Arnett Howard Finds Gold In His Basement
Pianist Stomp Gordon's Scrapbook
By Arnett Howard
December 11, 1997
The world has its stories of discovered treasures, the collector who finds a rare master painting beneath the ruins of another. Discoveries have been made in libraries of rare signed first editions that become worth millions overnight.
My discovery is not going to make for my retirement but will be exciting to a handful of friends in a close circle of Columbus jazz lovers. In my basement today, December 11,1997, I discovered the scrapbook of a legendary pianist, Archie "Stomp" Gordon.
In the 1980's, I have vague memories of a woman coming to my apartment in German Village, telling me that she had retrieved a very tattered scrapbook from the trash and asking me if I wanted it. I looked at a page or two of this very ragged book, closed it and told the person that I didn't think the book had much value because of its condition, yellowed news print and torn, water-stained pages. I think I gave her fifty dollars, not for the book but for cab fare home since the disabled woman with a small son didn't drive.
The book was put into a box, onto a shelf, moved from an apartment to my new home, replaced on a shelf and forgotten. Today I started hunting for a piece of tee shirt art that I've also moved around for ten years. Hoping to create a 1998 sweatshirt design with the art, I decided to hunt for it in my storage.
I’m about to embark on a research project for the Ohio Historical Society to document the legacy of our state's jazz entertainers. My eyes are open for many of the artifacts that I gathered in the early 1980's as I archived Columbus' Black entertainers and as I opened this box my soul was about to be filled.
When I interviewed "Old Boss", H. Raleigh Randolph, in 1980, he introduced me to some wonderful promo pictures of Archie "Stomp" Gordon (figure 1), a pianist who grew up on Columbus' South side. Old Boss was quite proud of his mentoring friendship with Stomp, a gifted teenager who was leading his band of neighborhood kids on professional bookings, not only in Columbus, but throughout Central Ohio. I remember stories my father shared with me of Stomp playing at my parent's alma mater, Bluefield West Virginia State Teacher's College in the late 1940's.
One saga came from Hall of Fame saxophonist Rusty "Night Train" Bryant, who at age eleven begged Stomp to let him join the band of jazzy rascals. Stomp told Rusty to get a saxophone, learn how to play and he'd let him into the band. Reports have it that Rusty went to a pawn center, got his sax and proceeded to become one of America's best known saxophonists due to his rocking hit "All Night Long."
Rusty remembered a night when Stomp Gordon's teenagers took the interurban train to London, Ohio, to play a dance. After the dance was over, the group went back to the train station, but the last train had departed; so they were forced to bed down on the platform to await the next morning's train.
One Christmas holiday in the early 1980's I met Bruce Woode, bassist with Gordon. I remember riding about the streets of Columbus with him and friends as he was visiting from his home in New Jersey. He was a warm and friendly personality, eager to share with his curious young friend the days in the 1950's when Stomp Gordon was riding the hit parade and playing the best showrooms trying to entertain and integrate America.
Bruce clearly recalled during our evening together a night when the band was tearing up a colored nightclub in New Jersey. The group was known for the wild high-jinks in their act. Stomp would play a high piano standing up and the novelty of his name lie in his ability to kick off his shoes and socks and tickle the ivories with his toes. Bruce would lay his bass violin on the floor and play it. They wore animal skin dinner jackets in their wild show that Jimmy Crum would envy (figure 9).
Bruce remembered a conspicuous group of white teens who were out of place in this club but eating up every trick that Stomp's band was using to entertain. Bruce told me that he was certain that this group of white teenagers became Bill Haley and the Comets and they used all of the gimmicks that they saw that night as they became America's icons of the new rock and roll movement.
Tony Vance was one of my neighbors in German Village and a saxophonist in Stomp's early team of musical adolescents. Some of the Black jazz men referred to Tony's nickname as "No Blow”, but whether he was a questionable talent or not he was on the scene with Gordon and shared slides with me of his photos of the early band. No one onstage looks over fifteen including the leader whose name was hand painted on the music stands.
So I was feeling groggy this morning when I came across the scrapbook, which had not seen light since it came into my possession nearly ten years earlier. Stapled inside the cover was, no doubt, the enlargement that Stomp purchased when his high school senior pictures were developed. The sepia toned color print is of a brown eyed, handsome man in a gray suit with wide lapels, white shirt, patterned tie and white handkerchief in his breast pocket. The edges of the photo are wrecked, cracked from dryness and Stomp has a staple in his forehead. But the photo clearly shows that the young star was probably the best-dressed senior that graduated from Columbus South High School that year, probably 1950.