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JAZZ & BASEBALL THOUGHTS ON EVE OF SUMMER 2010

Last month was a particularly poignant time for me, attending three memorials for dear friends in the jazz community. All led significant and sharing lives and lived them for a long time with the exception of writer-poet-master teacher Marc Crawford who died in 1996 at the age of 66. Marc, a high school dropout from Detroit who served in the military in both WW II and the Korean War, wound up a master teacher at NYU and was the man who introduced Miles Davis and James Baldwin. One of Marc’s mantras noted at the memorial was: “Find out what you are afraid of and run right towards it.”

John Bunch, who I called the Mozart of jazz piano for his elegance and touch, lived to be 88. Born in rural Tipton, John had never seen a black person until his piano teacher took him to hear Fats Waller in Indianapolis sometime in the 1930s. Bunch survived being a prisoner of war in Germany in the latter stages of WW II to become a noted pianist and arranger. He was Tony Bennett’s musical director for many years in the late 1960s/early 1970s and at the memorial Bennett recalled that on tour in Germany John made a special trip to the town where he had been held captive. Marian McPartland, who travels rarely these days in her early nineties, paid a special personal and musical homage to the aptly hailed Gentleman John Bunch.

Jane Jarvis, another Indianan born in Vincennes in the southern part of the state, lived to be 94. I share now with blog readers the tribute I delivered at her memorial at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church on Manhattan’s East Side about a month ago.


“About 15 years ago, Jane Jarvis talked to a class I was teaching on Jazz and Baseball about her background growing up in the small southern Indiana town of Vincennes:
“I was born to a Methodist mother and a Catholic father, I went every Sunday to an Episcopal church and most of my friends were Jewish.” To use a metaphor from the sport that drew us together, her comment really covers all the bases, doesn’t it? And up in the great beyond I know that the Reverend John Garcia Gensel, the legendary pastor of this church who we both deeply loved and who I just found out married Jane’s son Brian and his bride Judith right here in this space, is smiling because he met his dear wife Audrey on the softball diamonds of Washington, D.C.

I wasn’t living in New York during most of the years Jane presided over Shea Stadium’s Thomas organ, but I had the good fortune to get to know her when she played her weekly gigs at the late lamented Zinno’s in Greenwich Village. (It is so wonderful to see so many of the faces here tonight that made Zinno’s such a special place. And I think of the late great bartender Bruno Galeotti who is here in spirit.)

One of the great things about attending jazz clubs is that the informality of the places enables between-set conversations and friendships to develop. And the more Jane and I got to know each other, the more we found out we had a shared love of jazz and baseball. I can still hear Jane saying firmly, “Jazz and baseball are the most genuine American creations ever. Everything else cultural in this country has been European.”

To us the link was obvious and simple even if many people didn’t understand: There is teamwork in both these indigenous arts and crafts, and yet there is plenty of room for self-expression and improvisation in every solo or at-bat or pitch. Though neither of us liked the commercialism, egotism and greed that had come to surround baseball, we agreed that at their best jazz and baseball were equal partners in everything good and hopeful about this country. I like to say that the common denominator is “Swing Baby Swing.”

The story of how Jane got the Milwaukee Braves job is an interesting one. In 1953 when the team moved from Boston, the ballpark organist in the Braves’ first Wisconsin season had been too loud and intrusive so the team front office started a search for someone with more taste and class.

Jane Jarvis was the choice by acclamation. She was widely known in the area and was the most sought-after keyboard player whenever good music was desired. Her radio show “Jivin’ With Jane Jarvis” enjoyed a large following on the Milwaukee Journal-owned WTMJ, a station that also boasted a stellar list of other on-air personalities including a public affairs show host who Jane told me everyone called Goldie but later would be better known by her married name, Golda Meir, the future prime minister of Israel.

However, before the Braves veteran general manager John Quinn hired Jane for the 1954 season, he needed to undertake one special assignment. Explaining the basic rules of baseball . . . because she had never attended a game! Yet she quickly picked up the essence of the sport and soon felt quite at home at her new workplace. She was blessed to be part of a contending team that played in back-to-back World Series against the Yankees in 1957 and 1958 and nearly made the Series again in 1959.

Of course in the 1950s, it was rare for any woman to have a prominent position at the ballpark, and discreet and prudent Jane made it a point to get to know the ballplayers’ wives before she engaged in any banter with their husbands. Before long Jane developed friendships with future Hall of Famers Warren Spahn, Eddie Mathews and Hank Aaron. She loved Mathews’ competitiveness and absolute honesty and she also became friendly with center fielder Billy Bruton, first baseman George Crowe, and their wives.

