Feb 10, 2015

A Musical Adventure...

USS Northampton (CLC-1) Home of my first midshipman cruise
In the summer of 1959, I went on my first midshipman cruise.  I had just been awarded a NROTC scholarship and received orders to the USS Northampton (CLC-1), home ported in Norfolk, Virginia.  It was to be an 8-week cruise that was designed to introduce first-year midshipmen from both the Naval Academy and the 52 NROTC units to the ways of the Navy.  We would reside on dozens of ships on both coasts (and even in the Great Lakes, as some vessels participated in the formal opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway).  We would rotate through each of the departments on the ship -- engineering, operations, gunnery, supply -- and be introduced to the ways in which a ship operates.  We would stand watches alongside the enlisted crew, chip paint, clean bilges, perform scullery duty, and stay very, very busy.

But all was not work.  The Northampton participated in New York City's Hendryck Hudson festival, a public celebration of the 350th anniversary of Hudson's discovery of his namesake river.  Around the 8th of June, we proceeded from Norfolk along the east coast to Manhattan Harbor, anchored in the Hudson River around 60th street, and spent nearly a week participating in parades and festivities and hosting VIPs on the ship.  And of course there were opportunities for shore leave when I didn't have a duty assignment aboard ship.

On my first day off, I and a couple of my shipmates took the shuttle boat ashore and decided we would check out Greenwich Village.  None of us had ever been there, and we had heard it was a great place to find entertainment and good food.  We took a subway to the general area of Washington Square Park and emerged on the surface with absolutely no agenda except to explore.  As we wandered through the narrow streets and alleyways of the Village, we heard some jazz coming from some open windows of an old, very run-down hotel, the name and location of which are long lost to me.  Curious to see where it was coming from, we investigated.  We entered the empty lobby of the decrepit building, found an elevator, and ascended creakily to the top floor, where we exited into what had once been an elegant ballroom.  In one end, sitting informally on folding chairs, were about 6 or 7 musicians improvising and obviously working on an arrangement.  We listened, standing near the elevator in our white "sailor suits" and dixie cup hats.
The young Sidney Bechet

Finally, during a break in the music, the apparent leader came over to us and asked if we needed help.  We explained that we had been exploring, heard the music from the street level, and had come up to find the source.  He explained that they were practicing for a concert in Carnegie Hall the next day in honor of Sidney Bechet, a great New Orleans musician who had died in France a couple of months before.  He then asked if we would like some free tickets!  He instructed us to come to a specific stage door in the back of Carnegie Hall on the day of the concert at a certain time.

The next day, none of us had "the duty," so we went ashore and proceeded straight to Carnegie Hall.  At exactly the appointed time, the door opened and there was our musician friend.  He handed us three tickets to seats in a loge overlooking the right side of the stage.  What a fabulous vantage point!  We entered at the front of the theater, found our seats, and were seated well before the tribute concert began.  Needless to say, we were awed by the size and beauty of the auditorium.

John Chilton's biography, Sidney Bechet: The Wizard of Jazz, describes that event: "A month later, on 14 June, 1959, at New York's Carnegie Hall, Sidney's old friends Sammy Price and Noble Sissle organized a tribute concert to Bechet's memory, the proceeds from the event being donated to cancer research.  The turn-out of musicians included Henry "Red" Allen. Vic Dickenson, Omer Simeon, Eugene Sedric, Edmond Hall, Teddy Wilson, Noble Sissle, Wilbur De Paris, and Sidney De Paris.  The guest of honour was Coleman Hawkins, who had been a friend of Bechet's ever since their legendary battle of music had taken place in the early 1920's."

The concert was incredible -- an endless tribute played with passion by extremely talented musicians.  Other than Coleman Hawkins, I was unfamiliar with the individual artists.  I had never been a close follower of the jazz scene.  But it was evident that we were in the midst of some very well-known and highly regarded talent.  And we three midshipman fell into it because of a little curiosity.

The woodwind master late in life

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