The Musician Who Couldn’t Read Music

31 Dec

There was a young man, years and years ago, who grew up in Portland, Maine. To be more precise, he was born over a hundred years ago. His father wasn't around much. It was only him and an older brother, an elder sister, a younger sister, and his mother who spoke French and English. His mother worked as a seamstress and dress designer. His older sister, brother, and his younger sister all found work. They took on various kinds of jobs for different kinds of people. He was ten years old, but back then even ten year-olds had some things to do around the house. He was a skillful young man and he loved his mother, brother and two sisters. Because they all chipped in with what they earned his mother could pay all the bills. She also put aside a few coins for a rainy day.

One of the ways the young man got money was by playing music. He played the clarinet, the saxophone, the flute, and the violin. He played regularly with an older man  the train station, playing songs to the people arriving and leaving. Most of the people listened for ten or fifteen minutes. Afterward, they usually stuffed The Kid and Jimmymoney into the big jar in front of the two musicians. Though he was only ten, he had learned many of the songs the older man taught him. The truth is he was a natural born musician. If he heard a tune once he could play it back when his turn to play came around. Once he heard and played a song he never forgot it. More, he could play the songs in different keys. When playing the fiddle he also would sing.

At the end of the day they would divide the money equally. The old man knew the young man had talent and could see that their audience of listeners loved the young man's musical abilities.

One day the old man, Jimmy, ran as if he were late for the job.

"Hey Kid," Jimmy said, "I have some big news."

"What do you have for me, old man?" the Kid said with warmth of his mentor..

"Don't pack too soon, Kid. We have a steady job."

"Tell me, my good man, what did you get us?" the Kid asked.

"I got us a boat ride from New York, to Dublin, Ireland, to Liverpool, England, and on to Wales. There is a day layover and then on to Plymouth, England and to Southampton. After that there is a planned layover in London. Then we go to Calais, France, off to Guernsey, and then home to Boston. Are you excited?"

"I am. I need my mother to give her stamp though," the Kid reminded Jimmy. "How long will we be away?"

"It depends on the weather, but I would say four weeks," Jimmy stated. "We will have off Mondays and Thursdays. Our toughest days are Saturday and Sunday as we will join a vaudeville revue. I'm certain we will fit in."

The Kid told the family over dinner about the opportunity. He offered the news and then shut his mouth and listened to the pros and cons. There was one pro and three cons. The Kid remained quiet. The sole pro was from his older brother.

The hardest con was from his mother. She wasn't far from saying "no". But as she was about to speak up the Kid's youngest sister changed her mind. She said, "It's a great chance to see things and while I will miss my dear brother, I think he should go. He will have loads of stories to tell us." It puts the decision back in the middle, two Yays and two Nays.

The older sister stayed her ground, with her mother, and argued he was only ten years old. The Kid said nothing. It was also noted by one of the women that he had not offered a pro or a con. The announcement did not move the Kid to say a word.

Dinner was over and dessert got served. Apple pie ala mode, was everyone's favorite.

After the dishes got cleared off the table, they washed and dried the dishes. Then they all came back to the table to finish the discussion.

"We haven't heard a word from the Kid," his older sister said. 

The older brother spoke up and said, "he can talk after I finish asking questions. Okay young man, where will you sleep?"

The Kid said, “we have a cabin in the stern of the ship where all the help stay." The Kid added, "Jimmy and I will share the cabin."

"Ship food, I heard, is both delicious and expensive," the elder sister offered.

"The food is a part of our pay," the Kid said.

The mother spoke up and said, "Are you going to wear the same underwear every day?"

"Mother dear," he started, "in the rear section there is a large laundry room with many sinks and washboards. It too is part of the deal. The only thing we have to pay for being the booze.”

It was time for the youngest to ask a question. "How much money will you earn?"

The Kid hesitated a few seconds. He then spoke up, "Jimmy and I will split $700 and he figures the tips will be around $150 for the almost four week period. Jimmy doesn't drink, so we should have no costs at all."

"Are you telling us everything?"

"Well, there is going to be an audition and we have to play new songs and neither Jimmy nor I read sheet music," the Kid said.

"So," the mother spoke, "we don't even know if the job is yours."

"Mother dear, if I can't go I don't want to disappoint Jimmy or the ship's Captain."

"What do you want son," his mother asked.

"If Jimmy and I get the job I want to go. Jimmy said that if we take this job and get good reports we will get to play many ocean liners and travel all over the world."

"I'm changing my vote; I say 'Yay,'" their mother announced.

"Well, I sure as hell won't be the bump in the road; I'm changing my mind too," said the Kid's older sister.

The next day Jimmy picked up the Kid and they drove to the docks and met with the Captain.

They waited for over an hour as the Captain met one person after another. Finally, the Captain came out into the waiting room. He asked Jimmy and the Kid to take out their instruments and play a few tunes. For the next hour Jimmy and the Kid played seven different instruments. The Kid played his four instruments. Jimmy played his banjo, harmonica and his accordion. The acoustics were perfect. The waiting room helped make the music sound much better than in the noisy streets. It became clear on the Captain's face, he liked what he heard. Near the end he was calling out the names of tunes and sure enough the music went on. It seemed that Jimmy and the Kid knew loads of songs.

But there was an awkward moment. The Captain went back to his office. He was gone for a solid ten minutes. Jimmy and the Kid wondered what he might be doing.

