George Frazier

On Jazz, Men's Fashion, and Richard Nixon

I can’t help but think of George Frazier when Richard Nixon comes to mind. Saturday marked the 40th anniversary of our 37th President’s resignation. I followed the Watergate hearings closely, listened to WBZ every night for Jerry Williams’s meticulous recounting of the sordid details, and read Frazier’s thrice-weekly column in The Boston Globe with zeal. This late-career renown earned Frazier a Friday morning slot on the CBS Morning News, where with a fresh boutonniere in his lapel, he’d express further disdain for Nixon and disgust with his defenders.

George Frazier (Esquire Mag) (2)

Frazier (1911-1974) was a celebrator and an arbiter of style, and he wrote about men’s fashion for decades. A graduate of Boston Latin and Harvard, Class of ’32, he became Downbeat’s Boston correspondent in 1935. The following year, he urged the city’s premier after-hours venue, The Theatrical Club, to open its doors to black patrons and performers. According to Richard Vacca’s The Boston Jazz Chronicles, when Fats Waller opened there in November 1936 Jim Crow was shown the door. Frazier remained a steadfast supporter of civil rights, but good taste was always a concern. Read here his displeasure with the quality of music (Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, PP&M) featured at the March on Washington in 1963.

Frazier was an early champion of a Theatrical Club regular, the Providence-born trumpeter Bobby Hackett, and his obituary for Bunny Berigan on June 3, 1942, stopped the presses of The Boston Herald as he raced against deadline to complete his page one tribute. It began, “Bunny Berigan (ave atque vale) died at the age of thirty-three. Now the apocrypha will begin to take shape, constantly expanding, constantly gaining credence…A story here and a story there, until presently the legend will be born…But legend or no legend, there will always be that horn…Berigan was one of the greatest trumpet players who ever lived, with power and majesty and slashing attack and nervous vibrato and something that was fire rather than merely warmth.”

GeoFrazier-book-jacket

Something that was fire…Oh, how Frazier burned, too. I first came to know him through the Globe column he began writing in 1970. His best work was devotional, whether the subject was Ted Williams, Scott Fitzgerald, Fred Astaire, shirt collars, Billie Holiday (they were rumored to have been lovers),  Appointment in Samarra, the shoeshine stand at the Cleveland airport, John Lobb shoes, or Louis Armstrong. Before the trumpeter’s 70th birthday celebration at Newport on July 4, 1970, Frazier railed at the jazz elite for abandoning Armstrong, and expressed outrage at the notion of Pops as an Uncle Tom. The first extensive piece I read by him on a jazz subject was his liner note essay for Miles Davis’s Greatest Hits. He dubbed Miles “The Warlord of the Weejuns,” and devoted the entire piece to his sartorial originality. It concluded with him saying that he’d heard Miles was also a “pretty good” trumpeter.

In what proved to be the last decade of his career, Frazier had taken to using the Andulusian word duende as a favored term of approbation for those with “the ability to transmit a profoundly felt emotion to an audience of strangers with the minimum of fuss and the maximum of restraint.” According to Charles Fountain’s biography of Frazier, Another Man’s Poison, he gained a new appreciation for the word while reading Kenneth Tynan’s 1963 article about Miles Davis in Holiday. (That’s where Tynan referred to Miles as the “Satanic elf.”) For Frazier, duende became the lyrical successor to the more prosaic cool that he’d employed in the 40’s and 50’s. He peppered his columns with a veritable duende dichotomy of those with and without “that certain something,” and he chronicled his most subjective takes in columns called The Bush, which varied between principled stands for justice and (e)quality and patronizing insults to Texans, “the Lawrence Welk Crowd,” and “DK,” Frazier shorthand for double-knit fabrics. I used to love regaling the cats on the corner with his lists of hits and misses, of the ill-spoken, ill-clad, and incorrigible. Frazier’s readers included plenty of adults, but he was particularly edifying for high school and college-age kids like myself who loved the thought of a grown-up sticking it to the crasser and more venal elements of society.

Frazier mocked his alma mater in “Harvard Blues,” which Jimmy Rushing sang with Count Basie and Don Byas immortalized with a sublime tenor solo in 1942. He propositioned the beguiling Lee Wiley in a scandalous liner note essay for her 1954 album of Rodgers and Hart songs. And he famously railed against all things Nixon, long maintaining that his disqualifying offenses began with the smearing of Helen Gahagan Douglas as a Communist in 1948. His most famous column, “Making Dean’s List,” which is quoted at the top of this Globe feature, took issue with several others who’d made the list as Johnnies-come-lately to the cause. But Frazier, an “authentic…charter member” of the enemies of RN, was “delighted” that Nixon “or his stormtroopers” had read him.

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