Author Archive | Dan Wakefield

“The Five Spot” Spirit at The Jazz Kitchen

David Linard, the jazz piano player with “Sammy Miller and the Congregation” in New York City, came home for the holidays and joined “The Uncle Dan and Sophie Jam” at The Jazz Kitchen for a great night of music and talk. David joined his friend Sophie Faught on saxophone and her trio of Nick Tucker on bass and Sammy Phelps on drums. Just before the close of the last number Joel Tucker, brother of Nick, showed up with his guitar and a true jam sessions rocked The Jazz Kitchen. I have not heard that pitch of jazz and felt the spirit it created in the room since my nights at the legendary Five Spot in The Bowery in New York in the Fifties, when John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk and Charles Mingus – and my friend David Amram – held the stage there.

This was the second rendition of “The Uncle Dan and Sophie Jam,” and we continued our theme that began with “Starting Out” with Sophie and my stories of what it was like starting our as a musician in the current era, and as a writer in New York in the Fifties, with music to match the mood of our experiences. We moved on this time to “The Big Break,” which for Sophie was playing with Nicholas Payton at Lincoln Center, and for me was covering the Emmett Till Murder Trial in Mississippi in 1955. David Linard joined us with the story of his audition at Julliard, when he played “Voyage,” with the music’s composer listening as one of the judges – and David played it for us. Sophie told of having to be ready to play any one of dozens of compositions that Payton might play and expect her to know it and she played for us “Neffertiti,” the Miles David composition she played with Nick Payton that night at Lincoln Center.

For my reminiscence of the Emmett Till Trial, when I described arriving in the town square of Sumner, the Mississippi town where the trial took place, Linard struck a deep, shuddering bass chord and played “Dixie,” and after describing the trial that found the murderers “Not guilty” [they later confessed for pay in a magazine article] I read the first sentence of my article for The Nation: “The crowds are gone, and this Delta town is back to its silent, solid life that is based on cotton and the proposition that a whole race of men was created to pick it.” I had originally asked that “We Shall Overcome” be played, but after I thought of the darkness of the trial and what it represented, I asked that instead our musicians play “God Bless The Child.” They did it, with the sacred beauty it deserved.

As I sat back and listened to these young, super-talented and dedicated musicians play on with the music that is truly American, sustaining a spirit that refuses to be crushed, sustaining all of us who are open to it, I thought of a great response from Kurt Vonnegut. He had said that the purpose of all art was to make people happy, and a sharp-tongued questioner said “What’s an example?” Without missing a beat, Kurt said “The Beatles.” The answer could have been David Linard, Sophie Faught, Nick Tucker, Sammy Phelps and Joel Tucker at The Jazz Kitchen Tuesday night. When they played, no one remembered how cold it was outside.

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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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Dan Wakefield

Dan Wakefield