Monday, May 21, 2012

Carl M. Franklin – Sophisticated Music for All Occasions

In March of 1994, I spent an extremely enjoyable week in New Orleans.  Ostensibly, I was there for some kind of a technical conference hosted by Microsoft, but all I remember of the conference was the nice bag I took home. 

Attending technical conferences was one of the "perks" of being a computer programmer back in the dot com heydays of the 1990s.  The conferences were always held in desirable locales (Orlando, San Diego, San Francisco, etc.) and we usually got to stay in swanky hotels.  This 1994 trip was no exception.  I was booked in an eleventh floor suite of the Hotel Intercontinental, one of New Orleans' finest, just two blocks from the French Quarter.  I spent the entire week exploring downtown New Orleans on foot, from old bookshops to antique stores to hole-in-the-wall mom and pop restaurants (the best food I ate in New Orleans was found in the least pretentious establishments).

As those familiar with that city are aware, there's not much happening during the daylight hours.  So, consistent with the old adage (When in Rome …) I adapted my schedule accordingly.  Well … sort of.  I started sleeping in until about 10 a.m., and commenced my daily explorations at about noon, which meant I only had to wait about ten hours for Bourbon Street to come alive.  In the meantime, I found that if I merely expanded the radius of my reconnaissance by a mile or two, New Orleans became an extraordinary place to explore.

Every place I travel, I explore.  It's in my blood.  Usually, I rent a car and I drive, drive, drive.  I have, on more than one occasion, gotten myself into some scary parts of otherwise safe cities—areas where you stand a better than average chance of being left naked, bloody, and bruised in the trunk of a stripped-down rental car sitting on cinder blocks next to a drunk and a dumpster in a nameless back alley.

At any rate, although I walked through some neighborhoods that, at least on the surface, seemed to portend trouble for a naïve young white Mormon raised "within the shadows of the everlasting hills,"[1] I felt extraordinarily welcomed by the residents of New Orleans, notwithstanding our stark ethnic differences.

This, then, is my lasting memory of New Orleans: its people.  And among those who left an indelible impression on me, none did more so than Carl M. Franklin, whose business card (which I still have and treasure) displays his name, a graphic of a baby grand piano, and the phrase "Sophisticated Music for All Occasions." 

I first saw Mr. Franklin in the lobby of the Hotel Intercontinental, sitting at a black grand piano, playing casual classic jazz tunes as he carried on conversations with passersby, of whom I became one.  A pianist myself (albeit not a very good one), I am always fascinated by the movement of the fingers of someone who really knows how to play that instrument.  And so I took a seat near the piano and silently watched this jazz master work his magic on the keyboard—effortlessly chaining together 9th, 11th, and 13th chords as he improvised on familiar tunes.  After silently observing him for about an hour, he finally turned to me and asked, "Where you from, son?"  I replied that I was from a little town in Utah, just north of Salt Lake City.  Carl had never been to Utah, but somehow he determined that I, with my long hair and full beard, was not a typical resident of that often stereotyped state.

"You don't look like a Mormon."

"What does a Mormon look like?"

"You got me there, son.  I guess what I mean is that you don't fit the stereotype of what I imagine Mormons to look like."

"Well, you don't talk like someone from New Orleans."

We both revealed our weakness for stereotyping in this brief exchange.  Mr. Franklin did not, in fact, speak as did most of the people from New Orleans with whom I had conversed in my few days in the city.  He was a black man in his seventies, dressed in a nice tuxedo, speaking with a nondescript accent, and doing so with a rather pronounced eloquence.  At any rate, so commenced a conversation that continued for the next three or four days—a white 30-something Mormon from Utah and a 70-something black man from New Orleans via Philadelphia.

It was the third day of my stay in New Orleans that things began to get quite interesting.  Mr. Franklin was taking a break from his piano playing when I walked by, so I took the opportunity to sit down next to him and ask if I might play his piano for a few minutes while he rested.  He was initially reluctant—imagining, I'm sure, a clumsy rendition of chopsticks that would embarrass him and the upscale guests of the Intercontinental.  But he relented with the caveat that I play softly and only for a minute or two.  So I sat down at the keyboard, played a few arpeggios to familiarize myself with its touch, and proceeded to improvise on a little bluesy composition I had come up with a few weeks earlier.  As it turned out, Mr. Franklin let me continue for 15 – 20 minutes, and afterwards invited me to sit down next to him to chat a bit.

"You look like a rugged mountain man, but you play with surprising delicacy, son." 

He inquired as to my life story, and I inquired as to his.  He, like I, was a self-taught musician, and had not started playing the piano until he was well into adulthood.  We talked about the "colors" of the various keys in music.[2]  I had already noticed that he, like I, was particularly partial to the keys of Eb, Ab, and Db—what I term the "blue" and "violet" keys, and which make liberal use of the black keys on the piano.

