Home > Family, Music, Restaurants > Duke Ellington and Me

Duke Ellington and Me


In a recent post, I expressed my surprise that the Iraqi politician Ahmed Chalabi, in his earlier career as a research mathematician, worked in an area closely related to my own, and had a thesis advisor at the University of Chicago whom I knew when I was there some years later. A few days later, I returned to the issue, quantifying my connection to Chalabi by the well-known procedure (among mathematicians) of counting steps in a path from me to him through authors of joint papers. This is similar to the count of degrees of separation used to measure an actor’s level of connectedness to Kevin Bacon (through joint appearances in movies), or to the Erdős number, in which mathematicians or scientists count how connected they are to the late Paul Erdős through authorship of joint papers.

Since writing this last post, I’ve been thinking of connectedness in other fields. One could imagine measuring connectedness of baseball players, the first degree of connectedness (or separation) being playing in a game together, on the same or opposing teams. Obviously, by this measure, every major league baseball player in history will be connected to every other one, with relatively small paths (length one or two) for players of the same generation — at least now, with interleague play and players changing teams a lot — and longer paths as one crosses generations. Or one could measure connectedness of jazz and rock musicians with the first step in a path being playing together in a band.

Or, one can really open things up, allowing connections simply through acquaintanceship. I know A, A knows B, B knows C, so I’m connected to C by a path of length three. This is a pretty low threshold as compared to actually performing or playing or writing together. And with this measure of connectedness, it’s surprisingly easy to connect to just about anyone. I’ve come up with lots of examples. For instance, the year before Gail and I were married, she had a roommate whose brother played with the Jefferson Starship, the band that evolved from pieces of Jefferson Airplane. That pretty much connects me to just about every rock musician of note. Or, if I start using connections through college classmates, I can connect in just a few steps to every major politician in the world, thanks not to my own great talents or extraordinary collection of immediate friends, but simply to the extraordinary lives led by various people in that class and the fact that I am connected to any single one of them through no more than one or two intermediaries. I could name names, providing explicit paths, but not today. Instead, I’m here to talk about my unexpected connection to the twentieth-century New York jazz scene. For more, read on.

Where to start? Why not Chelm? Chelm is a city in eastern Poland that is well known in Jewish folklore for the tales of its wise men, ‘wise’ being tongue-in-cheek, for in fact they were fools. One of my favorite books from early childhood was a book about the wise men of Chelm that my mother would read to me. Isaac Bashevis Singer himself wrote a book about them, The Fools of Chelm and their History.

But Chelm was special to me for another reason. It was the home of my maternal grandfather, Isidore Rapoport. Grampa Izzy came to New York early in the twentieth century and led an immensely rich, colorful life. He died days after my third birthday, so I have only the dimmest memories of him. In one, he is seated in a chair, with a male nurse (in that era, one could hardly call a man a nurse without adding the adjective ‘male’) standing beside him, by the far window in the living room of my grandparents’ Manhattan apartment (in the Majestic, at 72nd Street and Central Park West). I go up to him to greet him and he kisses me. Another memory is of a Passover Seder there, but was I really at a Seder in the apartment with him, or am I imagining later seders at the apartment? My grandmother lived another 30 years in that apartment, so it’s hard to keep the memories straight. (She emigrated from Odessa. I grew up listening to her stories of the pogroms and of how the family would hide in the attic, but she would go down the street as a teenage girl to buy bread at a store. Yiddish was spoken at home, but she was also fluent in Russian and French.)

My grandfather, well, there are many stories to tell about him, but unfortunately I’m not sufficiently familiar with his life to tell too many of them, and some are best left untold. I know a bit about his family. His mother was an ardent Zionist. She and one of his sisters made regular trips to Palestine to make arrangements for other Jews to emigrate. A niece, Batia — one of the sister’s daughters — was one of the founders of a kibbutz in the 1920s. She would later move off the kibbutz to the city, marry a scientist, Fritz, who spent much of his career at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, and raise a family in Tel Aviv. Or maybe she met him on the kibbutz and they then decided to marry and move. I was immensely fortunate to get to spend a lot of time with them during my two summers in Israel, in 1970 and 1971. I was their guest in Tel Aviv for many days and they happily drove me all over on their Shabbat travels. In particular, I visited the old kibbutz with them, not having realized they were pioneers there, so I was taken by surprise when they were treated like highly honored elders. Batia and a brother made it to Israel, but the rest of Grampa Izzy’s family didn’t and were killed in the Holocaust.

However important Judaism was to my grandfather, religious observance wasn’t a priority. He would spend Yom Kippur evening (and lots of other evenings) at the racetrack, along with best friend, another colorful figure whom I got to know because he owned a steakhouse in Manhattan. We went there regularly. My memories of eating there would be from after my grandfather died. My diet in those days was limited, my favorite dish being prime rib. And guess what? They served that at the steakhouse. Which means I was always happy to go there. And when we went, the proprietor would make a big fuss over my mother. I didn’t quite understand it all at the time, the notion that this guy was my grandfather’s best friend and my mother was the woman he knew when she was growing up. I just knew that we were treated as though we were special.

