Here Now Some History #21– The Day the Music Died

By Ezra Parter


August 10th is not a date that strikes fear in the masses. It’s not a date that reminds most of anything in particular. Sure, it was the date in 1675 when the first stone was laid in the construction of the Royal Greenwich Observatory in London, and yeah it marked the first use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War in 1961, and yes, 19 glorious years ago Kylie Jenner was born on this very date, but none of that history resonates with people today. Nobody cares about poor little August 10th.

This might be Kylie Jenner. Happy Birthday Kylie!
This might be Kylie Jenner. Happy Birthday Kylie!

But they should, for August 10, 1970 was a foundational moment in American pop culture. August 10, 1970 changed the way singers and songwriters interacted with their audience forever. August 10, 1970 changed, as they say, the game. That’s right reader, this very day in 1970 was the day legendary jazzman Don McLean witnessed the death of music.

You see, a long long time ago on October 2, 1945, Don McLean was born in New Rochelle, NY. But Don’s parents didn’t have time to look after him. His father was a goldsmith, always busy at the shop, and his mother spent her days powdering the noses of Broadway stars in the big city. She sold them cocaine. With two busy, industrious parents, Don was forced to entertain and sustain himself most days, and he did it in the only building that would let him– Pete Hornberger’s Jazzy Whale Dojo in downtown New Rochelle.

The music at the Jazzy Whale always made Don smile, and the precocious lad knew that if given a chance he too could make the crowd dance and then maybe both he and they could find some happiness for a while. Scatting was Don’s first true love and he formed a duo with future wife Maggie Gyllenhaal that played weekly at the Whale until February of 1970. It was the beginning of the end for Don and Maggie,  when, as a 24 year old man what started as a shiver turned into full blown pneumonia.

RIP Maggie McLean née Gyllenhaal
RIP Maggie McLean née Gyllenhaal

Maggie died of synchronous pneumonia– a disease all spouses get when their spouse gets real pneumonia– the very next day, and Don had to push on without her. All that bad health news was difficult for Don to deliver to his parent’s doorstep, especially considering how challenging it was for his disease-riddled body to take even more more step after his release from the hospital. To make matters worse, Don’s parents had never met the woman who made him a widower, and they focused on that injustice rather than the mental and physical health of their son.

After months of recovery alone in his parents’ basement, Don McLean emerged a new man, ready to jump back into scatting and searching for a new partner in the jazz game. The morning of August 10, 1970, Don returned to the Jazzy Whale Dojo for the first time since contracting the pneumonia that killed his wife there. But something wasn’t right.

The Jazzy Whale Dojo was known for it's lack of light anywhere offstage
The Jazzy Whale Dojo was known for it’s lack of light anywhere offstage

As soon as he walked in the door, something touched Don deep inside. Was it the air that had changed? Was it the drinks and the patrons? No. It was the music. No one was skeeting, no one was scatting, and all through the bar there was not even a rat tat tatting. Don spotted his old pal Pete Hornberger and the conversation, as dictated by one Sally Gillespie to the New Rochelle Herald, went as follows:

“Hey ya Pete, what happened to jazz in here man??

“Ahh Donny boy, good to see you back on your feet. Unfortunately, this very morning, jazz died. It’s over son, jazz is dead, just like Maggie, and Gerald Ford, and even Cleopatra who built the pyramids back in biblical times. Things end Don, and you have to remember that. Never forget that Cleopatra is dead, okay boy?”

Pete had a real fixation on Egyptian history, but didn’t have a clear idea of the actual historical facts. Regardless, Don took it to heart and vowed never to play music again.

He drove his Chevrolet pickup to the levy at the edge of town, saw some kind elderly gentlemen drinking rye whiskey at a bar nearby called the Hotel California, and decided he might as well join in. He never left, even though he always wanted to. Modern Americans don’t remember much about Don McLean, but on August 10th we must remember– today’s the day jazz music died, and aren’t we all better off for it?

This is what Don McLean would have looked like had he been a folk singer and not a former jazzman stuck forever within the Hotel California. Amazing.
This is what Don McLean would have looked like had he been a folk singer who performed into his old age and not a former jazzman stuck forever within the Hotel California. Amazing.

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