The Story of Porgy and Bess by Jim Cullum Jr

Washington Square Arch, New York City

“I’ll take New York in June (how about you?)” Those are famous lyrics, and yes, if you’re in New York in June when the weather is perfect you might take my advice and start a stroll at the foot of 5th Avenue, at the Washington Square Arch. The Arch is much like the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, except that it is smaller. It was built to celebrate the centennial of George Washington’s inauguration as President of the United States.

Here you go. Bearing a bit to the southwest, heading diagonally across Washington Square, enjoy its many charms along the way: Numbers of old men play chess, sometimes with a few stragglers standing alongside, silently studying each move. There is a little dog park where people let their dogs sniff all around on the other dogs, and somehow there are no dog fights. Bocce balls are cast up and back over long greens. A few citizens nap in the sun. And of course, there are almost always a few lovers in embrace.

Jim's New York Office at Caffe Reggio

Some rush through the Square in a New York hurry. If you follow my suggestions you may take it slow and stop easily a few times and eventually come out on the southwest side of Washington Square where MacDougal Street heads off into Greenwich Village. Keep going. Your great reward is close. Two and one half blocks down on the west side of MacDougal Street you will find Caffe Reggio which has waited for you — waited patiently — and this since 1927. Caffe Reggio has not changed while it has waited.

Entering the cafe you will see the original tin ceiling and dark wood with little wooden statues and oil paintings that are quite dark, and a big old brass espresso machine that they do not use any more, and two-foot-square marble tables where customers must squeeze in even if it’s not crowded. In the center of the back wall there is a table tucked in an alcove. To the side and above the table is a pay telephone. This is my table, and starting with my discovery of Caffe Reggio in 1980 and continuing to this day, this table and telephone have served as my New York office. If another customer gets there before I do, I wait it out. Eventually, my table comes open and I move in. But I don’t suffer while I wait, for Caffe Reggio never fails, and I go after some of the regular menu items — espresso coffee, Italian pastries, real chocolate frappés and other stuff.

Often times however, I have been away from my New York office for as long as a couple of years. It was a coincidence that during one of those sabbaticals we began to work on our jazz band’s version of Porgy and Bess. John Sheridan was our principal arranger. This was in 1985 and 1986. Some of the band members looked on my Porgy and Bess plan with skepticism but work came along, and little by little as the whole thing emerged, it was magnificent. Porgy and Bess is probably the greatest single accomplishment of the band’s 50-year history. To my knowledge no one has ever performed a jazz version of the entire opera. We musically followed the passion, richness, sorrow, laughter, romance, and tragedy — all the moods of Porgy and Bess as they rose and fell. Various jazz band instruments took on character roles.

We had barely started when we caught the ear of a renowned San Antonio patron of the arts, Margaret Tobin. Mrs.Tobin was so taken with the first little part of our Porgy and Bess that she dabbed at her eyes and began calling me every few days to ask of our progress. When work was finally complete, our Porgy and Bess was premiered in San Antonio. For this performance I created a narration, to serve as a libretto. The opera, performed as a jazz Instrumental, was helped along by an interspersed explanation of the plot. Eventually Margaret Tobin financed a high-powered studio recording of the work, and I boldly announced that I intended to take the resulting tape recording to New York City and sell it to a major label. Margaret nodded proudly. A few others scoffed at the idea saying such things as, “They can’t even sell the Louis and Ella Porgy and Bess or Miles Davis’ Porgy and Bess. Do you think they are really gonna want this thing of ours?”

Jim Cullum Sr. & Jim Cullum Jr.

My father had drilled it into me. “Even a blind man,” and he said it over and over, “can hit a home run, if he swings at enough baseballs!” And so I was off to New York with my battered L.L. Bean briefcase full of taped copies of the band’s new Porgy and Bess and a stack of copies of the libretto. I checked into the Washington Square Hotel. In those days it had no restaurant and hardly any lobby. There was no telephone in my room. I did not need these things, for the Washington Square Hotel was located just north of the Square, and in my New York salesman’s mode I could stride right down to Caffe Reggio.

On day one, I took my position at my office at the café and sipped coffee and leafed through the latest copy of Applause Magazine which contained a well-written story on George Gershwin, by Edward Jablonski. The article identified Edward Jablonski as the foremost Gershwin scholar/writer in the world.

Do not forget, now, that I was in New York to sell Porgy and Bess to a big label. In this process, I did not have a single contact in the record industry. This seemingly insurmountable circumstance is a lot of what gives the beef to this story.

Hmm . . . . My mind is running through the maze as I tap the rolled up Applause Magazine against my thigh. The coffee at Caffe Reggio goes down easily. The New York telephone book hangs below the pay phone on a chain. I look up Applause Magazine in the business pages. So far, so good. Its office is located on West 46th Street, and I’m off.

