Between Detroit and Chi-town
Happy birthday, son. I’m sure this email comes as a surprise.
I can’t really tell you much about where I am now Is it heaven? Hell? ‘m still trying to decide. I pay attention to the lives of my loved ones on earth, so when you’re happy, I’m in heaven.
I know you’ve been wondering about that story, my claim to fame. Why did Barb know about it and not you? How come you hadn’t heard that story every time a new person walked in the door who I could convince to sit down and listen? Why didn’t your mother mention it?
Barb only knows about it because she woke up when the phone rang. And that nosy girl stayed up to find out where I was going in the middle of the night.
Here’s the whole story: Ron the bartender called me around 10:00 at night. As you remember, Constantine was a very small town. Of course the bartender in the main bar on Main Street and the school’s only band director knew each other. We were the only Kells listed in the phone book. I knew if he called that late it was going to be important.
“Kell, you’ve got to come over.” My first thought was some former student of mine had gotten himself too drunk to drive home and Ron couldn’t think of anyone else to call. I was figuring out some response to that when Ron continued,
“There’s someone here you’ve got to meet. Come as soon as you can. If you don’t, you’re going to kick yourself for the rest of your life. And bring your horn.”
I told your mother what Ron had said to me. “Are you going out, at this hour? You have school tomorrow.”
The only excuse I had was my curiosity. “You don’t want me kicking myself the rest of my life,” I told her. “It’ll make it awfully hard for you to sleep in the same bed with me.”
She sighed and went back to her book in what I decided was a friendly way. “I’ll try not to make any noise coming or going, even though Barb won’t be asleep yet.”
“She’s a night owl, like her father. She’ll probably try to convince you to take her along.”
“And then Bobby will have to come. I think I’d better leave before I’m taking my whole family into a bar at 10:30 at night. Although that would keep the faculty lounge buzzing.”
“Good night, Dick.”
Sure enough Barb was still awake, standing in the hall in her polka dot pajamas. “What time is it? Who called so late?” Nine years old and she had her mother’s inflections down pat.
“Everything’s fine. Don’t talk so loud, you’ll wake your brother. You should be sleeping too.” She was in her foot-stomping, eye-rolling phase then. She stayed in that one quite a while, so you might be able to picture her dramatic return to her bedroom.
This was when we lived on Canaris Street, not so far from Ron’s Bar. I figured if I was going I might as well take my clarinet, as requested. When I parked the car I looked at it and hesitated. “What the hell?” I tucked the case under my arm and made my way into the bar.
Ron saw me right away. “Kell!” he shouted. “Over here.” He waved me over to one of the few booths and joined me there. Three Black men in expensive overcoats looked up from their drinks. “This is the guy I was telling you about,” Ron continued, turning to them. “Dick Kell, our local band director.” He looked back at me. “Didn’t you used to play in a band?”
I hadn’t even ordered a drink yet but I felt like I’d knocked back half a dozen. Louis Armstrong sitting in a booth in a bar in Constantine Michigan! I didn’t know who the other two gentlemen were, but there was no mistaking THAT face.
Turns out they were his driver and a guy who played trombone. I was embarrassed I didn’t recognize the trombonist’s name. “My guys – band and road crew – we’re traveling in three cars,” Satchmo said. “The others went on ahead, but the three of us decided to rest a spell. We figured if the whole crew stopped in here it might be too much of a good thing.” We all laughed.
I admit I was no stranger to Ron’s establishment. And I had never seen one of the local Black guys in the bar. “You’re probably right,” I said. “There’s a limit to how much jazz Constantine can take on a weeknight.”
All three of them looked beat. Their laughter was filled with fatigue. Maybe they liked my joke, but I think they were just being polite. They were nice enough to ask me about my music, so I told Louis Armstrong I played a little swing in college, no big deal.
“I know the barkeep told you to bring your horn. Let’s see what you got,” Satchmo said. Before I could answer he continued, “My baby’s right here beside me.” He lifted a cornet case, beat up worse than the one you had. I guess his had seen a lot more miles. From it he lifted a beautiful horn, a Selmer-Challenger cornet. “Go ‘head. You can hold it.” He reached it out to me and I took Louis Armstrong’s cornet in my hands, thinking back to my swing band days, being on the road, admiring some other cat’s horn.
Ron brought me a much needed drink and I took out my clarinet and we played a little, right there in the bar. Ron kept saying “Look! That’s Louis Armstrong! That’s Dick Kell playing with Louis Armstrong.”
The odd thing was, none of the customers seemed all that impressed. They glanced at us, then looked back in their shot glasses for the answers to the questions of their lives.
We played “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “String Of Pearls”. He let me pick the songs and we started in unison, then he harmonized, then improvized while I plugged on.
I tried a few adventurous turns and he took the melodic line, nodding encouragement. I was nervous he’d start scat singing and I’d forget what key we were in, but he didn’t and I didn’t either.
They’d played a club the night before in Detroit and had a recording date the next day in Chicago. “I love Chi-town,” Satchmo said. “Best ribs outside of N’awlins.”
Those guys were so polite. I think they would have closed the bar with me and Ron probably would have kicked out the other patrons and let us stay all night. But I felt sorry for the three of them, making chit chat with a high school band director in a one traffic light town, when all they wanted was to get some rest. There was no hotel in Constantine, at least not in 1955. I worried they’d ask me about a decent place they could stay the night, where there’d be no trouble. But they probably realized I wouldn’t know the answer to that question.
I told them the wife was probably waiting up for me.
Satchmo rolled those eyes of his. “Oh man, I know how that is. You best be getting on home.”
When I tiptoed into the house, Barb came running to the door. “What happened?” she asked, her own eyes wide.
“I just played with Louis Armstrong.”
“You did not. You just stayed out late on a school night and you’re trying to get away with it.”
I didn’t know whether to laugh or shake her. “I’m the parent here, not you. Go on to bed now.” She gave a big sigh, just like her mother. I thought she went to her room, but she must have heard some of my conversation with Evie, who’d fallen asleep with her book on her lap, her glasses still on her nose.
She startled awake when I came in. “What happened?” she asked, like an echo. “What time is it anyway?”
“A little after midnight. What a night!” I started in, ready to relish the night again in the telling.
“What do you mean you played with him? You played music? You mean you went somewhere and played along with a record of Louis Armstrong?”
“I mean I went to Ron’s Bar and met the actual Louis Armstrong, one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time, and he invited me to play music with him.”
“How many songs did you play?”
“Two. They each lasted a long time.”
She didn’t seem all that impressed. I guess she just wanted to get back to sleep. One of the highlights of my musical life and I didn’t have anyone to appreciate it.
Neither your mother nor your sister said anything about it at breakfast the next morning. You were four at the time. I didn’t think you’d give me the reaction I wanted. I expected to hear about it in the faculty lounge or around town. Surely Ron would be telling the story for years.
Maybe he did. He certainly told me about it every time I went into his bar. But I already knew. And nobody else seemed to care. I did tell a few cornet students over the years. You remember Junior Bixby? I told him.But I didn’t want to face more disinterest or disbelief so aside from those few I knew the story to myself.
I should have told you when you were ten or twenty or maybe fifty. I realize you would have liked to hear about it, and from me. Well, now you have.
Love you always and happy birthday,