Friday, August 8, 2008
Velma's Journal--February 17, 1932
Had the most wonderful night with Robert. I arrived at a club called Small's Paradise which is in the basement of a building on 135th street in Harlem, hence the 1/2 address. Robert stood at the door waiting for me with a black case in his hand. When he saw me, he handed me a green carnation stating that he thought green was my color. He said it was his favorite. I said it was mine as well.
When we walked inside a round man greeted Robert familiarly and took the black case from him. He showed us to a small table among the smoky room. The tables were set up around a large open dance floor where people were dancing wildly. On the stage, in the front of the room, was an ensemble of men, one on piano, one on base, one on clarinet, one on trumpet, one on trombone, and a gentleman on drums. All where wearing black fedoras. The room was stuffed with people drinking and moving along to extremely upbeat music. I would assume jazz, although I had never heard it before. The entire club was alive with energy and even the waiters danced with the drinks on their trays.
Robert ordered two whiskeys and offered me a cigarette. I refused it since I've never smoked before. He lit one for himself and we talked a little over the music about growing up around horses since his father ran Mrs. Vanderford's stables. He also fascinated me with the story of his crossing from Scotland when he was eight. There was the 10 days he spent on the boat with only he and his father and for 8 of them it was stormy and he couldn't go above the deck so he stayed below reading all the complete works of Sir Walter Scott. His mother and two sisters came over two years later when his father could send the money. Then out of the blue he asked me what my favorite church hymn was. I told him I wasn't much of a churchgoer, but I remember Granny Ellie saying she loved "Closer Walk with Thee" when she went down south with her sister. He smiled and said Granny Ellie had excellent taste in southern hymns.
Suddenly the music stopped and the same round man came on stage and asked Robert to come up. The host introduced him as "White Lightening." The room went crazy with applause. When he stepped on stage he took a silver trumpet out of the case he was carrying before and addressed the ensemble. He turned to the audience and said, "This is a fairly new little dirge from New Orleans, but tonight it'll raise the dead." The band then exploded into this swing rhythm of "Closer Walk with Thee" which lasted for 10 minutes, each instrument having their turn on improvising on the theme. Robert's solo was the longest and most complicated. The audience hollered, clapped, and some people even danced in the aisles. It was the grandest thing.
Robert played fives songs after that and stepped off stage. We finished our drinks and he offered to walk me back to campus. I accepted. When I asked where he learned to play trumpet, he said that Mrs. Vanderford gave him a trumpet for Christmas when he was twelve. One of the stable hands from Harlem, who played drums, took him to his father who taught him how to play trumpet.
When we reached Barnard's campus at 1:30 AM, I told him I'd never had an experience like that and I wanted to go again. He leaned over and kissed me softly. I almost collapsed from weakness. He said anytime and walked off. When I walked in to the room, I found Dottie up sitting in bed waiting to hear all about it. She said by the color of my cheeks the night went well.