A personal remembrance
Paul Blair, 1942 – 2011
My friendship with Paul Blair, who died on December 6, began in the early 1980s when we were both living and working in the Washington, D.C., area. Paul was a broadcaster with the Voice of America (VOA), in which capacity he taped hundreds of interviews of jazz, blues, and pop musicians, catching them between sets at clubs or in their hotel rooms in D.C. or New York.
In an email to me from Indonesia in the mid-1990s Paul listed a couple of dozen artists whom he had interviewed. The roster included Dave Holland, “who talked about his first night in Miles Davis’ band,” bluesman Joe Turner, “at a Georgetown hotel as he was lying on his bed in his underwear,” Red Mitchell, “talking about Freddie Green, Polish audiences and the nature of jazz,” and rhythm and blues singer and saxophonist Bullmoose Jackson, “in a kitchen at Howard University, where he was working as a Food Service administrator, recalling what it was like to tour down south as a member of Lucky Millender’s band.” The sample list also included Wayne Shorter, Anita O’Day, Jay McShann, Carol Sloan, Claude Williams, John Scofield, Abdullah Ibrahim, Steve Turre, Dizzy Reese, Bob Mover and Jon Faddis.
The mention of Joe Turner reminded both Paul, in his missive, and me, receiving it, of a June 1984 gig we had both been present at, Joe Turner and Ruth Brown sharing the bill at Adam’s, on D.C.’s Pennsylvania Avenue. Blues guitarist and singer Bill Harris was emceeing and, seeing me, several other journalists and some broadcasters in the audience, acknowledged all of us, naming our publications, radio stations and networks. I called out, “And the Voice of America is here!” Startled, Bill responded, “The Voice of America is here? Who?” I pointed to my table companion and replied, “Paul Blair.”
Recalling the evening, Paul gave expression to his disappointment in missing out on “a booking [at Adam’s] by NRBQ, long one of my favorite groups,” adding that “Joey Spaminato, NRBQ’s bassist, is married to [country singer] Skeeter Davis, whom I met for the first time at a Jakarta hotel right across the street from ours.”
Paul had relocated to Jakarta in 1988, soon meeting Yessy Malaysiaty, a native of Indonesia, and they were married in 1992. Working as a free-lance journalist during his decade in Indonesia, Paul published articles in dozens of magazines and newspapers worldwide on such subjects as food, travel, Americana and music, as well as “doing video scripts for Wal-Mart and Coca Cola . . . along with a brochure for an Indonesian firm that manufactures both tooth brushes and herbal wine plus an advertorial on behalf of a local Indian restaurant.” A visit to the U.S. that he and Yessy made in 1996 provided subject matter for the travel articles, for they drove across country, lingering in Los Angeles, Memphis, Boone, North Carolina and Funk’s Grove, Illinois, where they bought maple syrup that they enjoyed on pancakes Yessy made for breakfast back in Jakarta.
Paul’s letters to me from Jakarta were replete with news of the political upheaval and economic turmoil that the nation underwent during the final two years of his and Yessy’s time there. On August 1, 1996, Paul emailed me about the increasing unrest.
How does this affect my wife and me in our comfortable aerie here, ten floors above Jakarta’s principal traffic circle? Darned little, actually. It’s business as usual for us. No problems out on the street near Hotel Indonesia. There’s a goodly supply of imported fruits and vegetables at the shopping center across he way. The local TV stations continue to churn out monumentally lousy fare (much of it imported from the U.S.) at the usual numbing pace. The International Herald Tribune is still delivered to our door each evening. But I did see a line of twelve tanks roll down the boulevard in front of [the hotel] last Sunday morning, a show of determination by the local army commander. (He has also now issued a rather vaguely worded order that all trouble-makers are to be shot on sight.) And the TVRI complex (where I’ve had to go every afternoon for the past three weeks, filling in for another grammar-checker who’s on leave), there’s been armed troops in riot gear lolling around the gates, something I’ve never seen there before.
On May 14, 1998, I emailed Paul, expressing concern for them. Here are excerpts from his replies of that day and the next.
