Seen and heard: “very weird”

On April 29, 1950, Rochester’s Democrat & Chronicle published Henry W. Clune’s latest installment in his Seen and Heard series– a foray into Squeezer’s jazz club. This is the transcription.

I went down to see the cats at Joe Squeezer’s Sunday night. Joe doesn’t run a pet shop, strictly. His place in State St., a couple blocks north of the railroad overpass, is for music, for liquid refreshments, and, if you believe the red-lighted sign over the door, “Fine Foods.” It was 10:30 o’clock when I entered the jernt [sic], sometimes beyond even a fashionable dinner hour. There was no food in sight.

The place was packed to the Plimsoll mark. Cats, cats, and kittens. Some of the kittens were very pretty ones. On a small, crowded dais at the far end of the rectangular room, Doug Duke sat sideways on an armless bench in such a manner that he could play a piano with one hand, an organ with the other. Doug is a young man with hollow cheeks, a midnight pallor, a gaudy sport jacket. He’s “a real weird guy,” as the cats put it, in their strange and wonderful language: “the greatest, monstrous! He really comes on!”

Recently he completed a six-month tour with Lionel Hampton’s band and he’s home to get his organs over-hauled. No clinical diagnosis or surgical repair is implied in this statement. His organs are wind instruments, two of which he took on tour with Hampton. He’ll be at Squeezer’s six nights a week all Summer. He’s a swift, sure virtuoso with organs or piano; “a guy who’s really cool. Cool as the inside of a wave,” as one cat told me ardently.

Behind Duke sat Don Sheldon, a young man also with a midnight pallor and remarkable dexterity with drum sticks and brushes; and teetering on the very edge of that stand, with the threat that some particularly vigorous blow on his instrument would topple him into the crowd pressing around him, another young man with eyes tightly closed gave and gave and gave again with a trumpet. In time he was joined by a second trumpet player.

The elements of the band at Squeezer’s come and go at will. You need only and instrument and a skill in its use to become an integral part of this constantly shifting organization. Duke is the only player paid for his services. The others blow, again as the cats have it, just “for kicks.”

***

Squeezer advertises nightly jam sessions (excluding Monday nights) from, as a sign on one of the walls reads, “9 p.m to ?”, Sunday and Wednesday are the big nights. Joe doesn’t like his place thought of as strictly a bebop—or “bop,” the aficionados diminutive—joint. He is an ex-pianist himself, he knows the trends in modern jazz, and he thinks pure bop is momentarily in disrepute. “I’ll get Doug Duke to explain it to you,” he said, “when he finishes this set.”

Duke ambidextrously beat out the closing chords of “Tenderly” on piano and organ, lighted a cigarette, and came down from the stand. He and Sheldon and the trumpeters had been playing the number with faint overtures to what is known in this esoteric circle as “square music.” “Square music” is the rendering of a tune according to the composer’s notes; the way “sweet” bands like Guy Lombardo’s, and Wayne King’s, and Blue Barron’s play a piece. These bands, the cats say, “have gotta go; they make a drag. They’re no good.”

Squeezer led us to a table in a side room reserved for “couples only,” introduced us. Duke said to me, “How you doing, man?”

By now I had been long enough in the resort to know how to make a compliment and I retorted brightly, “You’re crazy. You’re very crazy, Gates. You come on real weird.”

“Thanks, Pres,” Duke said. “This your first time down here? You getting any kicks?”

“I’m getting plenty,” I said. “I still don’t understand it all. I wish you’d explain some of it.”

“Well, you can’t do that in words,” Duke said. “You got to start to feel it, before you know strictly what’s going on. You got to be like a cat, and cats are all very sensitive guys. They all come on weird. It’s a drag to try to tell you about it in words.”

“You don’t use any music,” I said. “You don’t even have music racks.”

“No,” he said, “we’re starving for freedom. We want to be free cats. That’s the great thing in the world, freedom.”

***

He continued his explanation. It seems that almost every time a name band comes to town, and the concert or dance they’re playing gets over, some of the musicians light out instantly for Squeezer’s. They go down there, maybe after an all-day bus ride, and a three or four hour concert, just to play for free, “just for the kicks.” They get up on the stand, let their hair down and give as they please. “It’s cool, it’s relaxing for these guys to play loose, after playing all night with music in front of them,” Duke said. “They like to come down from here after work for a big fat ball and knock themselves out. It’s a great thing for a guy who’s been playing with a Micky band to come here and pick up a little trash.”

“A Micky band?” I asked perplexedly.

“Oh, a Micky band is a sweet band. Lombardo’s is a Micky. He makes the biggest money, he plays the corniest music, and he’s got the best cats in the country. We don’t like to talk bop, these days. Not too much. But Lombardo’s cats are really bop cats. They can’t play it on the stand for money, or only a little of it. So they come to places like this, after work, and play as I told you before, ‘for kicks’.”

A young man came to the table, not a musician, but an addict. “Boogie” Warner, they call him. “Hi, Tyrone,” he said to Duke.

“Hi, Dads.” Duke said.

“You’re creating quite a session, man,” “Boogie” said. “You’re going real cool tonight. You’re gone.”

***

There was an extremely pretty dark-haired girl with “Boogie.” She told me later she had studied psychology at the University of Chicago, but now lived in Cleveland. She had come to town to see “Boogie,” and she had been well initiated in bop. She said to Duke, “Play ‘The Sweetheart of Sigmund Freud.’ Be real crazy with it, Pops. That’s the greatest.”

“’The Sweetheart of Sigmund Freud?’” I asked puzzled, realizing that I was still remiss in my home work.

“That’s out way of doing ‘The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi,’” Duke informed me. “We blow it weird. It’s good to the last bop.”

The pretty girl and “Boogie” moved away. Duke nodded after her. “A great chick,” he said approvingly. “A good hen cat.” He tossed away his cigarette. “Well,” he said, “I gotta play a gig. I gotta make it. I’ll be seeing you, man.”

He went up on the stand and played the “great chick’s” number; then “Deep Purple,” very crazy, with very weird chord progressions; then “Tea for Two,” like no Micky band would ever do it. It was nearly midnight and the room was really jumping. New cats, addressed as “Gates,” or “Tyrone,” or “Pres,” or “Dads,” were coming into the place which was now crowded to over-flowing. I pushed with difficulty to the door. A young cat—they’re all under 30 at Squeezer’s—pushed past me, coming in.

“Going, man?” he asked, “You had your kicks?”

“I had ‘em,” I said, “I’m very weird (I meant weary). I’m dragging home to bed.”

Squeezer’s is certainly “different.”

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