Another Story Behind the Story

Here is another column I did for the New York Times, with a mea culpa following. It is an example of the peculiar power that journalists can use, not just to influence a subject, but also, to make things a little bit better.

First, the story:

A Jazz-Age Survivor

 

UNTIL he was partly paralyzed by a stroke in 1993, Joseph Chris Columbo Morris was the oldest working musician in Atlantic City. Mr. Morris, a drummer better known as Crazy Chris Columbo, liked to call himself ”the luckiest man alive.”

”I’ve been around the world with Eubie Blake on a U.S.O. tour,” he said. ”I’ve played with everybody who was anybody. I played with Duke Ellington. I played and recorded with Dizzy Gillespie, with Louis Jordan, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. I turn on the radio and I hear myself sometimes.”

Born in 1902, Mr. Morris got his first professional job in 1921, playing with Fletcher Henderson on the Steel Pier. He performed in most of the city’s nightclubs from the 1920’s to the 1960’s, leading the Club Harlem orchestra for 34 years until the club closed in 1978. Mr. Morris’s jazz band went on to play nearly every Atlantic City casino hotel. He was performing regularly at the Showboat when he suffered his stroke.

After hospitalization, Mr. Morris virtually became a hermit in his one-bedroom apartment. Married and divorced three times, he had outlived his 10 brothers and sisters and his two sons. One of them, Sonny Payne, drummed for Count Basie and Harry James.

Mr. Morris’s two daughters and his grandchildren visited infrequently. He compensated for his isolation by calling in to talk radio programs.

Then, on July 11, a mural portraying Atlantic City’s vanished nightclub scene was bolted to a brick wall behind the Thriftway supermarket at Kentucky and Baltic Avenues. Measuring 10 by 64 feet, the mural was painted by 30 Atlantic City High School students under the supervision of Ferjo, a portrait painter in Margate, at the Rosyln Sailor Gallery there. Sponsored by the Casino Reinvestment and Development Authority as a neighborhood enhancement, the mural is a memorial to the musicians and entertainers who performed here from the 1920’s and through the 60’s, in nightclubs that have mostly been torn down.

Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Eckstine and Sammy Davis Jr. are among the mural’s more recognizable faces. Mr. Morris is the only person portrayed twice on the mural, as the leader of the Club Harlem nightclub orchestra and as Crazy Chris performing with his own trio.

Mr. Morris did not attend the mural’s dedication. He did not visit the Kentucky Avenue Renaissance Festival, a celebration held each July to commemorate the city’s nightclub district.

”I don’t have to see it,” Mr. Morris said in his apartment. ”I stopped playing the drums. I’m going to die. In four weeks they’ll forget about me. They’ll tear that mural down like they tore everything else down.”

When a car and a driver arrived at his door, eager to take Mr. Morris to see the mural, Mr. Morris hesitated. Then he put his drumsticks, with his enormous collection of keys, into the canvas bag on his walker. He locked the door of his apartment and slowly moved toward the elevator.

In the front seat of the car, Mr. Morris looked out on new casino-financed housing and said: ”It’s all over. What we had then is all gone, and it’s never coming back.”

He identified a nearby church where ”they used to complain I played so loud they could hear me 25 blocks away.”

He stared at graffiti carved into a new concrete sidewalk. Reluctant to leave the car, he turned ”the one eye that’s working” toward the mural. After a few minutes, he pushed himself to his feet and said, ”I see people up there, but who they are I don’t know.”

He saw the Club Harlem marquee with his name on it. ”I worked there many, many years, and I never signed a contract,” he said, ”I played five, six sets a night.”

He saw himself and let out a low moan.

A cabdriver slowed and said hello to ”Mr. Chris.” A woman waved. Mr. Morris awkwardly raised his hand.

He looked back at the mural. After a while, he said: ”God bless whoever did this. God bless them again and again.” He went back to the car, slowly folded up his walker and shut the door.

”I feel good that somebody remembered,” he said. ”Here’s hoping they’ll let it stay.”

 

(end)

When covering Atlantic City for some 23 years for numerous publications, I discovered the city’s past was far more interesting than its present. Older generations had lively stories of what Enoch “Nucky” Johnson (fictionalized as Nucky Thompson in Boardwalk Empire) called a “wide open town.” I heard many stories from people who worked the nightclubs, especially those on Kentucky Avenue.

Atlantic City remains the only town in New Jersey that can serve alcohol 24 hours a day. This was supposed to make the resort attractive to conventions, but, in truth, was a boon to the city’s saloons and nightclubs, nearly all of which had some kind of backroom, illegal gambling.

The most famous white nightclub was the 500 Club (torn down to provide parking for the former Trump Plaza casino hotel’s stretch limos), where Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis became famous as a duo. A disgraced Frank Sinatra performed there after he had left his Catholic wife for Ava Gardner. A depressed baseball legend Joe DiMaggio became a greeter to at the “5” after Marilyn Monroe him.