The Captain brought out sheet music of songs from different countries. Jimmy looked at the Kid and the Kid looked back, frightened.

"Would you mind playing a few of these tunes? We want to be able to please all our passengers."

There was an uneasy silence.

Jimmy looked at the music to see if he knew a song. He didn't. Neither Jimmy nor the Kid knew a song. The Captain realized the two musicians couldn't read sheet music. So, the Captain stood up, went back to his office again. He soon came out with a marvelous violin that the Kid judged was fifty years old or older and it was a Cremona.

"I'll play the melody gentlemen, and you two will provide the harmony," the Captain said with a big smile.

The Captain, Jimmy, and the Kidd played music for the next four hours. Both Jimmy and the Kid knew and acknowledged how expert the Captain was on the fiddle. During the next four hours they conjured an idea. The Captain will get a costume and on Fridays and Saturdays they would play as a trio. Jimmy and the Kid got offered the job and they took it on the spot. During the four hours the Captain taught them every song they would need for the whole trip. Both musicians, the young one and the old one, celebrated with a sarsaparilla.

As the three musicians entertained the passengers they got better and tighter. As a trio they sounded great. Jimmy and the Kid often got invited to eat with the Captain. The tips were great. It was a great cruise.

At the end of the trip, the Captain asked the Kid if he would like to trade violins. The Kid spoke up and said, "Sir, your violin is a Cremona, and I will never be able to afford one. They are in a class with a Stradivarius," the Kid said.

"Young man," the Captain started, "you and Jimmy have for almost four weeks given me a great present for allowing me to sit in with the professionals. You made me realize that my gift to myself years ago, was surely intended for somebody like yourself, a young very talented musician. Please take it.”

The Kid thought for a few moments and then spoke up, “Sir, I have a better idea. Every now and then have Jimmy and I play on your cruises. Perhaps then you can allow me to play your wonderful instrument and you will play my violin. This will keep our friendship alive.”

The Captain considered the idea and agreed. “We sail on the 3rd of every other month on six different cruises per year. You, Jimmy and I will perform together. I couldn’t be happier.”

Jimmy, the Kid, and the Captain had one last dinner together where the Captain handsomely increased their pay, which was stated in a contract that was for three years. After they ate the three played some of their favorite songs, as the Captain plays the Kid’s violin, and the Kid plays the Cremona. The trio never sounded as good.

The Kid and Jimmy played through the first contract and were in the final year of the second three-year agreement. After the three musicians played their last notes of the last day of the cruise, the Kid was beckoned to the Captain’s cabin. The Kid was told to bring his violin.

The Captain opened a bottle of Taittinger Blanc de Blanc Champagne and the two violinists talked. The Kid was sixteen and had taken some wine on occasion. The Captain announced he was retiring. The Kid congratulated the Captain for a great career. At one point the Captain stood up, picked up the Kid’s violin case and said, “I will be right back.”

He took the violin case to his bedroom and in less than a minute came back out with two violin cases. It was easily seen by the Kid, which case contained the Cremona.

“Let’s play some tunes,” the Captain suggested.

He passed the Kid’s violin case back and opened the Cremona case and took out the violin and bow. The Captain played to insure the instrument was in tune. The Kid opened his case and was stunned. Inside was the Cremona violin. The Kid was speechless and confused.

The Captain said, “Stan,” the Kid’s first name, “I played that violin for years and loved the experience. I treated it well. But I will not miss it. I will play your violin with pride and which will afford me great memories. I will also know that the Cremona is in the right hands.”

Stan the Kid said, “Thank you.” He got up and went to the Captain and they hugged, each knowing the violins were with the right musician and the violins would receive good care. The two men played their favorite songs for the next two hours as they completed the bottle of Taittinger Blanc de Blanc.

As the years went on, the Kid, Stan Stanchfield, eventually settled down in New York City, but he and his Cremona played jazz and swing in some of the great big bands.

Some of the bands in which he played were:

The Paul Whiteman orchestra. Critic Scott Yanow wrote that Whiteman's "dance band used some of the most technically skilled musicians of the era in a versatile show that included everything from pop tunes and waltzes to semi-classical works and jazz.” Harry James Band with Frank Sinatra to his left. The Kid is standing in the top row on the right.Duke Ellington said, "Whiteman was known as the King of Jazz, and no one as yet has come near carrying that title with more certainty and dignity. Familiar Whiteman songs included, “It Had to Be You,” and “I'm Just Wild About Harry.

The Harry James band. James created the first high-profile band that featured Frank Sinatra, who signed a one-year, $75 a week agreement. James tried to convince Sinatra to change his stage name to Frankie Satin, but Sinatra refused. It started a feud between the two and Frank left after six months. Familiar James songs included, “You Made Me Love You,” and “Flight of the Bumblebee.” When Harry James died, Frank Sinatra gave the eulogy at his funeral. Stan Stanchfield was with James then having come from the Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey bands earlier.

The Tommy Dorsey band. In 1940, Dorsey hired singer Frank Sinatra. Dorsey’s trombone style was influenced by Jack Teagarden. Stan Stanchfield played when Buddy DeFranco, Buddy Rich, and Jo Stafford were there. Familiar songs the band played were, “April in Paris,” “All Or Nothing At All,” and “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.”

Stan Stanchfield also played in the bands of Artie Shaw "It's A Long, Long Way To Tipperary." 



a period of playing music for 53 years the Kid never learned how to read music. There were and still are many more great musicians who have not learned to read music. They faked it.

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