Close-up image of a record playing on a turntable.
Photo by Hernán Piñera via Flickr. Licensed under CC.

Philip’s house was bigger than ours, and more run down. The hockey equipment stacked against the wall of the entryway spilled across the floor, which was scuffed by sneakers and boots and the Bauer ice skates that were the chief means of reckoning with the long Michigan winter.

The kitchen, the linoleum headquarters of Philip’s mother, was in back. Seated at a small table, her hair in curlers, she spoke on the phone or worked through the newspaper with an ashtray and cigarettes at her side.

In the early 1970s, I spent as much time at Philip’s house as his parents would allow, and Philip’s parents were lenient. I don’t remember ever having eaten anything there that my own mother would have identified as dinner. Breakfast was the prevailing meal; cereal was the champion of breakfasts.

An exhausted sofa squatted in the living room, beside an armchair that matched its fatigue pound for pound, year for year, boy for boy. Positioned around the furniture were the objects that gave Philip’s family meaning and identity. A stereo turntable rested atop a kind of pulpit, appropriate to the reverence in which it was held. The speakers were the most powerful I had heard. When the volume rose, they rattled the windows and pushed music out to the sidewalk and street beyond.

Guitars, amps, cords, cases, and microphones, along with various instruments—in storage, on loan, or in transit—all found a place on the first floor. They appeared, disappeared, and reappeared at the sole discretion of Philip’s older brother, Billy.

A skinny, long-haired underclassman at the local public high school, Billy was already cashing checks as a bass player. His parents treated him the way their elders might have treated a son bound for the seminary. His gleaming black Rickenbacker was their version of a new Buick, something in which the entire family took pride. The Rickenbacker appeared immune from profane concerns such as housekeeping; it stayed where Billy put it down.

Philip and I were in the fifth grade. He was the first musician I had ever met, a guitar player and singer in a rock trio. The drummer, also a friend, lived down the street. When they played “House of the Rising Sun,” or another of the handful of standards that the band knew, I could only marvel in silence. Until I met Philip, it hadn’t occurred to me that a kid my age could do that. It hadn’t occurred to Philip why any kid wouldn’t.

Philip’s dad was a used-car salesman and the first cool adult I’d ever seen up close. After work, he would park his coupe in front of the house. Within minutes of his arrival, the house transformed and the evening took shape. Weekend nights jumped, and summer weekends were the jumpingest. Highballs were distributed to the neighbors, cigarettes were lighted all around, and a succession of 33 rpm jazz records hit the turntable.

Holding a cigarette and a cocktail glass in one hand, Philip’s dad would take an LP out of its sleeve, place it on the turntable, and adjust the stereo nobs, which seemed to know only one direction.

This was no place for background music, tinkling felicitously beneath polite conversation. Philip’s dad played the kind of jazz that punched you square and hard. He liked loudmouth trombones, indignant saxophones, the kind of sassy trumpets that would never suffer a mute. The adults pushed against the sound, recoiled, laughed. You had to exert yourself or the horns pinned you where you stood. The Jazz Crusaders (they shortened their name to The Crusaders around this time) were the house band.

I didn’t know what frustrations might have traveled home from the used-car lot. Or how the long, slow, and then suddenly precipitous decline of Detroit, 20 miles straight down Woodward Avenue and still traumatized by the burning and tear gas of a few years earlier, might have forced their way into a working man’s soul. But the piston beat and hammerjack horns of the living room were enough to sandblast the most jangled nerves, and the amber swirling in his glass must have soothed whatever frayed ends remained.

Philip’s father, tall and handsome, with a full head of brown hair, was a gregarious master of ceremonies. He expanded in the company of adults. Highballs and horns transformed Philip’s mother more. In makeup and lipstick, she looked more like the women on TV shows, pretty, feline, with something on her mind. Hair up, cigarette glowing, she rode shotgun into the evening.

Often, Philip’s parents were joined by an older couple who lived across the street. Each winter, they erected an ice rink on their side lot which, for as long as the air remained frozen, was the center of the universe for neighborhood kids. At night, the rink was bright from strands of overhead lights and featured strictly scheduled hours for hockey or free skating. Older kids flirted. Younger ones devised games or simply went round and round until it was time to go home.

