by Carol Sklenicka
When I met research consultant David Smith, winner of the 2013 Biblio Award, at the BIO reception at the New York Society Library in May, I mentioned that my current biography subject, novelist Alice Adams, frequented the jazz clubs on 52nd Street during and after World War II. Since I live in California, I wondered aloud to Smith how I might get a feel for that era and learn more about jazz players that Adams knew. Smith promised to help – for free. I figured he was speaking out of post-award cocktail party euphoria.
Still, as I packed for a trip to New York earlier this month, I emailed Smith. I mentioned that I’d like to see photos of New York in the 1940s. Next day I received emails of catalog citations from the New York Public Library, where Smith had a long career as a research librarian. Next came an offer to meet me at the 42nd Street library on Monday and an invitation to join him at Birdland to hear David Ostwald’s Louis Armstrong Eternity Band on Wednesday.
Biographers are nothing if not game, so I said yes to both offers. Smith and I plowed through dozens of books in the Milstein Division and folders of photos at the Picture Collection across Fifth Avenue, a wonderful resource I’d never heard about. The next day found me (without David, but equipped with his catalog-search results) at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, accepting more help from librarians Sharon Howard and Maira Liriano and their assistants.
Wednesday night at Birdland, when David Ostwald put down his tuba for a break, he joined Smith and me at our table to say that he’d heard about my research and maybe—just maybe—he’d be able to sneak me into Roosevelt Hospital after the set for a visit with his friend George Avakian, longtime producer of jazz for Columbia Records. Two hours later, I was at Avakian’s bedside hearing his tales of Louis Armstrong, Jimmie Lunceford, and the man who most interested me in with regard to Alice Adams, trombonist Trummy Young.
I had just read liner notes that Avakian wrote for the album Ambassador Satchmo and knew I was in the presence of a major figure in American jazz history. Ostwald helped me keep the conversation flowing with 94-year-old Avakian, who was tired but recovering after a bout of flu. David Smith looked on with fascination: “That was an unforgettable evening! Seeing you interviewing with George Avakian was a real thrill for me,” he wrote me later, taking no credit at all for the encounter he had engineered.
No wonder Smith won the Biblio. He loves to help writers. I urge other biographers to contact him too
Carol Sklenicka, author of Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life, is now completing the biography of Alice Adams, another gifted short story writer.