A few days ago, my friend Jordan sent me a clipping in the mail. It was the obituary of Rio Pardo, who died about a year ago.
I don't know why Jordan suddenly decided to send this to me; he had scrawled only one word in the margin: "Memories!"
Ah, memories, indeed.
So I had to email my friend John up in Duluth and ask him to scrounge around in the newspaper archives and see if he could find the column I had written back in 1994, after Jordan and another friend and I went to see Rio Pardo. And he did. And here it is:
TIMES AND CROWD HAVE CHANGED FOR RIO PARDO
Rio Pardo can't get anyone to clap.
He's standing on a chair in the middle of the Blue Note Cafe, his navy blue bow tie askew, wailing on the saxophone.
Behind him, his wife, Mary Goman, keeps the rhythms going on one of those boom-chicka-boom-chicka synthesizers that were so popular in the '70s.
In front of him sit a bunch of buttoned-down white people drinking Sam Adams and cafe au lait, blinking in the strong light, nobody smoking and everybody lined up in polite rows.
Rio Pardo looks down from his chair.
"This is not a prayer meeting, folks," he says.
And we all smile, embarrassed.
In the old days, Rio Pardo had a giddy and enthusiastic following. Fresh from gigs at Harlem's Apollo Theater with Count Basie, Dinah Washington, and Cab Calloway, he found his way to Duluth, where his trumpet and saxophone became legendary.
At the old Tin Pan Alley on London Road, "It was just fabulous," he said. "I'd have a band, and as many as four or five dancing girls, or comedians, anybody that we could make a big show out of."
At the Blue Note, he has Mary on the synthesizer.
And though some of the audience here remember the old days, quite a few others are baffled-looking college students who appear to have just stopped in for a decaff espresso, not expecting to encounter a legend of jazz.
A young guy in a beige baseball cap--a guy who looks intimidated simply by the amount of foam on his cappuccino--is staring, open-mouthed, at Rio Pardo as he sings.
The guy looks the way he might look in algebra class--like he's just not quite seeing what everybody else sees, but he's trying hard.
When other people finally loosen up enough to sway and clap, this guy neither claps nor sways.
In the old days, when the mood was right and the crowd was spirited, Rio Pardo liked to break into "When the Saints Go Marching In." He'd jump down from the stage and lead everybody out the bar and up the street.
A couple of times, he led 50 or more people through the Norshor Theater, snaking up and down the aisles, interrupting the movies, and once he led a line across the set of the 10 p.m. news, everybody clapping and singing and the news anchor silent and mystified, his broadcast schedule blown to hell.
These are not the old days. Still, Rio Pardo is doing his best.
He's raunchy. He tells risque jokes and bawdy limericks. He wails on the saxophone--music so haunting and melancholy tears spring to my eyes. He teases the crowd: "I never heard anyone look so clean and laugh so dirty!"
And we chuckle, unsure if that's a compliment or an insult.
He sings "Georgia on my Mind" in a sweet, sad falsetto, and then he launches into some goofy piece where he makes the trumpet quack like a duck.
Finally, Rio figures it's time, right? He's been giving his all for two hours, we've been slamming the cappuccinos like there's no tomorrow.
So he does it. He launches into "The Saints."
"I'm goin' outside!" he says. "Follow if you like!"
And he sways on out of the Blue Note and down the hallway past the Duluth Pack Store.
There is furious whispering at my table: "Let's go!" "What?" "Come on!" "Where'd he go?" and finally the three of us dash out behind him, and so do two other people from another table.
But the other 27 or 30 people in the Blue Note stay glued to their seats, baffled, their hands wrapped around their cappuccino mugs.
We run out onto the icy sidewalk under the bright stars, no jackets, seven degrees below zero, and try lapping in rhythm, the five of us, to Rio Pardo's trumpet.
He plays a few more bars and then looks around, laughs, shakes his head, and leads us all back inside.
Except for Mary, who is quietly keeping the boom-chicka-boom-chicka going on the synthesizer, the cafe is silent.
We feel conspicuous as we re-enter, and we slip into our chairs, abashed. Rio hops back up on the stage. He looks at all of us. And then he laughs like crazy.
"Some nights it can be that way," he says later. "Some nights you can't do anything to get a crowd going."
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