ONCE UPON A TIME…many decades ago there existed a tavern that was a weekend hub of activity for young adults, college age and up. The joint was located in the northwest corner of a Midwestern state. Booze flowed freely all days except Sunday. Fridays and Saturdays the place was two floors of elbow-to-elbow merriment. People dressed better then: men in coats-and-ties; women in cocktail dresses—all well-groomed. Other signs of the time: the sound of a flicked Zippo, and cigarette smoke filling the air—gasp, wheeze, cough, choke. (Sound effects courtesy of Al Capp.) |
That tavern was ADOLPH’S. The first floor featured a long bar, booths, a cigarette machine, and a juke box that always seemed to be playing Mr. Acker Bilk’s, Stranger on the Shore. A buzz of activity filled the air, but not loud enough to inhibit normal conversation. This is where one met new people, renewed acquaintances, and shared a drink or two before going upstairs.
Upstairs (for a cover charge) was the DRUM ROOM that featured live music—not a DJ with manufactured music—and a dance floor at the foot of a low stage. There was a bar at the back near the stairs, and booths between the bar and the dancers. This was a prime spot for time-honored male-female social interactions, and where dates were made. New relationships began upstairs, and breakups occurred downstairs. I was involved with both. BTW, honesty compels me to admit I was a terrible boyfriend.
One particular Saturday night was more festive than most. A Halloween Parade had passed in front of Adolph’s, and across the street at Kissner’s the Bud Widmer Rube Band launched into a set of irreverent, rowdy Dixieland head arrangements. The Rubers were the so-called official band of New Orleans. Well, at least they had a proclamation from the mayor designating them as such after a number of Mardi Gras appearances. After two sets, the band settled back into serious beer drinking, and the hoard at Kissner’s headed for Adolph’s. ASIDE: In November 2015, I wrote an essay entitled, Ghost of Halloween, which is about the last time I saw the Rube Band at Kissner’s. Refer to my author’s page for the exciting play-by-play!
In the DRUM ROOM, a swing combo under the direction of Bud Widmer’s brother, Bus, came in about eight o’clock, unpacked and played until two the next morning—All Saints Day. Ron and I were there on barstools with cocktails—I had moments before broken up with a girlfriend, and zipped upstairs to escape. At the intermission we cruised all up-and-down Clinton Street in Ron’s old, ugly Dodge Wayfarer trying to pick-up girls; maybe entice them back to Adolph’s. Unfortunately, most seemed wary of Ron’s uncool, old-lady, maroon monstrosity of a car, and frightened of his bespectacled bug-eyed stare and erratic driving. The latter courtesy of beers at Kissner’s and gin at Adolph’s. What a combination. To tell you the truth, I was a bit anxious as well, my hand on the door handle ready to bail. Ron tittered manically and drove like a demolition driver. On one of the side streets he backed up smack on a fire hydrant, scraped a parking meter, then ran into a light pole. Soon the car was an utter wreck. The brakes were squealing, the rods were rattling, the fenders were stove in, and the Dodge bucked convulsively at traffic lights. It had paid the price of a boozed-up driver’s night. It was a mass of scrap metal, and no longer recognized as a road-worthy vehicle. It was the last automobile Ron was to own. In the decades that followed, he morphed into one of those town oddballs; the kind mothers warn their children about. He could be seen walking (haunting?) the streets alone at all hours. Ron passed beyond the veil of life a few years back.
Hot damn! Bus and the boys were still blowing when we got back to the DRUM ROOM. Suddenly, Ron looked into a shadowy booth to the left of the bandstand, and grabbed my arm. “Myers, the MAN has arrived!” He pointed into the dark corner.
I looked. Milt Buckner. (AUTHOR’S NOTE: Buckner was a local boy who made good. He found fame as Lionel Hampton’s piano player, and later invented the locked hands, or block chord, style of piano playing made famous by George Shearing. To this day, the Rivers Jazz Festival is held in honor of two local jazz legends, namely, Buckner and my father’s friend, Wild Bill Davison.) Buckner leaned his head on his talented keyboard fingers, and his ears opened wide as if to capture the sounds for his own use at the Scenic Supper Club. They urged him to get up and play, and he did with innumerable choruses, and amazing block chords that mounted higher and higher until sweat splashed all over the piano. They let him off after about an hour, Milt “The MAN” Buckner, and he returned to his dark booth.
The boys in the band looked wiped out. One of them looked wide-eyed and whined, “Geez, Bus, how’re we supposed to follow Buckner?”
But Bus frowned. “C’mon, guys, what’re you talkin’? You were playing with him for crap’s sake. Let’s give it a go. There’re people here who need entertained.”
I borrowed the following phrasing from Ghost of Halloween because the experience was exactly the same, albeit decades earlier for this case: The band sought hard to find new phrases after Buckner’s explorations, but always seem to fall short. They blew, they tried hard, they found it, they lost it, they wrestled, they writhed, they found it again. Someone would start a riff, and they’d jump in; each with his own head arrangement. They laughed, they cried as they fought to find that one pure harmonic sound that would someday be known as the only sound that could bring man’s heart to joy; and Ron sweated at the bar, and drunkenly yelled for them to swing it! They didn’t find that elusive sound, but they tried; and I knew because of Buckner, they’d try again and again.
At two-thirty in the morning, all of us, everybody—Ron, me, bartenders, waitresses, girls in tight skirts, and the one unhappy, burned-out alto sax player—his horn pads wet and valves sticking—walked out into the autumn chill of early Midwestern morn to wait for the wild Adolph’s weekend again.
AFTERWARD: Adolph’s and the Drum Room eventually went the way of Brigadoon. When? I don’t know. I returned years later only to find a small green park where the tavern once stood. The whole town seemed different like the very spirit of youthful zeal disappeared as well, but maybe that’s just because I had grown old. Like Brigadoon, will Adolph’s return in one-hundred years? If so, will I be there? How about a steamed ex-girlfriend?
Copyright 2018 by Gene Myers. One final call into the ether, “Hey, Gib Reas, wherever you are, the next martini’s for you.”
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