The steakhouse? The Hickory House. The proprietor? John Popkin. So what? Well, if you know anything about the history of jazz in New York City, I don’t need to say anymore. But if you don’t, I’ll fill you in. (I should add that I didn’t know anything myself until just a few years ago. I had no idea that we were eating in my childhood at a historic home of jazz.)

For background we can turn to Whitney Balliett, whose uncredited piece from The Talk of the Town section of the February 23, 1963 New Yorker can be found in the New Yorker archive (with credit given). Balliett explains that “Hickory House, a steakhouse and jazz club on the first floor of a twelve-story loft-and-office building on West Fifty-second Street, opposite the Americana Hotel, is celebrating its thirtieth anniversary, and is … the oldest non-stop jazz club in the city. … One icy day last week we stopped in at Hickory House around lunchtime to have an anniversary talk with John Popkin, its owner and founder and discovered that it hadn’t changed a bit since our last visit, six or seven years ago. … We spotted Mr. Popkin at a table near the bar, and found that he hadn’t changed either.”

Here’s a portion of the article in which John Popkin talks about how jazz got started at the restaurant:

In November, 1934, after I’d bought out my partners, I got the idea to bring in jazz, so I hired Wingy Manone, who had the Marsala brothers with him and Eddie Condon. Not long after that, the three Ts–Jack and Charlie Teagarden and Frankie Trumbauer–came in from Paul Whiteman’s band, and when they left, Joe Marsala was in and out of here right into the early forties, and had people like Adele Girard, the harpist, who became his wife; Joe Bushkin, Flip Phillips; George Wettling; Bobby Hackett, on guitar and cornet; and Buddie Rich. … I can’t tell you, in order, all the rest of the bands I had in the thirties. My memory used to be like a telephone book, but it skips on me now. Anyway, there was Red Norvo and Mildred Bailey; REd McKenzie; Bud Freeman; Red Allen; the Adrian Rollino Trio; John Kirby; Louis Prima and Farley, who wrote ‘The Music Goes ‘Round and ARound:’ Bunny Berigan; and all sorts of intermission pianists–Hazel Scott, Frances Faye, Irving Fields, Toy Wilson, Pearl Williams, and Frankie Froeba. Fats Waller, who was in a floor show next door at the Yacht Club, came in every evening just to play what he wanted to play, and they’d have to send someone over to get him when his next set began. Around 1935, I started Sunday-afternoon jam sessions. Everybody dropped in–Basie, Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum, Hot Lips Page, Chu Berry, Roy Eldridge, the Dorseys, Artie Shaw, Goodman, and Nat Cole, who was across the street at Kelly’s Stable. Frank Sinatra and Frankie Laine used to hang around in the back booth, waiting for a chance to sing. … I stopped hiring horns in the late forties. The food side had become very important, and horns made too much noise. Since then, I’ve had small, quiet groups, a lot of them led by women, like Mary Osborne, the guitarist; Jutta Hipp and Toshiko; Marjorie Hyams, the vibraphonist; and, of course, Marian McPartland, who’s a fixture, and who gave Joe Morello, the drummer with Dave Brubeck, his start. George Shearing started here, too, and so did Peter Nero, in 1959. He was Bernie Nierow then, and an intermission painist.

Duke Ellington didn’t make that list, but he’s mentioned near the opening of a piece, with reference to a phone call from England to John Popkin’s publicity agent: “You spoke to him in England?” Popkin asked, raising his eyebrows. “A call like that costs! I’ve known Duke thirty or thirty-five years. He’s been coming in here since I opened. That man works too hard, but he eats nothing but proteins.”

You can do the calculation now: I knew John Popkin when I was a boy. He was a close family friend. John Popkin knew Duke Ellington. I’m two steps removed from Duke. And two steps from Basie, from Waller, from Brubeck, from Nat Cole, and on and on and on. What a list!

More on John Popkin and Duke Ellington below. But first a photograph that I found here. It is of the Joe Marsala Hickory House Band from 1936. Pictured, left to right, are Eddie Condon, Joe Bushkin, Marsala, Morty Stuhlmaker, and Henry “Red” Allen.

Eddie Condon, Joe Bushkin, Marsala, Morty Stuhlmaker, Henry "Red" Allen.

Also, here’s more on John Popkin from the close of Whitney Balliett’s New Yorker piece:

“I was born–real name of Pupko–in Vilna, Russia, in 1895, and came over in 1907 on a cattle boat from Latvia,” he said. “My father had been in New York three or four years, and owned a fish cart. I didn’t go to school; I started right away as a newsboy. Then I worked for Postal Telegraph and became Eva Tanguay’s personal messenger boy. At seventeen, I took a job as a salesman with United Cigar, and after that as a men’s-clothing model in a store on Fourteenth Street. My father and I had a fish market down on Ludlow for a while, and at twenty-one I went into the auction business. On Lispenard Street. I made a little money and bought a duck ranch in Yardley, Pennsylvania. I was the only Jewish duck raiser at that time, and I lived in an old house that George Washington had had as his headquarters. The keys to the doors were all a foot long. I got married in that house. A very historical wedding. I gave up the ranch after I lost most of my ducks in an epidemic, and worked for the Commission for Relief in Belgium, under Herbert Hoover, during the First World War. Then I opened the Little Club, a speakeasy on Forty-fourth, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue. I always wanted to be in the theatrical and musical line. I quit the Little Club in 1925 and went into perfumes. I was very successful until 1929, when I went broke on Wall Street. I didn’t want to go back with my father, and I was having a hard time when I started this place. I can’t retire. If I do, I’m afraid I’ll die. I’m here fourteen, fifteen hours a day. I meet people and talk. Time flies. There are always problems to occupy my mind.

