Thursday, February 6, 2020


That summer of '56, I rode squashed in the back seat of a 1947 two-door Ford Coupe between my boy friend, Stan, and some kid who chewed gum. I encouraged Stan to hold my hand, but he preferred to grasp a brown paper bag that embraced a bottle.

We drove 60 miles from Alma, our hometown, to a Nebraska city, Kearney, population 12,000, farther from home than I'd ever ridden without a parent behind the wheel. I felt excited.

In Kearney, we planned to visit the 1313 Club. I'd never heard of it, but the older couple in the front seat, Patsy and Vernon, explained its name: 1300 miles to the West Coast and 1300 miles to the East. There we would hear some jazz. Jazz. My mom listened to jazz, things like "Over the Rainbow" and dozens of Frank Sinatra's songs.

Cars jammed the 1313 Club parking lot but Vernon found a space and we walked in surrounded by the sound of horns and drums and even a piano. The air seemed electric. 

When I entered the big, bare rectangular building, I spotted the jazz band spread all along the far wall: saxes and trumpets and trombones plus a piano, bass, guitar, and drums. The band was huge.

Vernon nudged me, "Look at that Satchmo!" 


He pointed to this black man singing a familiar song in an incredibly gravelly voice: "When The Saints Go Marching In." The whites of his eyes rolled as he sang, and sweat covered his broad forehead. His huge mouth, filled with big white teeth, opened wide. 

"Satchmo," I tugged Vernon's sleeve, "what kind of a name is that?"

"Oh, it's a nickname for 'satchel mouth' because of his big jaws." Vernon looked at me. "You don't know who he is, do you?"

I shook my head.

"He's Louie Armstrong, one of the most important jazz artists, that's who. His trumpet playing, with his dazzling high notes, and his singing in that distinctive gravelly voice has revolutionized the world of jazz."


Satchmo belted out "Mack the Knife," following it with another familiar song, "When You're Smiling." I felt my skin crawl. Patsy and Vernon danced. Stan and his paper bag had disappeared, but I didn't care. I danced, too. And it wasn't ballet. I strutted, I turned, I twisted, I kicked.

At intermission, most of the musicians exited. Vernon laughed, "Muggles break." 

"Muggles, what's that?"

"Oh you know. Marijuana." 

I'd never heard of marijuana, either, but I didn't ask. Eventually the musicians returned, Satchmo singing "I'll Be Glad When You're Dead, You Rascal You."

This might be jazz, but not Mama's "Over the Rainbow." It sounded like nothing I'd ever heard. I'd taken piano lessons since grade school so I knew the greats like Beethoven, Bach, Chopin, and Mozart. I even knew Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. But this music sounded nothing like that. It flowed, it hit dazzling high notes, it laughed.

By the time we left, I'd fallen in love. 

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