Jane often compared George Crowe to her musical colleague Major Holley, the renowned Detroit-born bass player who along with Slam Stewart were renowned for singing a bass line while they were playing. I would meet Major with Jane when they played at Zinno’s and immediately understood her point. Both Crowe and Holley exuded a large and powerful presence and willingly dispensed plenty of life wisdom. It was said many times of the big first baseman during his playing days that had his skin not been dark he definitely would have been major league managerial timber.

Jane also remembered fondly from her Milwaukee days a young Braves’ catcher who was barely 20 years old when he arrived in the majors but already showed a great maturity and poise when making public appearances for the team in the community.
The name of that Brooklyn-born player who would become a future manager was Joe Torre who she would reunite with when he came to play for and manage the Mets.

When her stellar work in Milwaukee and great recommendations helped Jane to earn the organist post with the Mets in brand new Shea Stadium in 1964, she developed similar close attachments with Tom Seaver, broadcaster Ralph Kiner, and stadium operations director Bob Mandt who couldn’t make it here tonight but sends his warm regards.

Jane cherished her memories of two Mets who left us much too early: Center fielder Tommy Agee who used to come with his wife upstairs to the Diamond Club after games at Shea to listen to Jane serenade the customers. And Tug McGraw, who during his early career as a starting pitcher, on days in between starts when his workouts were over, would come up to her booth and play around on her keyboard and shoot the breeze. On the night she learned of Tug’s death, Jane called me just because she wanted to talk with someone about that free spirit who taught many of us that You Gotta Believe.

Jane came from that generation that loved to stay connected with dear people through the telephone. Just a few months ago at the memorial here for the immortal drummer Eddie Locke, Eddie Locke Jr. noted with relish his father’s regular calls to people. Well, Jane told me how she and Lionel Hampton used to call each other at all hours from all parts of the world to share their joy in life and each other. It was Hampton, who once he had met “that woman who plays such great chords on the National Anthem at Shea Stadium” helped to open the jazz doors of New York for Jane.

How I myself miss calling Jane on the phone and trying to fool her with a fake voice identifying myself as either the fire chief of Vincennes Indiana or maybe the president of the Vincennes Auto and Tire Supply Company wanting to know if she would contribute a meal to the Saturday night pot luck supper. And how I miss her uproarious laugh when she responded, “Oh, it’s you Sugarlump!”

She possessed an artist’s sensitive soul and depth of understanding. I remember during one call she sensed I was feeling blue because one of my cats had died. She consoled me. “I’m still mourning the loss of a favorite dog when I was a teenager,” she said.

We still mourn you Jane, but we celebrate tonight your immortality. We will always remember your soulful/musical presence and we will always draw lasting sustenance from the example of your life, music and spirit.”
Delivered Monday night May 10, 2010.

Am off for the weekend of June 12-13 to Baltimore. Speaking at Ivy’s Books in Mount Washington Sat June 12 from 2-4p. I guess you can say I’ll be engaging in a dialogue/debate with myself about the state of the baseball business since the publication of my first book on baseball labor history THE IMPERFECT DIAMOND through the Branch Rickey biography in 2007 through the dawn of summer 2010 and the publication of the third edition of IMPERFECT DIAMOND.

Baseball’s ability for self-renewal was never clearer than the rousing debut of phenomenal pitcher Stephen Strasburg against the punchless Pittsburgh Pirates this past Tuesday June 8. And now on Sunday June 13 he goes on the road against the equally punchless Cleveland Indians. Suddenly the Nationals have a promising future. That Baltimore owner Peter Angelos owns the lion share of their TV rights through the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN) makes the situation more maddening for us Oriole fans who have seen our beloved franchise sink deeper and deeper into oblivion.

Yet our own prospective star pitcher Jake Arrieta made a successful debut on Thursday June 10 against the Yankees who had battered the Orioles in 10 straight victories this year. That former starter David Hernandez got his first major league save in the same game may be a glimmer of hope for the Woerioles. Certainly some of the pitching has been the brightest spot in an otherwise disastrous year. And in Sparky Anderson’s immortal words, “You ain’t nothing without pitching” so there may be glimmers of hope for the long-suffering Maryland Men of Black and Orange.

Will report back to you soon from my trip to both the Orioles high single A farm club the Frederick Keys of the Carolina League and a Sunday afternoon encounter with the suddenly resurgent New York Mets. For now ciao for now.
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