Tuesday, 17 January 2012

TV before we had a TV: The Champ

By 1948 we still didn't have a TV set, but our next-door neighbor did.

On June 25, 1948, the aging heavyweight champion Joe Louis defended his title against Jersey Joe Walcott in a highly anticipated rematch. The previous December I'd been been listening on my bedside radio as Louis defeated Walcott in a controversial split decision at Madison Square Garden. "Controversial" is a kind word. It was a horrible decision, as is clear in the films. So convinced was Louis that he'd lost, so disgusted was the champion with his performance that he tried to leave the ring even before the decision was announced to resounding boos.

The June rematch at Yankee Stadium had originally been set for the middle of the week but was postponed twice by rain. Main events always began at ten o'clock, prohibitively late for a school night when a nine-year-old's bedtime was nine. But now it was taking place on a Friday, so at the last minute our neighbor invited Dad and me to come over and watch it. (I remember solemnly assuring Mom we would come home as soon as it was over, as if Dad and I might otherwise have gone out to a tavern with the boys for a post-fight bull session until one in the morning). Thus by happy meteorological circumstance and special parental dispensation, I got to see the big fight on TV -- a huge deal for me.

If you're put off by "the sweet science," as writer A.J. Liebling called it, you have my permission to skip the clip below, skip my pugilistic musings, and go directly to the musical dessert at the end of this post. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200.

As a kid well-schooled in my sports history, I knew the details of Joe Louis' legendary career, and his significance in twentieth-century American life. (On this subject I recommend David Margolick's Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink.) But to me, in 1948, Joe Louis was the overdog of overdogs; like Army, Notre Dame, and the Yankees, he always won. And since I always rooted for the underdog, I was fervently in Walcott's corner. To me justice demanded a Walcott victory, after he'd been robbed of the title so egregiously the previous December.

So on this June night I was thrilled and encouraged when Jersey Joe (in white trunks) dropped Louis in the third round with an overhand right, his third flash knockdown of Louis in two fights. (The overhand right was an old vulnerability of Louis', going back to the first Schmeling fight.) Following the knockdown, the contest settled into dull routine, drawing boos from the crowd for its lack of action in the middle rounds. Walcott, clearly ahead on points, was content to feint and box and keep his distance. Louis, a slow, heavy, rusty imitation of the Brown Bomber of the 1930s, stalked his shifty opponent patiently but was unable to nail him. It seemed a new champion was in the offing.

Then in the eleventh round, with a suddenness I was unprepared for, everything changed. I had listened to boxing on the radio and seen it in newsreels; I'd watched classic old fights on hand-cranked flip-book viewers in Coney Island penny arcades; but I'd never seen a bout live. To my untrained nine-year-old eyes, one minute my guy Walcott is outboxing the champ, building a solid lead through ten-and-a-half rounds, then a quick furious exchange and before I know it my guy is on the canvas being counted out, Louis triumphant again. I went home disappointed and bewildered that night, unable to grasp what I'd just witnessed on our neighbor's tiny TV screen.

What I'd just witnessed was Joe Louis' last great knockout -- one of his most remarkable, given his age and the circumstances, the circs being a reign of 11 years, 25 title defenses, one world war with its enforced absence from serious ring activity, and a clever, dangerous opponent.

As the eleventh round begins, at 3:36 on the clip, Walcott's body language reveals his confidence. After facing Louis for 25 rounds over two fights and winning most of them, he's convinced the over-the-hill champion cannot hurt him. By 4:31 Walcott has proceeded from confidence through over-confidence to cockiness, in the form of flashy head-feints, hand-feints, and sprightly footwork. For good measure, he connects with solid lefts at 4:40 and 4:43. Then at 4:47,  in a gesture of defiance and disdain, Walcott does a little shuffle-step (adopted years later by Muhammad Ali and called the Ali Shuffle). Big mistake.

Jersey Joe was a veteran fighter but not quite old enough to remember a ring-wise wag named Herodotus, who said of hubris: "Seest thou how God with his lightning smites always the bigger animals, and will not suffer them to wax insolent." With his little shuffle-step Walcott was waxing insolent big-time, and sure enough, lightning struck: Louis catches him in mid-shuffle with a solid right hand to the whiskers. It's the punch that turns the fight. The stung Walcott responds by throwing his battle plan out the window and deciding to stand and trade punches with Louis. Bigger mistake.

Joe Louis has rightly been called the best finisher in boxing history; once he had an opponent in trouble, it was over. The impassive Louis never showed emotion in the ring, but you can see the moment when he spots his opening, when Walcott staggers just a wee bit from that right hand. It may be Louis' only opportunity of the night, and he doesn't waste it. For one last time in his career, the champ's finisher's instincts kick in and he summons the prodigious skills and technique of old, punching in combinations with a precision and power no other heavyweight could match. The contest is over within twenty seconds of Jersey Joe's ill-advised shuffle. No wonder I was one bewildered nine-year-old watching my first fight on TV - I was stunned that the end had come so suddenly, so quickly.

