The Lonesome Road: Chapter Two
Mary Katherine Russell began cutting class to go see jazz bands perform when she was fifteen years old. On a particular Thursday afternoon, she was sitting silently in the upper balcony of the Rialto theater in her native Chicago. On the stage below her, a big band belted out the latest tunes. Sometimes she came to hear the bands with a friend, but most of the time she preferred to listen alone. Mary Katherine, or Kate, as she called herself, always became so concentrated on the sound that it would have been useless to have anyone else along. Up in the balcony, she dreamed of the day when she could learn the music completely and share it with the world. As caught up in the world of jazz as she was, Kate did not feel that she was a very good singer. She possessed a mediocre voice, loud enough but not as pretty or very smooth. However, this did nothing to deter her from her goal. Listening to the bands had given Kate an innate sense of rhythm and style exhibited by few of the pretty voices she heard in the theaters and clubs.
Always bored with school, Kate left by age sixteen, ready to begin her ascent into the jazz world. She barely knew her father, he had left by the time she was seven. Kate's mother worked long hours as a typist, struggling to support herself and her child. She was at least complacent, if not pleased, when Kate announced that she preferred to work instead of finish school. Two weeks after her sixteenth birthday, Kate worked by day as a waitress in one of her neighborhood's larger restaurants. By night she took tickets at the movie palace down the street. It was no surprise that Kate was to work with the public, she was pretty as well as personable. She looked older than sixteen, somewhat tall for her age, curvaceous, with curly coal-black hair and snappy blue eyes. As distinctive as her appearance was her demeanor. At only sixteen years old, she portrayed the image of a much older girl who was well-practiced at acting cool and aloof.
Kate could not believe her luck regarding the theater job; the grand movie houses of the 'twenties and 'thirties were the ultimate getaway for the Depression-weary public. Fan-cooled air, posh lobbies and a two or three-hour break from reality could be had for only a dime. The precursor to this break from reality was often in the form of a live band, sometimes with a singer, before the feature. Except for her afternoons in the balcony, Kate had never been this close to the actual music scene. Even a ticket-taker could have a chance to be noticed by some of the city's enterprising young bandleaders.
It was only her third week of work when Kate's luck began to turn. She was standing behind the counter when the bandleader, a stocky young man with blonde hair, was pacing the floor. From what Kate overheard from his conversation with his pianist, their vocalist had left with only a few hours notice.
Kate looked down at the counter as the young men turned in her direction; she did not want them to know she had been eavesdropping.
"Hey, do I know you?" The bandleader squinted as if he were trying to remember.
"I've seen you at the Rialto, right?"
"I've been there," Kate answered nonchalantly. "Heard some good bands."
The pianist was more direct. "You don't sing, do you? We're in a bit of trouble."
Kate smiled. It was too perfect. "Sure, I sing a little."
"No kidding?" The bandleader rifled through his trumpet case and handed Kate a piece of sheet music. "You know this one?"
Kate sang a few bars, sticking to the melody at first, but deviating into improvisation at the end of the phrase.
"Guess you do," said the bandleader with satisfaction. "We'll be warming up in fifteen minutes."
From that night on, Kate sang with whichever house band was playing before the feature. One warm night during the summer of 1942, a man about thirty years old came into the theater. He was very tall, with very dark hair. He wore a navy three-piece suit, making him appear much more formal than the typical moviegoer. Although he said nothing as he sauntered to his seat, the man carried himself as though he were humble yet important, someone who could change a girl's destiny. His face was like that of a European king from a Renaissance painting, stately, grave and dignified. The house lights were never entirely low during the band's repertoire, so Kate could see the man throughout the performance. His lanky form looked somewhat awkward in a theater chair, sitting with his legs stretched in front of him, carefully watching every aspect of the performance.
He was waiting in the side aisle as Kate left the stage. He smiled as she approached. "Pardon me, miss. Do you have a minute?" His voice was clear, containing music under its tones. It was the sort of voice one could listen to all day.
Kate smiled up at him, nodding. "Sure."
"My name's Francis Barton," He extended his hand to Kate.
"Kate Russell," she introduced herself, shaking his hand. "What brings you to Chicago?"
"That's precisely what I want to speak with you about, Miss Russell."
Kate smiled and laughed a throaty laugh. "Please, call me Kate."
