In this MidCentury world, we spend a lot of time trying to recreate the spirit of the era , or at least dreaming that we might be able to. One of the obvious ways that we can reach out and touch those times is through the artists whose careers have spanned the gap. Even then, it’s often not quite right – either the performance or the venue jar with our perception of how it should be. And then, just rarely, it all comes together.
In my case, the circumstances were slightly bizarre – a towering figure (literally) of the jazz scene playing a club more noted for its weekly beer-fuelled rockabilly record hop – Slim Gaillard at Dingwalls in Camden Lock. In those early 80s days, Dingwalls was not the swept up venue you’d find today; dingy, with a raised area redolent of a boxing ring right in the middle and sturdy cast iron pillars providing a trap for unwary dancers, it was our regular Saturday afternoon haunt. Live acts were a rarity and quite how DJ Mouse came to book this visiting giant of post war improvised small group jazz I’ve never found out; I’m not even sure that many of those present had any idea who Slim Gaillard was; I’d been dabbling in late 40s jazz for long enough to have discovered his wild flights of fancy on vinyl, and watched his ‘soundie’ film shorts and appearance in Hellzapoppin’ over and over again, but I suspect for many he was just this crazy tall black guy who took the stage and proceeded to take over the club.
‘… one night we suddenly went mad together again; we went to see Slim Gaillard in a little Frisco nightclub. Slim Gaillard is a tall, thin black guy with big sad eyes who’s always saying ‘Right-orooni’ and ‘How ’bout a little bourbon-arooni.’ In Frisco great eager crowds of young semi-intellectuals sat at his feet and listened to him on the piano, guitar and bongo drums. When he gets warmed up he takes off his undershirt and really goes. He does and says anything that comes into his head. He’ll sing ‘Cement Mixer, Put-ti Put-ti’ and suddenly slow down the beat and brood over his bongos with fingertips barely tapping the skin as everybody leans forward breathlessly to hear; you think he’ll do this for a minute or so, but he goes right on, for as long as an hour, making an imperceptible little noise with the tips of his fingernails, smaller and smaller all the time till you can’t hear it anymore and sounds of traffic come in the open door. Then he slowly gets up and takes the mike and says, very slowly, ‘Great-orooni … fine-ovauti … hello-orooni … bourbon-orooni … all-orooni … how are the boys in the front row making out with their girls-orooni … orooni … vauti … oroonirooni …” He keeps this up for fifteen minutes, his voice getting softer and softer till you can’t hear. His great sad eyes scan the audience.
Dean stands in the back, saying, ‘God! Yes!’ — and clasping his hands in prayer and sweating. ‘Sal, Slim knows time, he knows time.’ Slim sits down at the piano and hits two notes, two C’s, then two more, then one, then two, and suddenly the big burly bass-player wakes up from a reverie and realizes Slim is playing ‘C-Jam Blues’ and he slugs in his big forefinger on the string and the big booming beat begins and everybody starts rocking and Slim looks just as sad as ever, and they blow jazz for half an hour, and then Slim goes mad and grabs the bongos and plays tremendous rapid Cubana beats and yells crazy things in Spanish, in Arabic, in Peruvian dialect, in Egyptian, in every language he knows, and he knows innumerable languages. Finally the set is over; each set takes two hours. Slim Gaillard goes and stands against a post, looking sadly over everybody’s head as people come to talk to him. A bourbon is slipped into his hand. ‘Bourbon-orooni — thank-you-ovauti …’ Nobody knows where Slim Gaillard is. Now Dean approached him, he approached his God; he thought Slim was God; he shuffled and bowed in front of him and asked him to join us. ‘Right-orooni,’ says Slim; he’ll join anybody but won’t guarantee to be there with you in spirit. Dean got a table, bought drinks, and sat stiffly in front of Slim. Slim dreamed over his head. Every time Slim said, ‘Orooni,’ Dean said ‘Yes!’ I sat there with these two madmen. Nothing happened. To Slim Gaillard the whole world was just one big orooni.’
Stupidly, I’d not thought to take a copy of the book with me, but I did have my original 1950s 35mm wet film camera, so as soon as he’d finished, we followed the script, slipped a bourbon into his hand and, as if in some magic ritual he murmured the magic words, we grabbed the shot.
Sometimes, just sometimes, it all comes together