Happy Ralph's Day

My father was the kind of fellow who would drive around Bloomington, Indiana on a hot summer day with his windows rolled up, so that people would think his car was air conditioned. 

My father loved playing poker and drinking with his friends (the only one whose name I remember was Junebug Clark) at the Elks Club, and he planned to give us an Elks membership as a wedding gift until I talked him out of it. 

My father was also a racist. I know that because he once said to me, “I’m not a racist.” That was the opening salvo in what has become the traditional racist conversation.

He began by saying “I hope you never do THAT again.” I knew what THAT mean—he was upset because I had just used the family living room for the very first rehearsal of my very first trio before our very first gig, and...

My bassist, Louis Bridgewater, whom I was lucky to have convinced to play with us beginners, happened to be black. My father explained that he had nothing against “them” as long as they were shining his shoes or washing his car or mowing his lawn, or…well, you get the idea. 

I tuned out as he continued, as was my habit then. He was from a racist time and a racist place, and I was just beginning to figure that out. 

And yet… 

A few years later, I made my first record, again with a trio, and it could be found of every juke box in town. If you were a student at Indiana University that year, you may have thought that “Gnaw Bone” was a giant hit, because, after all, it was on every juke box in town. 

My father owned every juke box in town. I was just figuring out white privilege. 

My father also took me to the funeral of Hoagy Carmichael’s mother, and introduced me to Hoagy, who was his high school friend. I shook Hoagy’s hand. I haven't washed it since. Oh wait, I have.

I won’t judge my father by today’s value system, because it’s all hopefully different now. That was then and this is now, and many eighth notes have rolled out in the intervening years.

But I do wish he was around now, so I could say to him, “Guess what, dad—I’ve been doing THAT for the rest of my life."