After several minutes of discussing music, the conversation turned to other matters.  Much to my surprise, Mr. Franklin (after learning that I was in New Orleans for a computer programming conference) informed me that he was a retired electrical engineer, and that, as a graduate student, he had been involved with work on the original ENIAC computer.  I confess I was initially quite dubious of his claim.  But as he proceeded to describe the fundamentals of the ENIAC computer, I soon realized that he was, without a doubt, telling me the truth.

Well, during the remainder of my visit to New Orleans, Carl and I enjoyed several hours of enjoyable and memorable conversations—but none so memorable as the last one.

As I recall, it was Friday evening.  I was to return home the following morning.  Carl had arrived at the Intercontinental at his usual time—about 6:00 p.m.  Dressed in his impeccable tuxedo, he took his place at the piano and played throughout the evening.  At about 9:00 p.m. I returned from having dinner, and took a seat as near the piano as I could.  Carl finished his set and joined me in the lounge, where a middle-aged local white couple was also sitting, enjoying the music and some cocktails.  This local couple was finely dressed, and was apparently somewhat familiar with Mr. Franklin.  The four of us commenced a pleasant conversation, which eventually turned to politics.  They proudly described themselves as "Yellow Dog Democrats" and proceeded to establish their liberal bona fides by arguing in favor of reparations for American slavery.  I think they imagined that, in so doing, they would ingratiate themselves to Dr. Franklin.  But, as it turned out, they could not have been more mistaken.

Carl M. Franklin, PhD, my new friend from New Orleans, listened patiently to the patronizing arguments of his Yellow Dog Democrat friends, then breathed a sigh and commenced to deliver one of the most impressive and impassioned speeches I have heard in my entire life.  His words were eloquent, articulate, and profoundly earnest.  I recount them to the best of my recollection:

"My grandfather was born a slave.  His fathers, going back five generations, had been slaves, brought to America from Africa in the late 18th century.  My grandfather moved to the north after the Civil War and struggled to make a living.  My father struggled, too.  He left my mother and his children when I was very young, and I never saw him again.  My mother struggled to raise us, but she never let us feel sorry for ourselves.  She insisted that we go to church.  She insisted that we go to school.  I was the first in my family to go to college.  I worked multiple jobs all through college until I achieved my doctorate.  It wasn't easy.  I was subjected to lots of prejudice.  When I was in college, there were many students and professors who, quite sincerely, did not believe blacks could even do basic mathematics, let alone electrical engineering.  But I stuck with it, and notwithstanding the discrimination I encountered from time to time, I overcame all the obstacles in my path and eventually got to where I am today, in an America that has, to a great extent, moved past the racism I faced when I was younger.  Now I am an old man.  I have lived a rewarding and satisfying life.  I have enjoyed the love of a great woman for almost fifty years.  Our children are educated and prosperous."

And then his voice softened in volume and intensified in tone as he looked straight at his "Yellow Dog Democrat" acquaintances who were, moments before, advocating that he be rewarded for the suffering of his ancestors in slavery.

"I thank God Almighty that he saw fit to snatch my forefathers from the darkness of their lives in Africa and plant them here in this land where, after not many generations, the majority of them are finally breaking free from the bondage of ignorance and dependence.  Yes, slavery is inherently evil.  Many suffered, not the least the slave traders and slave owners stained by its shame.  But there was a divine purpose in these things, and I refuse to mock God by failing to see His hand in all things.  And, most of all, I refuse to see my children returned to the slavery of dependence on those who condescendingly view themselves as our superiors."

The Yellow Dog Democrats sat silently as Dr. Franklin concluded his impressive oration, then summarily finished their drinks and excused themselves from our company.

I stood and extended my hand to Dr. Franklin, who then stood himself and embraced me warmly.

"You are a great man Dr. Franklin, and I count myself fortunate to have made your acquaintance."

"And I yours."

He reached into his pocket, retrieved his card, and pressed it into my palm with his warm, soft hand.

"Carl M. Franklin – Sophisticated Music for All Occasions." 

It is now in a frame hanging on my wall.  This is the story behind it.

May 21, 2012
Cedar City, Utah

[1] The end of the weekly radio program of The Mormon Tabernacle Choir is always signaled by the narrator intoning, in reference to the majestic Wasatch Mountains, "Again we leave you, from within the shadows of the everlasting hills.  May peace be with you, this day and always."
[2] By "keys", I don't mean the individual notes on the keyboard, but the "keys" described by scales of notes and the arrangement of chords to produce harmony.  Harmonicas, for example, come in various "keys" and you must use one in the key of the song being played in order for it to harmonize with that song.  The "key" of C, for example, includes three "major" chords (C, F, and G) and three "minor" chords (Dm, Em, and Am).