He lived 96 years and though his formal education only lasted until the sixth grade, his perpetual thirst for knowledge and insatiable curiosity earned him the life equivalent of a PhD. And as I came into adulthood, I tried to sop up that wisdom like molasses on my Mom’s homemade biscuits.
Dad always kept pen and paper handy, so that if something caught his curiosity that he didn’t know about, he would write it down, so that he could then research it. And this was before the internet age, folks. This continued right up until the end of his life – when I was gathering his effects from his hospice room hours after his death, I found another of those scraps of paper with the name “Jennifer Lopez” scrawled on it in his handwriting (Dad also had good taste in women).
Anyway, though my father was not a big jazz fan, he had an interest in a wide variety of music. It wouldn’t be odd to hear him break out in a bit of a Beatles tune, Stevie Wonder or even Fleetwood Mac (“Don’t Stop”). When I started to love music in my preteen years, I would constantly play the album from “The Archies” TV show. The song “Truck Driver” became his favorite.
But as far as John Davenport was concerned, the great Louis Jordan was THE MAN. My dad was a generally reserved man, so I would always get a kick out of seeing him, out of nowhere, burst into “Caldonia” or “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby”. He always marveled at the big sound of Jordan’s Tympany Five, which he said could sound bigger than an entire big band.
My dad was born in Mississippi in 1911. It goes without saying that he grew up in a time that legal segregation had a tight grip on his home state. He then moved to St. Louis (where segregation was more institutional than legal) in his twenties and then to New York just after World War II. Not too long after arriving in NYC, he heard that Louis Jordan was going to be appearing at the old Paramount Theater on 43rd & Broadway. Of course he bought a ticket and went to the show.
Keep in mind that my Dad had never experienced integrated seating before, so he was going through a bit of a culture shock. The shock turned to overload when a few minutes after he took his seat, a trio of young white girls in bobby socks and poodle skirts bounded into his row and took their seats right next to him. They said “Hi!” and then went about their business, gabbing amongst themselves with excitement about seeing Mr. Jordan.
Dad was a bit nervous at first. Where he came from, something a simple as this was unheard of…White folks, let alone young white women, would never have taken an open seat next to a black man. And if they did, trouble was sure to come for that black man. He remained in seat, albeit apprehensively, almost waiting for some sort of trouble to come. But it never did. The girls never said another word to him after “hello”. They were utterly unfazed by his presence. Which, to Dad, was the most amazing thing of all.
A few minutes later the lights went down and Jordan hit the stage “Caldonia…Caldonia…What makes yo’ big head so hard!!!” As my Dad, the bobby soxers and the rest of the throng responded to Mr. Jordan, in unison, he finally began to relax and feel at home. Within an hour, people of all races had become one, through their love of “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens”.
Hey, maybe New York was going to be okay…
Thanks for staying in New York Dad; and thanks for sharing all of that wisdom with me.
Happy Father’s Day to my fellow Dads.