Despite passing hours at their rink, and seeing them in Philip’s living room, I don’t remember ever having been introduced to the neighbors. They were generic grown-ups, a plain adult wall against which the bright colors of Philip’s parents appeared more vivid.

When the needle hit the first record, it signaled time for the boys—Philip’s younger brother, Peter, sometimes tagged along with us—to bolt outside or retreat upstairs. By day, we had the run of the place, but jazz and cocktails were strictly adult swim. My glimpses of that world, stolen in the seconds before the signal to scram, offered evidence of an alternate universe. Adults understood fun in this other place, and they seemed pretty good at it.

* * *

Years later, listening to Johnny Hartman croon Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” I didn’t conjure Paris or uptown society, as the lyrics advised. It was Philip’s living room that came rushing forward.

I used to visit all the very gay places,
Those come what may places
Where one relaxes on the axis
Of the wheel of life
To get the feel of life
From jazz and cocktails.

Jazz and cocktails. Strayhorn, as it happened, hadn’t known much more about that particular alchemy than I had when I watched Philip’s parents launch their evenings. He was a teenager in Pittsburgh when he began writing “Lush Life,” his sodden, je m’en fous hymn to weary cosmopolitans and the subtle gradients of longing.

The girls I knew had sad and sullen gray faces
With distingue traces
That used to be there, you could see where
They’d been washed away
By too many through the day
Twelve o’clock tales.

The song’s narrator takes a week in Paris to “ease the bite” of an unrequited love. Its real-world author, gay and black in a nation that delighted in crushing gays and blacks either separately or together, had rarely been outside Pittsburgh, and never outside the US. Strayhorn’s genius may have afforded a thin veneer of armor against the brute realities of a Depression-era steel town, but it couldn’t possibly have been a match for them.

The biographer David Hajdu wrote that Strayhorn had worked up a version of the song by age 17, when friends first heard it. The boy’s jazz and cocktails were pure aspiration. From whatever sources he could muster—movie dialogue, a lingering glance, a certain kind of woman’s sigh—Strayhorn had invented a way of living and then conjured, too, his fatigue with the life he had only just invented.

The weary side of jazz and cocktails was something I knew well. If electricity flowed like whiskey at Philip’s house, the scene in my parent’s living room was akin to a plug left dangling, half-yanked, from a wall socket.

My house was about a five-minute walk from Philip’s, a left and a right around two corners. Our stereo was in the family room, behind the galley kitchen and adjacent dining room. The house was small, though, so the music easily reached the living room on the opposite side of the kitchen.

After work, and a glum, efficient dinner, my father settled into a cantaloupe-colored Queen Anne armchair in the living room. On rare occasions, my mother would occupy its tangerine twin for a brief time before retreating to safer space in the family room or upstairs. Typically, my father sat alone with the essence of the evening, liquor and ice encased in glass. Music wafted in, for a brief while, from the Panasonic turntable and speakers at the back of the house.

Like Philip’s father, Pop was a salesman: office equipment. He’d been transferred to Michigan from Ohio, where he’d been transferred from Connecticut, where he’d been transferred from New Jersey. We were about to move again.

In previous and future homes, the turntable was located nearer my father’s chair, which was marked by an oval stain at the point where the back of his head rested against the fabric. In Michigan, an extra room between stereo and throne complicated the logistics, adding perhaps 16 seconds to a round trip. The distance became more of a deterrent as night advanced.

We had been a big family. But in the preceding years, my oldest sister had gotten married, and the next three oldest siblings had left for college and not returned. The small house in Michigan was made tighter by excess furniture, the residue of a larger household, which had accompanied us from Ohio. There were only two kids at home now, but instead of more space we had less.

During our two years in Michigan, Herb Alpert and Dionne Warwick had a good run on the turntable. Each represented a willful defiance of my father’s predicament. Warwick, shimmying provocatively, supplied two dimensions of sexual energy on her album cover and several more in her kittenish renderings of the Burt Bacharach-Hal David canon.

