You’re 24 years old and recently back from the Western Front. There’s a stable life waiting for you at dad’s dry good’s store in Peoria. But you can’t help thinking about your weekend furlough that summer in Paris. And you’ve heard that Chicago is where things are, how shall I put this, happening.
A guy you meet at a Cubs game points out Al Capone sitting in his box near 3rd base and then invites you to join you at a “speakeasy” that serves beer and even liquor. There will be women Single, unmarried women! You knock on an unmarked door, say a random password, and a guy lets you in. You enter a dark room filled with dancing, drinking, flirting, dice, and Lord knows what else. On a small stage George Lewis and his group are playing Dr. Jazz. A girl walks over and asks you to buy her a drink. This is clearly no place for a small-town boy. And (to borrow from Mark Twain) you don’t remain one for long.
At least until Elvis, jazz is what 20 century urban America sounded like. The unquestioned authority of melody (the lead) over harmony (back-up) in the hymns and barbershop quartets that echoed the hierarchy of pastoral America yielded to the exuberance and spontaneity that mirrored the unscripted cacophony of urban life. (Elvis, Dylan, The Ramones, and their offspring redefined urban music, even as jazz retreated to “listening clubs” and outdoor jazz “festivals.”
In George Lewis’s hands, the clarinet and trumpet, the two loudest instruments, push the piano (that staple of hymn sings) and even melody itself to the side and toss melodic fragments back and forth to each other. This is the music of chance encounters and deals quickly made, of pedestrians dodging streetcars, of guys and dolls.
I especially love how the intensity ratchets up after George Lewis sings the chorus: with a few blasts, the trumpet impatiently reasserts itself beforethe downbeat, the clarinet responds by hitting its highest note possible and “pouring out its soul in such an ecstasy” (sorry, Keats/Nightingale; I can’t myself), and the drummer seems to want to know how hard he can bang away without having to buy a replacement drum set.
Eventually of course, the lights go back on, people file out (to greet the dawn?), and our young friend heads home. Probably alone. But he’ll be back, and next time he’ll know the password.