Just a quickie to let you know that all’s well with Yessy and me. Over the past couple of days, there’s been quite a bit of looting and burning around Jakarta. . . . From the footage we’ve been seeing on local newscasts, it appears to be totally unorganized mobs of high school-age kids taking advantage of a precarious situation by causing as much mayhem as possible and stealing whatever they can stagger away with. But this unrest should definitely not be confused with the wholly legitimate Replace Suharto movement inspired by university students, which continues to gather momentum with each passing day. . . . What’s more, there’s supposed to be a series of major public demonstrations across the country on May 20. . . . We think a change in government is definitely possible within the next week or so. . . . Anyway, when we went up to the fifteenth floor of Hotel Indonesia this afternoon, we could see major fires burning in virtually every compass direction. . . . Yet at the same time, we could also see daily life proceeding much as usual: several people pruning hedges around the hotel, street-side food vendors calmly setting up for their evening activities, and numerous expats sunning themselves beside the rooftop pool at Hotel Mandarin across the street. . . Most local bus service has been terminated and there are few taxis on the street. The big shopping center across from our hotel (majority-owned by one of the president’s sons) hasn’t been opened for two days. This is bad news for anyone desperate to purchase designer clothing, golf clubs or – in my case – a couple quarts of milk. . . . In the absence of low-fat milk, I’m forced to drink Orange Crush, which is definitely not OK for pouring over corn flakes. . . . So although we’re pretty much packed and ready to go, we’ll just sit around and type away for the next twelve days or so, saying farewell to as many local friends as possible before our departure. . . . And up until yesterday, there were still new writing and translating jobs coming in for us. How nice to feel wanted. . .. . Yes, we’re fine. . . . So let us hear from you, please. Any pillaging going on in your own neighborhood this week?
President Suharto resigned on May 21, 1998, six days before Paul and Yessy left Jakarta for New York.
The sporadic correspondence that Paul and I maintained while he was in Indonesia was continued after he and Yessy settled in Brooklyn in the spring of 1998. It was supplemented by the occasional telephone conversation, such as when Paul called from New York early one summer evening in 2003 and urged me to get down to the Embassy of the Republic of Indonesia in Washington, D.C. (only 20 minutes on Metro Rail from my Silver Spring, Maryland, home), where Indonesian jazz violinist Luluk Purwanto and her husband, Dutch pianist René van Helsdingen, would be performing with their quartet at 7:30 p.m. Bolting my dinner, I headed for the train station a mile down the street. Paul and Yessy had become friends with Luluk and René in Jakarta. I later interviewed the couple and profiled them in my 2005 book Growing up With Jazz.
Not long after settling in New York, Paul established himself as a licensed tour guide, creating SwingStreets: New York Walking Tours, which had him conducting residents and tourists to jazz-related sites throughout Manhattan and the other boroughs as he spoke of their histories. Of especial interest to jazz lovers was his tour of Harlem, for Paul would point out the sites of, for example, the Cotton Club, Savoy Ballroom, Minton’s, Connie’s Inn, Smalls’ Paradise and Monroe’s Uptown House, along with the former homes of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Coleman Hawkins, Dinah Washington, Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, Mary Lou Williams, Fletcher Henderson and other jazz luminaries. In another telephone call Paul asked me how he could acquire a copy of my 1994 Swing Era New York: The Jazz Photographs of Charles Peterson, which he said would be very useful as background for his tour talks. Of course I sent him a copy.
Paul joined the Jazz Journalists Association a couple of years before departing Indonesia and wrote a couple of articles for its quarterly publication Jazz Notes, which I was editor of from 1992 to 2001. The first of these, in 1997, was “Little Jazz in the Big Mango,” an update on jazz in Indonesia. The other was in 1998, “Jazz in Queens,” a survey of jazz in that borough, both historical and current. From 2003 until his death Paul was editor of Hot House, the New York monthly jazz magazine that in 2012 will celebrate its thirtieth anniversary.
I didn’t often see Paul and Yessy during the past decade or so but we did get together in March 2003 at The Cajun, a restaurant in New York’s Chelsea section, where saxophonist and flutist Carol Sudhalter led a combo for the Sunday brunch for several years. The accompanying photo shows us at table during intermission. The assembled, from the left, are yours truly, Natasha de Bernardi, Carol Sudhalter, Caterina Mona, Paul Blair, and Yessy Blair.
I would last see Paul in September of this year when he and Yessy rented a car and, en route to a wedding in Pittsburgh, stopped in Elkins, West Virginia, late one morning and had coffee and biscotti with Erika and me. An email arrived a few days after the visit.
Thanks for your hospitality and excellent coffee. I was also pleased to meet Erika after decades of hearing her name. . . . Since our return, I’ve reread your Growing Up With Jazz in its entirety and enjoyed it afresh, particularly the profiles of people I’ve lately gotten to know a bit better personally (Claire Daly and Howard Johnson, to name two), and learning more about Armen Donelian’s background. You certainly found Don Byron to be far more cordial and talkative that I did during one non-memorable interview session. And here’s an update: Luluk abandoned René a couple of years ago to run off with and subsequently marry a German brain surgeon. René moved to Italy soon thereafter and took up with a local woman who apparently owns an ice cream factory, so that’s another trade he’s determined to master. . . . I’m really enthusiastic about the Cecilia Coleman Big Band’s debut CD, hard copies of which are supposed to become available tomorrow.
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