story of the great clarinet mystery began in the
fall of 1982.
I was eighteen and renting a giant,
ramshackle house in one of the city's worst neighborhoods.
It was a seminal experience. In the middle of a
fair-sized city, just blocks away from the world's
third-largest art school, a tiny neo-Appalachian
culture flourished, complete with unpainted, leaning
houses and moonshine-selling grandmas (the neighborhood's
most successful matron lived two doors down).
During the day, things were pretty
quiet. Unshaven men wearing long johns, old jeans
and flannel shirts stood around on the street corner
all day, drinking beer out of paper bags and occasionally
pulling deer rifles out of the trunks of their twenty-five-year-old
cars. Sometimes, if they saw somebody they didn't
like, they'd sight down the barrels and then feign
surprise at finding their target in the cross hairs.
On week nights, the men sometimes
sped around the block and spun wheels. But they
usually kept quiet. Occasionally, you'd hear a teenage
couple bickering in the street. More often than
not, they'd have a baby stroller between them, and
the argument would end with the girl pulling the
stroller to safety as the boy ran away, shouting
shrill insults over his shoulder.
All fairly harmless stuff.
On Friday and Saturday nights,
livelier entertainment was provided at the beer
joint across the street; it came in the form of
traffic-stopping street brawls and the occasional
random pistol shot from one of the men racing by
in their ancient Chevys, intent on showing the younger
brawlers they weren't dead and dull yet.
I had just started college, and
the memory of the neighborhood has gotten entwined
with other things I was experiencing for the first
time. It was in that big, dusty house, for example,
that I first read Joyce's Ulysses. I had
a mattress thrown on the floor and the heat hadn't
been hooked up, and I'd never felt so clearly how
warm and comforting and uplifting a great novel
could be. So significant was that first experience
that, to this day, I remember spending most of my
time in that house chiefly this way: I'm lying under
the window with a book propped against my knees,
and the sky is ash-gray behind me.
fell into a pattern. In the day, I attended classes.
At night, I'd read. Or listen to tapes I'd gotten
from the public library: Richard Burton reading
Donne's poetry in a rich, mellifluous voice, T.S.
Eliot reading his own poetry in a constricted, nasal
oratory. Then I'd turn out the light, listen to
the street shows. After a while, though, I grew
bored, and I began leaving the radio on for company.
That's how I found Hazen Schumacher's "Jazz
Revisted" radio show.
It was my first real contact with
New Orleans style and swing jazz. Some of it—especially
the fast, superficial numbers—left me cold.
Despite its rhythms, it seemed to be written in
a language without real inflection. Some of it,
though, moved me deeply. Especially the early New
Orleans pieces. So I started recording some of the
songs. Then—it may have been the first or
second week of recording—I taped a mesmerizing
song. It seemed to capture the essence of how I
saw the world then: nostalgic, pensive, mournful,
yet ecstatic. (Ah, youth.)
Here, at the risk of revealing
the limits language encounters when trying to describe
complicated sounds, is a description of that song
as I heard it then:
It opens with a jaunty, tumbling
piano, playing a bouncy theme for a few measures,
then, with a flick-of-the-wrist flourish—a
confident gesture, that—the band proper enters,
with a rather understated but proud trumpet in the
lead. A clarinet, playing more quietly, shadows
the trumpet, while in the background a saxophone
slips quick runs in between. Then the clarinet drops
back with the sax, dipping playfully around the
Momentarily, the sax takes the
first solo with a big, swaggering sound. The notes
glide together with a surprising rhythm. Again,
the impression is primarily confidence: like the
pianist, the sax player is damn good and knows it
well enough to take his time showing off. (This,
by the way, was a trait lacking in some of the faster
swing numbers I'd disliked.) Behind him, the drummer,
bass player, pianist and a barely audible guitar
player lay down a patient, rather bland rhythm.
Then the sax trades off quietly
to the clarinet player, who brings a new mood to
the song: a small, high, wistful voice. His solo
is remarkably understated, without a touch of klezmer
influence. Rather than giving us a wild arabesque,
the clarinet player offers simple declarative statements
about complicated emotions. It is the sort of performance
guaranteed to bring romantic types to their knees,
weeping for various lost aspects of their childhood.
The clarinet then yields to a
trombone solo that, to my youthful taste, smacked
of forced humor. Where the clarinet had taken the
high road, the trombone slides wildly down the low.
It's like a stock character out of a John Ford movie—Victor
McLaglen, perhaps, towards the end of his career:
the bulky, drunkenly nostalgic Irishman, offering
up a comic version of the hero's lament.
Not surprisingly, I disliked the
trombone solo tremendously.
Happily, the sax returns for a
second solo—the only player to take a second.
Deep, throaty, mature, knowing, even cocky: the
sax seemed to offer a middle ground between the
clarinet's youth and the trombone's age, replacing
their wistfulness with a willingness to accept the
world as it is and not worry too much about what
might have been.
After an extended, casual strut,
the sax yields to the trumpet, which comes in over
top of the sax with a big, declarative sound that
marshals in the entire band for a final, spirited
declaration that sounds almost like New Orleans
polyphony, with everybody playing different runs
as if they were each inside a different song.
Unfortunately, I made a habit
of stopping the recording when the songs ended,
so I could later listen to a stream of uninterrupted
music. Thus, when I listened to the tape the next
day, I found I'd fallen in love with an unnamed
song. For the life of me, I couldn't remember what
Schumacher had said about the track. It was like
a screwball comedy, really: I'd found the song of
my dreams, but I didn't get her name before she
slipped out of the room.
found myself caught up in a mystery, I decided to
play detective. With youthful innocence, I thought
I could actually find the song by applying a few
parameters: it was a relatively small band, so I
could pass over the big swing bands and concentrate
on small combos. And despite that wonderfully jubilant
cat-fight finale, the otherwise slow, professional
tempo and the sax made me think it was later. So
I'd concentrate on jazz recorded after, say, 1930.
