Aside from the mere act of dragging myself out of bed and facing a computer screen every day, the most challenging aspect of editing The Syncopated Times is combing through each piece of writing submitted and checking the accuracy of the facts it contains. Since launching this paper, it has been my mission to Get It Right—and that pursuit has proved to be maddeningly quixotic. Don Quixote had his mind turned by Romance and set out on an extravagant quest to be worthy of the love of a barmaid; I became deranged by a passion for jazz and embarked on a crusade to tell the absolute truth about the music and its perpetrators. Battling windmills seems like the more sensible day job.
The first—and least frustrating—level of fact-checking consists merely of going through and correcting misspelled names and facts which can easily be looked up for verification. Even otherwise reliable writers throw me a howler occasionally, and if I don’t look up every single unfamiliar name a misnomer might get into print. And I have learned to detect garden-variety factual errors almost intuitively. Having a brain like a garage sale gives me a wide range of useless knowledge which—miraculously—turns out to be useful.
The next two levels offer me more bafflement—and many hours of scouring Google (or print references when elusive information is not to be found online). When no information appears to be available at all, it’s a nightmare. The excellent scholar R.S. Baker has provided an article for this issue about a well-known—one might say unavoidable—figure in the recording industry, Eddie King. King spent thirty years in Zonophone, Victor, and Columbia recording studios—and no photographic likeness of him is known to exist. The image we’ve here published is a drawing by R.S. Baker.
There are plenty of anecdotes about Edward T. King—most of them extremely unflattering. The problem is that they reach us via the memoirs and reminiscences of musicians. Which brings us to the third level of (unsuccessful) fact checking: ferreting out a truth that exists but does not want to be known. Musicians are not alone in wanting to embellish their histories, but a good jazz story will more likely be passed down when the truth doesn’t swing.
Sometimes this confabulation amounts to an inside joke in the jazz community: there is Strictly No Admittance for outsiders. One of them (particularly a journalist, who is by definition an outsider) might blab that there is no Santa Claus. Thus, musicians find refuge (and amusement) in an informal, self-protective guild of tale-tellers—and in the place of mundane (or possibly actionable) truth, offer engaging stories. These tales have a tendency to solidify into legends—and calcify into accepted history.
As a result of this inveterate storytelling, jazz mysteries and outsize legends abound. Eddie King is one thing—what about Tempo King? Moreover, what about his incredibly talented stride pianist Queenie Ada Rubin? On a handful of records made for Bluebird and Vocalion in the mid-1930s, Queenie sounds just like Fats Waller, and yet. . .that knowledge is forbidden us. They could tell us, but would the music continue to kill us?
Sometimes the legend is more fun than the facts and adds to the enjoyment of the music. It still feels nice to think of Louis Armstrong as born on the 4th of July, 1900, despite evidence to the contrary. And of course, nobody really believes that Robert Johnson sold his soul at the crossroads. Nonetheless, when I had to compose a thumbnail bio of Slim Gaillard to accompany the Jazz Birthday photo, I relied on Wikipedia for information—which had all the usual tales about Slim being from Detroit (or Cuba) and being stranded on Crete as a boy. I duly reported those canards.
After the issue was published I heard from Dr. F. Norman Vickers who assured me that his hometown of Pensacola, Florida, was Gaillard’s, also: “In fact, Gaillard, the ultimate BS artist, told people he was born in Cuba to a sea-captain etc., and that got in the jazz literature and Leonard Feather fell for that too.” I’m glad to know the truth, though knowing tarnishes a bit of the magic. Gaillard’s exotic, absurd (fake) history did enhance the brilliant absurdism of his music.
Not unmixed with the delight of storytelling (or hoaxing) is the desire to keep the uninitiated at arm’s length. A legendary persona may be a suit of armor calculated to protect the private person inside. Leon Redbone’s armor was bullet-proof, as his sideman Dan Levinson recounts in this issue. Interviewers’ questions ricocheted off it—and he never removed it.
It’s almost inconceivable to us that anyone could—or would even want to—maintain that level of privacy over a five-decade career. We gleefully prance and strut on social media, revealing all our innermost thoughts, taking scores of unflattering selfies, uploading our colonoscopies to YouTube (with suitable musical accompaniment).
The miracle of Leon Redbone is that he never broke character. Even his stage persona was difficult and appreciated primarily by his people—the inner circle of his fans. His television appearances were nothing like his theatrical performances. When my wife and I saw him in 2011, we missed the point. We didn’t realize that endlessly screwing around onstage was the point. We thought he might have been unwell. We were not the cognoscenti. His people thought he was a hoot. He was just Redbone being Redbone.
Characters like Leon Redbone, Slim Gaillard, and Eddie (and Tempo) King make my job a fascinating headache. Eventually, an editor just has to stop charging at windfarms, however infuriatingly enigmatic.
For today, let’s just buy our ticket and enjoy the show.