Wednesday, July 8, 2020

"Chichería" by William Seaton (from PLANETARY MOTIONS)

Photo by Patricia Seaton 
(it was election day in Peru and the peasants were in town from the hills to vote and have a few drinks)



Red plastic bag like refuse marks the chichería,

its benches half the breadth of my behind.

This shed I think was built in just a day –

a few good kicks would turn it to debris,

and yet I think the place must serve up hope.

I’m seated with the rest to seek my share.


A chichería is an unlicensed establishment

selling the indigenous people’s homemade

beer, usually based in corn. 

Saturday, July 4, 2020

BLM/Independence Day: Drummer Warren Smith Reflects on Growing up on Chicago's South Side in the 1930s

KIRPAL GORDON: I had a peek at the memoir you are writing on your life in music. On Independence Day during this national moment of Black Lives Mattering, would you share some of your experiences coming up in Chicago?

WARREN SMITH: At the time of my birth (5/14/1934), Black people lived south of 12th Street. Chicago was fast, hip, intense---whatever was in style at the time. There was music, dance, theater, opera, night clubs, blues joints, jam sessions. Prohibition had just been rescinded, and now marijuana was illegal. I remember my father, a musician, putting on his tuxedo and tying his bow tie to go to work at the establishment whatever it was (sometimes the establishment was run by gangsters like Al Capone). Here it was right after the Depression, and everyone dressed up formally to go to work. It never occurred to me at that time to ask, who covered the costs of all that production?

We lived south of the Loop between 12th Street and 31st Street next to the Lakefront. The real estate phenomena that continually occurred when Black residents moved across that line resulted in their getting harassed and/or vandalized initially. Then there would be a “White Flight” as the Caucasian residents moved further south to avoid integrating with Black folks. The family rumor has it that our Uncle Steele and Uncle Lloyd had bought a house on 37th Street and Ellis Avenue, in which several of our families were living along with our paternal grandfather, James Madison Smith. Someone set off a bomb in front of the house and blew out most of the windows. My younger brother Frank and I were untouched, but there was glass embedded in the wall above our crib. Our grandfather died not long after, certainly not helped by the experience. Other cousins and friends had similar experiences as we gradually expanded further south, but eventually the violence stopped, at least the physical violence. Until I left for New York in 1957, not much had changed. But things are quite different now for our next generation of cousins, at least geographically, as far as I know. I don’t live there anymore; I’m going on hearsay.

The important point I want to make is that this segregated segment of Chicago society felt completely empowered and pretty much self-sufficient. We had our own school system with Black superintendents, principals and associate principals. For context, let me add that I started teaching in “integrated” New York City in 1958. They got their first Black principal in 1966.

We had our own Musicians Union, with its own Credit Union. The first building it owned was on State Street at 40th Street. When urban renewal caused that whole neighborhood to be raised, the Union bought another on Cottage Grove and 61st Street. And they owned an apartment on Drexel Blvd in Hyde Park which afforded many of its members an affordable home during trying times. Many of these resources were lost to us when the AF of M integrated Local 208 with the White Union Local 10 becoming the present Local 10-208. Chicago’s South Side, however, has retained its power as a thriving black community. And it was so much that way during my youth that I almost never ventured outside of it except to go to school. I joined the Musicians Union at the age of 14 and got my driver’s license as well. I didn’t realize there was a Local 10 until I was 21. I was playing music in church, in social affairs, in parades and summer concert bands. 

KIRPAL GORDON: You also lived in Maywood? How did that move come about?

WARREN SMITH: Moms did not like the environment around A.O. Sexton Grade School, so in my second year my brother Frank and I transferred to Washington Grade School in the mostly Black school in District 89, Maywood, Illinois, where my maternal grandparents lived, some twenty miles due west of the Loop. Chicago’s South Side was completely urban and paved with asphalt, but Maywood had cobblestone streets.  We lived in a big two-story house with a basement, large side yard and a back yard that featured a vegetable garden cultivated mostly by my father, produce we ate daily. There were cherry trees, a rhubarb bush, currants and my grandfather’s herb garden with mint and other medicinal plants. We had a well from which we drew water daily and a rain barrel for utilitarian purposes. We raised chickens.

Maywood was just west of Oak Park/River Forest, a rather affluent area with many Frank Lloyd Wright Prairie houses in the residential neighborhoods. Maywood went from 1st Avenue in the east to 26th Avenue in the west and from St. Charles Road on the north to Madison Avenue on the south. All the Black people in the town lived between 10th and 14th Avenues. One wealthy businessman owned a nice home on the corner of 15th and Oak Street. The renowned scientist Dr. Percy Julian lived on the corner of 14th and Oak. A few years later Dr. Julian had the temerity to move to Oak Park itself, and of course his house got bombed in true Chicago style.

