Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Gospel of Riff, Jazzbo Books Part 2: i, paid my dues

Originally published in 1967, the full title is i, paid my dues good Times… no Bread a story of jazz and some of it’s followers, shyster agents, hustlers, pimps and prostitutes by Babs Gonzales.

Mid-way through one might wonder when do the “no Bread” passages kick in, ‘coz young Babs could sure hustle that long green. In fact, schools might consider adding i, paid my dues to their required reading lists just so sis and li’l junior can learn a few useful tricks for survival. For example, if you need to turn some quick cash between gigs, just get you a job selling suits down at the department store, then convince all your musician friends to cop their threads from you. Or if you’ve got to beat the draft, just show up for your army physical dressed like a lady, then scream “never mention girls to me again!!” through the draft hall. Monsieur Bebop Babs Gonzales recounts these and other hepcat anecdotes in a freewheelin’ and loose prose that redefines conventional use of the quotation mark while it weaves a story that criss-crosses the US, Europe, and the paths of everyone who was anyone in the bop era.

Besides being the consummate hipster, Babs contributed to the annals of classic jazz such tunes as "Oo-Pa-Pa-Dah," first recorded by his group Three Bips and a Bop, then as a duet with Dizzy Gillespie, as well as "Pay Dem Dues," "Cool Whalin’," "Weird Lullaby," "Get Out Dat Bed," "Be-Bop Santa," "Dob-La-Blee," "We Ain’t Got Integration," and many others. Despite these contributions, Babs never really received his financial due. Just another version of that all-too-common story of the under-compensated artist in America. To hear him tell it, his uncompromising hipsterism was just a bit too much for the uptight music establishment of the time. He wouldn’t let those shyster agents stiff him. He refused crummy record deals. DJs blacklisted his songs when he wouldn’t kick them a percentage of his record sales.

But hustler Babs Gonzales always managed to adjust to conditions. Necessity is the mother of invention, as he says, and sometimes that meant throwing red pepper in a few eyes, or writing a Bop dictionary, printing and selling it at 50 cents a pop, and sometimes that meant cutting the occasional “novelty” record. For the most part, Babs Gonzalez’s later, post-bop work is defined by records like Tales on the Famous, a “crossword puzzle in wax,” as he called it, where the listener is encouraged to guess who Babs is rappin' about, and Tales of Manhattan, both of which highlight his gift of gab and lessons in bop-o-lo-guy. “These New York Neighbors” is a good example of this type of material.

The book’s lengthy sub-heading offers a clue to its arrangement and organization; the narrator pretty much runs through the list of “followers, shyster agents, hustlers, pimps and prostitutes” in that order. The latter half presents a series of profiles on several pimps he knew⎯the most despicable certainly being Jean, the Parisian kidnapper-pimp⎯the kind of low-life who hung around, trying to soak up some of the jazz musician’s action. Some of this stuff ain’t pretty. But hey, who am I to judge? Such stories do paint a pretty detailed picture of those murky regions where show-biz and crime overlap.

Maybe Babs Gonzalez’s hipsterism was ultimately less than revolutionary, but he mastered the art of never holding a square job, and never (again, to hear him tell it) gave no play to the Man. He ends his missive with a good definition of success (good Times… no Bread…) plus a full discography, and a list of his favorite fellow jazzmen down through expubidence.

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