Saturday, April 14, 2012

"The Musical Counterspy" - By George A. Borgman

Every year I'm asked to write an article for this booklet. If I didn't like the Hot Steamed Jazz Festival so much, I'd beg off, for I'm very busy working on various stories and reviews for The Mississippi Rag.

But what should I write about? I don't like writing about myself, but I've had a very full life, not only as a musician and jazz journalist, but also as a special agent in Military Intelligence in the Army.

In June 1945, at age 17, as a freshman at the University of Missouri in Columbia, I played tenor and alto saxophones and clarinet in the Missourians, a big band, and in the Fall I joined the Moderaires, a big swing band that worked almost every night at Dean's, a basement student hangout in downtown Columbia.

The following March, we heard that Jack Teagarden and His Orchestra were to play at the Engineer School's St. Patrick's dance on Saturday evening, the 16th. A black band played Dean's on Wednesday nights, when we were off, so we traded nights with our black friends, so we could go hear Teagarden Saturday night.

At the dance, during an intermission, we went outside to smoke and converse with some of Teagarden's sidemen. We all laughed about Jack's Texas drummer, who wore cowboy boots and had a plastic straw to sip whisky from a bottle in his coat pocket. During the second break, the guitar player said that Teagarden was looking for a jam session after the dance.

All the Modernaires were there, and we all jumped at the chance for a session with Teagarden. We took our girl friends home early (and were they angry!) and picked up our instruments at our dorms and frat houses. Our drummer, who had a Cadillac convertible, drove across town to purchase some booze for us from a woman who sold it after hours to students. I drank Southern Comfort whisky then, and he brought me a bottle.

At the end of the dance, we met Teagarden, and he and a few of his guys got into cars with us to go to Dean's. I ended up with Jack in the back seat of the Caddy convertible. I knew that Jack loved the booze, and I opened the bottle of Southern Comfort and offered him a taste. He eagerly took a big swig, and, as the "parade" of cars drove across town to Dean's, Jack and I almost emptied the bottle.

Dean's was closing, and the black guys were packing up their instruments. When they saw Jack Teagarden walk in with his trombone case, they happily brought out their horns, and we had a great jam session until about 2:00 a.m. Then we all went to the drummer's frat house, and Teagarden and the guys jammed until 7:00 a.m. There is a photo of Jack, seated on the piano bench, blowing his horn, and all the Modernaires are standing in the background. I am seated to the far right, and I'm obviously blotto.

Oh, yes, a month later Teagarden fired his drummer for being an alcoholic!

Jack Teagarden and His Orchestra circa 1951 playing Wolverine Blues.

That was a memorable experience - sharing a bottle with Teagarden. Another one I recall was when I was with MI in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1978.

My unit gave me the assignment of "riding shotgun" on a counterintelligence operation we had going at the Penthouse Club, which was located on one of Frankfurt's main streets not far from the Abrams Building (formerly the I.G. Farben Building), where I worked.
So every day, after work, I walked to the Penthouse, which was a hangout for the spies, from both East and West, and a lot of American soldiers drank there and chased the girls. A few dope pushers also showed up.

I usually sat at the bar with an old man (let's call him "Vaclav"), in his late sixties. We knew he was working for the Czechoslovakian Intelligence Service. Vaclav wore a hat, limped and carried a cane, and looked just like a Hollywood character actor who always played a spy or a Gestapo agent. Vaclav told me he was born in the Sudetenland area of Czechoslovakia. We conversed in English or German. The Army had trained me in the Czech language, but I didn't want Vaclav to know that, of course. 

On the evening of January 16, 1978, Vaclav told me it was the fortieth anniversary of the famous concert of the Benny Goodman band at Carnegie Hall. Vaclav then related to me the names of all of Goodman's musicians and invited guest players and their instruments, and even named the tunes they played. The next day I went to an Army library and found a book on jazz and read about the concert. Everything he told me was accurate. I couldn't believe it - a Czechoslovakian spy who was an expert on the Goodman Carnegie Hall concert! During later conversations with Vaclav, he really impressed me with his knowledge of jazz and swing.

So, those are two of my experiences - sharing a bottle of whisky with Jack Teagarden, and a CSSR spy giving me the rundown of the Goodman Carnegie Hall concert.

Oh, yes, in order to make room for the spies to operate in the Penthouse, I informed the Army's Criminal Investigative Division of the dope deals there, and the local CID narcotic squad (who looked and dressed like hippies) showed up one night. The GIs recognized them, and we didn't see a GI there for six months.

"Sing, Sing, Sing" - Benny Goodman and His Orchestra - 1937 Version.

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