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George Frazier, 1911-2011

Posted by Mark Feeney  June 8, 2011 05:22 PM

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George Frazier (Esquire Mag) (2).jpgA good newspaper columnist is always a stylist on the page. It takes a very special kind of newspaper columnist to be a stylist everywhere else, too. Make no mistake, George Frazier -- with that elegant white mane of hair, his always impeccable tailoring, and the raised-eyebrow mien of a hip duke -- was a stylist through and through. Who better to have written a monthly Esquire column, as he did in the '50s, called A Sense of Style? Who else ever wrote an account of Opening Day in Latin? This was in 1973, it ran on the front page of the Globe, and the Sox beat the Yankees XV-V.

Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday back in the early '70s, Frazier made opening up the Globe's Living section an event. Then for good measure -- like a whiskey chaser -- he had his Saturday roundup of that week's publications, The Lit'ry Life, which ran on the oped page. Friday is Frazier's centenary. Can it be a hundred years ago that he was born? In an age of Anthony Weiner tweets and Sarah Palin bus tours and Donald Trump all over, a thousand seems more like it.

No one much under 50 is likely to recognize Frazier's byline. But anyone who read the Globe during the early 70s -- really, anyone who lived in Greater Boston then -- will recall him vividly. He was as much a part of the pungency of that time and this place as Kevin White or Louise Day Hicks (whom he invariably referred to as "Herself"), or Judge Garrity. Its up to me to point out who the bastards really are in this life," he liked to say.

For years, Frazier had been "upsetting breakfast tables all over town" (in his friend and protege Nat Hentoff's admiring phrase), starting at The Boston Herald, in 1942, when that paper was a Brahmin broadsheet, writing the first daily newspaper jazz column. But those final few years before his death, in 1974, were Frazier's apotheosis. A Boston institution (this despite the fact he spent much of his time on the Upper East Side and Nantucket), he might turn up one night as a guest on "The Dick Cavett Show" and the next day be seen on "The CBS Morning News" as its media critic. The most-cherished recognition came from an unexpected quarter. Along with Robert Healy and Martin F. Nolan, Frazier was one of three Globe staffers to turn up on the Nixon White House "enemies list." "My God," he said to Time magazine, "what if I hadn't made the list? Men have been known to take the gas pipe with less provocation."

A marvel of contradictions. Frazier grew up in Southie, the son of a fireman, then went to Harvard. His matriculation inspired his most enduring achievement, writing the lyrics for Count Basie's "Harvard Blues." To hear the great Kansas City blues belter Jimmy Rushing sing Frazier's words "I wear Brooks clothes and white shoes all the time" is to know truly how all-encompassing this society can be. He went on to be entertainment editor at Life, write that column for Esquire, return to Boston to write for the Herald, and likely become the first writer in his 60s to get an assignment from Rolling Stone.

That was part of the freshness of Frazier's style ("fresh," come to think of it, in both senses of the word), his unwillingness to lose interest in the world around him. What's style but the world's interest individually repaid? My friend Jimmy Isaacs, who was a music writer at The Real Paper back then, recalls getting a phone call from Frazier in July 1973 (his raspy squawk of a voice was unmistakable). "What's au courant in music, Jim?" Well, a band called the Wailers was making its first Boston appearance that week, at Paul's Mall, so off they went. Not that it happened, but you can bet that if Bob Marley had handed Frazier a spliff he would have inhaled with gusto.

There was a word Frazier kept coming back to in his writing. It didn't matter whether the subject was politics or jazz or literature or fashion. What mattered was whether a person had "duende." It's a Spanish term, meaning "heightened panache" or "overpowering presence." A person either had it, or didn't, and Frazier worshiped those who had it. Maybe another way to define duende would be as someone who "came into a room like the first notes of a Lester Young solo -- a proclamation of being, a style that could be mistaken for no one else's." That's how Hentoff describes Frazier in his memoir, "Boston Boy." Yes, a style, and stylishness, that could be mistaken for no one else's. That was George Frazier.

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