“I am trying to locate this man, Mr. Jablonski,” I say to the Applause Magazine receptionist, as I point to his name at the top of the Gershwin article.

“Well,” she says, “he is not here, never comes here.

I’ve never met or even seen him, so I can’t help you!”
“Might I speak to the editor?"
“No, I’m sorry.”
“I just think Mr. Jablonski would be very interested in a special version of Porgy and Bess. I have it right here.”

I dig in my briefcase. She jumps back, and it flashes through my mind that she thinks that maybe I am about to pull out a gun. But it is only a cassette tape and my libretto. I give her my best smile. “Just a minute,” she says, and she disappears through a door and in 30 seconds is back with a man in a bow tie. This is luck. I also have on a bow tie, and there is a kind of bow tie brotherhood. I know the bow ties made the odds in my favor go up by 5%.

Bandleader Jim Cullum

Mr. Bow-Tie is the editor. He has come out to rescue the receptionist. I turn it on, explain everything about myself, the band, Porgy and Bess and Edward Jablonski. The editor says that Edward Jablonski is a recluse and that I haven’t a snowball’s chance of seeing him, and good luck and good day! I am still smiling and being friendly like crazy. “Well, here’s a copy of Porgy and Bess for you anyway and one for the receptionist here, and thank you so much, and if you wish to contact me here is my card, and I’ll write the phone number of this phone at the Caffe Reggio where I hang out here in New York.

” “Okay, Okay,” he says!

I back out the door and head back to the Caffe Reggio where I order something, settle into my table, and having swung at and missed the first pitch, I start thinking....“What now?” The pay phone starts ringing. It keeps on! No one ever calls in on it. Caffe Reggio has its own phone. Well, okay . . . . and I answer it.

“Hello.”
“I am trying to reach a Jim Cullum. Anyone there by that name?"
“I am Jim Cullum!”

“Great! This is Applause Magazine. I listened to that Porgy and Bess and it’s terrific. I have called Edward Jablonski and told him about it and played some of it for him over the phone. He wants to see you at 10:00 tomorrow morning at his apartment. How about it? I’ll send the tape over to him by courier!”

Curtain Call at Alvin Theatre, 1935

At 9:55 the next morning I am stepping out from a taxi and sizing up Edward Jablonski’s pad, a classic New York brownstone on the Upper Westside. He buzzes me in. The inside looks like a Gershwin museum with lots of memorabilia all over, including framed photographs of Gershwin at the Alvin Theater with the full cast of Porgy and Bess taking bows on opening night in 1935. Gershwin’s water colors are lovingly displayed, and there is one water color of his sparse room at Charleston where he composed Porgy and Bess. His room there was lighted by a single light bulb that hung down on a single cord. He has faithfully painted it in. Edward Jablonski has already listened twice to our Porgy and Bess. He is knocked out by it. He is beaming. He does not let up, and has the energy and enthusiasm of John Henry the steel drivin’ man. I am wondering, “They say this guy is a recluse?” But he is speaking my language.

"Listen,” he says, “Gershwin would love this thing,” and he goes on for twenty minutes non-stop, and then he says, “It’s gotta be on CBS. You need to take it to Chappell Music. They represent the Gershwin Estate. And they have a new young woman in charge there, a Mary Beth Roberts. I’ll call and set up an appointment,” and he picks up the phone, dials and talks. Mary Beth is out, but he leaves big messages all over Chappell Music including how I may be reached at the pay phone at the Caffe Reggio.

Edward Jablonski prepares a nice lunch for the two of us. Eventually I depart, dropping off a few copies of Porgy and Bess at Chappell Music. The next mid-morning I am in position at Caffe Reggio when again the pay phone goes off.

“Hello?”
“Hello, I am trying to reach Jim Cullum."
“Yes.”

As you can guess, Mary Beth Roberts has now heard our Porgy and Bess. She is also jumping for joy. “Where are you,” she asks?
“Caffe Reggio. In the Village. MacDougal Street.”
“Yeah? Well, I don’t know that place, but I need to go down to the Village this afternoon. I’ll meet you there at Caffe Reggio at 2:00. Okay?”

Mary Beth Roberts is a beautiful young blond lady who is sharper than an original Gillette Blue Blade. She removes her sunglasses and blinks at the dark interior.

“Step into my office, Ms. Roberts,” I say, and we begin our strategy meeting. She agrees with Jablonski. Porgy and Bess must appear on CBS.

“It must be CBS Masterworks,” she says and adds that she already has made an appointment for the next morning. However, the next morning, at CBS headquarters on the 51st floor of the Time Life Building, we cannot get very far and retreat to Caffe Reggio.

