Who's my daddy?I don't mean that like the woman in the movie Mama Mia who tries to figure out the actual sperm source among three men her mother dallied with around the time of her conception. I don't need a DNA test.
The question is really about what kind of person my dad was. I've just written and self-published a book: Daddy Plays Old-Time New Orleans Jazz. It's about my family and the six generations of professional musicians we know about. But it is also largely about my father, Percy Gabriel, whose stories introduced me to family lore.
Daddy was a proud Gabriel. He knew that his grandfather immigrated to New Orleans from the Dominican Republic in 1856. There are precious few African-Americans who know that much about their family lineage. I don't doubt the 1856 landing although there's no documentation. The earliest official mention I can find of my great-grandfather, Narcisse Gabriel, is in the 1870 census.
However, what I found most interesting in my research was that my father was also a very different person than the man that I knew growing up.
I knew a father of nine children who labored daily at the Ford Rouge plant, a strict disciplinarian who made it to church every Sunday. I played sports in elementary and high school and I doubt he ever missed a game. When I was a Boy Scout he was usually one of the parents who came along on camping trips. I couldn't get rid of the guy. Other kids got away from their parents for the weekend, but my dad was right there. I didn't have much chance to get in trouble.
That's not the guy I learned about as I dug into the family history. Although Daddy talked happily about riding on the crossbar of his father's bicycle as a kid in the 1920s, or sitting in his dad's lap at the kitchen table, it was a far different story when he was older and became a musician. Then he carried a razor and a gun as he traveled playing music and gambling in the 1930s. In the 1940s he managed a "strip and clip" joint complete with prostitutes and pimps. He laughed about having to teach inexperienced girls how to strip while he played the tom-toms to their bumps and grinds. He talked fondly of consorting with gangsters who always treated the band boys well.
I heard a lot of this when I was young, but it just didn't register until I had an adult's sensibility. When your church-going father says he managed a club, you don't think of a gangsta palace — especially when he seemed to be doing everything in his power to keep me from going down that road.
How did that party man turn into my dad? Over time most of us slow down, although Daddy once admitted that in part he just took the party undercover. When he was in his 70s he told me, "I ain't saying I was no angel, but I kept that stuff away from the family."
Well, he kept it away from his kids, mostly. I did get a glimpse of that Daddy when I took a trip to New Orleans with him when I was 20. As we drove closer to town he seemed to get younger. The first thing we did on arrival was hit a crowded joint where beer sloshed on a dirty bar along with raw oysters on the half shell. The bartender carried on a filthy repartee about sexual prowess and the power of oysters. Daddy fit right in. I was asking myself, "Who is this guy?"
I have cousins who were nearly as old as Dad. They knew about that guy. That's how I found out Dad once sported the nickname Pint because he always carried a pint of scotch in his coat pocket.
In later years that pint would sometimes go under the driver's seat in his car. When I was a kid he'd escape the crowded house, sit in the car in the driveway, listen to Ernie Harwell call a Tigers game and sip away. Other times we'd go fishing on the Detroit River. Sometimes while we kids pulled in the perch, bass and occasional sheep head, he'd sit in the car listening to a game or some jazz. I can well guess now what else he was doing.
A cousin told me that one time the band came home from a road trip without Daddy. He disappeared for a few weeks in Canada. Mom took him back when he showed up. I never heard about that from her. But when they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, she ruefully bragged that the night before their wedding a couple of my dad's sisters came to her and told her not to marry him because he was a womanizer and wasn't ready to settle down. Mom stuck out her chin and told me, "I'm still here 50 years later."
Regardless of what happened along the way she was proud that she had stuck it out for better or for worse. And so far no one has showed up claiming to be my long lost brother from Toronto.
Another cousin told me there were things he knew about Daddy that he wouldn't tell me. I was his son and I didn't need to know. Fair enough. There are a few things about myself that I'd prefer my daughter doesn't know until she's at least 30 years old. She got pretty upset when I told her I was once arrested for hitchhiking on an interstate in Wisconsin. She wasn't 10 yet, and the idea of me getting arrested was pretty extreme for her.
Now I think about kids who go to the prisons to see fathers and brothers. I wonder what effect it has when prison is just a fact of life. Do they go to see their dads and expect to someday be incarcerated themselves?
In my family you were expected to be a musician. Daddy said that music can take you anywhere in this world. He didn't go far in school, but being a bass player took him back and forth across the United States, and into the company of politicians and gangsters. My cousins have traveled across Europe, China, Australia and numerous other places as musicians.
But travel showed Daddy that there was no substitute for a good education. He preached that to us kids. He wanted us to be musicians, but he wanted us to get that paper too. We didn't really get that far as musicians, but that's OK. Daddy knew that the education would hold us in good stead.
There are so many questions I wish I had asked Daddy or other family members when they were alive. At least I asked enough to learn that we can be different people at different times — and that a wild kid can become a caring adult.
And if someone really wants to know, I've got a pretty deep answer to the question: Who's your daddy?
Who's your mayor? In Detroit the answer to that question is getting pretty dicey. Whether you mean it in the sense of what kind of person Kwame Kilpatrick is, or who is going to be mayor by the end of the year or the end of the week. One thing for sure, I bet the Democratic Party leadership is breathing a sigh of relief that Kilpatrick is tethered to Detroit during the national convention in Denver. I'll breathe a sigh of relief when Kilpatrick is no longer mayor.A chapter from Larry Gabriel's Daddy Plays Old-Time New Orleans Jazz will be available at metrotimes.com soon. Send comments to [email protected]