The Crypt, Haverford College 1965 Photograph by Theodore B. Hetzel
Recently, I hear and read that today’s teenagers don’t date or have sex. This explains a certain smugness in middle-aged parents. I imagine conversations such as:
“So where are you going tonight?”
“Device and I will be in the living room. And then we’re going to bed.”
“In your room?”
“I just thought Device could stay downstairs…”
As a teenager in the mid-20th century, my love life was similar to those of today (minus Device, of course). Except that it wasn’t by choice.
My high school goal was a boyfriend. Not good grades. Not college. Not the hockey team. Boyfriend.
I went to a girls’ school in the Philadelphia suburbs and didn’t know many boys but that’s an excuse. In my class of 95 girls, there were at least 4 who had actually been on a date.
My luck turned in October senior year: I met Dennis Carson at a mixer and he asked me on a date. Then another. I was delirious. (FYI Millennials: a mixer is a dance. Not kitchen equipment.)
Why did Dennis ask me out? Because he was new to the game too. When we met, he was a 17-year-old Haverford College junior, having entered at age 15. He had attended Stuyvesant high school in New York City where he must have graduated in about 10 minutes.
We were both the same age and hadn’t been on a date. My house was about a 20-minute walk from the campus and Dennis picked me up. When he delivered me home, my father sprang to open the front door, saying, “Come on in, Dennis. Mary! Go make some popcorn.” Needless to say, the goodnight kiss was abbreviated.
In achieving my life’s goal (boyfriend), I had no idea that a profound experience awaited: jazz.
In the 1960s, incredible folk, jazz and blues musicians travelled the country playing on college campuses. Haverford, a men’s Quaker college, is where I first heard Take Five performed by Dave Brubeck and his quartet and Odetta’s Oh Freedom.
I danced with Odetta. After her Haverford concert, we went to a party, probably at the Crypt, a campus student café. She was there! Dancing! I jumped in.
In 1964, a coffeehouse, The Main Point, opened on Lancaster Avenue in Bryn Mawr, Haverford’s neighboring town. It was a packed space with good coffee and low prices. The musicians and later, comedians who performed at the Main Point is impressive. Charming and small, it closed in 1981 after years of financial struggles.
Dennis took me to hear Dave Van Ronk and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. I had never heard of cocaine but I loved Dave’s song about it.
The Main Point
At that time, my musical education was confined to the piano which I took pretty seriously. My teacher, Horace Alwyne, an elderly Brit, was a professor of music at Bryn Mawr College and near retirement. I was his only high school student and he called me Impy. He had two grand pianos side by side in his studio and we’d play together (mostly Bach). As we roared along, he would suddenly say, “Stop, Impy! This reminds me of the time…” and he’d reminisce about seeing Lipizzaner horses doing dressage or other curious stories. I loved Mr. Alwyne.
But I began to love folk music. In an act of rebellion, I purchased a 6-string guitar for $30. My mother was aghast. “You have the piano!” (By the way, this opinion remained unchanged. When I divorced at age 47, she said, “Well, at least you can get back to the piano.”)
Singing and listening to folk music was so compelling that Bach was nearly shelved. In my room, I crooned and bellowed anything by Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Odetta and Mary Travers.
Then Dennis introduced me to jazz. He had a big record collection. I had never seen or heard anything like it.
To play the piano like Thelonius Monk or Bill Evans (Waltz for Debby was my favorite) was fantastic. To play by ear, improvise, simply produce the sounds and rhythms of jazz was nothing like playing classical music. It was a different language. A different country. Some of Thelonius Monk’s compositions were so complex only he could play them.
Entranced by jazz pianists, I began to focus on the saxophone, listening to Paul Desmond, Dexter Gordon, Gerry Mulligan, and John Coltrane.
Coltrane was difficult to appreciate. Dennis explained that Coltrane broke the 32 bar rule. He played until it seemed right to stop. I listened harder.
During Christmas break, I visited New York City, staying with a family friend. Dennis (at his parents’ apartment) invited me to hear Roland Kirk in the Village. Kirk played two saxophones at once and held a baby at the same time! Happy New Year we shouted.
It was 1965.
The New Year brought an end to dates with Dennis. Perhaps the realization that he could date a girl whose father wasn’t around and didn’t require two 40-minute round trip hikes did it. I was heartbroken but I could say I had a boyfriend. Past tense boyfriend but goal achieved nevertheless.
The introduction to jazz made me open to new music. The timing was right: the mid-‘60s launched a prolific music era. Anti-war songs, the Beatles, psychedelia, the Bossa Nova. Even the Missa Luba (a Latin mass sung by a Congolese choir). Music was everywhere.
Still, if I hear Waltz for Debby, I’m transported back to October 1964.
My romance was short-lived. My love of jazz endures and I am grateful.