The Man is an audio novel set in the first decades of the 20th century
The stories and original songs are written by Steve Gillette
Track 1. “Conversion on 13th Avenue”
The man in the picture is my great-uncle, Danny Murrow. He and his brother, Johnny, were pretty well known as musicians in the nineteen-twenties and thirties. Johnny played the piano and Danny played the guitar. Danny was adopted by Johnny’s parents, Jack and Mary, when he and Johnny were both just eight years old. The two boys got to be as close as any brothers, but that took a while.
Danny was lucky to be adopted by a musical family. Their father, Old Jack, was an authentic stride piano man who had traveled the roads and rivers of the un-reconstructed South.To provide for his family, Jack worked as a mechanic. He maintained a printing press. He was never able to get all the grease and ink off his hands, and Danny thought for years that every piano had those black and blue stains on the ivory.
When the boys started to become well known, some of the critics began to pay more attention to Jack’s playing. One writer said he thought Jack got his left hand in New Orleans. Jack got a good laugh out of that.A friend, Joe Venuti, always said that Jack seemed to get better with age. He’d say, “Age doesn’t always bring wisdom, sometimes she comes alone.”
© 2010, Compass Rose Music, BMI
This first song on the album is a pretty straightforward sixteen bar blues. But there are a couple of chords that vary from the common blues pattern of I, IV and V. In our version in the key of A, that would be just A, D and E or E-7. And that’s pretty much what we have except for the section we might call the ‘turnaround.’
You’ll notice that this ending of the chorus uses the I, the IV and the V, and two minor chords, the vi and the ii. But the real surprise here is the use of a diminished chord.
As we have discussed, chords are generally constructed with the first, third and fifth scale degree of any of the notes in the key. We’ve also discussed ‘borrowing’ chords from other keys, but for the sake of simplicity let’s stay with notes in the scale of A major.
If we build a chord on the A we find that the note that is the third above it is a C♯. This is because in the scale of A we need to raise the third, the sixth and the seventh notes by a half-step in order to conform to the pattern of whole-steps and half-steps of a major scale. This is why the key signature for A has three sharps. So an A major chord would have the A, the C♯ and the E, the 1, 3 and 5 in the A scale. Again, do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do explains a lot in very few words.
In the major scale the I chord is major, the ii chord is minor, the iii chord is minor, the IV chord is major, the V chord is major, the vi chord is minor and the seventh chord, the surprise, is a diminished chord. A small circle next to the chord lets us know that it is a diminished chord. This diminished chord is G♯°, or G♯ dim.
As we’ve discovered, each of the notes in the scale can create a chord, but because of the distribution of whole-steps and half-steps, a chord may be a major chord or a minor chord. A major chord will have two whole-steps between the one and the three. In this case the A and the C♯. This interval is a major third. A minor chord will have a smaller interval, just a whole-step and a half-step between the one and the three – a minor third. The ii minor in the key of A would be built on B and the third above that would be D and the fifth would be F♯.
The distance between notes must add up to what is called a ‘perfect fifth’ that is neither major or minor, although we will learn of two exceptions. But to keep it simple, (if it’s not too late for that) the perfect fifth of a major chord is the sum of a major third and a minor third. In a minor chord, the fifth would be the sum of a minor third and a major third.
The diminished chord and the augmented chord are the two exceptions, although the diminished chord is the only one that occurs naturally in a major scale. The seventh scale degree is the unique place where both intervals turn out to be minor thirds.
Starting on the seventh note of the scale, the G♯ we find that the third above it is B and the third above that is D. From G♯ to B is a minor third, and from B to D is another minor third. So this chord breaks the perfect fifth rule and has its own distinctive sound. To me it has a lonesome, train-whistle kind of sound.
There are some other peculiarities about diminished chords, and it might make sense to explore a little music theory, but for now this should be enough. Oh, yes, and the augmented chord? That’s a chord built with two major thirds. To accomplish this we’d have to raise the fifth a half-step and create an ‘augmented fifth. Starting on A we’d need the major third C♯ and then the note a half-step above the normal fifth, the F natural. This chord is one we would only rarely encounter, and it also has kind of a lonesome, almost a haunted house kind of character.
The turnaround makes a little bit of an excursion around the scale with the I for four beats, then the I-7 for four beats, then the IV for four beats and the vii dim for four beats, then the I for two beats and the vi for two beats, the ii for two beats and the V for two beats. Then the ending; I for two, IV for two, I for two and V for two and back to the top of the tune.
Nashville studio players are known for writing out their charts with Roman numerals rather than the chord names. That way if the producer wants to change the key, they already have a workable chart. Here I provide both for clarity.