Ring justice was served that night, punishing Walcott for his insolence. In time, though, the deserving Jersey Joe, robbed of the title in his first fight with Louis, got his just reward, winning the heavyweight championship from Ezzard Charles in 1951, at age 37.

And now, because you've been such a patient reader, a musical treat: Joe Louis Stomp with the great trumpeter Bill Coleman, recorded in Paris in 1936 when the Brown Bomber was boxing's newest sensation. The tenor saxophonist-clarinetist is Edgar Courance, the guitarist Oscar Alem├ín.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

TV before we had a TV: The Catch

In the beginning, of course, there was no television. I grew up listening to radio shows, a lucky accident of timing for which I'm grateful. (For other readers raised on radio, I heartily recommend Gerald Nachman's book titled, coincidentally, Raised on Radio.) By the post-war 1940s, though, television was on its way. Everybody was talking about it. We kids could hardly wait for it, but by 1947 TV was still something other people had. Taverns had it, mainly so patrons could watch the fights. All we kids could do was watch longingly from the sidewalk, and wish.

The first two times I watched TV at other people's houses were both noteworthy events, I daresay historic, for a sports-crazy kid.

The first time was Sunday, October 5, 1947, game 6 of the World Series, Dodgers vs. Yankees at Yankee Stadium, Yankees leading three games to two. We were spending Sunday afternoon at my cousins' house in Flatbush. Normally, Sunday with relatives was not my favorite way to spend 50% of my precious weekend, especially when the extensive family was in plenary session. But this Sunday was different; these particular cousins had a TV set!

I can still see the scene: a darkened living room packed to capacity with assorted cousins, uncles, and aunts, all eyes fixed on the tiny screen. We were all Dodger fans, but not all equally attentive ones; I remember an unceasing buzz of crosstalk, mainly from aunts, through the entire game: "Anybody want leftovers?" "Move back! The TV can ruin your eyes!" "I already had seconds." "Anyone need seltzer?" "A light! There should be a light!" "You sure you're comfortable?" "We got leftovers!" Happily someone had the good sense to turn the radio on and the TV sound off, so at the game's crucial moment, even through the chatter, I could hear Red Barber's call of Al Gionfriddo's storied catch of Joe DiMaggio's 400-foot drive:

Hatten pitches -- swung on, belted -- -- it's a long one -- deep into left-center -- back goes Gionfriddo, back, back, back, back, back, back -- he makes a one-handed catch against the bullpen! Oh-ho, doctor!

This YouTube clip combines film of the catch with Red's radio call.

Until Willie Mays came along and made his spectacular catch of Vic Wertz' drive at the Polo Grounds seven years later, this was The Catch. It happened so fast it was just a blur on TV (no replays, of course). We didn't get a good fix on Gionfriddo's catch until we saw it in a newsreel days later. But It shows you how important the Dodgers were to us in those days: at the moment when Gionfriddo caught the ball and the victory was saved and my cousins' living room erupted in cheers, all anxieties about eyesight ruined, leftovers uneaten, and seltzer unspritzed were forgotten.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

New Year's resolution for music critics

Repeat after me -- I will never again write anything resembling this:

... three and a half hours of intelligent groove, informed by jazz but rarely beholden to it, with improvisation as a binding but nonidiomatic force.

One piece began with a faintly samba-like invocation before clamping down on a vamp in quintuple meter.

....medium-tempo tension and dense contrapuntal cross-hatching....

As a sideman he has long been known for feverish disruption, lurching fast from one premise to the next. [This CD] established him as a bandleader-composer of calmer, more woozily immersive aims.

The songs were often abstracted, but "M__________," which closed the set, unfolded on deceptively simple terms: a quarter-note melody, played by Mr. S______ with sighing restraint, before an eventual onrush of distortion.

[The band] played a more variegated and simply thrilling set than either of the openers, delivering not only derivations of New Orleans funk... but also variations on spaghetti-western soundtracks, Middle Eastern music, retro faux-reggae and texture-mad free jazz.

[The bass'] strong masonry of tonic notes...

[The piano] would linger over melodic phrases in the song and then add a single banged note like an exclamation point; at other times he seemed to be meditatively walking away from the song, building chordal patterns that fragmented and dissipated as the rest of the band stayed on the watch.. He made the piano misbehave: it grew argumentative and disruptive; it mumbled and receded dramatically, like smoke after a shelling.

...sketching a three-note pattern over a seven-beat cycle [while] bass and drums struck up a crosscurrent, clattering and oblique...

I have no desire to embarrass any active practitioners, so these examples are not current; I've been saving them for a while. Let's hope that those whose writing is displayed above have since moved on to honest work, or else have enrolled in remedial courses in English composition.

Oh, yes -- classical reviewers, you're not exempt from this resolution. No more of this, please:

His playing fuses the aristocratic elegance of the 'golden age' with contemporary fastidiousness. In his hands fusty interpretive accretions built up over generations are peeled away to reveal pristine musical surfaces. Structures torn asunder by subjective whimsy regain their organic composure.

Fusing elegance with fastidiousness? This is praise? Is this reviewer getting paid by the syllable?

What a way to make a living. Thank goodness I'm just an enthusiast.