I GOT A GREAT present from Jimmy Hamilton the other day, a recording of the Decoland Band at Maryland’s Kenwood Country Club in 1988. Despite more than four decades of playing gigs, first as a drummer and later as a stride piano player, I only had a few decent tapes of our performances and none of my own band, which had featured Jimmy (whom I had first heard in the 1950s at the Charles Hotel), Bob Walter and Paul Hettich, such a driving bunch of musicians that we got along most of the time without a drummer (although not at the Kenwood gig). Having two horns gave us a bigger sound and the lack of percussion got us gigs in places where drums would have been too much.

Today I watch with amazement at the electronic effluvia that accompanies my musician son Ben’s efforts. Once, I found him in New York City with a large desktop hardrive among his baggage. He explained that he was making a new CD and that he was about to record one of the musicians. The concept of serial recording musicians still is regularly deported whenever it reaches the border of my brain.

Besides, for many years, we had no such flexibility and, when we did, I was too busy with other things to pay much attention – although I do remember a remarkable 1950s recording by Les Paul and the All Les Paul orchestra, in which Paul recorded himself playing various instruments, sang, and gave himself a four part backup. We didn’t know that sort of thing was possible.

When I started as a radio newsman in the 1950s, battery operated tape recorders were so novel that there were only about a half dozen on the job in Washington. These devices were about three inches thick, five inches wide and ten inches long. The microphone, a small rectangular piece of plastic, was permanently attached by a cord just short enough to complicate the task of securing the mike to a stand at a news conference while simultaneously resting the recorder itself on the ground.

The engineer’s union had initially insisted it send a member out with all reporters using one. Fortunately for the future of news radio, this particular piece of featherbedding was scotched. The tape recorders, however, presented a number of other challenges — including a deep sensitivity to temperature. More than once I returned from an outdoor winter taping — a burial at Arlington cemetery or a fire — only to find my recorded voice sounding like Porky Pig as the batteries returned to full power once back in the studio . . .

In a manual on WWDC news reporting that I wrote in 1960, shortly before leaving the station, I outlined some of the peculiarities of the technology:

“The Mohawk is a temperamental machine that gives excellent service until the sunspot level gets too high or some other change takes place . . . [The Steelman recorder] is a useful machine when it works . . . The various machines operate in various ways at various times. For example, they have different proper recording levels and sometimes these change after the machines have been repaired. . .

“Do not let the speaker hold the mike unless he is in such a position that you can not comfortably reach him. You will find that the compulsive mike-grabbers often seem to be trying to record themselves internally. Saliva does not help the mike crystal.”

The mike stands to which we secured our recorders often belonged to the networks. It took a combination of diplomacy and deference for a young newsman to safely affix his toy machine to the phallic symbol of CBS News, but over time these men — all of whom looked like John Madden — became accustomed to such intrusions. My suggestions included:

“The basis of successful operation alongside these other news people is largely intuitive and is worked out by experience. But if the WMAL cameraman asks you to move the mike a little to the left, you should do so as long as it does not hamper your work. If you need to get through a crowd of reporters with a mike, polite requests combined with the proper quantity of physical pressure will assure entrance. . .

“Covering national stories, the networks present a problem. The network engineers and cameramen try to intimidate new independent newsmen and like to play tough. . . It gains you nothing to get angry. Be good natured whenever possible; otherwise go about your business ignoring them . . . In time this policy pays off. One cameraman, without being asked, gave me the idea for the paper clip mike holder. NBC’s Johhnie Langanegger repaired a transformer for me. A cameraman named Skip lent me a screwdriver at a crucial moment. . .

“Many interviews are done on a pool basis. In the case of fishing expeditions in the corridors of the Capitol, two independents may be seeking the same Congressman at the same time. It is often pointless and annoying to the interviewee to have to go over the same material two, three or more times in separate interviews. Make sure the other party agrees. Mike Turpin got so mad at Steve Dixon ‘piggy backing” his interviews that the pair got into a fight that was broken up by a Capitol guard.”

One of the problems with being on the cusp of new technology is that you don’t always realize what you’ve got. Thus I blithely rerecorded over an early tape I had made in the late 1950s with one of Fidel Castro’s top lieutenants in the Hays Bickford eatery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. On the other hand, I do have a tape from that same period of a young boy looking at my little mike and saying, “What’s that?” – probably the last young man in America to be puzzled by the object. And the tape I made covering the sit-in at Glen Echo amusement park had one of its periodic revivals last fall for the 45th anniversary of that event. But it was pretty much hit or miss.

It was the same with music. Life was mainly live in those days and we just didn’t think that much about playing it back later.

Jimmy Hamilton, bless him, was an exception and hence the Decoland Band tape, an excerpt of which is now online.

What does this all have to do with news and politics? Only this, as I wrote in one of my books:

“The essence of jazz is the same as that of democracy: the greatest amount of individual freedom consistent with a healthy community. Each musician is allowed extraordinary liberty during a solo and then is expected to conscientiously back up the other musicians in turn. The two most exciting moments in jazz are during flights of individual virtuosity and when the entire musical group seems to become one. The genius of jazz (and democracy) is that the same people are willing and able to do both.”

Bob Walter, trumpet; Jimmy Hamilton, clarinet; Paul Hettich, bass; Sam Smith, piano. Drums and trombone unknown

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