Alpert’s jaunty, optimistic horns were an even sharper contrast to the prevailing gloom. It wasn’t only Detroit that was going to hell. The Vietnam War had entered the worst years of its grinding run. My brother had a low draft number and uncertain prospects for ducking military service after college.

Worse, Richard Nixon was president. Nixon was the true north of my father’s political compass. Through trials domestic and foreign, wars hot or cold, Pop could always find his bearings by positioning himself opposite Nixon, whom he singularly detested.

Things were precarious at work, too. My father had just entered his sixties, and the company had begun pushing him toward retirement even though he still desperately needed a paycheck.

Warwick and Alpert offered exit ramps for a man in need of a getaway. Together with my father they formed an awkward trio—two musicians bursting with life and a devoted listener seeping vitality.

There was another musician, however, who seemed to meet, and match, my father in the murky twilight of his evenings. It was Billy Strayhorn’s lifelong collaborator, Duke Ellington. And the Ellington record that cushioned my father as he fell, that spoke to him, and for him, through countless spins, was Ellington Indigos.

Because we moved so frequently, I retrace my childhood via location. My dog almost died outside the house in Dublin, Ohio—that means first grade. I’ve tried to remember in which house Ellington Indigos made its debut. I can’t. Nor do I know why my father chose that album, among the dozens recorded by Ellington, as the answer to his long-distance call.

The record was a staple of evenings at home, its scratched surface crackling beneath the phonograph needle. My father was hard on LPs and got harder as the night wore on. The album cover, with the circular outline of the LP clearly visible through the cardboard, was worn and fading.

Pop loved clever lyrics. “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good” might well have been his theme song. Or perhaps it was Bunny Berigan’s sly “I Can’t Get Started.” The tall, tan, young, and lovely “Girl from Ipanema” was for years the object of his unrequited love.

Ellington Indigos, by contrast, is almost entirely instrumental; only “Autumn Leaves” has a vocal, by Ozzie Bailey. Ellington’s piano sets the album’s contemplative tone and deliberate pace, and the horns of Clark Terry, Johnny Hodges, and other Ellington stars add shape and color.

Indigo, of course, is an especially dark hue of blue. The album moves like an ocean, alternately sweeping in with rich waves of orchestration and retreating under quiet, small-group arrangements and mournful solos that skitter along the receding surf. The overall effect is melancholy, but of a very sophisticated sort. The music is wistful, a little in its cups, swaying like a boat adrift on a gentle, but still deep and potentially troubled sea. It’s the sort of thing young Strayhorn might have been aiming at with “Lush Life.”

Recorded in the fall of 1957, Ellington Indigos doesn’t have a single Strayhorn composition among its ten songs, though he seems to have done some arranging on the album. It’s a mixture of Ellington collaborations with other songwriters and his band working through standards by Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Johnny Mercer, and others.

With no lyrics to guide me, I inadvertently juxtaposed the names of two of my favorite songs on the album. I always thought the band’s rendition of “Tenderly,” which pits a soft, breezy solo from clarinetist Jimmy Hamilton against a swooping background of horns, was instead “Willow Weep for Me,” which precedes “Tenderly” on the B side. I thought I heard trees bending in the wind; surely this was the song about willows.

I must have been humming it one day in the car, after we had moved from Michigan to New Jersey (again), when my mother, who was not a welcome party to my musical alliances, asked if it was “Tenderly” that I was purring. I told her it was “Willow.” When she insisted, I ended the discussion with a child’s nasty rebuke.

I was surprised, years later, to learn that Ellington Indigos is not a renowned work. It’s not even Ellington’s most significant record of 1958, when “Black, Brown, and Beige” appeared. Ellington’s music is the subject of endless commentary and criticism, but not much is devoted to Ellington Indigos.

I don’t recall attributing any larger social import to my father’s admiration for jazz in general or Ellington in particular. We lived in all-white neighborhoods and I attended all-white schools. I had little comprehension of race beyond noting the obvious: that black people got the short end of America’s stick and that my family thought that situation unfair without taking it too personally.

