Friday, November 24, 2006


Today I learned that Anita O’Day died, at 87. I just mentioned her yesterday, after not having thought of her for years. Does that happen to you? It seems to happen to me all the time. Coincidence, I guess, but it doesn’t feel like it. I was talking about another “white” female jazz singer who was performing and recording when I was a kid, Irene Kral, no relation as far as I know to the contemporary singer, Diana Krall, (I think that’s how you spell her name, you know who I mean, Elvis Costello’s mate and a darling of the critics).

Irene Kral was the least known white female jazz singer of the 1950s and early 1960s, when I played jazz in bars in New Jersey and New York—and after I joined the service in 1962 in various other cities—either with small combos, or solo as my version of “the piano man”. But she was one of my favorites, and still is.

The most well known white female jazz singer then was probably Peggy Lee, though I suppose today she’d be considered “pop”. The most appreciated white female singer in jazz-musician circles, in my experience of those times, was Anita O’Day. Others had their moment of popularity as well, like Annie Ross, mostly as one-third of the trio Lambert Hendricks & Ross, or Chris Connors or even Keely Smith, though Smith too would be probably considered “pop” now. I wonder who I’m forgetting, as I often wonder about memory and history. How does an Irene Kral become forgotten, or anyone who had an impact on the culture or politics or even sometimes science of a particular time.

Or the gossip that often passes as “history” now. At the time, Anita O’Day and Annie Ross were rumored to be heroin addicts, Chris Connors a lesbian, and Keely Smith a battered wife (of Louis Prima). Some of these rumors I heard from people quite close to these singers, but nonetheless I had no personal knowledge of. That didn’t stop me from passing on the gossip, some of which has popped up in biographies and histories of that time, and I wonder how rumors like that, about such private behaviors, could ever be truly proven, and regret having contributed to them in however minor a way.

Having lived through some history now myself, I have personal experience of how it gets written and rewritten. Whenever I do some research on a memory of mine, I often discover aspects of the event or person I’m researching that I had forgotten or never knew. Or more often, people and events that have been left out that at the time seemed so much more crucial to me then, than what is now included.

I’ve noticed this lately with various histories of the “downtown” scene of New York in the 1960s and/or seventies and even eighties. All of which I experienced personally, even in the years in those decades when I was living elsewhere (I was around, working and or living in lower Manhattan from the late 1950s to '62, for most of 1966, and from 1975 to 1982. And I worked various gigs there, including playing music or reading my poetry or later acting on stage or in films or TV, during all the years in between and since. And yet, when I read recent histories of the scenes I was most familiar with, I notice all kinds of people who were important to those scenes have been left out, and others who had nothing to do with it, included!

The most obvious reason for this that I can see is—those included now who weren’t even a part of it or so incidental no one would have noticed if they were, have since attained either some fame or power or both in today’s world, and those excluded or simply forgotten have lost what fame and/or power they had then.

In some ways it’s disheartening to experience this, as it is to experience the eclipse of anyone’s reputation or popularity whose work or persona you dig and want to see others have the opportunity to. Hell, it’s happened to me. I’ve read autobiographies or memoirs or articles or books about how someone came to create the work they become famous for, and at the time they created that work, or maybe were just starting out, they couldn’t stop telling me how much my work or life had influenced them, or how much my support or friendship or mentorship had made it all possible. And then seemed to have forgotten that, or changed their minds about it, when they came to tell their story.

I can’t fault them, though I used to, because now I’m old enough to know that everyone has the right to rewrite their own story, and everyone has the right to change or forget or decide to leave out any part of it they like. I’ve certainly done just that. But when outsiders, those who weren’t there and didn’t actually experience the times and events and people they’re writing about, pretend to be recording history and get things all mixed up, leaving out crucial parts and including things that weren’t a part of the time or scene they’re writing of, it feeds my love of the forgotten, the obscure, the footnoted, the incidental and the so-called “minor” figures and works of cultural, political and even scientific "history".

Sometimes someone can go from enormous presence in a period to being left out entirely. My favorite writer as a young man, and still one of my favorites, is William Saroyan. He was so famous in the 1930s, the term “Saroyanesque” became part of the language. He had the kind of fame Elvis or Ali has had in my lifetime. His books and plays influenced a lot of what became signature about the 1930s and early '40s, including the sentimental but usually comic focus on eccentric characters from the ethnic lower classes (often expressed in movies and on Broadway through a more white bread or at least not as ethnic filter, ala the play and movie YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU).

