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Coleman Hawkins
Body & Soul



Jimmy Noone
Apex Blues



Benny Goodman
After You've Gone:
Trio and Quartet
Sessions, Vol. 1



Django Reinhardt
The Best Of Django Reinhardt




Memory's Sweet Refrain

The 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.


I 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 trumpet.

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.


Having 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 and Forties.

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 youthful quest.

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.


With 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 solo.

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 Hawkins's.


Sixteen 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.

—Review by Charlie Onion

Posted May 1, 1999



The clarinet solo brings a new mood to the song: a small, high, wistful voice. It's 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.





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