Jazz is the Root by Angie M. Chatman

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close up of vinyl record spinning

Flickr Creative Commons: Patrick Brosset

There are three safe topics that I can talk about with my dad – the law, downhill skiing, and jazz. The first two are of interest solely to him, but the last we share. Listening to the sounds of Wes Montgomery’s guitar or Miles Davis’ trumpet reminds me of the good things about my childhood. One fuzzy scene glows in memory.

It’s snowing. The sound of the windshield wiper blades dragging across the window interrupts my sleep in the backseat of the family’s Chrysler. It’s warm inside; the heater is blasting like the outside wind. It smells of my father’s cigarette still burning in the ashtray. There is music playing from the tape deck.

The door opens and I am shoved over to make room for my younger brother and sister. We are in our pajamas, wrapped tightly in the afghans my grandmother has knitted. My mother climbs into the front seat, the snow glistening under the interior light on her shellacked hair and fur coat. I hear my father whistling to Wes Montgomery’s “Bumpin’ on Sunset” as he scrapes the snow off the side windows.

In school, music was the sacred hymns of the Catholic mass, and the only movement was to kneel or sit or stand at the appropriate intervals. At home, my mother turned on the radio where, at the far end of the dial, Motown blared through the speakers. We danced with the vacuum cleaner or the mop like Mickey Mouse in Fantasia. Outside with the rake or mower, we boogied and shimmied with the neighbors, all of whom had the radio tuned to the same station.

Then, in junior high, I transferred to a predominantly white private school on Chicago’s north side. Previously, I had attended a Catholic school, walking distance from our house. But at the end-of-the-school year conference with the assistant principal, Sister Mary Josephine, my parents were told that they should consider sending me to this other school. According to my parents, I would be challenged more at the new school, and have more opportunities.

I didn’t want more opportunity. I had already experienced the sting of being “too smart”, and a teacher’s pet. Once, I pretended to be sick in order to stay home from school because a girl had told me she was going to beat me up if I got another high score on a test. The girl’s threat was frightening, but that was minimal compared to my parents’ disappointment if I did less than my absolute best at school. The solution was to miss the test entirely.

In September, I entered my new school. It was a forty-minute drive, so I had to get up extra early—the same time as my father—in order to be on time. Most of my Catholic school classmates’ parents worked for the city in the Department of Parks and Recreation, or Streets and Sanitation, or the Transit Authority. A few dads commuted across the state line to Gary, Indiana, to work in the steel mills. My father was a lawyer and worked downtown; he rose early in order to beat the traffic. My mother worked, too; she was a teacher.

My friend at my new school was named Abby. Her mother volunteered, and her father was a commodities broker at the Chicago Board of Trade. I had never heard of commodities. At the dinner table I asked my parents who explained that they were the things that are grown like corn, wheat, rice, and soybeans. The broker part was just another word for a salesman. I wondered why Abby didn’t just say that her father sold corn and beans.

Sometimes, I visited Abby’s house after school. She didn’t have to clean her room. Once a week, Fannie would come and clean the entire house. She mopped, dusted, vacuumed, and washed the family’s clothes. Fannie was a large, black woman, older than my mother but younger than my grandmother. When she smiled a deep dimple appeared in each of her cheeks.  If I was visiting when Fannie was there, she would make Abby and me a snack of milk and cookies, or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. She cut the crusts off the bread and threw them away. My mother forbade us to throw away any food unless it had molded. I told my mother about Fannie; she said that I was to find out her last name in order to show her respect. From then on I called Fannie, Mrs. Lee.

On Abby’s bookshelf were stuffed animals, books, a record player and some albums. She pulled each one of those albums out and asked, “Have you heard of this band?” and she was shocked when every time I answered no.

I asked what kind of music it was. “Rock and roll,” she said, rolling her eyes.

I lay on her bed as she put one of the albums on the turntable. I don’t remember the song, but I do remember watching Abby dance. She shook her arms and legs wildly off beat; I laughed at the spectacle. Undaunted, she challenged me to show her how I danced. I switched to the stereo’s radio mode where I tuned the dial so that she could hear Earth, Wind and Fire “Sing a Song” through the static. I switched my hips and shook my booty; together we did the Bump.

At the end of the school year, Abby’s parents hosted a summer party for our entire class. Since I was on my best behavior, I took my empty paper plate and cup to the trash bin in the kitchen. Mrs. Lee was there at the sink washing dishes, wearing a white apron. She took the trash from my hands, “Thank you, baby, but cleaning up is my job. Your job,” she bent over to look me in the eye and continued as if sharing a secret, “is to always do well in school. Do you understand?” I nodded. “Good. Now go on out there and play.”

As the sky darkened, Abby put on some music: Led Zeppelin. Then, she put on her copy of Earth Wind and Fire. Together we sang “Stairway to Heaven” and “Reasons”, with exuberance and off key.

* * *

After college and graduate school, my first grownup job was in Rochester, New York. I had no family in upstate New York; I knew no one. In order to meet people I sought ways to get involved in my community. I looked for a church home. I tutored adults for Literacy Volunteers of America. And, since I had taken piano lessons from the age of six through high school, I searched for a music-related community organization. I found one.

I became the Night Angel.

