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Zan Thompson

Rosy the Reedman and All That Jazz

October 25, 1987|ZAN THOMPSON

He is more than six feet tall and has a head like a library lion--large, regal but with a faun gleam in his eyes. He walks with two canes, this encyclopedia of American music, and he is 85 years old.

I met him at Tom and Jean Middleton's, where good stuff always happens unexpectedly. Rosy McHargue was a drop-in, carrying his saxophone in a decently scuffed case. With him was Ron Hargrave, who was carrying a banjo.

The Middletons are people who enjoy life, music, food, drink, friends, language, theater, all the things that make life such a trip, an overnight on the Orient Express. Their friends have enough sense to appreciate them, and that ad lib group that collected with no design several Sundays ago was typical.

But this was the first time I had ever met Rosy McHargue, a reedman who has been playing jazz with the giants of American music since he was a kid.

When I told Rosy how thrilled I was to meet him after having heard his name mentioned in awed tones since I can remember, he said, "Will you marry me?"

This obviously is a shtick he uses, because I had heard him ask four other women the same question. They, silly geese, had said no.

I said, "Yes."

Rosy seemed a little taken aback. I didn't tell him that I'm enchanted by musicians and that if a seal could play those horns with the bulbs with a Dixieland beat, I'd swim into the sunset with him. I like music. I love jazz.

After an hour or so, someone asked Rosy McHargue and Ron Hargrave to play and sing. Ron is a man maybe 40 years younger than Rosy but with the soul, the beat and the drive of musicians who are held in awe by jazz buffs. He plays banjo with that inexplicable sound between a whack and a twang. That banjo sang, romped, laughed, sobbed. Their first number was one called "When Uncle Joe Plays His Old Banjo," with 20 verses and a chorus that would make a rock tap its foot.

Rosy and Ron had obviously done this before. They used to play together in a small jazz shrine in Santa Monica, which is probably now a parking structure.

Rosy sang second, harmony or lead, whichever fell his way, and Ron did the same thing. They sang together like fine silk coming off a spindle, colors blending with perfection. They sang songs I had never heard and songs I've known all my life. Most fun was hearing them sing a double-time counter-melody in between lines.

Tom Middleton, the host, finally agreed to sing a song or two. Tom knows the lyrics to everything that ever came out of Tin Pan Alley, ASCAP, and every revue that ever delighted audiences, including the obscure gems.

You will be pleased to know that I did not help him. For the first time, I had the self-control to let Tom sing along in that clear, sweet voice that sounds as if it should be heard around midnight in an Irish pub.

After the first half hour we moved inside around the piano and, finally, Rosy reached for his saxophone case. He opened it and assembled the instrument, carefully and deliberately building a saxophone from pieces of metal. Finally, he fitted the mouthpiece on and inserted the reed. During all this no one said a word. Rosy has a small tremor that is constant in his hands. I don't know what a neurologist would say but when he puts his hands on the saxophone, it stops entirely. He noodled along for a while playing with Ron. After six or seven numbers, he blew into that saxophone with his lungs, which must have the strength of a furnace bellows, and the silver notes hung in the air like Japanese lanterns. It was such a treat, everyone howled like timber wolves and laughed at the same time.

He told me he got the name Rosy from a song called "When Rosy Macoola Does the Hula Maboola," because he used to sing it all the time. Among the legendary jazz bands he has graced are Ted Weems, Benny Goodman, Red Nichols . . . the pantheon goes on.

In July, a 21-year-old clarinetist produced a concert called "At the Jass Band Ball" at New York University. ( Jass was the original spelling for jazz .) It was a note-for-note recap of the Original Dixieland Jass Band which wowed New York in 1917.

Rosy and Dan Levinson, the 21-year-old, transcribed the music one note at a time from the original records. The concert received rave reviews.

Rosy told me that the Original Dixieland Jass Band record of "Livery Stable Blues" sold 1 million copies. And that was when a through-the-roof Al Jolson hit might sell 400,000 records.

It was one of those evenings that can keep you going through the gray oatmeal days for a long time. His real name is James Eugene McHargue. I think I'll marry him.

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