Jack 'Legs' Diamond's legend gets a musical retelling from the Albany Symphony and composer Kevin Beavers
By JOSEPH DALTON, Staff writer
First published: Sunday, November 14, 2004
He was a bootlegger, womanizer, murderer and all around thug who reigned from Manhattan to Montreal. And long before he was shot to death in a rooming house on Albany's Dove Street in 1931, Jack "Legs" Diamond attained the status of celebrity.
Today, across the Capital Region, there are seemingly countless houses, diners and hotels bearing the proud designation of once being a hangout for Legs Diamond and his cronies.
More than a folk legend, Diamond also has become the subject of a variety of artistic works. Along with a 1969 noir film and a 1988 Broadway musical flop, there is "Legs," the acclaimed 1975 novel by William Kennedy, the Pulitzer Prize-winning local author.
And on Friday night, the newest Diamond-inspired artistic work "Eyeball High" by Kevin Beavers will be given its premiere by the Albany Symphony Orchestra in a concert at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall.
For his ASO commission, Beavers, 33, drew inspiration from Kennedy's novel as much as from Legs Diamond, the man. Both author and composer found him a potent topic for artistic exploration.
"Why was a son of a bitch like this so popular? He was on the order of a movie star," says Kennedy. Although the author may still like to ponder the reasons for Diamond's renown, he went a long way toward illustrating them in "Legs." Seen through the eyes and ears of a fictitious attorney named Marcus Gorman, Diamond is mesmerizing.
"This man was alive in a way I was not ... He hit you, slapped you with his palm, punched you with a light fist, clapped you on the shoulder, ridding himself of electricity to avoid exploding. He was conveying it to you, generating himself into yourself whether you wanted to receive him or not."
So states Gorman of his first gander at the 5-foot-7 gangster. A magnetic attraction and repulsion toward Diamond carries the character through the rest of the novel.
Kennedy first came upon Diamond's legend in the 1960s, when beginning work on a novel. But that project, "Roscoe," finally released in 2002, was put aside so Kennedy could give full chase to Diamond.
"I discovered Legs Diamond in the morgues of the newspaper. The files on him were extraordinary. He was in the paper every day in 1931 and very often (in) 1930 and 1929," says Kennedy, 76, who estimates that he interviewed between 300 and 400 people who knew Diamond. His novel is a balance of biographical fact and imaginary dialogue and relationships.
Kennedy's open-ended "Albany Cycle" of novels now numbers seven titles, and he's currently at work on a play. But his fascination with Diamond continues.
For more than a decade he has owned the Dove Street townhouse where Diamond finally met his maker at age 36. Although Kennedy lives in Averill Park, the former rooming house makes for a handy inner-city office.
"I work there, I socialize there. ... We like to think we can get a little closer to the era when we're in there," the author says.
Fond of 'Legs'
When ASO conductor David Alan Miller asked Beavers for a new work that somehow related to the city of Albany, the composer thought of his fondness for Kennedy's "Legs."
"Some artists could write pieces about Al Capone based on newspaper articles. I was responding to a literary work," says Beavers.
Rather than attempting musical depictions of events or characters from the book, Beavers' 12-minute orchestral work focuses on Diamond's dark, powerful character. Portions of his piece draw on the sound of ragtime, but Beavers describes the writing as mostly "turgid, tough, mean-guy music."
"I was just fascinated with the tension of trying to create something that was attractively violent ... almost a ridiculous task in music," says Beavers, who since April has lived in Germany, where his fiance is studying at the Freiberg Conservatory.
"Eyeball High," the piece's title, comes from a moment early in the book when Diamond teaches Gorman to use a machine-gun.
I press the trigger. Bullets exploded in my ears, my hands, my shoulders, my blood, my brain. The spew of death was a personal tremor that even jogged my scrotum.
"Close, off the right ear," Jack said. [referring to the target -- a man's face] "Try again."
I let go with another burst, feeling confident. No pain. It's easy. I leveled the weapon, squeezed off another.
"Got him. Eyeball high."
According to Beavers, his piece could be considered a tone poem -- a single-movement orchestral work that evokes a particular scene or narrative. Historical examples of the form include Mendelssohn's "Fingal's Cave" and Vaughan William's "The Lark Ascending."
Beavers is surely adding something new to the genre -- "Eyeball High" depicts the sound of gunfire.
"You can easily hear that it's murder. It's something that's built toward ... the Tommy gun firing, a typical gangster machine gun," Beavers says.
A cut above
Beavers and Kennedy agree that there is a quality to Diamond that sets him above the level of other famous crooks.
"Diamond had a quality that was different from most of the other gangsters ... a mix of an evil figure who was capable of the worst kind of torture and killing and at the same time a very social animal. Many people remember his great sense of humor, his intelligence and his literary dimension," says Kennedy.
As an example of Diamond's wide-range, Kennedy points to the crook's fondness for the 16th-century French author Francois Rabelais. According to Kennedy, Diamond was known to give away copies of the writer's classic satire "Gargantua and Pantagruel."
"The fact he was able to do that confused people. They were nonplussed by getting a copy of this literary masterwork from a high school level-educated hoodlum," says Kennedy.
Beyond literature, Kennedy says Diamond was known to also enjoy popular music -- though he wasn't a dancer. "That's one of the myths about him," says Kennedy.
Fails on Broadway
A singing and dancing gangster is just too sellable an idea for some to pass up. Consider the success of "Guys and Dolls," the classical musical comedy from 1950 that depicts a bunch of gangsters and their lovable molls.
Perhaps that enduring hit was in the mind of the creators and producers of the 1988 Broadway show "Legs Diamond." The $4.5 million extravaganza was based on the 1960 film by Budd Boetticher, "The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond," and featured music and lyrics by Peter Allen, who was also its star.
After an extended period of 72 previews, during which time Harvey Fierstein was brought in to help fix the problematic book, the show opened to poor notices and played for only 64 performances. Many critics expressed disappointment that the show was merely mediocre rather than genuinely awful. In his review for The New York Times, Frank Rich called it "a sobering interlude of minimum-security imprisonment."
A cast album released on BMG features 19 bright, buoyant and rather cliched numbers. But two of the songs recently came back to life on Broadway in the Tony Award-winning musical "The Boy From Oz." The show closed in September after a successful run of nearly a year. Hugh Jackman played Allen, the songster and showman who died of AIDS.
Given that authors, composers and Broadway producers have found fertile material in Legs Diamond, his legend will probably continue in future artistic works. But for Beavers, his musical foray into a world of violence and crime will probably be a one-shot deal.
"I've been a visual artist," he says, "and I've noticed that when you make a portrait of somebody frowning, you have to make a frown when you're doing it. And there's something about making works that are violent that's disturbing on the psyche."
ALBANY SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
What: Conductor David Alan Miller will lead the world premiere of Kevin Beaver's "Eyeball High," a new orchestral piece based on the character of Jack "Legs" Diamond as depicted in William Kennedy's novel "Legs." The program also includes violinist Cho-Liang Lin in Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 4 (replacing the previously announced Walton Violin Concerto) and the Brahms Fourth Symphony.
Where: Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, State and Second streets, Troy
When: 8 p.m. Friday
All Times Union materials copyright 1996-2003, Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.