Doc’s Lab and the Carl Cherry Center for the Arts (California), Swing
City and Ami’s Bar: Scotch and Jazz (Japan). I played everything from folk rock
to jazz to blues to country to bossa nova--and with groups with names like The
Salty Dogs and Something Cool.
early years had been home-grown and there’s no place quite like home in which
to make music. The event that best defines what music means to me took place
when I returned home for my
parents' sixtieth wedding anniversary. Because my plane was late arriving, my mother had stepped
out to do some shopping and my father answered the door. He didn’t know who I
was. Following an aneurysm operation, his mind was failing, most of his memory
shot. When I told him who I was (his son!), he smiled.
Dor will be sorry she missed you," he said.
is my mother: short for Dorothy.
told my father I'd hang around a little longer (in the house I'd grown up in)
to see if Dor returned. He
smiled, but no longer that famous smile that could charm the pants right off a
snake. It was a genial, wistful smile now: puzzled but benign. I showed him
photographs of my own children, now adults, but each time I turned a page he
forgot what--or whom--he'd just seen. I said that I’d made them, just as he had
made me. He nodded his head slowly, appraising the situation.
you made me, Dad; then I made them."
mother returned and, once we got caught up on recent events (beyond who had
manufactured whom in the past), she excused herself to prepare dinner in the
kitchen. My father has always enjoyed hearing me play the piano, so I slipped
over to the spinet on which I’d learned and began
to play "Long Ago and Far Away."
I do not
recall my father singing during those sessions in the past when we all gathered
around the piano, but he did show his rich appreciation by way of tap-dancing
on smooth tiles in front of the fireplace, rendering his first-rate soft shoe: one
leg drawn back, tentative, sweeping, the other teasing the carpet, then both
legs sliding, smooth, caressing the marble, transforming that firm grid of tile
to sandpaper while I played “Tea for Two.” “Play the ditty, Son,” he’d say,
smiling in that way that everyone agreed was, like music itself, infectious.