The Music Of My Misspent Youth

I remember it well, the music of my misspent youth. During the Eisenhower years, Manhattan was an island of social, economic and cultural equanimity. The legal drinking age was 18, bars stayed open until dawn, and J. Press was directly around the corner from the fabled hub that existed Under The Clock at the Biltmore Hotel that advertised special student rates for Ivy Leaguers and their Seven Sister elite women’s colleges.

A couple of blocks away, social climbers in their grey flannel suits, exhibiting sprezzatura sporting dirty white bucks, patronized the Stork Club. Sherman Billingsley, a former prohibition bootlegger, was saloon keeper and arbiter of Cafe Society. He famously gifted samples of Sortilege, his signature perfume, and winked if your companion stashed a Stork Club ashtray into her handbag. For the price of a drink at the bar you gained entrèe to the plush Cub Room for a rhumba played by Payson Re’s orchestra. This was the upscale part of the evening.

The nitty-gritty for the boarding school/college crowd was at Jimmy Ryan’s. Before Elvis or the Twist, the popular sound of New York was Dixieland. The uptown headquarters was Jimmy Ryan’s, where Wilbur de Paris and his band turned 52nd Street into Rampart Street. Ryan’s was a prep United Nations. The room was not only restricted to Ivy Leaguers, but was a democracy that also welcomed outliers from far-flung places like Rutgers, Lehigh or Hofstra as long as they wore coat and tie. The insiders knew that when you bought intermission pianist Don Frye a drink, he never forgot and rewarded you at the door or even a trip to the men’s room with a six-step pianistic flourish.

Dixieland in the 1950s was a revival of the earlier Jazz Age chronicled by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby: “All night the trumpets wailed the hopeless comment of The Beale Street Blues while a hundred pairs of golden and silver slippers shuffled the shining dust.”

Dixieland clubs were all over town. Central Plaza Casino and Stuyvesant Casino were seedy second-floor union halls on Second Avenue with sawdust on the floor and spilled pitchers of beer. Bobby Hackett, Conrad Janis, Zutty Singleton and the regulars climaxed the evening strutting around the room tooting, “When The Saints Go Marching In.” Farther downtown, Nick’s specialty was Pee Wee Irwin in jam sessions. Eddie Condon’s provided the wayward horn of Wild Bill Davison, and the sotto voce tableside vocals of legendary guitarist and proprietor Eddie Condon.

The marriage between Dixieland and Ivy was finally consummated at two sold-out concerts in Carnegie Hall during the 1955 Thanksgiving vacation my freshman year at Dartmouth. Princeton’s Tiger Town Five, led by clarinetist Stan Rubin had appeared on Steve Allen’s “Tonight Show” and previously gigged at Jimmy Ryan’s. Their Friday-night concert also featured Eli’s Chosen Six, from Yale.

The Saturday-night concert began with Williams College Spring Street Stompers. The Indian Chiefs followed after intermission before a boisterous Dartmouth-loaded audience that prompted security to stop the show with a warning to the students to curb their enthusiasm.

A gangster milieu provided much of our crowd a late night cover along with a $7 cover charge and a two-drink minimum, the price at the Copacabana for a bridge-and-tunnel spectacle of buxom chorus girls (unlike our non-prurient Smith and Wellesley dates), comedian Joe E. Lewis in his drunken Damon Runyon act about bookies, barkeeps and broads. I can still remember the punchlines, “Whenever someone asks me if I want water with my Scotch, I say I’m thirsty, not dirty.” Last call and last dance, the morning sun peeking over the Queensboro Bridge, the goings on about town always closed with bagels, lox and eggs at Reuben’s.


Richard Press

Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published