The Sound He Can’t Forget
By Harold C. Hopkins
Washington, D. C. : Part 2
(Continued from last issue)
The Riddles joined the neighborhood’s group of alley-dwellers, those who live in the abundance of carriage houses and servants quarters — detached abodes where music and talk, may go on long into the night without disturbing others.
Baltimore jazz followers and others decided that they could not do without the Riddles and almost immediately, on weekend nights, DuPont Circle alley-dwellers found themselves answering their doors, to be asked if they knew where the Riddles lived. If it wasn’t the same alley, most residents soon got to know the right one, even though the Riddles moved from time to time as the wrecker progressed.
It was also about this time that Washington found itself with its own jazz club, and if one could rely on the address on the cards handed around at jazz places he could find his way after the clubs closed to the home of its resident Beale E. Riddle. No telephone call was needed to break the ice, for there was ice, and if one knocked he might find the phonograph waxing hot and other guests already arrived. If the place was crowded, Pee Wee Russell or Paul Barbarin or Don Ewell or Nesuhi Ertegun or some other local or out-of-town musician or jazz follower would be glad to move over and make room on the couch.
Although musical instruments were occasionally brought out, usually it was records. And if a man’s home is his castle, one soon learned in the Riddle dwelling that le roi est Morton. Although many kinds of jazz were played, one could be sure that somewhere during the evening the program would return to the Morton music and mystic, coupled with the Riddle didactic. At this point only a listener of strong commitment or a paucity of tact could ask for a Goodman or Herman record on the spit.
Most of us people in our world of jazz realize that it is filled with purveyors of many hues, and Beale Riddle is no exception. The names of Mares, LaRocca, Armstrong, Teagarden, Beiderbecke, Basie, Ellington and even some of the moderns were no strangers to the hierarchy of jazzmen who occupy places in the Riddle psyche, but of all these the incomparable Windin’ Ball* is the idol, the idée fixe.
* or Winin’ Ball; also called a jawbreaker — a spherical piece of hard candy of grape, strawberry or other flavor, known many years ago by children throughout the South as a special treat, one perhaps even rivaling a cream puff or jelly roll. It had a kind of spiral effect through the center.
Mr. Riddle’s single-mindedness was as responsible for the demise of the Washington Jazz Club as for its beginning. The city is on the regular circuit of the modern and progressive groups fanning out of New York and is a hotbed for the folk-singing fad[,] which in recent years has seemed to fan out of the woodwork. After a year or so of listening to records, tapes and lectures — and occasional live music presentations — younger proselytes, who formed the bulk of club membership, turned to follow newer and livelier light-o’-loves, leaving the spirit of Jelly Roll Morton, Beale Riddle and a few hardened disciples to howl in the wilderness. But the old tiger never lost his place at the head of the procession.
Sometimes the true missionary’s mettle is tested, not by the presence of heat, but the absence. The Riddle turntable did not gather dust and occasional traveling jazzmen continued to make after-hour appearances. Perhaps the high water mark in Washington Jazz during this period came in 1962 when the Eureka Brass Band of New Orleans marched down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. These swinging old-timers became the hit of the so-called first (and last) Washington International Jazz Festival, creating, at least for the writer and some others, the only righteous sound heard in four days of otherwise turgid events planned by a group of socialites who hoped, for purposes that are still rather mysterious, to choke jazz into a white tie and tails.
In 1963 Mr. Riddle had his first chance for a visit to New Orleans[,] which lasted four days. As those who have made the trip know, four days is not enough to cover what the city has to offer, hence it was hardly a surprise to learn on his return that he did not take time to seek out New Orleans cuisine or even to sniff his way past the coffee roasting houses, so concerned was he that he’d miss some of the music or a pearl of wisdom from one of its practitioners. One may only guess the lengths to which Mr. Riddle went to carry his Crusade for Jelly Roll Morton into the stronghold of jazz. New Orleans jazzmen area proud and often jealous lot and (to not like to be told that a pleasure-house pianist invented the kind of music they have been playing all their lives. But the chances are that he ruffled no feelings, for to a jazzman or even a listener the music speaks for itself — like the eyes that give away the words of a pretty woman. As most of those who follow jazz know, Morton may have thought of himself as an inventor, but there is not one of the musicians in his recorded legacy who failed to have his chance to carve his own initials on the package — and the boldest letters of all, in the strict framework within which Morton recorded — were put there by New Orleans men.
As with Jelly Roll’s groups, Mr. Riddle’s musicians had the freedom to improvise and be heard if they did it ensemble. There are no free rides, and although Mr. Riddle is not a heartless type, he did not let his liking for an individual get in the way of the end result. What was more important, each musician was acutely aware that every good and bad note he played was being heard objectively, analyzed critically, and accepted or rejected according to its contribution to the perfect sound for which Mr. Riddle was searching. Such an audience can mean more to the self-respect of a musician than the polite, sometimes alcoholic applause that greets each and every solo of good calibre and bad.
Likewise, every musician was aware that he was being compared, not only to the best presently available, but to the best ever. When Mr. Riddle got together the pickup outfit made up of men from the Charles Hotel band and his choice from among other Washington musicians, one of the results was a four-man rhythm section that in one glorious evening booted a better than average front line into heretofore untouched pinnacles of inspiration. It was a night to remember and Mr. Riddle was, as one might suspect, well pleased. With some improvement in the front line, Mr. Riddle could have a sound that in its way would rival the Red Hot Peppers. Would he not now turn his efforts to “developing” the clarinetist and the cornetist just a little more?
But Mr. Riddle had spent too much time looking into the forest to be bothered by the trees. Thus, it was not entirely surprising that his quick look of pleasure was replaced by a secret and faraway look — perhaps even as far as the rundown pool hall across town once known as the Jungle Inn — that was enough to tell the questioner that Mr. Riddle was, indeed, already elsewhere on a far more important quest.
“Say,” he said at last, “Did I tell you that I found a new pianist the other night who can play the rags better than anybody else I’ve heard around here? He’s got a great left hand, and I think he may just be something that the band needs. Met him at a party and . . .”
End of Part 2 and of article.
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The above article was published in The Second Line magazine, dated September—October, 1966, Vol. XVII, pages 117—118 and 123.
Special thanks to Don Marquis and Harold C. Hopkins.
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Note: See also correspondence of Beale Riddle on the Baltimore Sessions Letters page, transcribed and annotated by Prof. Lawrence Gushee.