Now here’s where fate gets tricky. During the Second World War the common thread of thought was that Black men weren’t courageous enough to go into serious battle with the “enemy.” So all the Black soldiers from Maywood were sent out as orderlies, cooks and other non-combat duties. A battalion of soldiers containing all the White enlistees from Maywood was sent to the Pacific where they were wiped out by Japanese forces in the battle of Bataan. There was a Hollywood movie, starring John Wayne, made years later by that name. All the Black soldiers came back from the war and the town turned BLACK within that generation.

When we started school in Maywood, during the first week we had to fight our way back to our grandparents’ house every day after school, until the neighborhood kids got to know we were “Mr. Derrick’s grandkids.” Then we began to make friends that lasted for a lifetime. And we had lots of cousins from my mother’s side of the family. We all went through grade school together and high school as well. Most of our parents also had attended the same school before us.  

KIRPAL GORDON: Would you take a chorus on your family’s “pilgrimages” to North Carolina?

WARREN SMITH: Yes, but first here's the background: My mother had an older sister and a younger brother; my father had ten siblings. I never saw them all, but the ones present in my life were very influential. All my role models were organically related to me. I grew up with my younger brother and more than a dozen first, second or third cousins. They were all like brothers and sisters. We lived together, often ate together, slept together and frequently traveled together from Chicago to North Carolina to visit the Smith family homestead. I guess that was James Madison Smiths’ 40 Acres, and there was a mule involved also. In North Carolina we also raised pigs and grew peanuts. We could walk down the red dirt road in the morning and pick wild berries and fruit from the trees and bushes for our breakfast. Sometimes my brother, my cousin Ethan and I would bring back enough blue berries for our aunts to make a couple of pies. We’d go fishing and cook outside in a big kettle over an open fire. Both sides of the family preserved canned fruit and vegetables for the winter. We made wine from fruit or even dandelion flowers! We cooked the dandelion leaves as greens or used them in salads. Very little was wasted in those days.

The trips to North Carolina took several days. We would leave Chicago with enough food to last us until we got to Washington D.C. In the 1930s and 40s we didn’t know where we might or might not get served or abused so we drove straight through to where we knew it was safe. In D.C. we had relatives. We’d spend the night, re-supply our food bank and drive the last five or six hours to the homestead. After a week or two we would all pile back into the two or three car caravan and travel back to Chicago the same way. We did this annually until our grandmother died at 103. Now we occasionally return for periodic reunions or meet at some other hosting location every few years. Somehow the tradition is still intact.

KIRPAL GORDON: You were born into quite a musical family. What was that like?

WARREN SMITH: My dad played saxophone and clarinet; my mother played piano and harp. Literally every one of our aunts and uncles were musicians and were always preparing to perform somewhere. Often even as infants we went along with them, to drop them off or pick them up and sometimes even allowed to come inside and see what was going on. This was live theater with full orchestras, dancers, singers and stage lighting. You can’t imagine how early this captured my imagination. I had decided to be a professional musician by the time I was three!

One of the most exciting times was when one of the bands was getting ready to go on the road. Maybe they had a three-week engagement in Detroit or six weeks in Buffalo. The morning of their departure, women would be cooking and preparing bags of food. There would be three or four cars lined up at the curb, all being cleaned and simonized, the white walled tires painted with white wash, a water-based paint. Then the musicians would appear, each one dressed stylishly and sharper than the last. Finally, after all the loved ones got their hugs and kisses and the food bags were distributed in all the cars, the motors would start up and they’d be off to cheers from the crowd. Boy, how the young kids longed to go with them. We couldn’t wait for them to come home and tell all the funny stories and strange adventures they had experienced.

Every once in a while, one of our special talents would get the opportunity to go to New York City, Harlem. Almost all the aspiring musicians from Chicago wanted to follow the footsteps of their musical idols to the Big Apple. As Black kids our idols were entertainers, the few professional athletes who managed to break through like Jack Johnson Joe Lewis or “Sugar Ray” Robinson, and the doctors, lawyers, and educators from our neighborhoods. Our families probably had a lot more power and influence over their lives than we do now. We certainly didn’t have as much then, but it wasn’t necessary either.

