Veterans Day 2017: remembering Uncle Reeves

Uncle Reeves and Aunt Jewell, early 1970s

My family has about the average number of veterans and career military personnel. I’ll write another day about the long career of my mom’s brother John Brackbill and his service in the Army and Navy. But on this particular day-before-Veterans Day, I’m thinking about my Uncle Reeves.

Reeves Dennis Church enlisted in August 1941, leaving his life as a merchant in Hot Springs, North Carolina. He trained in Boston; near the end of his life he told us highly abbreviated and edited stories of the infamous Scollay Square. In June 1942 he sailed to New York on the USS Siren as a seaman first class. By September he was sailing from Key West to Cuba, still on the Siren, having been promoted to yeoman third class. He was still serving on the Siren in March 1944, but had been promoted to Yeoman First Class. By May of that year he headed back to New York, when the Siren was decommissioned, and he was discharged in 1945.

USS Siren was a patrol yacht, originally assigned to coastal defense in New England, then redeployed to convoy duty along the southeastern US coast and in the Caribbean. As part of the crew, Reeves traveled to Trinidad, Jamaica, Key West, Cuba, and even to Brazil, and helped to rescue survivors of a U-Boat sunk by a Navy patrol plane.

That was the most excitement my uncle had. After the war, he returned home and married my Aunt Jewell, and settled into a quiet life, working for the NC state highway department. After retiring he would frequently give Appalachian Trail hikers seeking a zero a lift from the trail into Hot Springs. By the time I got to know him, thirty years after his discharge, you’d never have known that he spent the war keeping our country safe.

Which is one of the unique privileges we have had in America: to be kept safe by those ordinary people who volunteered to do extraordinary things.

Dave Brubeck and me

Back cover of the Telarc recording of To Hope! I’m in the mass of choristers in white on the steps in the back.

As I mentioned in Tuesday’s post and have previously alluded, there’s a musical story that I haven’t told about my life. It’s tied up with Reilly Lewis and the Cathedral Choral Society, and marks my first brush with a celebrity musician (at least, outside the classical world; the first was with the great Robert Shaw, with whom I sang Hindemith’s When Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloom’d the previous season).

We were performing Brubeck’s To Hope! A Celebration, a most unusual work that combined jazz with traditional mass structure—if not traditional mass texts. It’s still the only work of which I’m aware that incorporates both a fugue and a gospel stride piano number. The music didn’t make a lot of sense with just rehearsal piano, but everything was about to change.

It was spring at the National Cathedral, which meant rehearsal space conflicts. So we were across the street in the gymnasium of the National Cathedral School running through the music again. At one point, while Reilly Lewis was addressing the chorus, the door opened in the corner and I saw out of the corner of my eye two men enter: Russell Gloyd, who would conduct the chorus and orchestra, and a tall, white-haired man with a wide grin: Dave Brubeck.

After everyone applauded, Reilly said, “You know, I’ve always wanted to do this,” and sprinted to the piano where he played the first three bars of “Blue Rondo à la Turk.” Everybody cracked up, and Brubeck said, “Keep going!” That moment set the tone for the collaboration.

When it came to the day of the performance, it was odd to see large numbers of microphones and a large sound console halfway down the nave. It was then that the magnitude of what we were doing hit me: this was the recording team from Telarc, Brubeck’s label, who were going to record us. We got through the performance, about which I remember very little except for Brubeck’s introduction of his band—Bobby Millitello on sax, Rodney Richards on drums, and Jack Six (“S-I-X!”) on bass—and then got out of our performance clothes and got comfortable.

We had been told that we would record “patches” to cover over places where outside noise or glitches in the performance marred the live take. “Patches” ended up taking hours. At one point we needed to do a couple takes of one particularly tricky moment for the chorus that had been garbled in the performance, and the band (except for Brubeck) took a break. We nailed the take, and then the producer called for the band again. Apparently they had stepped outside for a cigarette; someone had to be sent to fetch them through the outside door located in the far end of the nave from our recording location in the transept.

When they came back in, doing the long march up a side aisle along the nave, Brubeck dryly broke into “When The Saints Go Marching In.” And the chorus sang along. It’s the only time that I ever improvised with a jazz legend.

The live recording was issued as To Hope! A Celebration by Telarc and remains the only jazz album on which I’ve performed.

Dipping into the Brubeck discography

I’ve been a fan of Dave Brubeck’s jazz since I first listened to my parents’ copy of Dave Brubeck’s Greatest Hits, which is how I discovered “Take Five” and “Blue Rondo A La Turk.” Since then I picked up many of the great man’s recordings (including A Dave Brubeck Christmas, which I reviewed for Blogcritics back in the day), and even got a chance to sing with him. Which, apparently, is a story I haven’t told in much detail (though some parts are here and here).

But I hadn’t dug systematically into his discography, at least not in the same way that I had Coltrane or Miles. So when, during this fall’s Veracode Hackathon, a small truckload of vinyl showed up, I was thrilled to find some Brubeck records I hadn’t yet listened to. And then to pick them up for a dollar apiece at the end-of-Hackathon fire sale/fundraiser.

The three records are all different and all interesting. Gone With the Wind is a Georgia-themed recording, and Dave and the quartet dip into a bunch of different Deep South themed material, including works by Stephen Foster (“Swanee River,” aka “Old Folks at Home,””Camptown Races”) and works by non-Southerners that have grown deeply associated with the region (“Ol’ Man River,” “Shortnin’ Bread”). There’s no way in hell you’d get this record made today, given the echoes of slavery, minstrelsy, and other signs of our original national sin. But Brubeck and Paul Desmond turn in a convincing reading of the material.

What’s fascinating is that the record, which was released in 1959, was recorded after Brubeck had recorded Time Out. Columbia was apparently nervous about the odd time signatures the group was researching for the latter record and demanded something more conventional as insurance. Of course, Time Out turned out to be one of the great jazz classics of all time, while Gone With the Wind has been largely forgotten. It’s also fascinating to realize that this pleasant but largely inconsequential record was produced by Teo Macero, who was Miles Davis’s producer at Columbia—and that Teo recorded sessions with both Miles and Brubeck on the same day, April 22, 1959, for these very different albums.

The other two albums are less substantial still. Southern Scene features quartet, trio and solo performances of more Southern-adjacent standards, while Jazz: Red Hot and Cool marks a pleasant but ordinary set of live recordings of the quartet prior to the arrival of Joe Morello on drums and Eugene Wright on bass.

But the delightful thing is that all three albums were well maintained, despite their bargain sale price, and sounded fantastic on the turntable. I think this vinyl hunting could get to be a habit …

Catching up

A List Apart: Web Typography: Designing Tables to be Read, Not Looked At. One of my pet peeves is tables that can’t be scanned easily. There are some great tips here, including some CSS features I didn’t know about (like td { text-align: “.” center; to align a column of numbers at a decimal point!).

Talking Points Memo: Compromise and the Civil War. Short essay by Josh Marshall outlining the insanity behind John Kelly’s remarks on how the failure to “compromise” led to the Civil War. In fact, it was the South’s refusal to accept any compromise on slavery that led directly to the conflict.

Amadeus Pro: Elimination of a continuous background noise. I’m digitizing a lot more vinyl these days and need to check into this feature to “denoise” a track based on a sample of, for instance, needle hiss.

Archive.org: 78rpm Records Digitized by George Blood, L.P. Definitely going to dig into this. There’s a Twitter feed too.

Numero Group records. The makers of the “Eccentric Soul” series, which blew the top of my head off the first time I heard it (“You Can’t Blame Me,” anyone?).