We dined and danced to a band unlike any I'd heard before
That strain again! O! it came o'er my ear like the sweet sound that breathes upon a bank of violets. - Shakespeare
I spun an old Artie Shaw 78 record the other day - ''No Regrets.'' Recorded in June 1936. The label reads ''Art Shaw and His New Music.'' Its piquant blend captivates me now as it first did that long-ago summer night on a Gotham dance floor.
Artie Shaw had not become a household word or begun the beguine when I first hit the rails for New York City, traveling coach in those stiff-backed, prickly-green upholstered seats, to get a job on the New York Times.
The man I talked with was very nice, even though he didn't look at my scrapbook, and said there was no opening. But he did send me up to the fashion department. No opening there, either. Back upstate, I wrote a thank you letter to Miss Virginia Pope, the fashion editor. In three weeks she sent for me. There was an opening: food editor, under her aegis, of the Midweek Pictorial, a roto section the Times issued on Wednesdays.
What I knew about food was in inverse ratio to what I knew about Jack Teagarden, Bix Beiderbecke, and the ''Stardust''-''Heartaches''-''Moonglow'' music of a thousand-and-one nights dancing to Casa Loma, Duke Ellington, Ozzie Nelson, Isham Jones, Jimmie Lunceford, Andy Kirk. Jack Teagarden and Bix Beiderbecke had been etched into my psyche by a trombone-playing college pal enraptured, naturally, with the Teagarden trombone, and so tuned in to Bix's cornet that he used to sing Bix choruses to me on the way home from dances.
Did I ask foolish questions like, ''Why me, a food ignoramus, Miss Pope?''
Initiation to food in Midweek Pictorial-Virginia Pope terms involved writing, and rewriting, 100-word stories to accompany sedately appealing photos of berries in season, tropical dishes to revive tired cold plates, and healthful summer lunches for businessmen on the go. As last hired in the fashion department's overcrowded fifth-floor work space, I was sent aloft to near-solitary in the Midweek's sparsely tenanted 12th-floor advertising office - a definite plus in the midsummer heat. On steamier days I easily justified abandoning my desk for sunning on the roof (the door was just a few steps away). Recipe books could be read out there just as well as inside.
After work, in my high-ceilinged one-room sublet in Rhinelander Gardens - the mellow old brick and filigree-ironwork row houses on West 11th Street in Greenwich Village - I shed office clothes, lay down on the faded blue spread on the daybed, and turned on the radio. Gazing out the open French doors toward midtown, where people danced the night away on the polished floors of hotel roofs, I listened to Martin Block and the Make-Believe Ballroom on WNEW. From 5: 30 to 7 he played records of all the top bands - Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Ray Noble, Bob Crosby. It was easy to put off getting something resembling supper.
Budget considerations also entered the eat-or-not-eat question. I was making gold-digging strategies: tapping the home till; accepting invitations in line of food-editor duty in violation of a Pope directive, ''Don't go to lunch with publicity people, we don't want to be obligated to them''; and cadging free dinners, mainly from visiting firemen eager to try Village spots.
The missing ingredient in the free dinners was and dancing. On 1936 either/or entertainment tabs, the and was usually a walk around the fascinating meanders of Village streets or a ride in the open atop a Fifth Avenue bus from Washington Square way up Riverside Drive and back.
Until a call from my trombone-playing pal. ''Dinner and dancing at Hotel Lexington,'' I seemed to hear him say. I remember scrimping for weeks to afford 50-cent lunches at Schrafft's back in Syracuse. How could - ? ''Artie Shaw's there.'' No ifs in the voice. ''We've got to hear him.''
We dined and danced to a band unlike any I'd heard before: a jazz group that included a string quartet - the beat, the easy swing and sing of the horns, of Artie's poignant clarinet, sometimes complemented, sometimes cushioned, by the gentle, satiny sound of the two violins, viola, and cello. It had class.
Miraculously there I was, in on Artie Shaw's jazz band-cum-string quartet debut at the Lexington, without even knowing it. I did know that this music not only had a new sound, it had a new message: Jazz seasoned with a dash of sweet, Shaw-style, retained its tang.
In due course the Times sold the Midweek Pictorial. A school displaced Rhinelander Gardens. Artie Shaw abandoned his string quartet group for a more competitive swing band, but not his instinct for the natural clarinet-strings affinity. String sections have repeatedly sweetened and enriched his bands over the years. Now, after a 29-year intermission, he has fielded a band on the swing-revival scene. ''Art Shaw and His New Music'' again? The old ''No Regrets'' 78 on my turntable clearly signaled that the well-tempered Shaw sound has enduring young charms.