Because of Saroyan’s stubborn resistance to any kind of authority, or uniformity, or violence, he was not as blindly supportive of the patriotic perspective of WWII as most of his generation was. When he wrote THE ADVENTURES OF WESLEY JACKSON, a novel based on his experiences in England as a draftee in the Army, extrapolating from that experience and his strong feelings against any kind of nationalism (despite his sentimentalism about Armenia, the homeland of his parents and ancestors) he had his main character captured by the Germans and kept in a P.O.W. camp under circumstances much more pleasant than anything being portrayed at the time, or since, and unrealistic in terms of what history has recorded. He made the Germans seem not unlike the English and Americans, or at least just as human, which seemed to be the point he was trying to make, in the midst of a war everyone else saw, and often rightfully so, as truly a battle between “good and evil”, but he saw as just more of the same old human tendency to dehumanize the enemy.

Although his popularity with the fans among his readers continued for decades after that, including me after I discovered his first big collection of short stories when I was still a teenager in the 1950s—THE DARING YOUNG MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE—his reputation with critics never recovered from the attacks that occurred after the publication of THE ADVENTURES OF WESLEY JACKSON. Because the attacks often came from Jewish critics, who found an indirect form of anti-Semitism in Saroyan’s humanizing of German soldiers and P. O. W. camps, it probably contributed to what became the rumor that turned into history, Saroyan’s supposed anti-Semitic reaction to the discovery after they were married of his first and second and only wife’s Jewish ancestry.

Who knows what he really felt, but as a fan who has over three big bookcase shelves filled with books by or about Saroyan, as well as having seen or possess copies of unpublished manuscripts and letters, it’s pretty clear that Saroyan dated many women who happened to be Jewish, and had many friends who were, including “the Jewish genius” Artie Shaw, and wrote of Jewish characters in a much more sympathetic and even realistic way than many of the now more renowned writers of that time (Hemingway et. al.). But I don’t know what was really in his heart any more than anyone else does. I just know the writing and see no signs of anti-Semitism there, especially considering what can be found in the writing of so many of his contemporaries.

When I finally met him, toward the end of his life, he was like a lot of famous people I met after they were famous, often long after, he seemed to be some kind of caricature of what he wanted people to see or thought they wanted to see. What others might call a “blowhard” or so egocentric or Narcissistic there seemed to be no interest in anyone but himself. But it didn’t change my love of his work or my disappointment that it, and his reputation, have fallen so low since those times he had such a large impact on.

Anyway, not to get carried away, but what is a blog for otherwise, this guy’s writing saved my life, made me feel like there was someone out there who understood the way I thought and felt, who saw things often the way I did, who, like me, was accused of being too “sentimental” or “romantic” in our writing or stance in relation to the world, and yet based that writing on the realities we had personally experienced and witnessed that others who put us down for our perspective never came close to.

There are plenty of other examples of those who end up on “the rubbish heap of history” or in the vicinity of it, who deserve better in my opinion. You probably have a list of your own. I’ve written too much already to spend any more time making my own list right now, but I will in the future. And it will start with Irene Kral.


AlamedaTom said...

Thanks Lal. Hadn't thought of him for a long while. Remember these? ........

“In the time of your life, live - so that in that wondrous time you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world, but shall smile to the infinite variety and mystery of it.”


“I can't hate for long. It isn't worth it.”


“The most solid advice for a writer is this, I think: Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell. And when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough”

AlamedaTom said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Lally said...

Yeah man, I love those quotes. Did you know he was Kerouac's favorite writer? Here's another quote from his first memoir, HERE COMES THERE GOES YOU KNOW WHO:
"To oversimplify for a moment, it may be said that life stinks, the human experience stinks, every individual stinks, and having said that, from having known the truth of it, the validity of it, you begin to come out from under when you reply to this truth by saying, So what? By saying, Even so."

Anonymous said...

I read the one that starts out talking about Anita O'Day. I saw her one time on a documentary and was blown away. She was scatting and trading riffs with the drummer at an incredible pace. Reading your writing is like having you right in the room talking to me.
I recently wrote a friend of mine about relating the past to the
present, which somewhat relates to several points you were making. It's just nearly impossible to convey: "What's left behind reveals only the tip of the iceberg
to those who come after. Just look at the events in our lives. No description to someone who hasn't been there and lived it will ever
convey the full experience."
Marty, one of Lally's brothers

Anonymous said...

couple you forgot:
june christy
julie london