Francis Barton grinned, his eyebrows raising as if he were very pleased with himself. "I'm originally from Louisville, but I followed Benny Goodman out to California a few years ago. I was one of several pianists who played with him in his first West Coast gig. I've stayed there ever since; you wouldn't believe the things they're coming up with. I'm forming a band of my own. I've found nearly all the personnel I need, but when I heard you sing, I realized what we're missing. Would you be interested?"
Kate could not believe her ears. "You want me to come to California and try out?"
"No," Francis replied. "This," he motioned toward the stage, "was more than enough of a tryout. If you'd like to come, you're hired."
In a few days, Kate packed a single suitcase and left for Los Angeles, California. The band divided their time between nightclubs throughout California and outdoor concerts to entertain soldiers on leave from the war. As the months passed and America's obsession with jazz and swing grew, Francis Barton became a well-recognized name, not only in Los Angeles, but among aficionados throughout the country. It was about one year later that a few enterprising men started a new record label and asked Francis Barton and His Orchestra to be the first to sign.
Ever the gentleman, Francis insisted that his men not be involved in such unseemly activities as alcohol or gambling. He wanted to be proud of his band, and hoped to counteract the image of the jazz musician as a loafing addict. Francis believed that jazz was a serious business, an academic discipline, for which one needed to keep one's mind clear.
Kate regarded his restrictions with cool defiance. After giving Francis his first million-seller on the new label, she had transformed into a stubborn, hopelessly aloof young woman. She had become the quintessential hip young jazz singer, and didn't want to be told what she should or should not do. Kate preferred to play as hard as she worked. She developed a friendship with the similar-minded drummer, and the two would surreptitiously leave the hotel for the nearest all-night bar. They would play cards in the back of the tour bus, while the rest of the men quietly read. Despite sleeping only a few hours a night, she never appeared tired or bedraggled, as her youth allowed her to function as if she were invincible.
Kate's relationship with Francis was precarious. Both musicians held one another in a mutual respect for their innovative talents. Although Kate did not subscribe to his philosophies on jazz and genteel conduct, Francis Barton's band had taught her valuable lessons about the craft of jazz. In turn, Kate was a significant part of what had made Francis become famous. Wherever the band played, scores of young fans lined the streets near the auditorium, hoping for a glimpse of Kate Russell. The especially lucky fan got her autograph. On the other hand, Francis knew all about Kate's blas?ttitude, and it troubled him deeply. She was too concerned with being cool and in the spotlight, too different from the rest of the band. He could not stand the thought of asking her to leave, but Francis could not imagine how this current situation could go on.
Fortunately, Francis did not have to resolve the situation. From nearly the beginning, Kate had realized that Francis was as formal as he had appeared that first night at the movie house, and had soon decided that she would be happier elsewhere. "It's like having to dress up every day of the week," she wrote her mother one weekend, "in clothes you can't even move in. I need to be somewhere where I can be free to be myself." Only two years after she had won the attention of the enterprising young bandleader, Kate left Francis Barton's band.
Francis had a feeling that Kate was going to leave when she asked to speak with him alone before they left a hotel in Phoenix, Arizona.
"I'm sure you know what this is about," Kate said as she closed the door behind them.
Francis nodded, listening.
"I've had an offer from a band in Pasadena, and I really want to try it out," she explained, telling only half the truth. Her trombonist friend was moving to Pasadena, with the hopes of forming a band or small combo, but nothing was yet certain. "No hard feelings, just business. You should know that more than anyone." She attempted a sincere smile.
"Can you finish the this tour? We've got one more week," Francis asked.
"Why not?" Kate replied casually. "It should work out."
* * *
As Margaret boarded the plane in Providence, the others had no choice but to go to the next and last stop of their tour in Portland, Maine.
In the car, tension was in the air. Alex tried in vain to make conversation. "I've never been to Maine," she said as Francis drove out of Newport. "Have any of you?"
"Just once," David replied.
Joanna shook her head, clearly occupied with other thoughts. "Can't say that I have."
Alex felt a mixture of sadness and disgust, a letdown to her youthful idealism. Joanna West was usually such a warm, outgoing person. Why was she so remote when it came to Kate Russell? Alex had the utmost of admiration for both Joanna and Kate. No one ever got too close to Kate, but Joanna had always been kind to Alex. Since the moment they had met, Joanna was like an older sister to Alex, providing necessary words of wisdom about life on the road. When Alex decided to start a solo career, Joanna had been as encouraging as her own family.
Alex sighed and stared out at the highway. Suddenly, she couldn't wait for the tour to end.