Monday, June 3, 2013

Jazz on Route 66

A first-season Route 66 episode features a Chet Baker-like trumpeter. The second-season episode “Goodnight Sweet Blues” (aired October 6, 1961) is even more jazz-centric. Ethel Waters plays Jenny Henderson, a retired singer in failing health who commissions Tod and Buz (the latter a self-identified jazz “buff”) to find and bring to her the members of the Memphis Naturals, the band she performed and recorded with thirty years earlier. She shows our heroes a photograph:

[The fictional Naturals: Snooze Mobley, Hank Plummer, King Loomis, A. C. Graham, Horace Wilson, Lover Brown.]

Two of the Naturals, Jenny says, became famous: Snooze Mobley and A. C. Graham. You may, however, recognize three familiar faces in this photograph. The first: Coleman Hawkins as clarinetist and tenor saxophonist Snooze Mobley. Buz (George Maharis) tracks him down in San Francisco, where he’s leading a quartet.

In keeping with his sleepy nickname, Snooze is virtually speechless. This open-eyed nod from the bandstand signals that he will come to Pittsburgh. When he later says “Mmhmm,” Jenny tells him he’s becoming a blabbermouth.

The second familiar face: the trumpeter Roy Eldridge, who plays A. C. Graham, now a busy studio musician in New York. He has to check his datebook and get someone to cover four upcoming jobs before telling Tod (Martin Milner) that he can visit Jenny.

The third familiar face: the drummer Jo Jones as the Naturals’ leader Lover Brown. Lover is doing a short stretch in Kansas City for yet another act of bigamy. Tod arranges a furlough so that Lover can visit “a sick sister.” Along for the ride: a prison official, whom Lover introduces as his manager.

[Notice that Jones is wearing a toupee for the prop photograph above.]

The Eldridge-Jones instrument switch was meant as an inside joke, I suppose, though the joke must have been obvious to a good many viewers. What just a few viewers may have known is that Eldridge indeed played drums, and Jones played piano and trumpet.

As for the other Naturals: Banjoist Hank Plummer died in Philadelphia. His guitarist son Hank Jr. (Bill Gunn) comes in his place. Bassist Horace Wilson (Frederick O’Neal), the scholar of the group, has become a lawyer in Chicago and lost his calluses. And trombonist King Loomis (Juano Hernandez), now a shoeshine man living in East St. Louis, has pawned his horn, lost his lip, and feels great misgivings about even picking up an instrument.

What happens as the story unfolds is fairly predictable: the episode’s title should give you an idea of where things go. What’s unexpected is the opportunity to see great musicians in speaking roles. And seeing Ethel Waters and Jo Jones sing a duet is, really, a once-in-a-lifetime thing.

Waters and Jones are reputed to have been “difficult” personalities. You’d never know it here: they radiate good will and joy. (Perhaps that’s why it’s called acting.) Waters received an Emmy nomination for her performance in this episode (Outstanding Single Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role), the first Emmy nomination for an African-American. She lost to Julie Harris (as Queen Victoria, Hallmark Hall of Fame).

[The Naturals minus one. Brown’s manager in the background.]

[King Loomis joins in. Buz on the right.]

A strange detail: the recording of “I’m Coming Virginia” that plays as Tod and Buz visit Jenny is not by Waters but by Marni Nixon. She explained in a 1996 interview:

[Stephen Bourne, Ethel Waters: Stormy Weather (2007).]

Related reading and listening
Ethel Waters, “I’m Coming Virginia” (YouTube)
Other Route 66 posts (Pinboard)

comments: 7

Adair said...

I recall this episode not only for the presence of these great jazz musicians but also for some interesting "documentary" style shots of African-American neighborhoods and dances. It reminds me of how, because of segregation, the black neighborhoods still preserved very distinct cultural differences in the early 1960s, to the point of probably seeming foreign and strange to white viewers of the era. These shots almost seem to have an anthropological look, and may even strike us as a bit racist today, focusing as they do on certain stereotypes, such as the outdoor dancing. And yet,they are visually powerful in the episode, superior to the story itself, which is undermined by sentimentality. I wonder if they were actually shot for the episode or are footage spliced in from another source.

Adair said...

Oh, and I forgot to comment on Marni Nixon, one of the absolutely great voices of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. I did not know about her role in this episode. That is a great story! Nixon can be heard on a wild mood music album by Russ Garcia called Sounds in the Night, where she is accompanied by the legendary Randy Van Horne Singers.It is terrific! She also recorded for Igor Stravinsky!

Michael Leddy said...

The dancing is right outside the house. The little kids made me think of the NYC school institution known as Dance Festival.

I think the show’s makers were interested in offering a picture of African-American life that ran a gamut: there’s a doctor who talks on equal terms with his white colleague, a lawyer who has the respect of a white judge, successful musicians, Jenny (who’s “loaded,” as she tells Tod and Buz), one playa, and one musician who’s fallen on hard times. But there’s no one who exhibits the pathologies so often associated with jazz musicians. I esp. like seeing Tod talking to people in an African-American neighborhood. One fellow, who seems to me a resident, not an actor, calls Tod “my man.” I can only imagine the reception this episode must have had in some (white) quarters.

This is the second time you’ve mentioned the Russ Garcia record. I’ve heard some of it online, but now I vow to seek it out. Nixon’s voice in this episode cannot easily be mistaken for Waters’s, but it’s one fine voice.

Adair said...

The cd version of Sounds in the Night also brings a wonderful bonus: Marni Nixon singing in a suite inspired by Mr.MaGoo! It is heartbreakingly beautiful.

Michael Leddy said...

Sold! :)

Anonymous said...

It is worth noting that the head writer for this episode and the series was Stirling Silliphant, famous for several movies including "In the Heat of the Night."

Michael Leddy said...

Yes, his name appears several times in these pages. I’m a great admirer of his work. And don’t forget Naked City.