Willie Ruff, of the Mitchell-Ruff Duo, wrote a memoir, A Call to Assembly, which contains more on John Popkin and Duke Ellington. (I found this passage here.)

One night in 1967, my musical partner, Dwike Mitchell, and I were in New York, playing at a jazz emporium called the Hickory House, when Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn came in together. John Popkin, the proprietor, loved feeding stars, and Ellington, a friend of Popkin’s who was devoted to the Hickory House menu, was never allowed to pay for a meal there. To return the kindness, Duke advised Popkin on jazz groups he felt would be good for business. In fact, he had suggested the Mitchell-Ruff Duo, Mitchell’s piano and my French horn and bass, for the job we were playing that night.

I knew Ellington was then between tours. I also knew he was there that night on a diplomatic mission: he’d called me very early one morning a few days earlier from somewhere on the road. He did all his social calling (often to the consternation of his friends) after a night’s work, generally in the predawn hours. When the sound of the hotel phone jolted me out of a deep sleep, Ellington began cooing into my ear the
platitudes he loved using when jiving his friends.

“One hopes not to disturb the sweet repose of the Muses’ favorite French horn and bass man at this uncivilized hour,” he began in his characteristic fashion. “And please believe that this humble working slob prays forgiveness. But ahh me, how one envies the exalted who’ve already achieved beyond measure, and whose riches and fame afford, such luxurious leisure as yours. [Pause for breath.] “We want you to know that when we grow up, we want to be exactly like you.”

Then I knew why Duke was calling. Two nights earlier, Popkin and I had had a noisy spat when I told him the duo was ready for a rest and would be leaving in two weeks. He went through the roof-but hard. Business was good, and he’d hoped we would stay right through the summer. And there he stood in front of a packed house of diners, his face gone purple, shaking his raised fists and screaming at me:

“Whaddya mean, Ruff, giving notice, for Chrissakes? You can’t do this to me. Don’t we treat you good? Duke Ellington said you were good people. He likes you fellows. He went to the trouble to recommend you, didn’t he? I’m going to call Duke tonight and tell him what you’re doing to me!” So here was Ambassador Ellington on the phone, sweet-talking me in the line of duty I said, OK, Maestro, when did Popkin call, and just what did he say?”

Switching gears out of the jive mode, Duke said, “Aw, come on, where’s your charity, Willie? John Popkin’s just a little guy running a good place to eat steaks and good Chinese food. How is it going to hurt you and Mitchell to stick with him awhile longer? If business is as good as he says it is, ask him for a raise. Haven’t you learned how to handle white folk yet?” I said that we needed a rest, not a raise; to which he remarked-back in the jive mode-You’re tired? You need a rest? Ohhh, poor lamb . . . poor baby . . . Hold the phone while I borrow Ray Nance’s violin and improvise an appropriately sad and pitying air for the working class.”

I tried not to laugh too long and went on to explain that after my recent divorce, I was moving to Los Angeles and had promised to spend some undivided time during the summer with my ten-year-old daughter, Michele. At that, Ellington stopped kidding around.

Go back to sleep,” he said. “I’ll fall by to see you kitties in a couple of days. Sweet dreams.”

Over the years, I had come to enjoy a congenial friendship with Ellington. I was always welcome backstage whenever I turned up in cities around the world where Duke and his musicians were working. I loved to listen to the band and visit with my idols, Harry Carney, Johnny Hodges, Ray Nance, Lawrence Brown, Cootie Williams, and others among his distinguished sidemen. Put simply, Dwike Mitchell and I worshiped Ellington, both the legend and the man.

So here were Duke and Strayhorn at Popkin’s joint inviting Mitchell and me to sit with them and share the Chinese meal. The talk predictably turned to our “problem” with the boss. Ellington was expansive, felt good, and was visibly making the most of his role of peacemaker.

He had good news. He’d already talked to Popkin, told him of my promise to my daughter, soothed him, and found him a replacement for the Mitchell-Ruff Duo, an English piano trio. There was, however, one minor hitch: the Englishmen were in London, still on another job.

‘Would you gents consider staying on an extra week or so, until the Brits arrive?” Mitchell said he’d enjoy helping me entertain Michele in New York that extra week, and Popkin was satisfied. Duke, leveling his most self-satisfied smirk at us, tossed off this improvisation on one of his favorite biblical pronouncements:

“You see, baby,” he said as he took up a Hickory House napkin and flicked a grain of shrimp fried rice from his mustache, ‘bread cast upon the water comes back buttered on both sides.”

Categories: Family, Music, Restaurants
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