But the one thing I knew for certain
about the song was this: the mystery song's clarinet
player was a genius—a master at mixing emotion
with understatement. Clearly, I told myself, it
was merely a matter of tracking down the top clarinet
players who worked in small groups during the Thirties
Eventually, I was sure, I'd simply
stumble onto the track.
At first, I was single-mindedly
fanatical. I'd go to the city's biggest record store
and buy every jazz record of the Thirties and Forties
that featured clarinets. This was how I discovered
Johnny Dodds, Sidney Bichet, Artie Shaw, the wonderful,
sadly forgotten Jimmy Noone and, of course, Benny
Goodman. But I couldn't find the song. Nobody even
came close to the sound.
For a while, I contemplated sending
a copy of the tape to Schumacher, but I never did.
Eventually, I stuck the tape in a box and began
collecting bebop and cool jazz. In a desultory mood,
I even dipped into a little Miles Davis fusion.
Nine years passed, and I all but forgot the song.
Then, while going through boxes after moving into
the suburbs, I found the original recording again.
By then, I was married and going to graduate school,
and finding the tape made me laugh quietly at my
Out of idle curiosity, I slipped
the tape into the stereo and hit 'play.'
It was still as beautiful as I'd
always thought it was. Only a few King Oliver songs
could rival its majestic desire for the past, I
thought. When the song ended, I set it out on a
shelf in my writing room to remind myself to play
it occasionally. After nine years, I figured I'd
never know who performed it.
Then—a mere two weeks after
finding the tape—I discovered a CD recording
of the song. It came in the mail with some jazz
CDs I'd ordered. I'd listened to a Chick Corea's
Acoustic Band live CD (yes, I'd sunk that low) and
had listened to four tracks of a Blue Note Coleman
Hawkins compilation called Body and Soul.
The six-thirty news was just then coming on, and
I hit the pause button on the CD player. Only after
I'd watched the news all the way through did I release
the pause button.
My wife had just sat down on the
love seat and I'd walked away from the stereo toward
her when the opening piano notes began. I froze,
unbelieving. And then the band swelled up behind
the piano, striding, slightly muted, yet happy.
The hair on my arms rose. My neck went icy cold.
Goose pimples popped up on my legs. This was
it. For a moment, I felt faint. The clarinet
solo unwound itself again, a mirror image of the
original notes I'd recorded nine years before in
living conditions far removed from my present way
of living. And then, after the trombone, the sax
took over—so smooth.
People change. They evolve, they
grow, they deny parts of themselves that once seemed
fundamental. But listening to the song that evening,
I felt an indestructible bond between myself now
and then. And yet even before the song had finished,
I felt a little depressed: the song's mystery had
gone. Nameless, the song had offered unbounded emotions.
Knowing now that it had been recorded January 3rd,
1940 by Coleman Hawkins and that it was called "When
Day is Done" had somehow reduced it to its
true dimensions, a good jazz recording by a good
band at a good session. (Ironically, Danny Polo,
the clarinet player in the piece—and nearly
the sole reason I began listening to jazz—isn't
on a single recording I collected in the nine years
of hunting. It was such a good solo I assumed he
was top billing. He was, it seems, a relatively
minor player in the history of jazz.)
Rather sadly, the CD contained
a handful of recordings equally pleasurable. And
with that feeling, I felt a part of my life seal
off forever, completed. I remembered another writer
once telling me that her husband was just about
to finish restoring a sail boat, and that she was
worried he'd feel let down and depressed once he
was sailing it across the water. I knew then precisely
what she meant.
a title, I was able to find out more about my song:
Paul Whiteman, the king of white jazz, first brought
the song from England in 1926, which helps explain
why it was so hard to fit into American jazz of
the period. In his own rather desultory pastiche
recording, though, Whiteman puts a distinctly flapper-era
stamp on it with an astonishing Bix Beiderbecke
With a little research, I managed
to find the Whiteman and two other versions of the
song—the second by Dave Nelson and the King's
Men (so named because Nelson had taken over King
Oliver's band after Oliver's health failed) and
the third by Django Reinhardt. While brilliant in
its own way, the Reinhardt follows Whiteman 's arrangement
(complete with Stephane Grapelli as the Beiderbecke
stand-in), and its episodic structure cripples it,
I think. And although Nelson's arrangement is more
coherent than Whiteman's and even contains the song's
original lyrics, it still doesn't come close to
years have passed now since I first recorded "When
Day is Done." More has changed in my life than
I could ever have predicted, sitting in that ramshackle
house with the radio playing nearly forgotten songs.
Now I live even further out in the suburbs, with
two children who prefer the B52s to early jazz.
Yet now, listening to the Hawkins
recording as I write this, I find my reaction to
it is remarkably unchanged from my youth, except
for the feeling that I'd been too hard on the trombone
player. Age, it seems, brings greater appreciation
of age's travails.
Of course, I listen to it with
a touch of disappointment; there was something sweet
in the hunt that I've probably lost forever. But
I can still hear in the song those things that it
offered so long ago: nostalgia, memory, elegiac
mournfulness over the eternally lost past.
Like all good works of art, I
suppose, the song will change as I myself change.
Doubtless, there are several more realities behind
the song. I expect I'll see a few of them sixteen
years from now—and then, I hope, a few more,
sixteen years from then.