Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A Lost Art

John Wayne
 I liked all those “shoot 'em ups” that the Visualite and Carolina Theaters featured on a regular basis back in the '40's but I was also crazy about the musicals. There are still images of some of the big band movies featuring Benny Goodman, Glen Miller, Tommy Dorsey etc etched in my brain.

Benny Goodman Band
One scene in particular always puzzled me. Each of those bands had a guitar player strumming along...just going to town in rhythm to the music, but you never heard him. The horns and the drums drowned him completely out. In one of the Benny Goodman movies, I remember the camera moving in on the guitarist as Benny was finishing a solo, and you could almost hear a couple of chords he was playing before the horns started up again. But that's as close as I ever remember seeing them come to letting us hear a little bit of the guitar.

Years later, long after the big band era of popular music was over, the guitar got amplified and became more popular than ever. I thought back to those poor old acoustic guitar players. What a shame. Now that the guitar could be heard on an equal footing with the other instruments, the era of the big bands was over.

When they disappeared, so did the art of the rhythm guitar, the style of playing that had been adopted especially for the big bands, i.e., strumming complimentary and often extremely complicated chords in rhythm with the band. (Mainly, it was said, for the band members themselves to hear and better feel the "pulse" of the music.)

Now why in the world as an adult I let my brain still be cluttered with thoughts of old movies and guitar players, I'll never know. There was a lot going on in my personal life back then in the early 60's.

I was trying to establish a career in a new city and I was also courting my wife to be. As I mentioned before, that was during the time when I was driving that 12 year old Dodge and still making payments on my stolen TR-3. That was one reason I wasn't able to take Linda on many expensive dates.

M Street and Wisconsin Ave
The Carriage House main dining room
Luckily, we had discovered a restaurant in the Georgetown section of the city called “The Carriage House.” You could spend a lot of money eating in the main dining room, but in one of the back rooms, called “The Snuggery,” you could order a sandwich and nurse a couple of drinks for several hours without spending much money at all. Plus, there was a piano bar there that featured, in my opinion, one of the finest pianists this side of George Shearing named Mel Clement, who, in fact, had studied with Shearing.
George Shearing

I think he knew every popular song ever written. And as far as Linda and I were concerned, there was no entertainment south of New York City, better than sitting around Mel's piano a couple of nights a week listening to this exceptional musician.

It was truly a magical place...and a magical time for us.

Carriage house menu
But as they say, “nothing is so good, that the government can't screw it up.” Well, one night I was afraid that was going to happen to the “Snuggery.”  But the government had nothing to do with it. It was a customer who walked in with a guitar case without saying anything to anyone, and sat down next to Mel at the piano. He opened the case and began tuning his guitar.

Mel seemed to either know him, or was too nice to object to the intrusion. But those of us around the piano were not whatever was going to happen. I think we were all on the verge of letting the “interloper” know that this was Mel's piano bar, not a Karaoke bar, in fact that word hadn't even been coined at that time.

But, before any of us could say anything, the stranger introduced himself as Steve and said he was going to sing a song even though he admitted that he was a terrible singer.

He did, and he was.

But, with Mel accompanying him, his raspy singing was soon overshadowed by a series of exotic chord progressions on his guitar in rhythm with the tune.

All conversations in the room stopped as it became obvious that we were witnessing something very special.

Steve Jordon
I whispered to Linda, “I think that's the guy in the movie!”

She didn't know what the heck I was talking about.

But, it could have been. He was strumming along just like those guitar players in the big band movies, only this time I could hear what he was playing.

And it was spellbinding.

Steve turned out to be Steve Jordon, one of the last, and best, of the acoustic rhythm guitarists who in the 1940's had been with Artie Shaw, Jimmy Dorsey, Stan Kenton and, yes, Benny Goodman.

He lived in DC and was temporarily between “gigs,” which was performing with small combos in Jazz Clubs in Washington and New York.

He joined us at the Snuggery just about every night for the next three weeks or so....and never again had to pay for another drink.

If you'd like to hear what it sounded like on those magical evenings in the "Snuggery" and listen to a style of acoustic guitar accompaniment that you'll probably never hear again ...



(The late Steve Jordon made only one solo record album as far as I know. He thought his singing voice was awful, but frankly I thought it fit nicely with the kind of dusty old songs he performed. It has a sincerity about it that singers with more polished voices can't achieve.

A few CD's of his record album are still available on  as well as his book, Rhythm Man, Fifty years in Jazz.)