Nattering with John Graham: Musical ‘naches fun di kinder’

“My pocket money at the time, I think, was a shilling a week.”

Nattering with John Graham (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Nattering with John Graham
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Call it escapism, or a tendency to slip into soothing nostalgia mode, but I find dipping into the past – especially when it relates to an area to which I am particularly connected – a pleasurable pursuit. So, nattering with John Graham about days of yore and his love of music was an unadulterated joy.
I must admit to having some personal vested interest in meeting up with Graham. He hails from Leeds, in the UK, and he and his wife Phyllis are old pals of my parents. I was born in Leeds, and when I popped over to his 11th-floor apartment, overlooking Sacher Park and the Knesset, Graham told me how my parents used to keep open house after Simhat Torah.
“Everyone used to go to your home,” he says. “There were so many people. I don’t know how your parents managed it.” I don’t remember it myself, but my octogenarian mother has told me, on several occasions, about how the welcome mat was generally out at our Lidgett Walk house, in the Roundhay area of Leeds.
Graham is of my mother’s generation and he opened up a door for me on how things were for him in Britain during, and in the immediate aftermath of, the Second World War, and later. His recollections, at least the ones he happily shared with me, were mostly of a musical nature.
AS A youngster in the 1940s, there were some delectable benefits to be had from the war-induced national economic downturn, with large numbers of storeowners conscripted into the British Army.
“Many shops that had sold records were closed for the duration of the war. Places were closed for the war. I had to build up a little collection of gramophone records, 78s,” he recalls.
Even with the price drop, Graham’s financial clout did not quite cut the mustard.
“My pocket money at the time, I think, was a shilling a week.”
For those not old enough to remember the predecimalization British monetary system, there were 20 shillings to a pound, hence a shilling was the nominal equivalent of five pence.
“Records cost two shillings and sixpence plus tax, which came to three shillings and thruppence (three pence),” Graham chuckles.
“Nowadays you can get everything that I purchased by pressing a little button on the computer.”
You might be able to get the music instantaneously in this virtual world of ours, but it is much more difficult, if not impossible, to get a
handle on the vibes of the era. Some of that, and Graham’s insouciant yesteryear excitement, came across in his refulgent look.
“In Sheepscar [district] in Leeds there was a shop that had shelf upon shelf of records – all 78s, from years before. They also sold pianos and other musical instruments, and they closed part of the shop down.”
The proprietors engaged in commercial multitasking.
“It was a greengrocer, with the records in one part, and I went through those shelves,” Graham continues. “That was one of the shops I went to. I was only 11 years old. The shop owners knew I wasn’t going to steal anything,” he laughs.
There were rich pickings in the offing for anyone with the time and a few pennies – or shillings – and Graham was particularly taken with the delights of a pre-war close harmony vocal act from Germany.
“I found a record by the Comedian Harmonists, They were this marvelous Jewish group from Germany.”
In fact, not all the members were Jewish. Three of the six were Jewish or of Jewish descent, and one had married a Jewish woman.
The troupe gained great success between 1928 and 1934, but was forced to disband when the Nazi regime started making trouble.
Graham’s finely honed sense of humor surfaced throughout our chat. One of his quips took a jovial swipe at the world of hi-tech.
“You couldn’t hear the records because there was no gramophone player in the shops. There was a wonderful shop in the center of town [Leeds] right next door at the time. Barkers’ was the main record shop of the time, and there were at least six prominent record shops, at that time, in the center of town. There was a shop next door to Barkers’ and, at the back of the shop, there was a row of records.”
The youngster’s curiosity was piqued.
“I asked if I could hear some of the records.”
After initially having his request turned down by the shop assistant who Graham reckons was only around 16, the former came up with a novel idea.
“They had a turntable and he put the records on the turntable and whirled them around with his finger, and I was able to hear the records. The gramophone was probably electric, but they weren’t going to waste any electricity on me.” These were hard times, indeed. The comic punch line materializes.
“Fingers are digits, so that was the first digital reproduction of sound!”
GRAHAM’S ENTRÉE to the melodic magic began long before that, in childhood, at home.
“It was perfectly normal in the English [Jewish] community at that time, people had pianos and people would sing at pianos. That was one’s introduction to music.”
In Graham’s case, that tended more toward the jazzy side of the sonic spectrum.
“My mother was our family pianist, and her music was ragtime, which is Jewish music.”
