I heard last week that my friend Lynn Westergaard died, at his home in Atlanta. He was 71. He hadn’t lived in Knoxville in 40 years, and his obituary didn’t appear in the daily, but he was once well-known here.
Westergaard was a thoughtful, unassuming, soft-spoken fellow, especially for a radio man. He was a disk jockey, in the early 1960s, for WNOX. His dad, R.B. “Dick” Westergaard, had been station manager during the station’s country-music heyday, from 1936 on; the elder Westergaard, who was originally from Iowa, first hired fellow Midwesterner Lowell Blanchard, as the country-music DJ and MC of the something they’d concocted called the Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round. During the leadership of these two Yankees, WNOX achieved its fame as an incubator of some of the finest Southern music, launching the careers of Chet Atkins, Homer and Jethro, and many others. Westergaard’s success earned him some national status, as vice-president of Scripps-Howard Radio.
But his son Lynn, who grew up in Knoxville, mostly on Lake Avenue near UT, turned out to be much more interested in jazz. In the early ’60s, the era of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, it was hard not to be.
Though major jazz stars occasionally played in town, in clubs like Gordon’s Townhouse on Cumberland, near his house, or the Gem Theatre on Vine, Knoxville had few connections to mainstream, nationally popular jazz.
But the city did turn out to have one pretty good connection. In early 1961, Lynn Westergaard learned something astonishing through the local-music grapevine.
Georgia-born singer Ida Cox was a jazz legend of the 1920s and ’30s, who’d recorded with Fletcher Henderson and Charlie Christian and at the height of her career performed at Carnegie Hall. By 1961, she hadn’t performed in public in at least 15 years; some presumed her to be dead. It turned out she was living quietly in East Knoxville.
The buxom, famously bawdy singer was different from some of her contemporaries like Bessie Smith in that she wrote many of her own songs. Several were famous, including “Sixty Minute Man” and “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues.” She had vanished from the jazz world sometime during World War II, and here she was, age unknown, living quietly with her daughter on Louise Avenue in East Knoxville, singing only in the capacity of her membership in the choir of the Patton Street Church of God.
Westergaard, a pianist himself, interviewed her at her house and made some demo tapes. Whether Westergaard or jazz impresario John Hammond learned about her first is a subject people argue about. Westergaard says she never mentioned being recorded before he made his tapes; he had the impression that he talked her into making her last record, but other people claim that honor as well.
In any case, she did agree to make one more record, which would be called Blues for Rampart Street.
Westergaard went with her to New York, and was agog to meet several jazz titans: Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, Milt Hinton, and Jo Jones, all of whom accompanied Cox on the recording. Westergaard stood quietly while his heroes drank gin and made fun of each other. He met John Hammond and had dinner with Ida Cox’s stepdaughter and pianist Errol Garner, and cherished a photograph of them grinning together like they were old pals.
Ida Cox returned to Knoxville and disappeared again. She and Westergaard stayed in touch; she always asked about his kids. Though he never had a formal agreement to represent Cox as her agent, he wrote letters on her behalf on her behalf when he suspected she hadn’t been paid the full $500 that Riverside Records had promised her. He never found out whether it did any good. Cox, a stroke victim, tended to get mixed up about financial matters, and couldn’t always remember when she’d been paid.
Westergaard visited her just before she died of cancer at Baptist Hospital in 1967. He moved to Atlanta, where he raised a family and worked in public transportation, and eventually founded a non-profit called Resource Service Ministries, to help low-income Atlantans with utilities.
In 2000, I interviewed Lynn Westergaard at length about the story. He was generous with some priceless materials he loaned me, including letters, tapes of his early interviews with Cox and his photos of the recording session. Learning about the unlikely comeback, the elderly black legend and the young white kid who befriended her, was one of my favorite favorite reporting experiences for Metro Pulse.
As I mentioned in a previous column, Ida Cox’s Louise Avenue home was torn down earlier this year to make way for a vacant lot. But her rendition of her song, “Four Day Creep,” is available through a couple of different sources on Youtube. “I’m a big fat mama, meat shaking off my bones,” she sings, frankly. “And every time I shake, some skinny gal loses her home.” (The same song, with altered lyrics, was later recorded by others, including Humble Pie.)
In the video, Ida Cox is about 50 or 55, wearing a flowered blouse that’s holding up admirably under the circumstances. Cox seems robust, confident, playful; she’s having a good time. According to a YouTube installment called “Ladies Sing the Blues, Part 4,” the bearded piano player who accompanies her in the film is her sometimes collaborator and sometime husband, Jesse Crump. The film appears to date from around 1945, just before the stroke that ended the first part of her career, and just before her move to Knoxville.
Lynn lived long enough to see his favorite blues singer get new exposure to a new medium and a new generation; when I last heard from him, a few months ago, he was pretty tickled to hear about that.