I worked as an on-air personality for WGMC, 90.1 FM, a small, 2500-watt radio station. Housed in a high school building, the booth had two turntables and an 8-track tape machine to play the PSAs: public service announcements. Most of the space was dedicated to the station’s record collection—over 5,000 albums. Promptly at five, I’d leave my day job, eat dinner and be on air for the evening shift. The listening area was limited to Rochester and the surrounding suburbs and I worked from 7 to 10 p.m. for free. I had so much fun I begged for additional shifts and worked three or four times a week.

One weekend, shortly after I joined the WGMC DJ roster, my father came to visit me, flying in from business meetings in New York City. My parents had been divorced for over a dozen years; my father had remarried, and I was bitter, still. It was June, a week before Father’s Day, and the weather was warm, but without the wretched humidity that was to come. My father treated me to dinner at my favorite Italian restaurant. Over meatballs and lasagna I listened as he talked and talked and talked about his latest case. After a couple of hours of this, I yawned deeply and told him we needed to leave; I had to get up and go to work early. “You need to work on Saturday? You didn’t lose your job, did you? Are you finally going to go to law school?”

I filled him in on my volunteer gig; I’d offered to sub for another DJ at the radio station.

His eyes lit up. “That sounds great. How did you find that? What kind of music do you play?”

I could play whatever I wanted. Although WGMC was primarily a jazz radio station, as volunteers, the DJs had a lot of flexibility. My show was eclectic. I would start with Eric Clapton, fade into B.B. King and then segue into Lee Ritenour. I preferred instrumentalists to vocalists, but depending on my mood, in the course of a set I might play Bob James and Bill Evans, the Stones and Aerosmith, Shirley Horn and Joe Williams, Sade and Bonnie Raitt, Joni Mitchell and Chicago. Every once in a while, if I felt like it, I would take requests. The one constant was that my show would end with the Angela Bofill song, Angel of the Night.

My father sighed, “I have always wanted to do that.”

Touched, I invited him to come along with the warning that I had to be “live” by 8 a.m. The ultimate transgression in radio is silence; I would lose my slot on the roster, for good, if I wasn’t on air on time. He changed his flight arrangements and assured me he would be in the hotel lobby by seven.

My father is notorious for being late. But when I pulled up in the hotel’s circle drive at 6:50 in the morning, he was in the lobby holding a cup of coffee in one hand and a piece of toast, slathered in butter and grape jelly, in a napkin in the other hand.

When I was growing up, the emotions I’d witnessed in my father were mostly negative—disappointment was typical, so was frustration and anger, mixed in with heaping doses of weariness. On that June morning in the studio, as he scrutinized all the vinyl on the shelves, I had never seen my father so full of joy. His face shone simple and pure bliss. Since then, I have seen him in that state on a few more occasions; when one of his grandchildren was born, for example.

Every time my father took a record off the shelf he shared a story I had never before heard. The time he was able to buy his first LP with the tips he’d earned shining shoes, at eight, on a downtown street corner. One of his younger sisters broke it the same day and he had cried over the loss. I did know that he had played trumpet with his cousins and dreamed of a career as a musician. Once, he’d snuck into a club—he was underage—to see Dizzy blow his horn; that performance convinced my father that he would never be that good, so if he wanted to achieve the American Dream he had better get an education. And then there was the time, after he’d passed the bar, joined a firm and was on the partner track, when he had enough money to buy front row seats to hear Miles Davis at the Auditorium Theater in downtown Chicago not far from the corner where he had shined shoes as a child.

On the air after each set, I’d recap the name of the songs and artists I just played. “You’re listening to the Night Angel, even though it’s morning. I’m sitting in for Eric who will be back next week. Since it’s so early I’ve got Pops Williams assisting me with the lineup. Yes, my father is in the studio with me choosing the tunes. Up next, classic Lady Day, after this message from one of our generous sponsors.”

The coffee chilled and the jelly congealed on his toast as my father stacked the albums I was to play, rearranging the order, making notes for me to read, waiting for me to step out of the booth, and receive my instructions:

“Put this one on next.”

“Time to slow it down a little.”

“Make sure our listeners know that this cat learned from the master. You do know that’s Louis Armstrong, don’t you?”

“It’s about tradition, Angie. Tradition. And, jazz is the root. The only true American music. Every other music, just branches on the tree. You see what I’m saying? Jazz is the root.”

At the end of my shift, I changed my routine. Instead of queuing up Angela Bofill on the turntable, I allowed my father to choose the last song. I wasn’t surprised when he chose Dizzy, “Night in Tunisia”. As the music played, my father lifted his horn to his lips, pressed the imaginary keys with his fingers and sang, “da da da dah…badah bop de bop.” I picked up two pencils and accompanied him on the desk drums. After one last blow, my father laughed, pulled me up from my seat, and gathered me in a tight hug.

Because of a childhood friend, I appreciate rock and roll. Because of my father, I know jazz is the root.

angie m. chatmanAngie M. Chatman writes both fiction and nonfiction. Her essays have appeared in Women’s Edition, DM Magazine, fwriction: review, and elsewhere. Prior to earning her MFA from Queens University in Charlotte, Angie worked in marketing communications for various corporations. She now teaches at Tunxis Community College and blogs at tapestrywriters.com. Born and raised in Chicago, Angie, along with her husband, Eric, parent their three children in Connecticut.




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