Second balcony

February 19, 1997|By F. de Sales Meyers

WHEN I WAS young, all the big-name bands came to the movie theaters in Cumberland for one-day engagements. Madly enthusiastic about jazz, I went as often as possible to hear and applaud some of the best orchestras of that day -- Woody Herman, Gene Krupa, Les Brown, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong -- taking in all the jazz that could be crammed into the far-too-few minutes those musicians were on stage.

I never really thought about the color of the performers. I saw the musicians with my ears and heard them in the leaping of my heart. I might just as well have been blind. But I was aware, indeed, of the evil of segregation that existed in those days and wept youthfully for the disgrace of it. Music, I ardently believed then, could extinguish even that pernicious disease.

I was vaguely aware, too, of those way up in the ceilings of the theaters, those who came in by the side and back doors and were seated apart from the rest of us, yet, just the same, were as emotionally driven as I was by what they heard, and, probably, sometimes were more than a little proud that the men on the stage so far below them were of the same color as they were.

Famous jazz tune

In time I suddenly understood the significance of the title of a famous jazz tune that many orchestras played then, ''Second Balcony Jump.''

Once, in later years in New York, I spoke of that to Billy Eckstine, the black singer. He had come through Cumberland once with the Earl ''Fatha'' Hines band. I recalled that as he sang his very popular version of ''Stormy Monday Blues,'' he raised his head far above the crowd of white people in the audience below him.

When I spoke to him of that, he did not remember the occasion, he said, but he did acknowledge that, yes, he was singing to the second balcony.

One day in those earlier years I learned that the black musician Roy Eldridge, one of the premier trumpet players of that time, was bringing his band to Cumberland to play a dance engagement sponsored by a local black social club.

Personal idol

As a trumpet player myself, whose personal idol was Roy Eldridge, I had to be there to hear him. Another musician friend and I went down to Cumberland the night of the dance. It was not in a movie theater, but at the National Guard Armory. We tTC hoped that at least we might get to see Roy and his band enter the building. We did not. I guess they went in the back door.

We waited anyway and finally decided that perhaps we could somehow get inside. We went directly to the front door, where tickets for admittance were required. We obviously were not members of the sponsoring social club. The man at the door collecting tickets ignored our presence.

From where we stood, we could hear the excitement of the crowd inside, and then, so deeply inviting, the extremely thrilling sound of the musicians warming up their instruments.

Well, I thought, we will try. We went directly to the man taking tickets and I politely asked if it was possible that my friend and I could get in. He looked at us a moment. ''But you're not members of the club,'' he said.

We could hardly deny that.

He looked away inside for a moment and I wonder now if he had admired Roy Eldridge as much as I had. He turned to us and said we could get in but we would have to pay the same price that the dancers had paid for admission. Then he quietly smiled.

''But you can only sit in the balcony,'' he said.

F. de Sales Meyers writes from Reisterstown.

Pub Date: 2/19/97

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