I started trying to play my Dad’s saxophone at around four. In a couple of years I could play what I could think of (not much) by ear. Being precocious, actually arrogant, I thought I knew more than I actually did. I began to tinker around with the piano, by ear. My mother and no fewer than three aunts had degrees in piano and organ, but I never thought to consult them at all. I just did it by ear and my folks were wise enough to let me find my own way. Then one day at about six I went into a ballroom called the “Rum Boogie” with my mother and brother to pick up my dad from his gig. The ballroom was on the second floor. When we entered, I immediately saw in the corner of the stage a scene that changed my life. There was the drummer and he had a set of flashing lights inside his bass drum! I immediately decided to become a drummer right then.

Times were quite different then. I remember that there was a place called “Bacon’s Casino” on Wabash Avenue. It was a Quonset hut structure, that is, a long tent with a curved roof and flat sides. On many Sundays they would have jam sessions at this place in the afternoons after church and the kids could come and hear the music. Naturally the Smith clan was usually in full attendance. We heard all the cats that were in town at the time or passing through. Roy Eldridge or Coleman Hawkins or whoever, they would make that session on Sundays and we would be there listening.

My first gigs as a drummer were at the Elks social club, with my father. Actually, my very first gig also included a young baritone player named Laurdine Patrick. Everyone called him Pat. He went on to play many years with Sun Ra, touring and traveling across the world. Pat was also on the faculty of SUNY Old Westbury for many years. His son Deval Patrick is the former governor of Massachusetts. I continued drumming during my teen years and playing in the marching and concert bands in high hchool. After my freshman year I stopped taking weekly lessons from my most significant teacher, Oliver S. Coleman, because of the commute to Maywood, an expanding social life, athletics (I started running distances around 8th grade) and just being a teenager; I grew away from music for probably the only time in my life. I still played in the school bands and did gigs with my father and cousins, but I stopped taking lessons. I also developed a greater interest in architecture, through my friend Joe Black, one of my high school teachers at Proviso, and my dad making me aware of Frank Lloyd Wright and the Bauhaus gang with their glass and steel buildings in Chicago. One of the things that kept me connected with music was the opportunity to perform with Capt. Walter Henry Dyett and his summer concert band. in Washington Park. I would go to DuSable High School every year to see the legendary “High Jinks” show the students put on with live music. My older cousin Eddie played in the sax section with Johnny Griffin, who was also a student of my father.

I mustn’t forget to mention the constant reinforcement I received within my social environment. When we had a social occasion, there was never a question about who would entertain us. We provided our own music for all occasions almost spontaneously. My maternal grandmother’s genesis came about as the result of my African great-grandmother, Nora Sellers, being raped by a white Doctor of Music, Dr. Foxx, who fathered a famous baseball player, Jimmy Foxx. However this worked, my grandmother had 11 children. All of them were thoroughly educated in music. And this musical tradition has continued through another three generations and counting.

KIRPAL GORDON: You were exposed to European classical music as well?

WARREN SMITH: From my family and my studies in school. I managed to get into the District 89 School Band, the only black musician in the band at that time. As a result of this experience, I was immediately accepted into the Proviso Township High School Concert Band. It proved a quantum leap in my exposure as the director, J. Irving Talmadge, was a big fan of Richard Wagner. So I leaned about everything from the “Ring of the Nebilungen” to “Taunhauser Overture.”

I spent four years in the high school marching band (which I abhorred except for the football games). Then at the University of Illinois I spent another four (out of five) years marching with the ”Marching Illini.” The pattern was interrupted in my fourth year when composer Harry Partch did a year’s residency. I quit the band to play tympani in the university’s symphony orchestra. All my extra non-class time was spent in Harry Partch’s ensemble. The previous summer I had received a scholarship to Tanglewood, the summer camp of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. I studied with retiring Roman Shultz and the incoming tympanist, Everitt “Vic” Firth, as well as Harold Faberman, on snare drum techniques.

It was on my summer in Tanglewood that I realized how strong my cultural attachment was to my upbringing in Chicago’s South Side. I borrowed the car of my friend and fellow Illini, Harold Jones, to go into Pittsfield and get a haircut. As I drove, I turned on the radio of the car, and the first thing that came out was the blues! I, in my early arrogance, had lost respect for the form because I had not yet been exposed to its more intricate forms and variations. But the power and familiarity of what I heard changed my opinion of the form forever. I got so homesick I never forgot it. And the next time I got back to Chicago I started hanging out at all the old blues clubs and learning a lot more.

It’s been that way for me ever since.