Live music stopped at the “5” at 11 p.m., because of strict rules from the white musician’s union.

Black musicians also had a union. The union had no rules for how long musicians could play in the black nightclubs on Kentucky Avenue. The Club Harlem, the most famous of these clubs (Atlantic City’s first black mayor, James L. “Big Jim” Usry, was a doorman there), had “Breakfast” shows that ended at 6 a.m. Nearly every black entertainer of the mid-20th century performed there, including Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr., Cab Calloway and Sarah Vaughn, who, when asked at a press conference that I attended before her Atlantic City casino debut, if there was a difference between American and European audiences, replied, “they don’t speak English, that’s all.”

Kentucky Avenue was one of the few places in the city where blacks and whites enjoyed themselves together. At other times, a de facto segregation ruled, with black workers in restaurants and hotels (the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s father was employed in one) who were not permitted on most sections of the Boardwalk. They had to stay off every beach except one, at Missouri Avenue, derisively known as “Chicken Bone Beach.”

Sid Trusty, a retired drummer and Atlantic City cab driver, told me he had no bitterness about those days because, as he remembered it, Atlantic City people knew how to get along, take care of each other and hang out together on Kentucky Avenue. I mentioned that “Jim Crow” segregation also caused much injustice. Trusty, who was black, knew Sarah Spencer Washington, a black businesswoman who became so angry when black people weren’t permitted to join the Boardwalk Easter Parade that she had sponsored her own, shaming the city and opening the parade, and the Boardwalk, to everyone.

“There was plenty of injustice,” Sid admitted to me. “And there still is. But you have to see that we were capable of solving a lot of our difficulties here before they became problems. Black and white. We came together and we made changes. We didn’t have the riots in Chicago and LA. We didn’t have the police brutality in Philadelphia and Birmingham.

By the time of that interview, all the Kentucky Avenue nightclubs had closed. An attempt at starting a Kentucky Avenue museum had failed.

And most musicians, black and white, were out of work.

Legalized gambling was intended to bring jobs back to the city. The first casinos had to hire local musicians and provide “live” entertainment in showrooms and lounges. For about a year, musicians got employment. But, within two years, the casinos argued that recorded music was more effective in the gambling areas and the many musicians (one of whom went to high school with me) had to leave town for work.

Then the Casino Investment and Redevelopment Authority, charged with spending tax money accrued from gambling on improvements in Atlantic City and throughout the state, decided to bring a supermarket to Atlantic City and locate it on Kentucky Avenue. All the nightclubs were torn down, and, as a gesture to those who felt a valuable part of the city’s past might be forgotten, a mural was put up on a wall behind the market of some of the city’s black musicians and famous entertainers who played on Kentucky Avenue.

That’s when I heard that Chris Columbo, one of the city’s most famous black drummers, was living at a city-owned senior citizen complex as a shut-in. I got his phone number, called him up and he agreed to do the interview. When I asked him if he had seen the mural, on which he is the only musician portrayed twice, he became bitter, telling me how he had refused to be at the dedication ceremony because of what the city had done to Kentucky Avenue.

I told him that I agreed, but that he had to see the mural. My photographer had a car and we were going to take him there.

There are important ethical question that journalist’s must ask about to what extent their conduct during an interview, and their reporting, makes news. We like to imagine ourselves as essentially passive people who show our readers, viewers and listeners what is happening in the world in an unbiased manner, even when biases creep in.

Passive journalists become active when we go into truth-seeking mode. The claims of politicians, businesses, government organizations, celebrities–anyone who wants to protect a reputation, manipulate public opinion, or persuade people to buy stuff or vote a certain way, must be examined critically and dispassionately so that readers, listeners and viewers can make up their own minds.It is too the credit of the rapidly vanishing breed of investigative journalists have changed history in important way, but they have done so by bringing facts and circumstances to public attention.

But we’re not supposed to “make” the news, that is, influence what is happening to get a better story, wider readership, higher ratings, more clicks on a webpage.

Alas, that’s happening too much these days, as “scientific” studies and public opinion polls, many of them sponsored by news organizations, use methods that may not stand up to close scrutiny, to get numbers, tendencies or likelihoods that may not be representative of anything that should be called truth. These numbers become news. The response to these numbers become news. The result of the responses become news.

And we, the public that is supposed to be informed, are distracted.

I should have ended my story with Chris Columbo’s bitter, angry refusal to see the mural. Even though the Kentucky Avenue nightclub district had passed the point at which it could be revived, most people would agree that tearing those clubs down and replacing them with a supermarket did not honor the city’s past, and his.

Instead I told him that he should see that mural because the people who made that mural wanted him on it. I said my photographer had a car and we would drive him to see it.

And we did. After he made the statement about hoping the mural stays there, he thanked me.

I felt then, and still do now, that  I did a good thing.

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