Wednesday, September 15, 2004


Jazz pilgrimages

For my birthday last month, I received several new jazz CDs. Two of them are live records, one by Joe Lovano (I'm All for You) and the other by Greg Osby (Public). Both albums make me happy. They bring back memories of this past June, when I heard both Lovano and Osby live in New York.

I was in the City doing research for my dissertation at some of the numerous archives there, and subletting a place near Columbia. Doing research in a great city is one of the joys of graduate study. On the one hand, it can be tiring to spend all day cloistered in a reading room, poring over dusty stuff and trying to read terrible handwriting. (To save paper, early nineteenth-century correspondents often wrote in an extremely small hand. After filling a page of transluscent tissue paper, they would turn the paper ninety degrees and then fill the page the other direction. This is a recipe for illegibility. And this is not just a historian's complaint. Sydney Howard Gay, who for a time edited the National Anti-Slavery Standard, told one of the paper's regular columnists, "I don't wonder that you complain of [the] sad work we sometimes make of your mss. but I marvel that we do as well as we do. We can't afford to employ [the] best compositors & I am mainly my own proofreader, & you certainly write a terrible hand. I pray you avoid thin paper, even at [the] expense of more postage ..." While reading this, I found myself wishing Gay's correspondent had listened.) But for the most part, digging through the archives is one of best things about being a historian. It brings out the antiquarian in me.

The other great thing about working in archives is that they close. When you are at home, it is hard to make yourself stop working. There are no "after hours" when there are more pages of the dissertation to be written, and always more books and articles to be read. But the archives close. You can walk out the door feeling that you have put in a solid day of work. You are free to indulge yourself in leisurely activities. And for me, being in New York after the archives closed meant indulging in jazz.

There are so few places left in the world where you can hop on the subway, head in a general direction, and be sure to find some great jazz being played on any given night. Even in New York, sets are less spontaneous than they once were in jazz history. You don't simply meander into jazz clubs anymore and stay until dawn; sets are scheduled, gigs are arranged, prices are fixed. And prices are high. Most of the premier clubs now have cover charges ranging from $25 to $35, in addition to drink and food minimums. And those prices are per set. If you want to stay for a second or third set, you have to pay the minimum again in most places. But even so, there is no place to hear live jazz like New York.

So first I went to hear Joe Lovano playing at the Iridium Jazz Club. I had been to the Iridium before to hear McCoy Tyner playing with Al Foster and George Mraz. If I had been in a critical mood on either evening, I could have dwelt on the fact that the Iridium charges an arm and a leg for what feel like extremely short sets. Situated right off Times Square, with a large neon sign that screams "JAZZ," it also beckons tourists who want the New York jazz experience, who wander in without any idea about who is playing. But I was not in a critical mood. There are worse problems than accidental tourists chancing to hear McCoy Tyner play the piano. And besides, on both occasions, I knew who I was there to see.

Lovano was playing in support of I'm All For You, on which he is surrounded by a truly all-star band--the legendary Hank Jones on piano, Paul Motian on drums, and George Mraz again on bass. Jones is 86 years old and still exudes genius. As he introduces the band, Lovano seems to grope for words to describe how he feels to be on the stage with Jones in particular, and with Motian and Mraz to boot. It doesn't feel right to call them just a "rhythm section," he says. They proceed to play a truly exquisite set of ballads, capped off by a nice rendition of John Coltrane's "Countdown." Jones rattles off line after line of just-right melodies, every once in a while glancing over at his wife, seated at a table by the stage. They exchange nods or nostalgic laughs at certain voicings or chords. It is wonderful to hear and behold.

The couple sitting next to me agrees. We strike up a conversation before the music starts. He is a pianist himself, graduated from the New School and now gigging in Philadelphia while his wife attends art school. It is the second and final set of the night, but they have stayed over from the first set. They drove up from Philadelphia because he had a gig in the City. Earlier in the day, they tell me, they received a parking ticket because their car's nose stuck slightly into a bus stop outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The ticket cancelled out everything he had made at the gig, which was going to pay for the trip. At the first set at the Iridium, they ate dinner. Now, just to make the food minimum for the second set, they have ordered two pieces of cheescake, an order of french fries, and a soft drink. But as I watch the way he studiously observes Jones, sitting extremely still throughout the set, I can tell he believes it was worth coming all the way from Philadelphia to see. And it was.

The Philly pianist asks if I play. No, I say. I dabble at the piano, but mainly I am a listener. He is surprised and says so. Usually when he sees guys his age in jazz clubs, they are all musicians. It seems to boost his spirits to think there are still non-musician jazz fans in existence, and who are able to identify Hank Jones. There is a part of me that sometimes wishes I were a musician, that I could play jazz. But usually, I love being a listener who is only slightly educated about music. I relish the mystery, and I don't want to be disenchanted. When Joe Lovano nods at something Hank Jones "says," I don't always know what was there to nod about. But for me, that's part of the allure of the music I love. I don't want to pull back the curtain and see how the magic is made.

I guess that makes me somewhat of a true believer when it comes to jazz. If so, my next big jazz outing in New York was something of a pilgrimage. I made my way down to the Village Vanguard, the greatest jazz club still in existence in the world, where I heard Greg Osby's quartet playing in support of Public. It is an unassuming place. I'm there early and manage to take a table right next to the piano bench. The red carpet is worn, and on the walls are cheaply framed photographs of Mingus and Coltrane and Bill Evans. I think about Trane and Eric Dolphy in the space where I am sitting, or Paul Motian recording alongside Bill Evans and bassist Scott LeFaro, on a Sunday just before LeFaro's tragic death. It brings out the antiquarian in me.

Osby's quartet is excellent, although on the night I am there, the young piano sensation Megumi Yonezawa is the only other representative from the cast of Public. Osby is fast becoming the Art Blakey of this generation. He has a tremendous ability to find outstanding young jazz musicians, and an even more extraordinary willingness to bring them into his band. The drummer for the night is, I think, a student at the New School. You can tell how eager he is to be backing Osby at the Vanguard. After the first cut, I notice Osby discreetly go over and motion with his hand. Keep it down, take it easy, he says with a gesture. The drummer smiles and shines for the rest of the evening. Osby, like Lovano, moves off the stage while the other musicians solo; in the shadows I can see him nodding every once in a while, approvingly. I also approve, but for reasons that are mysterious even to me. I'd like to keep the reasons mysterious.

After the set, I linger in the space, look closely at all the photographs. The band goes backstage (which is actually not behind the stage at the Vanguard) for a few minutes but then returns to mingle. I pass Yonezawa, and I tell her the same thing that I told Paul Motian when he bounded past me on the stairs at the Iridium. "Thank you." As a grateful listener and a jazz pilgrim, that's the most coherent thing I can think to say.

Collective Improvisation:
This post hit home for me. I just made my first ever pilgrimage to the VV a couple weeks ago--and saw Osby there.

Posted by Blogger The Whining Stranger on 8/10/2006 05:36:00 PM : Permalink  

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