Magazine article IAJRC Journal

Harlow Atwood in His Own Words

Magazine article IAJRC Journal

Harlow Atwood in His Own Words

Article excerpt

Between 1993 and 1999 I enjoyed a correspondence with A. Harlow Atwood, Jr., bass player in symphony orchestras, dance and show bands, and jazz groups. He is not known to have been in a recording studio and his name is mentioned in just one book that I know, but his was yet another example of the itinerant life of a troubador in the twentieth century. His story is told primarily in his own words, with additions and interpolations by myself.

Harlow Atwood, Jr. was born on October 7, 1913 in, as he put it, "Queen's General Hospital, New York, although we lived then on East 5th Street in Brooklyn. Until he married my mother, Dad had been a tenor in the chorus of the Metropolitan Opera Company and a protege of Enrico Caruso.

"From babyhood on, I grew up enamoured of Dad's magnificent tenor voice, so my first musical love was of operatic arias and art songs. By the time I was five I was already a keen observer of musical realities. My mother, who was not musical, took me one day to hear a band concert in White Plains, NY, where we'd moved in 1917. As the musicians came into the band shell and tuned up, I turned to mother and asked, 'Can we go home now?' Surprised, she replied, 'Harlow, I thought you loved music?' My response was, 'Yes, but can't you hear it? The saxes are flat and the brass is sharp!' A critic already at age five. I never had a chance."

"By the age of seven I'd become the boy soprano soloist in Dr. Ralph Grosvenor's famous boys' choir. Since I did not yet read music, to 'Uncle Ralph's' consternation and delight, I merely memorized whole cantatas, etc, from hearing Grosvenor playing them on pipe organ. He was a wonderful improvisor. Listening to him improvise Preludes and Postludes in the Methodist Church was my first contact with the great art of improvisation, which figures so heavily in the history of jazz."

"Two other organ players figured in the development of my 'ear', which really is to say my brain. When I was eight I used to walk by Johnny Green's house, whence emanated lovely harmonies on pipe organ. Enchanted, I would ring Green's doorbell and when he answered I'd ask if I could come in and listen. He readily assented, tickled that this tyke (me) dug what he was doing. This Johnny Green was the one who later wrote Body and Soul, Out Of Nowhere, I Cover The Waterfront and other lovely ballads. Small world, isn't it?"

"After I'd caught Johnny Green playing pipe organ I would continue wending my way downtown. At the end of the business district lived that strange composer, Percy Grainger. He, too, had a pipe organ in his house which is now maintained as a Porter Grainger museum. Since my father knew Percy (they were both Rotarians), in my eight-year-old innocence I'd ring his bell. When he came to the door I'd shyly ask him to play the organ for me, which he always did, with Anglo graciousness."

"At the age of ten I began fooling around with drums, under the connivance of Stewie Charnley, who'd let me stay in his house and play Beiderbecke and Red Nichols sides on a wind-up phonograph, while he and his teenage pals went to the movies." [Bix and Nichols? Perhaps Atwood was a little older?] "Stewie was a devoted fan of Tony Sbarbaro of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and had copied Tony's stage act to a tee. Later, in the fifties, I was to play bass alongside Sbarbaro with Phil Napoleon and his Emperors. Tony was a fine rudimental and did amazing syncopations with rolls."

"When I played drums on my first paid gig, at the Douglaston Tennis Club in 1929, Vic Petry was the leader. Vic (born 1903) was a stride pianist who studied with James P. Johnson and Eubie Blake, one of the many unsung links in the fascinating chain of development we cavalierly refer to as jazz. He never learned to read and played on the fringes of New York's jazz world as a back-up pianist who fascinated his more famous bandstand mates by reason of his considering himself a painter, not a musician. …

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