“I’d like to try Atlantic Records or some other.”

“No,” she insists. “ I’m gonna sell this Porgy and Bess to CBS Masterworks one way or the other,” and she pounds the little café table and sloshes the coffee. After another try at CBS I go back to Texas. “Leave it my hands,” she insists!

It takes about two weeks. “Jim?” She’s on the phone. “It’s Mary Beth Roberts from Chappell Music in New York. You had better get up here! CBS Masterworks wants Porgy and Bess big time!!”

“I’ll be there tomorrow. Should I come to your office?”

“No, I’ll meet you at Caffe Reggio,” she chuckles, for she is high on victory.

The next afternoon I am there. “How did you do it,” I ask?

“You know those Sony Walkman tape players they have these days? I bought a new Walkman and cued up a fresh cassette of Porgy and Bess, to that wailing clarinet cut on ‘My Man’s Gone Now.’ The President of CBS Masterworks is Joe Dash. I know his secretary. She tipped me off that he was leaving for Europe and that a limousine was picking him up at 12:00 noon, last Wednesday. At 11:30 I was up there in the foyer by the elevator. As he walked out I stopped him.
'Excuse me, Mr. Dash. 'Oh, Hi, Mary Beth, I’m in a rush,' he said.
'Mr. Dash, you gotta hear this. Take this fresh Walkman, put it in your briefcase, and when you get on the plane, just press the play button. It’s all cued up.' The next morning he was phoning his office from Europe commanding: 'I want that Porgy and Bess!'”

CBS Masterworks Recording

Within a few months I was able to call on Margaret Tobin and hand her a copy of the CBS Masterworks production with all the songs from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess by the Jim Cullum Jazz Band. The whole story, the package, the artwork — all of it was impressive. Mrs. Tobin was not known to break into tears, but again she dabbed her eyes.

Before it was over, we performed Porgy and Bess all over the United States. I was particularly proud when we performed it representing the United States at the famed Cervantino Festival in Guanajuato in Mexico. There we were presented on stage each night by Ambassador John Negroponte. William Warfield, who had played Porgy in the 1953 World Tour Revival, became our Narrator, reading my libretto.

In 1992 our Porgy and Bess became two full hours of radio, broadcast by Riverwalk Jazz and is now set for a radio reprise. This year marks the 75th anniversary of Porgy and Bess. “That Gershwin score,” John Sheridan said, “was like a cookbook. I just followed Gershwin’s recipe.”

There is a little more to this story. Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess now stands before the world as the greatest folk opera ever written by an American. But, in 1935 when Porgy and Bess was ready for its world premier, Gershwin took it to the Metropolitan Opera Company and was shocked by the response:

Alvin Theatre Marquee

“You can’t be serious Mr. Gershwin,” they said, “An all Negro cast? We propose white singers in blackface.” Disgusted, George went down the street to The Alvin Theatre, a Broadway house, where Porgy and Bess ran for only 124 performances to mixed reviews. So, Porgy and Bess went down as “Musical Theater,” not Grand Opera. Decades floated by and a few around the country were still smarting at the outrage of the Porgy and Bess race issue. The few included Margaret Tobin and her son Robert Tobin of San Antonio, who, in 1985, contributed a large block of cash to the Metropolitan Opera Company to have Porgy and Bess performed as Grand Opera.

Gershwin never gave up his dream of Porgy and Bess being presented by the Metropolitan Opera Company. The Opera was 50 years old when this finally took place. It required the Tobin money and clout. In 1985 Porgy and Bess finally was presented by the Met.

Epilogue

We all know that change is constant and the rate of change is exponential ‒ especially in New York.

Years ago CBS sold out to Sony and took our Porgy and Bess out of print. Applause Magazine is out of business. Edward Jablonski has died. For years Joe Dash has been retired. Chappell Music is now Warner Music. Pay telephones are obsolete. Mary Beth Roberts became a mogul with Sony ATV. Margaret Tobin and Robert Tobin have died.

Caffe Reggio on McDougal Street, New York City

There is one constant. If you would like the finest cup of coffee, walk south across Washington Square to 119 MacDougal

Street, 2½ blocks below the Square to the west side of the street where you may step right into my office. Here nothing has changed. Same Caffe Reggio. Same table. Same pay phone. Same phone number.

I am serious. It is all still there. Check it out!
 

Photo Credits:

Photo courtesy commons.wikipedia.org Photo courtesy flickr.com Photo courtesy Jim Cullum Jr. Photo courtesy Jim Cullum Photo from The Gershwin Years: George & Ira, by Edwardand Lawrence D. Stewart Image courtesy amazon.com Image courtesy wymaninstitute.org Photo courtesy Greenwich Village Daily Photo

©2010 Jim Cullum

 

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