Author Archive | Dan Wakefield

How to Make “Jam,” With Words and Music

Sophie, Dan, David and friends

Left-to-Right: Brooke McCallum (Host), Dan Wakefield, Sophie Faught, Nick Tucker (bass), Joel Tucker (guitar)

When I went to New York to go to college at Columbia in 1952, one of the abundant gifts of being there was the chance to see Broadway plays and musicals. You could go to a matinee and get a Standing Room ticket for $2.00. That’s how I saw the musical that many (including me) still believe is the greatest of American theatrical history – South Pacific. It was not only a great story, based on the book of stories of World War II by James A. Michener,  it hypnotized you with dancing and with songs that became popular standards – “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Younger Than Springtime” – and one that needs to be revived in every era, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.” It was a song about how we have to be carefully taught, in every age, to be afraid, of people whose skin is a different shade. . .or feel a little bit differently made. All of this – love stories, memorable music, prize- winning dances, life lessons – on one stage, in one afternoon.

How great it would it be to help create a musical; to give words and stories an even greater depth, a literal echo in the soul, with the added dimension of music? One of my earliest memories of feeling a sense of the beauty of being alive was hearing a girl in my fourth grade class, Sandra Anderson, singing a solo from “Hiawatha.” It was spring, the classroom windows were open, and Sandra’s clear soprano carried the story to a place so deep in my consciousness (in my soul) I can still hear it. Creating anything with music, though, was not in my own power. I couldn’t carry a tune; after being cast as the lead in Hansel and Gretel at School #80, the teachers concluded I’d better just say the lines but not try to sing. I studied the clarinet for four years, but every year a new boy would pass me by in the last chair of the school orchestra. My name may as well have been carved in the chair. After writing four novels I had an idea for writing the book of a musical, but not knowing any composers, and not feeling confident enough of my story to seek out a whole new world of musicians, I let that dream fizzle out.

Last year a whole series of accidental good fortunes led me to start a radio show called “Uncle Dan’s Story Hour” that aired on WFYI (and is being re-run this season.) It began with Michael Thierwechter coming up to me at The Red Key and saying he had told Jim (Settle), the owner, that things were sometimes slow on Monday nights, so he suggested “Why don’t we have Dan come in and we’ll call it “Writers Night?”

I said “No, then people will expect me to read and comment on their writing – let’s call it ‘Uncle Dan’s Story Hour.”

That name stuck, and when Will Higgins of The Star came aboard as co-host, and we took it to WFYI to propose as a radio show, my first thought was “Music! We need music!”

The next thought was “Sophie!”

I had heard the terrific saxophone player Sophie Faught play on Wednesday nights with her trio at The Chatterbox downtown, and I liked her work so much I asked her to play at a book party for a re-issue of my novel Under The Apple Tree, a story of the “Home Front” in WWII. She played a popular song of the era, “This Will Be My Shining Hour,” inspired by Churchill’s tribute to the Londoners who survived the Blitz (“This was their finest hour.”)

Sophie’s playing is so strong, so “on the mark,” that it never is just “background; it lifts everything else to a higher level, blessing the scene with a fuller awareness of whatever is being celebrated or discussed. She did that for “The Story Hour” as well, with a song at the intermission and another at the end, framing our words, our stories. I soon realized that Sophie’s music was “the soul of the show.”

As I talked of the possibilities for a new season, a new kind of show, with the co-producer of “The Story Hour,” Pat Chastain, we both wanted to do something more with Sophie. I thought it would be great to have a show of half words and half music – half Sophie playing and half me and Sophie or me and Sophie and friends, talking. My un-original idea for a title “The Uncle Dan and Sophie Hour” – a title derived from 1940s radio era programs, but Sophie had a more timely suggestion: “The Uncle Dan and Sophie Jam!” That got us into the current century.

For our first show at The Jazz Kitchen, we worked out true tales of “Starting Out” – Sophie with stories of starting out as a musician in the 21st century, me with my own tales of starting out as a writer in the 1950s. We thought of songs that reflected out experience0 – when I got my first words in print in The Indianapolis News, my song was “Don’t Fence Me in!” When I was on the brink of my first big break for a magazine, it was “This Will Be My Shining Hour. . .”

