The Grind Tape



Whatever the grind tape's original function, it now serves as a time machine, carrying its listeners across a gap of half a century. We hear a genuine Talker plying his trade at a freak show in Times Square. His laughter, his growl, his breathing are so present that it seems there should be some imaginative algorithm by which we could deduce the room, the sideshow, and the rest of Charlie's life from the sound of his voice.

It begins in the middle of Charlie's exhortation, "... in the rear, where the show is going on right now. Hurry along, hurry along, hurry along! Come on in! You are just in time. There is no waiting. There is no delay. This is a continued show..." With his sharp, slightly nasal timbre, he sounds very much like Lord Buckley, the influential hipster comedian of the 1950s. He employs a studied, high-class diction - the sort of speech you might hear in a "Thin Man" movie - in which terminal consonants are clipped, vowels slightly elongated and R's flattened. "Way back he-ah, in the Rea-ah. Hurraay along." Overall, it's a classic example of the puffed-up rhetoric and diction of the "talker" or "professor." (They were never called "barkers" except by rubes.)

The music backing these introductory sections begins in a startling manner with an outer space sound that resolves into a jazz tune, which turns out to be a slow blues performed by an ensemble consisting of piano, bass, alto, trumpet, tenor, and vibraphone. Charlie plays this same track, in part or in its entirety, each time he repeats his introductory spiel. The tape recorder's fidelity is low, but eventually the gluey, outerspace noise becomes recognizable as a man humming over a bowed bass - the signature sound of bassist Slam Stewart.

After a brief piano intro each of the instruments, beginning with the bowed bass, takes twelve bars, and the piece ends with an all-out chorus. Simplicity itself. The only unresolved aspect of the performance is that the trumpet and the alto are playing in a different language than the other instruments. They keep tempo, hold the form, but there's something discordant about their solos. The alto has a certain audacious fluidity that suggests Charlie Parker, and it thus becomes possible to trace the performance, via the Parker discography, to June 6, 1945. The tune was called "Slam Slam Blues" and the group was headed by vibraphonist Red Norvo. Along with Slam Stewart on bass were Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet, Bird on alto sax, Flip Phillips on tenor, and Teddy Wilson on piano. Jazz buffs consider it a notable session because it combines four masters of swing with the two enfants terribles - Parker and Gillespie - of bop.

Charlie voices the "Hurry Along" portion over the music. Then he lifts the needle and commences a longer "lecture." There are six of these lectures on the grind tape, and they give us additional information about Hubert's - that it had been in business for forty-one years, that its anniversary was January 17th, that it never closed, even for holidays, that the admission was now fifty cents, that the blade box, Congo the Jungle Creep, Presto the magician, Harold Smith the musical glasses player, Estelline Pike the sword swallower and the Electric Chair constituted the six live acts at that time In one extended lecture, Charlie slides underneath his Talker's persona and dredges up material sufficiently funky that we can imagine he has been nipping at a pint of Gordon's all the while, and that the bottle is nearly empty.

"This year, 1965, is the year of snakes. When I said the year of snakes, you have to be kind to your wife, be kind to your girlfriend is because snakes have always proven through life that you can be murdered by your girlfriend, by your wife. So this way if you get into a heated argument, or you get ugly, and you want to kind of make it possible, just make sure that you leave everything friendly home so when you go back, you can sleep peaceful. Because if not, you might not be able to wake up. That is just kind of a tip, you know. Then when you come into Hubert's Museum, you will see what I mean by, this is the year of snakes, and this is the year that ladies is a little ugly. May I remind you, keep that in mind.."

Deep, weird themes, these snakes, homicides and ladies, delivered in Charlie's hypnotic rap; the lore and dream-stuff of a Harlem conjure-man. Want to learn more? Hurry along! Slam Stewart resumes his unearthly crooning.