Friday, January 8, 2010

A Wall Comes Tumbling Down...A Story about my Paternal Grandfather

I'm taking a break from my promotional blogs to talk about my paternal Grandfather - Jackie Souders.

I feel a little hesitant writing this blog. This is an incredibly personal topic for me and is full of emotions not many people know about. I don't know where to begin and I don't know where to go with this. But after some reflection going on today, and by suggestion of a few friends, here I am starting and stopping, typing and backspacing - trying to put into words some thoughts about a man I never had the opportunity to meet.

A little backstory on how this blog came to be. Today, January 8th, would have been Elvis Presley's birthday. A friend posted a clip of the closing scene of the Elvis movie "It Happened at the World's Fair" on her Facebook page. Well that clip of Elvis and his leading lady singing the song "Happy Ending" features a marching band following behind. That band was my Grandfather's. You can watch him marching so cheerfully alongside his band through the clip. I shared that same clip on my Facebook page and the comments started coming in. It made me pull out a scrapbook that I have, made by my paternal Grandmother for my Grandfather in the 1940s full of newspaper clippings, telegrams, show programs, and more all about Jackie Souders and his orchestra. Then I pulled out an envelope my Father mailed to me a few years ago - information he received from a cousin about Jackie.

Now a little backstory on my relationship with this man I never knew. I don't have a close relationship with my father. He and my mom divorced when I was 5 months old. I remember a few brief visits from him when I was a child, otherwise all of my interaction with him was via birthday and Christmas cards and possibly the occasional phone call. The most contact I ever had with him was when he was married to his 4th wife Dianne. To this day, I am closer to Dianne than I am to my own Father. She was my friend and I adored her. When they divorced, she kept in touch with me, he didn't. But that was nothing new so it didn't affect me. When I was 18 I went through a deep and serious resentment of my Father. He was never there for me. He hadn't been there for any event in my life, and after graduating high school and only getting a card and some flowers from him, I felt angry. That anger grew at age 22 when I got married and, again, he wasn't there. There is so much more to that story that I'm just not going to get into here. This is supposed to be about my Grandfather, and like I said, it could be a very emotional thing for me to write.

Before I get too far off track, let me get back to my Grandfather. I adored my paternal Grandmother growing up, she was around much more than my father and she was just a sweet & wonderful woman. But even with her in my life, I never knew much about my Grandfather. One thing I did know was that he was a very respected band leader throughout the entire West Coast - from Vancouver, BC to Southern California and all around the Northwest. I also knew he was in an Elvis movie - a little trivia fact that goes a long way with Elvis fans! ; ) Another thing I knew was from a book about Bing Crosby that my mom had - my Grandfather had given him one of his first breaks in show business. Bing Crosby - this man, who even as a child I loved watching in movies and listening to sing! And my Grandfather knew him! I knew his birthday was the day before my beloved maternal Grandfather - the true father figure in my life. Something else I learned over time was who one of his dear friends was. Phil Harris - the voice of Baloo the Bear in the original animated version of "The Jungle Book". Phil was even my Father's Godfather. But that's all I knew. I didn't know about my heritage, his life, his death - nothing real personal.

By going through the things my Father sent me I've learned that I am German decent from that side of the family. I read an article written about him after his untimely death that during the "anti-Kraut" sentiment of the 30s and 40s in the US, the family (all but my Great-Great-Grandfather) changed the pronunciation of the family name Souders from the German form (pronounced Sow-ders) to the French form (pronounced Soo-ders).
I also learned that his family had a tragic past. His mother, my Great-Grandmother, passed away at the age 43 of Cancer. He had a sister that died when her plane ran out of gas and crashed into Haystack Rock near Cannon Beach, Oregon (an interesting fact given how much I love the Oregon coast and hope to move there someday). And he had a brother who died while trying to rescue his girlfriend by drowning in Lake Washington. And what fate would come to my Grandfather? The day after his 64th birthday he apparently suffered a heart attack while clearing out a small brush fire and fell face first into the burning brush. Not a pleasant thought, but reality all the same.
He served as the President of Local 76, Seattle Musicians Association, was nicknamed "Mr. Music", won many "best band" contests, was considered one of the groundbreaking individuals of the Seattle jazz music scene, and even served in the Navy - enlisting after Pearl Harbor was attacked. He worked as a metalsmith until he was able to get moved to entertaining. After the war, he enlisted in the Army Reserve and led the 91st Division Band as a warrant officer.
His involvement in music began in high school when he started playing trombone and fell in love with jazz music. He left school 1 credit shy of graduating but began playing the trombone professionally at 17 in different clubs around Seattle. He was still a teen when he first started forming his own orchestras. At 21 years old he formed "Jackie Souders and his Collegians" and it went on from there. Members of the Seattle Symphony moonlighted to play with him. Other big band musicians got their start with him.

I was in 8th grade the first time I realized that other people - outside of my family - knew who Jackie Souders was. On the first day of school, my English teacher was doing roll call. He got to me and he pronounced my last name correctly. NO ONE in the history of my schooling had ever gotten my last name right. He stopped and said to me "You wouldn't happen to be related to Jackie Souders, would you?" I was dumbfounded. I told him he was my Grandfather. My teacher explained to me that he also was a dj on an radio program that played local music and The Jackie Souders Orchestra was one of his favorite bands to play. From that day on, if we had a new student in class, I was introduced as the "local celebrity". Then in 1987, the 25th anniversary of the Seattle World's Fair, there was plenty of news coverage of it and during one interview with a woman who was a regular attendee of the fair said she would always go down to watch Jackie Souders and his Orchestra. That really began my need for information about him - but my Father never was one to share.

When the EMP (Experience Music Project) opened in Seattle, I emailed one of the organizers to see if they would be featuring jazz and big band music and if Jackie Souders would be a part of the exhibit. I received an email saying they would eventually be adding memorabilia from that time, including my Grandfather and if I had anything I'd like to add, they would love to talk to me about it. In excitement I emailed my father. The response I got was less than stellar. He seemed very unimpressed and said he might have an old uniform around somewhere, but he had gotten rid of most of the things he had from his playing days (he also played trombone and piano). I don't know if and when they ever did an exhibit. I'm hoping that they made a permanent exhibit to that era in Seattle music history. I'll have to go check next time we are in Seattle.

This is really long and I've shared a lot, so I think will try to end this now. Even though I have learned a lot about my Grandfather, there is still so much I don't know and probably never will. I may never look back on my father with great fondness, but I will always cherish this piece of my history and the legacy it has left for me and my son. No matter what, I will always be Jackie Souders' granddaughter. He didn't know me, I didn't know him, but we'll always be family.
I'm having as much trouble ending this as I did starting this. Was this therapeutic to write? I'm not sure. I did enjoy reading all of the newspaper clippings and notes. Jackie was a happy man who loved music. It was in his blood. Maybe that's where I get it from - music is such a huge part of my life, it's part of who I am. So even though we never met, and even though I never had that influence from my Father, I still feel like I did inherit something - something, that to me, is much more important than the relationship, or lack thereof, with that side of my family - I have music in my blood, and my son seems to as well. That makes me happy.

1 comment:

Hinterland Harmony said...

WOnderful history! I truly enjoyed it, and was sorry it was so short. I hope you continue to research an maybe add to it here and there. Fantabulous job Stacy!