This piece is intended to serve as a background to the narration. It’s an introduction to the whole project, and so the narration takes the forefront. Still much is conveyed in the musicianship and the mood that the players are able to establish. On the recording Rey Castillo plays drums, Randy Wolchek plays piano, Scott Petito plays bass, Jack Williams plays lead guitar, Bill Shontz plays clarinet, and I play rhythm guitar.
The promotional blurb for the CD says “Midway between Huckleberry Finn and Holden Caulfield, Danny Murrow confronts coming of age in the early days of the jazz era. From battered street-waif to celebrated guitar savant our hero endures and abides in The Man, newly released by Steve Gillette and Compass Rose Music.”
Danny is the central character in the work. According to the story, he wrote a memoir in 1939 recounting his life in the music business of the twenties and thirties. It’s a coming-of-age story, but also a coming-to-be story, since Danny overcame a terrible deficit of childhood development.
I’ve thought of him as a street-wise character who eventually acquires a patina of worldliness, never quite able to leave his insecurities behind as he grows in his powers of discernment and begins to educate himself. Eventually he displays an inscrutable sense of humor, like someone out of a Damon Runyan story. Affecting his own brand of Yogi Berra patois, he could be heard to say things like: “Where’s there’s double entendre, it can only mean one thing!”
Here’s an excerpt from the unfinished novel, The Man, which I hope to be able to offer before the end of 2021. I’ve included these notes as background to the musical tracks, as context, and as a glimpse into the kind of thinking and research that has gone into the work.
It’s my hope, just as I have hoped for all the articles, that the songwriter will have a half-hour or more in a realm of fantasy and inspiration, but a realm that has a grounding in a world that we know; a world that we are coming to know. I hope it will be a half-hour well spent.
From Chapter 1.
"I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience. Moreover, I, on my side, require of every writer, first, or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men’s lives, some such account as he would send to his kindred from a distant land, for if he has lived sincerely, it must have been in a distant land to me.” - Henry David Thoreau.
“As a child I didn’t have much of a sense of who I was. I was, as they say, troubled. Who I am I owe largely to the woman who rescued me from the streets and volunteered to become the only mother I’ve ever known. She brought me into her little family and risked a great deal to give me what so many others have taken for granted. I was to have a childhood after all.
There were four of us in that little apartment. Mary and Jack and their natural son, Johnny. Jack did his best to keep body and soul together for us all. He worked on the big press at the New York Post. He claimed that tuning up that old press was a lot like tuning the ancient piano that was the center of our musical world.
He could fix anything with his hands, but sometimes he couldn’t get them clean of the grease and ink before he came home exhausted. Still, he would sit down at the old upright, and play for a while. You could see the cares of the day falling from his shoulders. He’d bring a copy of the paper home every night, and we’d pore over it to learn to read and to see what was happening in the world.
Mary was the lady who looked in on so many struggling social programs in the city in those depression times of the eighties and nineties. She pulled me out of a desperate and brutal setting where my small life could have been lost in a number of ways. I believe she brought me out of a depressed state, a stuporous relationship with the world that was perhaps my only defense in a life so uninhabitable.
Her own son, Johnny, became my brother. Even though we are the same age, I was never a match for him in a fight. That was just about the first thing I found out about him, although if it hadn’t been my idea, I’m sure he never would have raised a hand to me. Always a quiet kid, more at peace than I, he spent so much time in his music that he seemed somehow complete. Together we’ve have had some wild times, though.
1n 1888 a March blizzard filled the streets of New York with drifts of snow so high that people could not get from one block to another. That event cut deeply into the psyche of New Yorkers, and set the stage for bids to build the subway system – an expensive proposition that would probably have met with defeat if not for the blizzard.
We believe I was born in 1880. My father made only the one contribution to my existence. My mother doesn’t occupy any frame of conscious remembrance accessible to me. Passed through foster homes, I was handed down to a woman they called “Gama” but her besotted embrace was frightening and increasingly demoralizing, and I chose the streets as soon as I could get away.
I knew so little about the world. I would lurk and listen, and mostly avoid contact with others, even the urchins like myself, and no one I could really call a friend. Somehow I learned of the mercy trains that would take homeless children out to the west where they would be adopted by loving families.
But I came to understand that I was too old to be desired as the innocent infants were, to be embraced and nurtured; and yet, too young to be useful for hard, physical farm work. I dreamt of riding the big train out into a land where I might be a cowboy and have a horse or maybe find my fortune in the gold fields exchanging the life of a beggar and a thief for the trappings of a knight.
