From Steve O’Connor: I met John Lavin while attending University College Dublin in 1979-80. We’ve stayed in touch since then. Recently, he began to send me sections of an epistolary work in progress. I was bowled over by the beauty and sincerity of the writing. John’s from an Irish family that emigrated to Philadelphia. His father, a jazz trombonist, who played with the Jan Savitt Orchestra (one of the first racially integrated groups in the nation) exposed John to musicians from a diverse array of cultures, especially skilled African American vocalists and composers. In this “Letter to Bon Bon,” Lavin speaks across decades to share the memory of George “Bon Bon” Tunnell, one of the first African American singers to front a white orchestra.
My Story: A Letter to Bon Bon
By John Lavin
Dear Bon Bon:
I hope that’s OK, –to call you “Bon Bon.” I met you in 1974, the year just before you passed. You had invited my dad to visit, and he brought me along. I was 19. All I knew was that you were the crooner whose silken voice fronted the Jan Savitt Orchestra in the 1930s when my dad was a trombone player with the band.
Big handshakes when we arrived. I think you had been ill, and you were staying in Philly with your sister or an aunt. Trying to seem grown, I said, “Bon Bon, it’s great to meet you.” But my dad cut me down, saying, “That’s Mr. Tunnell, to you, boy. Who do you think you are?” So, I corrected myself, “Sorry, Mr. Tunnell.” And you smiled and said,
“Don’t pay that old goat no mind.” And then you candidly asked my dad, “Jack, does he play?” And my dad said, “He’s terrible.”
The room had an audience of three or four of your cousins and a blind lady from the neighborhood. There was also a delicate young woman about my age, a niece. My dad was being very courteous and fun with everybody, except me, of course. He usually reserved his jovial laugh, and decorous, joking manner for people whom he wished to impress. I was easily embarrassed in those days, particularly in “company” with my father. The reason was that my dad’s way of dealing with me was to attack when he sensed my weakness. The worst was when we were with other people.
So then, my father dressed me down again with a rebuke,
“Kid, when are you gonna get a lip?”
Shaking his head, he lamented loudly that I never practiced.
But, Bon Bon, you put your arm around me, and whispered in a tone that the whole room could hear,
“Young fella, your old man ain’t never gonna change. He’s just wound up too tight. I would love to hear you playing or even leading a band somewhere, someday. I know you will.”
You were speaking like you could look into my future. Then, you quipped,
“You gotta have a sweet-lookin’ trumpet or a trombone, right?”
I nodded. That was a lie.
And you included my dad in the musing,
“Jack, we gonna buy this kid a valve-trombone like that silver-plated horn we bought for you. Remember that, Jack? I told Mr. Savitt to get that one for you! You always made it sing.”
Bob Bon! The airy way you intoned your words was a melody. Your speaking voice rose and fell like a brass choir. Your phrasing, your pauses weren’t just talk, your way of speaking was like Coltrane and Miles trading licks at a jam session. While speaking, you walked me across the room and introduced me to your niece, and she greeted me with this kind, innocent, bashful, welcoming single syllable and accompanying gesture, “Hi.” She raised her hand faintly and tapped the air twice delicately. I melted.
You prompted me,
“Well, is it trombone or trumpet? I know Tommy Dorsey here would never let you play the sax.”
My dad rebutted, “Don’t mix me up with that scoundrel, Dorsey!”
For my part, I was way off key at this point and, trying to sound mature and to join in the banter, I overstated my cause,
“I play both! I play trombone and trumpet. Man, I’m bad.”
You saved me, halting and gazing at my old man, warning him,
“Look out, Jack. He’s coming’ for you.”
My dad just shook his head.
We were in the nice room at the front of your folks’ house where visitors came. When my mom and dad had been together, we had had a room like that. Drinks appeared. There was a lot of laughing. Once I started to feel the beer, I was OK. That’s how I met you. You were more than generous. You were a magnanimous presence.
Well, the story continues. My dad and I left your family high and late that pallid summer afternoon. It was the seventies in Philly. The car radio played Temple University’s Jazz Station low, and against a background of static another friend of my dad, Hank Mobley, was wafting a Brazilian-styled Bossa melody from the car’s speakers. We were somewhere in Southwest Philadelphia. As we drove away, we were euphoric on so many memories you and my father shared. Skying on that feeling of friendship, –free associating like a long piano solo. We were inebriated by the luxury of having been together partying with good people. For the moment, I was drunk. And so I felt almost safe. Dad was telling me stories about you guys. I knew that you were the star of Philly’s Jan Savitt Orchestra. As my father wheeled his rusting Cadillac homeward, he told me that you were Catholic and that, while playing a gig in Pittsburgh where the band had to stay in a hotel, he met you early one Sunday morning walking to mass at a nearby Catholic church. He reminisced over the steering wheel,
“It was a big band. Fifty people or more on the road. But that singled Bon Bon and me out. We were the only two practicing Catholics. After that, we prayed together when the band was on the road on weekends.”
