Spence, Ed and cool jazz: Remembering the Music Mart

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 10, 2013

In some of my columns, I have made mention of the old music store on West Innes, frequented in the late 1950s through early ’60s by my father, brother Joe, and me: “The Music Mart.” I have also mentioned its owner, our neighbor, Spence Hatley. We saw Spence both in his home setting and at work, but that special store out on West Innes, originally next to College Barbershop and later relocated to the Ketner Center, was what I always considered to be both the physical and figurative site of Spence’s true “niche” in this life.
Upon entering the doors of The Music Mart, the prospective customer saw the following for sale: pianos, organs, drum sets (worthy of Krupa and Rich), cymbals, guitars, mandolins, violins, clarinets, flutes, oboes, trumpets, cornets, phonographs, records and one of the best inventories of sheet music anywhere. If Spence didn’t happen to have a particular piece of sheet music, an inquiry of Brodt Music Company in Charlotte became necessary, but that was a rare occurrence, as the trip down West Innes was all that was usually required.
One of the store’s floor-model phonographs would always be playing and was also equipped as piece of furniture, being cased in different shades and grains of beautiful wood. No strident or blasting sounds came from those speakers at the Music Mart (while they were still under Spence’s control, before being purchased and taken elsewhere to play “gosh knows what”). There they played only a type of music best described as smooth, relaxed, with a “beat” (but a gentle one), in other words: “cool jazz.”
Instead of being produced by a full-sized orchestra, the music coming from those records was produced by a smaller instrumental group, generally referred to as a “combo.” (This was when the term “combo” referred to something experienced by the ear, not the mouth.)
That musical combo (enjoyed “in house,” but “to go” if you bought the record) was most often made up of a piano (played just a little louder than “piano”), a double bass, soft clarinet or low trumpet, with subtle drum and cymbal, sometimes caressed with a brush. The frequency of our hearing this sort of music in that place, caused my brother Joe and me, upon encountering similar music in any other venue, to exclaim to one another: “The Music Mart!” (and at approximately the same time).
A diminutive man named Ed worked in the back room (shorter than me, even before my own diminutive growth spurt), busily repairing an assortment of band instruments and guitars while always smoking a cigarette. His tobacco pleasure was often paused by his repair work, but the “burning” continued in the ashtray, providing a sort of physics lesson on how long a cigarette’s ash could grow before gravity pulled it away from the resting filter. Ed was always sitting there, working, with myriad instruments stacked up against the wall or lying on the floor, as if patiently and silently (of course, silently) waiting to be repaired.
I often saw Ed gluing the pressure pads back onto a clarinet or flute, or taking apart the valves of a cornet or Sousaphone to effect repair. I frequently smelled the strange odor of burnt cork (actually, burnt cork mixed with cigarette smoke) and will never forget it. Half of that unusual smell was caused by Ed sometimes holding the flame of his cigarette lighter under the cork lining that joins the sections of woodwind instruments together. Such toasting of the cork had a purpose, but I can’t recall the reason as well as I can the smell.
Ed also had a special nickname for me back then, and I will do my best with the aid of phonetics to replicate it as: “Mack-er-reekas-ah-rowkas.” Since my first name, however, is “Jay,” you can call me “Jay,” or you can call me “Mack,” or you can call me “Mack-er-reekas-ah-rowkas!”
At the museum where I work, we have a butterfly garden which many of our visitors describe as conducive to meditation. The sight of butterflies drinking nectar from flowers, or just “fluttering by” can bring a sense of calm to people who are always in a rush (not unlike that “Man in a Hurry” whose car gave out in Mayberry).
Similar respite from the tensions of life could be had by visiting The Music Mart and gazing at the shiny brass of a cornet or trumpet, the “licorice” and silver of a clarinet, the milky “opaqueness” of 88 keys (then ivory, now plastic), or just flipping through books of piano pedagogy and looking at those little white busts of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, etc., so often given back then by piano teachers to their students upon completion of the annual group recital.
There was one thing which Spence’s store lacked, and that was the presence of some over-eager salesperson, knowledgeable only of “sale,” but not of product. Without that frightening “rush to buy,” the customer could relax instead, staying as long as he wanted, listening to that aural “apertif” which The Music Mart always provided, gratis: “cool jazz.”