Saturday, August 27, 2005

Unforgettable Genius

Gracie and Al Cauble were great family friends. They were the kind of people that everyone that knew them was glad they did. I only knew them in their twilight years, shall we say. Gracie lived well into her nineties. After Gracie left, Al hung on for a few more years, but his life was never the same without Gracie.

They lived most of their years in Pacific Palisades in the last house on Sunset Boulevard. It once had a great view of the ocean, but I didn't know them then. The view was blocked ages ago by a condo building across the street. Gracie told me about how they saw deer walking through their yard in the 1940s, but things haven't been like that around there since.

Living in this part of LA, Gracie and Al knew many celebrities. Gracie worked in a gynocologist's office and became friendly with stars like Donna Reed. Al did electrical work in a lot of celebrity homes. He did lighting work in the famous Getty Musuem at Malibu. Sometimes Al would take us for a drive through the windy hills along the coast - later we drove Al because his sight just wasn't good enough, and he would point out various celebrity homes here and there. Most of what Grace and Al shared about celebrities were funny little stories or anecdotes, though I remember Gracie talking about Esther Williams once - she said something like - "She was a damn bitch, she was."

They loved living there amongst the rich and famous it always appeared. Gracie loved music, particularly jazz. She dabbled at the piano sometimes, usually a Gershwin tune or something in that vein. Back in the old days she wrote a musical that included the song "We Belong Together" a nice little love ballad. I still have the original handwritten copy and a record of "Juanita, Lady of the Organ" playing the song on an LP from the 1950s that Gracie gave to me along with countless other records and sheet music. The song was part of a full musical that Gracie had written, which she told me was reviewed by MGM for consideration.

When I met with Gracie years ago and she learned I liked the piano, she and Al sent me a tape of jazz solos played by Art Tatum. She marveled at Tatum's technical ability in famous recordings of "Tiger Rag" or "Tea for Two." Indeed Art's playing demonstrates a technical mastery that is extraordinary and is perhaps one of the most influential jazz artists of all time. Over the years, Grace and Al made me several tapes. I really can't listen to Art Tatum without thinking of them both - and all the times we took drives in the car around the Palisades with the old, scratchy homemade recordings of Tatum.

In the last decade of her life, Gracie lost most of her sight and the ability to play the piano. She had been a writer all her life and wrote many little stories about life experiences - most of them humorous. So, when she couldn't see anymore Al took her to brail classes at UCLA and Gracie eventually wrote a few stories for children that were published in brail.

Grace and Al are both gone now, Al passed away last year. Sadly, he was depressed and alone in a convelescent hospital. He only wanted to go home to die with his pictures of Gracie that he had neatly arranged on a dresser. Wendy and I happened to stop in and see him only one week before the end. He only spoke a few words.

I found this story by Grace in my file drawer that she gave to me many years ago for my birthday. It tells a little story about the old days, a story that she had told many times during those drives in the car with a Tatum recording playing...

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UNFORGETTABLE GENIUS

A MEMOIR


by

Gracie Cauble

It was early spring of 1932.

The mantle clock chimed a quarter after the hour. I slipped on my jacket and made sure my purse and house keys where handy, then stood by the living room window looking into the black, deserted street.

Tony should be here any minute now, I thought. What a crazy time to have a date… at two fifteen in the morning! But he haqd said THIS was very special and worth giving up a nights’ sleep for.

Tony was keyboard man with a band playing on the east side of Cleveland and did not finish his gig until 2 a.m. I worked all day, so occasionally I sacrificed a nights’ sleep, for friendship’s sake, and we got together.

Soon his headlights approached and his car stopped in front of my house. I grabbed my purse, slipped noiselessly out of the door, locked it and hurried off the porch and into the car.

“This surprise had better be good,” I admonished. “I worked hard today and I’m tired.”

“You’ll forget all about being tired… you’ll forget everything,” Tony laughed.

As we drove down the eerie, deserted streets toward downtown Cleveland, Ohio, I tried to get him to tell me where we were headed, what we were going to see or who we were going to see, but he was adamant. We turned down Cedar Avenue into the deep ‘colored’ district and parked at a curb with several other cars. There were a lot more street lights here and people going into a building.

We entered a door above which was a sign in bright lights saying ‘Jimmy Owen’s Place.’ We climbed a steep staircase, the wooden steps concave by wear from innumerable feet through many years. The only light was a naked bulb hanging precariously from the sloping ceiling. At the top was a landing and a door through which we heard voices and laughter.

Entering a moderately-sized room, we saw a myriad of little tables covered with red and white checkered cloths. Two white people were seated at each table… all men except for three or four white women. Jimmy Owen was at the bar and two black men acted as waiters. An upright piano stood in the middle of the room. Tony and I squeezed ourselves between the tables to n empty one near the wall, ordered a beer, and I looked around the room with interest. Through the haze of cigarette smoke I recognized two side-men from a band currently playing at a select supper club in the downtown area, another piano man now engaged at a large hotel lounge, and one of the men talking to Jimmy Owen, whom I was certain was the leader of a fourteen-piece outfit working at Euclid Beach dance hall.

“What is this,” I asked Tony, “ a musicians’ convention?”

“Not exactly,” he answered, “but many musicians come here after their gig is finished.” He glanced at his wrist watch. “Three-thirty, you’ll know in a few minutes.”

Ten minutes later a man entered the room from the rear, guided to the piano by one of the waiters. Everyone stood up and shouts filled the room.