We did that show and a good audience received it well. For our next opus, Sophie’s friend pianist David Linard will be in town, and the three of us will talk of “The Big Break” in our own careers, with songs to match. When I first talked with Sophie to plan “The Jam” she used a word that stayed with me ever since – “resonant.” She spoke of how each musician hopefully finds an instrument he or she feels resonant with – for her it was the tenor sax. We imagine our show as “Tales of the Artist’s Life, made resonant with jazz.”

We hope you’ll come and hear the next one, Tuesday night, December 26, 6-8pm at The Jazz Kitchen (tickets available here.). Celebrate the finish of the first lap of the Holidays! Get jazzed up for the New Year to come  – Jam with “Uncle Dan” and Sophie!

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Writers Gathering, a new feature in Indianapolis Monthly

The December 2017 issue of Indianapolis Monthly features Uncle Dan’s Book Nerds and the Uncle Dan and Sophie Jam:

The popular Uncle Dan’s Story Hour at the Red Key Tavern may have run its course, but local literary icon Dan Wakefield walked across 52nd Street this fall and started something equally cool. One Sunday evening a month at The Aristocrat Pub, the author of Going All the Way hosts his well-read friends for a public discussion of books and writing. Uncle Dan’s Book Nerd Night included an appearance from Barbara Shoup at the first event in October. At press time, Wakefield hadn’t yet announced the guest for December, but we’re keeping our fingers crossed for the return of Story Hour visitor Mark Vonnegut (Kurt’s son). Those two families represent a huge chunk of Indy’s literary history.

Writers Gathering - Indy Monthly - Dan Wakefield

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Don’t Let Anyone Tell You Who You Are

When I finished my first book, a journalistic account of Spanish Harlem (Island in the City) I eagerly started writing a novel – that was my dream. I was nurtured on Hemingway and Fitzgerald, the literary stars of the nineteen-fifties, and I could recite from their work as readily as I had once recited the Boy Scout Oath and The Pledge of Allegiance. I once won a bet for dinner at a fancy French Restaurant in Manhattan because I knew the last line of The Sun Also Rises: “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” (not, as the loser had insisted “Isn’t it nice to think so?”)

I was writing magazines articles to make a (subsistence) living, but I made time to write the first fifty pages of a novel and eagerly sent it to my always supportive agent. He praised it and sent it off to Houghton Mifflin, who had brought out the journalistic book. I fidgeted and drank and prayed while I waited for a response, and finally my agent called and said the publisher had invited me to come to Boston from New York at their expense and have lunch with their editor-in-chief and managing editor at Locke Obers (where JFK liked to have his lobster stew.)

“Is this good news or bad?” I asked my agent.

“It could be either,” he said.

It was bad. Over lobster thermidor (which I have never eaten since, though I am rarely in the kind of places that serve it), the head honchos of one of the country’s leading publishers told me – as one succinctly put it – “We think you’re a fine young journalist, but you’re not a novelist.” I later wondered why they might not have said “we don’t like the fifty pages you sent us,” but perhaps they felt that sample was conclusive enough.

I was devastated, but I knew one older writer I greatly respected who I knew believed in me, and she gave me encouragement and hope. I have often found that it only takes one person to believe in you and your dream.  On top of that, I literally had a dream in the form of a novel. It was a confirmation of the old line “I have a novel in me.” I woke up elated, and sat on a bench in Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village and listened to cheerful birds at dawn, above the rattle of the Seventh Avenue Local.

Although  “I had a novel in me,” it wasn’t easy to get it out. It took ten years of false starts and new beginnings and hundreds of pages tossed, in between writing more articles and journalistic books to make a living, and finally a foundation grant from out of the blue that gave me a year’s time to concentrate on the novel alone.

My still faithful agent sent the novel to ten publishers, and three liked it, but only one of them really loved it. (Again, it only takes one.) That novel, Going All The Way became a selection of The Literary Guild, made the Time magazine bestseller list, became a movie, was republished and is still in print (and is now even an e-book.)

I believe my “lesson” applies not only to novels, but to dreams of any kind, including your own identity. People now fight for that, too, and all of these battles are worth fighting, many of them far more difficult than writing a book. Kurt Vonnegut said: “There’s only one rule I know, babies – Goddam it, you’ve got to be kind.” I second that, and I add one more that I think my friend Vonnegut would also endorse: “Don’t let anyone tell you who you are.”

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Dan Wakefield

Dan Wakefield