Thursday, March 3, 2011

Fame, St. Louis, and Jay Landesman

A recent obit in the New York Times took me back many decades to my college days in St. Louis, when, with what seemed like an exotic group of friends, I spent many weekends in an area called Gaslight Square. The impresario of the Crystal Palace, the centerpiece of this long-gone bit of Bohemia, was Jay Landesman, who died last week in London at 91.

It was at the Crystal Palace that Landesman introduced St. Louisans to a young Barbra Steisand, Woody Allen, and Mike Nichols and Elaine May. His nightclub was one of some twenty raffish bars, clubs and restaurants, intermingled among old art galleries and antiques' shops that became, for just a few bright years, our version of the Village.

And I, at 20, in the company of a friend who played jazz piano and an "older woman" of 28 named Joy--who wore too much makeup, smoked too much, and drank too much coffee and who lived in a louche apartment, like some Holly Golightly, above one of the galleries--devoured this atmosphere. Joy introduced me to Jay. I also saw my first transvestite at the Crystal Palace.

Joy worked, in all places, in the library of the Jesuit university where my friends and I were students, St. Louis U. We could practically walk to Gaslight Square from the campus.

My walk on the wild side was fairly innocent by today's standards but seemed tinged with danger and therefore with a heightened aura of sexuality as we sipped forbidden cocktails (under age), ate in a Japanese restaurant, listened to Muggsy Sprecker's Dixieland band or simply watched all the other young people parade down Olive Street, alive with lights and music, and felt we were at the center of the universe.

I remember trying to impress Jay Landesman, naively hoping he would hire me to perform in his club; that was before Streisand, et al. but around the time of his musical, produced at the Crystal Palace, "A Walk on the Wild Side." I remember him as polite and charming.

His creativity and energy as a producer, which led to minor achievements in New York and London, contributed something distinctive to my growing up. I felt sophisticated in the glittering area he helped create, part of what later became known as the counterculture.

Then suddenly, after a few years, crime increased in the central west end of St. Louis, the bars began to close, and the customers went elsewhere. By then (1964), I was in graduate school and Jay moved on. The Times said he "achieved the rare distinction of being famous for not being famous." He had an eccentrically creative life, producing the first and only Beat musical (not a commercial success) and always bubbling with ideas, most of which resulted in flops. His memoir was called, "Rebel Without Applause." But he kept writing and producing. He had two sons and was the uncle of Rocco Landesman.

Jay Landesman's life raises questions about the meaning and value of success and fame; the latter mostly eluded him, as it does most of us. Much more important than fame is what he succeeded in achieving: creativity throughout his long life and the determination never to give up in the face of commercial failure.

I salute Jay and his colorful life, and I'm glad he got the applause of a great obituary in the New York Times. I'm grateful for the memories of the world he brought to life in St. Louis long ago.

1 comment:

Ned Kessler said...

I love this story about your walk on the wild side. It brought me back to my little walk on that side, like yours, not really too wild, but your description of it, “…tingled with danger….” fits perfectly with how I would describe parts of mine. I suspect it’s a universal feeling in boys who are around the age of discovering the world outside of their homes before it was legal for them to do so, and probably within young girls, too. I also loved your use of two adjectives I would never use, simply because I never use them in speech. They are unfamiliar to me, “raffish” and “louche.” I can guess about the meaning of the former, but I don’t think I’ve ever encountered the latter. I’ll guess now that when I look it up, it will mean something like “over the top, or extreme.” No matter what I think now, both will send me to the dictionary.

This post also reminds me of the writings of Frank Conroy, a name I learned by hearing of his death one afternoon while listening to “All Things Considered” in the car. My ears perked up when I heard that for many years, he was the director of the famous Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. I’d learned about the many good writers of literary fiction who studied at this university in my writing classes at Rollins College in the early years of this century, but I’d never heard any relevant details and was always curious about it. Now I had a name.

So I found and read two of his books, a memoir about his early years called Stop Time, and Dogs Bark but the Caravan Rolls On, a 2002 essay collection of his. In these works, most notably for me, I found a man who spent lots of time shooting pool and got pretty good at it, and who basically taught himself to play jazz piano. He played in clubs in New York City, and was good enough that one night, the jazz great Charles Mingus came up to the stage to join him in playing, a scary prospect for him then, because Mingus was well-known for a terrible temper.

Engaged as a writer on assignment to interview the Rolling Stones when the tour they were on brought them to New York, he ventured out to a large home that he’d been they were staying. He found nobody around but the doors open, so he walked in and started to play the piano while he waited for somebody to show up. After playing a while, he heard soft music playing behind him, one of the Stones had come in and joined in. He kept playing—they both did—until they finished the number.

I was him while reading that. I would love to be able to play jazz piano. I love to listen to it, especially in what I think is classic jazz trio, piano, bass, and drums. I know nothing about music—I did get lost when he used music terms I didn’t understand, (half-notes and the like)—but good keyboard work, especially in the upper register, slowly, with sensitivity, and with a beat, especially late at night, is a sheer delight.

There’s more to write about Mr. Conroy, but you wrote about Mr. Landesman and your St. Louis in-betweenhood, so I’ll stop here. Thanks for sending me off on that journey back, this Saturday morning, while some grandchildren in this house are still sleeping, others are awake, and I am back in the late fifties.