Archive for November 9th, 2006

9th November
written by Matt The Cat
Jon X Corbin

My friend, Jon Corbin died of cancer on Monday, November 6, 2006 in the evening. I just found out about it today. Even though I only knew Jon for a few short years, he had a profound effect on my life. I feel like I’ve known him a lifetime. We had and I dare say, still do have, a strong bond in music. He was one of a kind. He was my Studs Terkel. He could tell a story better than anyone. He had a memory that would rival a computer. He had done and seen it all.

He was a guest to the Oval Office of every President since Eisenhower. He told me he liked George Bush Sr. the best, because he was a true music fan. Most of the Presidents would whisk him through the Oval Office and move things along, but not George Sr. He was such a music lover that he had special stereo speakers installed into the desk in the Oval Office. He and Jon sat there and bonded over Country music for a couple of hours. How did a black man from Charleston, South Carolina become the guest of ten US Presidents? Jon Corbin was the maitre d at the dinning room of the US House Of Representatives for over 50 years. He knew the inside of Washington like the back of his hand. He knew all the glorious hidden treasures within the Capitol Building and offered to give me a personal guided tour to rooms, murals and sights that the average American would never see. He offered me lunch in the Members Dinning Room. I never took him up on his offer. I offered him a personal tour of the XM studios. We never did arrange it.

I met Jon about 3 years ago, underground, in the depths of the Union Station Metro subway. We took the same train home every night. I would stand on the platform and quietly read my book or magazine, but I immediately noticed this energetic, magnetic old black man who was always the center of attention in his little group. You could tell from a mile away that Jon was the leader of his little subway social circle. The other thing that stood out right away was his wardrobe. Everyday, he’d wear a baseball cap with a matching baseball jacket. One day it would be the Baltimore Orioles, matching hat and jacket. Next day, he’d done the Cleveland Indians. Sometimes, he’d even sport a New York Yankees outfit. In the picture above, you can see that it was Boston Red Sox day within Jon’s attire. I had to take notice, because everyday, he wore a different team. I also noticed that he always got off at my stop. Weird. This old black man had the same nightly commute as I did. I knew it was destiny. We had to meet.

One night, I’m standing on the platform at Union Station and this charismatic man approached me. He came right up to me and said, “Hey man, so you like Ray Charles?” He had spotted me reading the Ray Charles autobiography, “Brotha Ray”. I said, “Oh yeah, I love Ray Charles. He’s the greatest of all time!”. He agreed and we talked and talked about how his Atlantic Records period was his most creative, soulful and best. That’s when he introduced me to his love of jazz. It was jazz that made Jon tick. He’d been collecting jazz records since the 1940s. I came to find out that Jon had a massive collection of immaculately kept records and CDs. He loved all things Basie, Ellington and Goodman. He let me borrow Norman Granz Complete Jazz At The Philharmonic, Benny Goodman’s Carnegie Hall Concert and the original Spirituals to Swing. He loved Erroll Garner’s Concert By The Sea. He knew Charlie Christian and Cannonball Adderley personally. He had an uncle who played with Count Basie, so he collected ANYTHING related to The Count. I mean, he had EVERYTHING! He bought every jazz book that came out. He bought the 8 CD Ray Charles Box Set of his complete Atlantic Recordings, because my name was mentioned in the “Thank yous”. He never opened it. I said, “How can you buy such a great looking box set for over $100 and not open it?” He replied, “Well, if I ever want to listen to any of the music, I’ll just borrow yours!” That’s Jon Corbin.

The details of his life are sketchy to me. He told me the greatest stories, but of course he didn’t let me in on everything. Like his age, for example. He once told me he was 74, but then I heard from someone else that he was 77 or maybe even over 80? He entered the military in the 1940s, but I believe he was out by 1948, when he traveled from his Southern home up to Atlantic City to work as a bus boy at a beach side restaurant. From there, he hit a few other East Coast locations and then settled in Washington, DC. He did a lot of odd jobs around DC before he landed at the US House Of Represntative’s Dinning Room. He told me stories of Washington during the 1950s. Going to see jazz shows at the famed and now historic Howard Theatre and Bohemian Caverns. Segregation. Whites could go see R&B; and Jazz shows at the Howard, but blacks couldn’t go to white theatres. DC was a very Southern town during those times and all the injustices prevailed in OUR Nation’s Capitol.

Jon loved trains. He often told me about how great it was to ride trains back in the 50s and how today’s Amtrak trains are nothing compared with the past. He made a special point to tell me how heavy and classy the silverware was and how good the food used to be. World class chefs used to cook on trains and there was no better way to travel. He also told me of the trolley cars that used to ride up the center of DC’s streets. They removed the cars in the 1960s when public transportation took a hit nationwide. I told him that we still have trolleys up in Boston, but some of our lines were cut out in the ’60s as well.

Jon didn’t play record anymore. He has switched over to CDs. So when he got an itch to hear an old record, he’d bring it to me on the train and ask me to transfer the vinyl to CD for him. I transferred Ray Charles’ “Love Country Style” (ABC 1970) for him and he said that he played it EVERY morning when he got up. His favorite song was “I Keep It Hid” and he played it EVERY DAY! He also loved “Your Love Is So Doggone Good”.

As you can tell, Jon Corbin was a very kind, caring and social guy, but I never saw him outside of Union Station, our Red Line Subway Car, or waiting for his connection bus at my rail stop. We’d ride up the escalator together each night and I’d wait an extra five or ten minutes with him , until his $0.25 connection bus arrived to take him a couple of blocks over. He loved socializing with people, but not outside of work or travel. He kept very much to himself on weekends. I once bumped into him on a Saturday, on the street in our neighborhood. He was happy to see me, but he declined my offer to get a coffee or a drink. That just wasn’t Jon’s style.

Jon walked with a limp and had bad heals. Everyday, he carried a heavy bag full of newspapers on one shoulder. The weight made his body tilt down on the right side. He carried the newspapers everyday, so he could read ’em and if he ever found an article that he thought you’d like, he’d cut it out for you. He always sent articles to his niece. He used to cut out jazz and baseball articles for me. Baseball. He knew as much about baseball as he did about jazz. He could tell you who played third base for the Orioles in 1961, only he only played for a half a year, because he was traded to Cleveland. He still mourned the loss of The Baltimore Colts football team. He told me the heartbreaking story of how the owner moved the team out of Baltimore to Indianapolis in the middle of the night, under the cover of darkness.

About a year ago, Jon left our little late night group for an operation on his foot. They gave him a good examination and found that he had cancer in his shoulder. He called me months later to tell me that they removed a tumor that was the size of a grapefruit. H
is spirits were low, but he wouldn’t let me come see him. He was a very private man. I knew that time was precious and life had turned into a waiting game.

But back to Jon’s heavy bag. He’d struggle with this bag all the time. The thing was heavy. I know, because I checked it out one day. He’d struggle to lift it off the ground and throw it on his shoulder. He would never let me help him with the bag. One day I said to him, “Jon, how come you strain yourself day after day with the heavy bag full of newspapers?”

Jon just looked at me, smiled with a big, wide grin and said something I’ll never forget for as long as I live, “life is hard!” Then he laughed and we went on our way up the escalator.