“Hi Art! How are you So glad you made it tonight.”

Astonished, I turned to Tony. “Art?” I said. “Not Art Tatum!”

Tony grinned, “The one and only. I knew you’d be surprised and thrilled.”

He was a large built man in a loose fitting brown suit which was the same color as his smiling face. Waving his arm, he acknowledged the greetings, twirled the piano stool a couple of times and sat down. Immediately a mug of beer was thrust toward him, for which he groped until he touched the handle. He drank the entire contents then placed the empty mug on top of the piano and began to play.

With the first notes, the hub-bub of the room ceased entirely. Not a sound interrupted the marvel of Art’s music. It seemed that no one even breathed. I was stunned. I could not believe what I was hearing. From where we sat we could get a glimpse of his hands on the keys now and then. After fifteen minutes he stopped playing and someone gave him another mug of beer. Some of the men spoke to him, but most of the audience was silent under the spell of his magical technique.

His artistry was mind boggling. It did not seem possible that any human could execute arpeggios so rapidly yet so clearly. His ten-note span of the left hand strode up and adown in perfect harmony with the scintillating right hand improvising aqs no Jazz player had ever done before. Art’s innovation was unbelievable, yet through the cloudburst of notes, one could always hear the melody. He played several sets, always tunes from the Broadway shows or the scores of movies, interspersed with mugs of beer, until almost six in the morning. No one left the place until Art got up from the stool, waved, smiled and allowed the waiter to guide him to the rear from where he had first appeared.

The new day had arrived and the sun was shining as we drove home. In a short time I would have to face a day of work with no sleep, but I was too overwhelmed with the fantastic music I had experienced, that nothing else mattered.

On the drive home Tony told me what he knew of Art’s history. Art was born in Toledo completely blind in his left eye and had only twenty-five percent vision in his right eye. They say he can see nothing but large shapes. He plays poker by looking at the cards while holding them three inches from his right eye. When he was seven, his father got him a violin, but somehow he and the violin did not click. When he was thirteen, he switched to the piano and they were wed forever. Strange as it may seem, he had only one teacher – and that teacher was also blind.

Art made his debut at age seventeen. Soon he was playing background music for a fashion show at Station WSPD in Toledo. He went to the Columbus State College for the Blind for two years where he studied classical piano. In 1930 he went to New York as accompanist for the ‘colored’ singer, Adelaide Hall. After that, he organized a trio with Tiny Grimes on guitar and Slam Stewart on bass. But he preferred to play solo. In 1938 he went to England and took London by storm; in Glasgow, Amsterdam and Brussels he drew huge crowds. But he was happiest entertaining in the Colony Club of New York, and the nightclubs of Harlem. His many records and accolades made him very popular.

Art was a fervent admirer of Rachmaninoff, Rubenstein and Horowitz. Even the “Great Toscanini” came to the 331 Club in Los Angeles to hear Art’s fantastic technique and they had talked for an hour. Thesed famous classical pianists often went to where Art was playing. Horowitz and Art became friends and Art knew Horowitz by his voice. When asked who were the three greatest pianists in the world, Art would answer, “Horowitz, Horowitz and Horowitz.”

Norman Granz recorded twelve or thirteen albums of 33-1/3 records of over two hundred numbers.

To musicians, especially pianists, Art’s innovations and improvisations were unbelievable – almost incomprehensible – his hands and mind bordered on the super human. His brain was like a computer.

Authorities claimed he never signed an autograph or check, but had a stamp made for that purpose.

Every chance I got, I went to hear my idol, even in New York. After the war, we moved to California and searched for notices about where Art was playing. At long last, he had engagements in Hollywood and we haunted those places.

Art was a very private man. It was not commonly known that he had a son. He married late in life. The King of Jazz loved steaks, beer and the bottle, and did not take care of his health.

The first time I saw Art Tatum was in 1932 when the big band swing era was beginning to bloom and come into its own. The last time I saw Art was in 1956 at a club in Hollywood. I was shocked at his appearance. He was very thin. He knew our voices as we were a couple who had followed him for many years and many places.

“Have you been ill?” I asked.

“No,” he said with a friendly grin. “I just figured I was too fat and had to slim down a little.”

Art’s congenial smile was always the same. He was a gentle man whether he was talking to a celebrity or a tourist.

On November 5, 1957, the music world was stunned by the news that he had passed away of uremia after only two days in the hospital. The beer, steaks and the bottle had caught up with him. When the news filtered into clubs, cafes, studios, etc., the music stopped and piano players sat with folded hands and tears falling on their cheeks.

Art was only forty-six when his magic fingers were stilled forever. Fats Waller, a famous pianist of the swing era, once said, “I play piano and I’m here, but God just walked in.” He had seen Art enter the club. Frank Sinatra once said, “If the entire music world had a throne, Art would be sitting in it.”

Many celebrities attended his funeral. Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald sang. He was buried in a Los Angeles cemetery.

Never before, and never again will such a God-given talent enter this world. A gift like that only comes once in a lifetime, probably several lifetimes, if ever.

Many professional keyboard men have tried to duplicate Art’s technique, but that is impossible in its entirety. Now and then we hear an arpeggio or weird combination of chord that have probably been copied from Art’s work. He was an inspiration to the pianists who were visually impaired – Ray Charles, George Shearing, Stevie Wonder. They are all very good but there will never be another Art Tatum and I am indeed, grateful that I saw, heard and talked to the great King of Jazz, the UNFORGETTABLE GENIOUS.

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