The latter is an intriguing take on the first rung of jazz’s evolutionary ladder. Many consider the likes of Scott Joplin and Ernest Hogan, both African Americans, to be among the genre’s forefathers, while Ben Harney, also noted as one of the pioneers of the style, was not thought to be Jewish. Still, one can see where Graham is coming from – a very personal experiential standpoint – and, to be fair, the discipline did feature some prominent Jewish musicians and writers.
“Ragtime is entirely Jewish music,” he declares. “It is what the Jewish songsmiths wrote, commercially, which they expected would appeal to the American community, hopefully also to the black community. It gave the black community a little bit of ‘spiritual’ sustenance, if they sang these extremely Jewish songs.”
Graham’s family certainly found “sustenance” in domestic musical pursuit.
“My mother played the piano and she also played the ukulele. She played the ukulele with difficult chords, but not with melody as it’s done nowadays.”
A member of the third generation has “rectified” that.
“My daughter is a music teacher, and she plays melody on the ukulele.”
There is also a familial connection with the cradle of early jazz.
“My dad, he had a different upbringing. His older sister was the family pianist, and they had lived part of their life in St. Louis, Missouri, during the time of the Great Exhibition of 1904. He was influenced a lot by American ragtime.”
The syncopated musical style had its roots along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, and Joplin spent several years living in Sedalia and St. Louis, Missouri.
“My father spent two years of his childhood in St. Louis, and his favorite tune was ‘Ragtime Cowboy Joe,’ a completely Jewish song, written by [Lewis F.] Muir and [Maurice] Abramson, two very famous American Jewish songwriters.”
Graham inherited not only his parents’ love of music, but also, to this day, he is a dab hand on the old ivories, as is his wife Phyllis.
“My father never forgot Ragtime Cowboy Joe, even in later life, and I can play it on the piano.”
Over the years, betwixt earning a living as a lawyer, Graham managed to catch some of the leading members of the American jazz fraternity in action, including the likes of modern jazz pioneer trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, although he says he was not enamored with the horn player’s output.
“I saw Dizzy Gillespie at Bradford [near Leeds], but I’m sorry to say I wasn’t impressed by him,” he notes. “The best, as far as I was concerned, at that time was [Dave] Brubeck. I heard Brubeck in Leeds, at the Odeon. As a pianist I could see he was someone who knew his job.”
GRAHAM GOT his initial firsthand helping of straightahead jazz when he was something of a mission of mercy.
“My most impressive encounter [with jazz] was as long ago as 1963. It was [British saxophonist] Tony Coe.”
Coe was later to become one of the leaders of the European avant-garde jazz scene.
“I was on a ship on my way to the Jewish communities of Odessa and Sochi,” he recalls.
There were several other trips to the USSR. When I asked why he had gone there, he offhandedly mentioned something about smuggling siddurim and “other Jewish things.” I also remember being asked to undertake something along those lines, in the 1970s although, for some reason, they didn’t come off.
The saxophonist left a positive lasting imprint on Graham’s musical memory bank.
“It was beautiful,” he says. “Coe would come up to the deck with his trio and play all the time. It was lovely.”
There were also forays to the States, where Graham caught some top class jazz acts.
“My first visit to America was in 1953 and I went to a club called Nick’s [St. Nick’s Pub in Harlem], I believe, in downtown New York. I heard proper Dixieland. Played by whites, mind you,” he adds almost apologetically.
Before the Grahams made aliyah in 2007, in the wake of their three daughters, they made several trips over here. Graham recalls a visit to Israel in 1958 during which he manage to pop over to a jazz club at the Tadmor Hotel in Herzliya.
“It was called Scott’s, and it was run by Ronnie Scott’s brother. I think he was called Harold. He’d been on a kibbutz but it didn’t work out, so he did what he knew best. He had made aliyah.”
Ronnie Scott, a saxophonist, was best known for founding Britain’s most popular jazz joint, in London, in 1959.
The Graham beat goes on to this day.
“We have three daughters who were brought up to hear their parents entertain them on the piano, and they danced and sang with us. When they went to friends’ houses, they could not understand how the parents of their friends did not do the same as their parents,” he laughs. “All our daughters were brought up to dance to the piano, and play the piano.”
One of the daughters, Judy, is really a chip off the old block.
“She trained as a lawyer, of course, but her main occupation is now teaching music. She teaches melodic ukulele and piano. We get tremendous naches from that.”