Richard e Hill - a Writer's Journal

Umbrellas Part I - That Poor Jazz Summer

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The umbrellas were bountiful although there was no rain on this warm autumn day. Colorful parasols mingled with the traditional black united in purpose; a New Orleans style funeral celebration. This winding procession along a cobblestone path in a cemetery with the undulating manicured landscape of a luxury resort led to what would be the resting place for the guest of honor, renowned mobster and patron of Jazz, Carlo “Doc” Santorini. A flatbed truck bearing a Jazz combo was at the forefront of this large but private ceremony. Mob funerals were an elaborate détente from the violent profitable enterprise of crime. Matinee idol quality, handsome “Hollywood Hank” Penn standing in the center of the truck bed, placed a cornet underarm, lowered his dark glasses slightly, revealing blue eyes beneath blond hair and began to sing St. James Infirmary, a Dixieland Jazz staple. Haunting poignant phrases from the baleful melody resonated; “down to St James Infirmary”, “so cold”, “so dark”, “so damp”. In mid song the twenty-year old Cuban sensation, El Cubano sat aside his conga drums, struck the cymbals, then the cow bell on the traditional drums setup and with a drum roll launched the up tempo “When the Saints Go Marching in” as the Johnny Hawkes sextet augmented with four other players swung loud and hip. The slow march started to move rhythmically behind the pall bearers, the frontline showing the way as six feet, five inches and three hundred pounds of muscled treachery, Eddie Dancer the faithful affable bodyguard nimbly high stepped his way along the trail. New Orleans born Gina, the beautiful widow twirled her black umbrella and deftly stepped along beside dapper Johnny C, the chief under lord to the crime boss known as “The Turtle” because he seldom left his palatial estate. Today obviously was not an exception. On the other side of Gina was the sepia toned, toothsome wife of Johnny Hawkes, the band leader and close friend of the departed. This would be the first funeral celebration of the month for the Hawkes family; the second preacher laden with gospel choir renditions and church based would be for the beloved maternal grandmother known to all as Big Mama. Now seven-year old grief stricken son, Richard bashfully stumbled along clutching his mother’s dress. Smiled at a youthful friend doing comical jig steps, rushing to join the procession, and then glanced admirably at his brother “sitting in” on alto saxophone with Daddy’s band. Frederick leaned in delivering rapid complex chords exhibiting skills well beyond his ten years. One would expect Doc to rise up from the horizontal shed to applaud wildly and toss twenty dollar bills into the kitty as per usual. Not today. Not anymore. The truck proceeded to graveside and the group jammed for forty-five minutes before the burial; fulfilling Doc’s lifelong wish to hear one last set when his time had come.


Summer is a time of discovery and realization. Romance, sports heroes and fishing holes are paramount among the youthful, fanciful revelations; the then six-year old Richard Hawkes discovered poverty. The family fortunes had suffered an extreme reversal due to the long debilitating illness of his Aboriginal American paternal grandmother, Montana Star Eyes. Insurance was not a common option in the Colored neighborhoods during these times. The holdings once comprising five adjacent houses and “money tucked away” had been reduced to a single mortgaged dwelling that was home to four children, two to four adults and several pets. Struggling Jazz pianist Jonathon Hawkes, the patriarch lamented, “It’s like a losing game of Monopoly, you build up your empire and are ready to ‘bust the game’. Then the dice turn cold and you land in all the wrong places; losing something on each turn until all you have left is one mortgaged house on the ‘cheapest street on the board’.” 

Baby-booming Chicago was rapidly growing; the city with broad shoulders had open political arms that needed blue-collared laborers for the factories and close-minded voters for the political machine. These workers needed a place to call home. World War II had changed the face and pace of the city. Multi-cultured neighborhoods were transforming into segregated ethnic economic conclaves. The atmosphere was filled with factory smoke and the stench of the manure piles from the stockyards. Train whistles and the lumbering sound of full boxcars interrupted conversations and sleep, as the city was the acknowledged railroad center of the world. Post war transients roamed the streets seeking work, shelter and identity. The last words spoken in a home after “good night” were, “Did you lock the doors?”

The first home was on a place. Streets in 1948 Chicago were usually named avenues, boulevards, parkways, roads or just streets. Places were short streets or cul-de-sacs with dwellings usually only on one side. They were located between numbered streets as 56th Place was situated between 56th and 57th Streets. Their provenance was the burgeoning post-war housing demand due to homecoming soldiers, European immigration and Southern migration. Newly concrete covered 56th Place was a cul-de-sac artery into black-tarred Stewart Street paralleling the railroad tracks atop a twelve-foot brick wall. Large wooden bungalows heated by hot air from aging basement furnaces fueled with cheap polluting coal from grinding stokers, yards full of trees, barking dogs, gardens, and fenced in hope --- a rat infested community that was a cinder spark away from incendiary destruction. These former company houses were now bottles from the well bin of the H K construction empire that spawned from Minnesota to Louisiana. The top shelf had lavish estates, factories and entire upper income suburbs. Name it and Hershel Korov would build it.  Hershel the Hammer, a Russian Jew who was the legendary builder of dreams.  The hammer identified his trade as well as his socialist political position. Paternal grandfather, Frederick Hawkes had been Korov’s confidant, bodyguard, and supervisor of construction sites.


The mid-Spring Sun was concluding an intermittently rainy day by casting long shadows over rain pool reflections. Then reclined behind pastel tinted clouds beneath the arriving star-sprinkled lace of nightfall. The piercing whistles of a steam engine pulling a caboose, rambling to the Pennsylvania Railroad yard a half mile to the north signaled the nocturnal creatures to begin their shift. Joining the chorus of bird calls, rodent squeals,  and insects chirping was the bawdy laughter of two painted, tainted ‘hostesses’ bidding adieu to four traveling salesmen customers as they splashed through a puddle to a waiting taxi in front of the ‘bad house’ down the street. A spotlessly clean station wagon with five Jazz musicians parked in front of 403 West 56 Place, the Hawkes residence on a double corner lot intersecting Stewart Street. Two young boys, one carrying a saxophone and the other a puppy ran to the back porch as a flash drizzle stopped as soon as they arrived at the steps. The Jazz players taking their instruments in hard leather covered cases from beneath the cover on top of the station wagon, paused briefly to chat with a group of confreres in syncopated rhythm passing in a large Buick sedan on the way to a gig. Time conscious Clyde Hutchins was the first to break away from the conversations with a mimicking comical Charlie Chaplin-esque walk, twirling a bulging umbrella as he ascended the stairs to the front porch. Buffalo, the aged, massive pet watchdog watching warily from the yard, emitted a deep barking warning before returning to his house beneath the back porch.


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