It wasn’t just the whiskey talking, it was affection. From my dad, that was different. His voice went falsetto high and even broke a couple of times. He said you had “credibility” with Jan Savitt and that the bandleader followed your advice about musical arrangements, style and orchestra personnel. After you and my dad had gone to church together, you must have commended his trombone playing to Savitt. So, the conductor began calling him up during performances from the back of the bandstand to the mike. Once up front, my dad said that he would crochet vamps and runs on the trombone behind “Bon Bon’s magical manner of lyricizing.” His horn had to echo your singing. The trombone had to blend, dipping in and out of your trademark sound. My dad concluded, “That was a great opportunity. Bon Bon opened the door for me.”
So, after leaving hotels in Reading and Scranton, Pennsylvania and Atlantic City and Cape May, New Jersey to seek out Sunday morning masses, doors started opening for my dad. I guess no matter how much hell you guys were raising through Saturday nights, you both went regularly together to communion the next morning. You had a bond. I learned that you knew lots of people in Pittsburgh, too. Through you, my dad met Art Blakey, Sonny Stitt and Ahmad Jamal all playing in the Hill District. “Bon Bon brought me to the party,” my dad remembered.
That suave evening on the way home, I also learned that Jan Savitt was real committed to launching an integrated orchestra back in the 1930s. As if teaching, my dad historicized, “Savitt was Jewish and he had seen too much hate. He wanted music to be a language that everybody could hear and speak and understand.” I was young, but I got that.
My dad remembered that, in some bands, white players were paid higher, belonged to separate musicians’ unions than black players and,
“There were places we played where we had to enter through separate doors because the owners were racist idiots. It was humiliating to everybody. You see. You’ve got a friend who is including you in his life. You’ve got a friend who’s sharing his family and connections with you. You’ve got a friend who is taking care of you. Then, you see him being excluded from the money and the respect he deserves, and there’s nothing you can do about it. His family and friends always made space for me, –always were good to others. I was never cut out. No matter how hard he worked, Bon Bon was exploited, disrespected and insulted. He always showed courage. He always showed humanity.”
The way home, punctuated by neighborhoods and stop lights and crosstown expressways, went quiet. Finally, my dad asked me,
“So, what do you think?”
Feeling unprepared, I said,
“I don’t know,”
Then, he reprimanded,
“Well you’d better figure it the hell out, kid. You’d better figure things out or you’re going be stuck out in the cold.”
We were back to being bitter. My dad by invective. Me by clenched silences. The stress of being with my dad made me sweat so much that I felt feverish. The hot summer evening suddenly seemed cold. So much had happened, I couldn’t make sense of the currents sweeping through my shaking body. I got out of the car finally and my dad didn’t say “Bye,” he just said, “Figure it out!”
That was over half-a-century ago, but since that time whenever I wanted to cheer my father up, I would mention your name. Especially at the end of his fight with cancer. As he’d lay listless in the aftermath of treatments, all I had to do was mention you if I wanted to see him pause and smile.
Bon Bon! However briefly, you brought me and my dad together. You made us whole. Yes. Your voice called friends and families and lovers to life’s weird party. Then, you sang, and those people felt the love. Audiences that came to hear you saw Black people and Jewish people and Irish Catholics and Protestants and Muslims all performing together back in the 1930s. You were a healer.
My dad was cruel, and I’ve had to deal with that. But he did love you. And the best gift he gave to me was the way he adored jazz musicians for their talents and their friendship.
He told me,
“You can learn to love Jazz. It’s African music. It’s beautiful. Jazz is like being part of a big family. Ella and Dizzy and the Duke and the Count. They’re all connected. But you can never know what Black people in this country experience. You can never know the bigotry they have to face. You can’t know that from the inside.”
I got that as a kid. The only time I had ever seen the old man cry was near dinnertime on the day in July 1971 when Louis Armstrong died. I was just home from my job at a shoe factory in Norristown and was nursing a beer on my dad’s couch when the evening news suddenly reported that the Great Satchmo had passed. His face went wet with tears. “That man never played a bad note,” was all he could say, over and over, like a mantra.
Bon Bon! What I learned was that music –even the crooked notes like what I played on my student model trumpet at weddings and dances and other weekend gigs– still had power over people.
So, no matter how angry I felt about my dad’s abuses to my mom or his bitter way with me, I have to thank you for caring. Even for that skinny, frightened teenager I was. You made me want to play bell tones and to share my sound. I wanted to soar on that silver valve-trombone that you and Jan Savitt bought for my dad. That was a goal, right? Well, even though my learning curve has been a spiritual mudslide, I feel your charm in moments of reverie like today writing this letter. I listen to you croon “The Masquerade is Over,” and I hear your voice honor love. I learned that, –at least. No matter whatever else has happened.
When the weather breaks, I’m going to be tracking down where you’re buried. I’m quite sure that must be somewhere in Pennsylvania. My dad once said that he would have loved to visit with a wreath from the two of us, –to remember you.
I just want you to know all these years later that your voice is still heard, Mr. Tunnell.