That the aristocratic “Duke” exuded class and sophistication—neither of which my father would ever have claimed for himself—only made his music more appealing. My father firmly believed that music is the most difficult of all arts and professions, and he placed musicians—certainly those he listened to—above himself in status and worth. I never asked my father how he arrived at this particular conviction; I was young enough when I first heard it to accept it as a law of gravity.

* * *

My father was born three years before Billy Strayhorn, at the opposite end of Pennsylvania, in Valley Forge. As a young man, in part to escape a cruel and drunken father, he drove long distances to hear the big bands of Harry James and Artie Shaw and lesser lights. Dance halls in Philadelphia, Allentown, and New York City were all within range of his home. I imagine him on those nights enjoying jazz as it was lived at Philip’s house: full-throated, rambunctious, bold, sexy.

He had a pinpoint hole in the top of his head, the product, he said, of a car wreck in his youth. As a young child I would climb up the back of chairs in which he sat and hover above, the better to spy down the mysterious hole. What had happened? Where? As an adult, I’ve long assumed the hole was a memento from a night spent with big horns and deep cocktails, the prelude to a long, reckless drive home.

In middle age, bourbon and gin fueled his music lust and also sedated it. His will to listen competed against the gathering weight of each successive drink. After three, the stereo would peter out. One more and the light began departing his eyes. Next, the hinge of his mouth would drop, leaving it gaping.

My father’s alcoholism was as rote and unromantic as anyone’s. But it was vastly better with jazz than without. The nights when he lacked the will to place vinyl on the turntable were the lowest—angry, bitter, solitary, entrapped. Jazz leached some of the toxins from the drink, and pushed back against the walls that threatened to close in and crush him. It left touches of beauty, distingue traces, lingering in the atmosphere after he had passed out.

Strayhorn acquired his own too-tight grip on cocktails even as he settled into, and alongside, musical greatness. Writing “Lush Life” as a teen, however, it seems improbable that he reckoned how broad and adaptable the basic recipe of jazz and cocktails would prove to be, or how portable and durable.

Romance is mush
Stifling those who strive
I’ll live a lush life in some small dive
And there I’ll be
While I rot with the rest
Of those whose lives are lonely too

Strayhorn conjured intellectual Paris, cool 52nd Street, the marginalized genius of black Harlem. Yet he captured something beating, desperate, alive, in a middle-class, white, suburban neighborhood where salesmen lived with their kids.

Bland and unremarkable, it was a come-what-may place all the same, a few square blocks where jazz and cocktails offered validation to desire, texture to the feel of life. The nights were bold and brassy at Philip’s house, tentative and remorseful at mine. But the music gave our fathers something to cling to, to help them weather the slights of another day.

I bought my own Ellington Indigos LP when I was in high school. Later, I bought it on compact disc. My father and I spoke little, usually in truncated, evasive language that neither speaker nor spoken to wished to clarify or extend. Ellington was an imperfect translator, but he was a viable, improvised bridge between us.

Ellington Indigos captured my father, now long deceased, in the wheel of his life. For 44 minutes and 36 seconds, the record allowed him to ascend to Ellington’s penthouse, to savor what Hajdu calls Duke’s “continental polish,” while simultaneously easing him into his own suburban anomie. It’s not an easy trick; both parts, aspiration and solace, were essential to steady the nerves, and bolster the spirit.

I’ll soon be the age my father was when we lived in Michigan. I almost never listen to Ellington Indigos anymore. Reaching for balance at the end of my own work day, a glass of something in hand, I don’t often have the mental energy to revisit those sounds.

It’s a gorgeous, lush album but the band might as well be playing under water. The music, the product of a 20th century genius, is overwhelmed, deluged, by a salesman from Valley Forge. It would be different, I suppose, if the music afforded a meaningful communion with the dead, or some useful accounting of the past. But jazz and cocktails can only do so much. My father hovers around most every note, pervasive. But he never makes a sound of his own.

Francis Wilkinson

Francis Wilkinson writes about politics for Bloomberg Opinion. He has written for The New York Times, Rolling Stone, The New Republic, The American Prospect, and many other publications.

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