Eventually caught stealing, I was introduced to the stern people of the social services. I would learn that my drab captivity, as much as it was to be struggled against, would open out to something better. My prospects needn’t be limited to the menacing dark of some putrid crawlspace. But the young captive I was could not have helped himself.
When Mary heard about my case, it wasn’t a good time for her. Her son Johnny was also just eight years old. He was a splendid kid, all a mother could hope for, and she didn’t think Jack would be able to accept what it might mean to have another, a difficult child. It could represent a danger to the life they had. She was conflicted.
She thought at least she should see me. If she couldn’t take me, then maybe she could steer me to one of the charities, or somebody who needed a sad case. She once showed me an entry in her journal that described that time. “He was a mess, clingy and bristly; flighty and un-focused, probably terribly abused, what could anybody do?”
The journal continued, “When Jack saw him, he seemed to recognize something. That was it, just that simple, he was ours. Before you knew it he had situated himself between the radiator and the piano and was curled up like a cat, and that was fine for the moment.”
There would come years of patient coping, hurt feelings, rage, piteousness, diffidence and small victories. “Jack seemed sufficiently happy just to see this little stranger rock with the piano, and later to hold the guitar like a hollow mace and allow himself to be drawn into the rhythmic pulse of the music. They had a dialog that words envied.”
“Jack could be an intimidating physical presence, but there was something about the body language that meant they understood each other from the beginning. I was jealous of the simple man-to-man coexistence of two beings who had as much difference between them as I could imagine, yet shared something primal and plain. I saw in it the beginnings of the same conspiracy that Johnny and his dad enjoyed, and rejoiced in how far we had all come.”
Johnny was mystified, but not antagonistic. He didn’t seem to be protecting any territory, and that was a trait that Mary found gratifying. He did seem to have some of the uncarved block that the mystics had written about. There was no denying that Johnny occupied that special place of firstborn son, but my probationary status eventually gave way to acceptance and finally membership in the only family I had ever had.
Johnny was quite advanced in his musical training at that young age, but there was a reluctance to play in his father’s presence. Mary was sure that Johnny was not afraid of competition with his dad, but perhaps was protecting Jack from some imagined injury in the obvious promise of his skills. That non-controversy said a lot about our little family.
He began to appreciate my struggle, and to align himself with it. Then it wasn’t that far to the Sunday comics; adventure games based on The Count of Monte Cristo, other shared fantasies, and a deeper communication which seemed to flower most noticeably in the music.
Playing offered a structure that didn’t depend on anyone’s authority, it was a harmonious dialog. One by one we found tunes we could play together, or at least in which my playing didn’t detract too much from Johnny’s genuine gift.
Soon it was a trio, Jack and Johnny taking turns at the piano, and Johnny on harmonica too. I was holding very tightly to the fragile guitar, aching to fret cleanly, respectable intonation far in the future.
Mary was glad to look on and provide popcorn. Sometimes there were hilarious hi-jinks, and one time when the landlord appeared angrily at the door, fully prepared to have us thrown into the street for playing music. With just a little patient discussion, we found that we knew a lot of the same songs, and he went away humming a pretty good rendition of “Darktown Strutter’s Ball.”
In the June 3, 1888 issue of The San Francisco Examiner, Phin appeared as the author of the poem we know as “Casey at the Bat.” The poem received very little attention but a few weeks later it was partially republished in the New York Sun, although the author was now “Anon.”
Jack brought a copy of it home that summer, and everyone seemed to think it was very funny. I did too, eventually when I came to understand more of what it was about, and I still cherish it as a measure of my limited awareness. It took a long time for me to understand that it was about a contest of baseball, something I had seen in the stickball street version, but never understood in terms of rules.
The language was immediately funny, words like “Mudville,” “Cooney,” “lulu,” and the image of “Flynn a-huggin’ third.” But frustratingly, so much of it was lost on me. It seemed like weeks before I could listen to it all the way through and understand it, and really a couple of years before I could read it to myself. I still get satisfaction from the last two stanzas:
“The sneer is gone from Casey’s lip, his teeth are clenched in hate;
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate.
And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey’s blow.
Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville – mighty Casey has struck out.”
I eventually did read. And read and read. I took refuge in one book after another, and that was joyful for Mary. She could send me into worlds created by loving genius in a thousand settings. Dickens, Dumas, Melville, Wolcott, Conan Doyle, eventually Scott and Clemens. She could even tolerate the Whiz Bangs and the Handy Books. Lots of things that she would never read, but didn’t mind seeing me read.”
© 2010, Compass Rose Music, BMI
Photo by Jacob A. Reiss, 1890