It would be hard to imagine a better companion for a tipsy tour through New York’s vibrant jazz scene in its golden age than Baron Timme Rosenkrantz. Emigrating from Denmark in pursuit of the music he loved, he became a friend to just about everyone he met. And he met just about everyone who mattered in jazz.
Rosenkrantz was indeed a Danish Baron, and his memoirs open with his 1934 arrival in New York and subsequent ill-advised foray into Harlem at a time when, to be blunt, white people simply weren’t safe there. Yet luck was on his side–charming, disarming, and without a bigoted bone in his body, by chance he met John Hammond (the man who discovered Billie Holiday and Bob Dylan, among many others). Hammond provided an initial introduction to the black clubs with the hottest jazz around. Soon Rosenkrantz was a familiar (and often the only white) face in every jumping joint in town.
Harlem Jazz Adventures, adapted and edited by international jazz journalist Fradley Hamilton Garner, is a fascinating and exuberant account of Rosenkrantz’ encounters with the giants of jazz. Anecdotal chapters tell of his encounters with the likes of Louis Armstrong, Benny Carter, Duke Ellington, and virtually every player in each and every band that passed through town.
Escapades include a raucous Christmas with Errol Garner, keyboard cutting contests with Art Tatum and Fats Waller, a brief stint as a gigolo, pitching a song to “the father of the blues” himself, W.C. Handy–and the list goes on and on. Rosenkrantz loved musicians as much as he loved jazz itself, and was always happy to share his other love–booze–leading to all-night parties the likes of which most only dream of.
Indeed, Rozentkrantz–despite his modest protestations, an amateur musician himself–immersed himself thoroughly in his beloved jazz. For a time he owned a record store, though he was more interested in the freewheeling jam sessions the back room provided space for. A part-time journalist, he published his impressions of American jazz in Danish newspapers. He produced a handful of recordings, ran a home recording service for musician friends, and hosted a jazz radio show. The only thing he didn’t do, it seems, is make much money from any of it; despite his noble lineage, Rozenkrantz, who loved to spread it around when he had it, was always scrambling for money. Still, as he himself writes,
“… these gigs ended like most of my American ventures. Lots of fun, and money for everyone but me. But I am not complaining. No one had a better time than I did. I would do it all over again and go home just as happy.”
Although it’s amply evident that he knows his way around a chord change, Rosenkrantz doesn’t set out to analyze the music.
“Let me say from the start that I am not a musician myself., I am not a critic, I’m just a little layman with an ear for music and a heart that beats for jazz.”
Instead we get colorful and intimate portraits of the men and women who made the music, all filtered through the happy recollections of a humble and unassuming rascal. Perfectly capturing the mood of the times, he takes us into the speakeasies and after-hours clubs frequented only by those “in the know,” places where musicians now regarded as titans of twentieth-century music would let loose after the “official” gigs ended.
Garner proves an ideal editor; it’s obvious that he genuinely likes his subject, and his translation from the original Danish sparkles. He’s scrupulously careful about accuracy–each chapter includes copious footnotes–but even his revisions are labors of love, gentle nudges rather than harsh corrections, and his notes are affectionate and warm.
Towards the end Rozenkrantz leads a friend on an elegiac journey through his old stomping grounds, the vast majority of the clubs and musicians long gone. An era had passed, and a saddened Rozenkrantz returned to Europe, passing away in 1969. True, jazz would no doubt have flourished anyway had Rozenkrantz never ventured into Harlem. But it couldn’t possibly have been as lively without the genial Dane.
A fascinating and illuminating glimpse into a now-vanished golden age, Harlem Jazz Adventures is essential reading for anyone interested in jazz or music in general.