Thursday, February 20, 2014

When Did Artists Drop To The Bottom Rung Of The Social Order?

When I'm at a social gathering, talking to an attractive young lady, I am better prepared conversationally than I was in my naive younger years.  Such encounters depend upon time-honored gambits: you exchange names, express musical preferences, and soon it's time for the inevitable question: so, what do you do?
          To think; To THINK! that once upon a time I would blithely answer with some honesty.  Oh, I said smoothly, I'm a writer.
          I might as well have said "I carry herpes samples in petri dishes to labs where they test for new medicines in the ongoing struggle against the Herpes Simplex virus and, yes, I have been exposed, it's an occupational hazard."
          I'm a writer, I used to say, thinking that was the cool thing.  I kept my other vocation in reserve.  I was already embarrassed about being a musician and seldom confessed that I was one of THOSE.  My tattoos had been removed and I never..ever..wore any kind of hat but if we trace further back into the days of my youth we would find that time, yes...THAT time...when I would tell a girl I was chatting up at a party that I am a musician.  Well, I play drums among other instruments, uhhuh uhhuh..a little keyboard, and I do some songwriting.
          It is testament to my burgeoning maturity that I am no longer such a moron as to tell the truth in early- stage flirting conversation.  A writer!  What was I thinking?  Does anything sound more like simpering self-delusion?  Should I reveal that I sit around for most of the day tapping at a keyboard and sending query emails into that immense yet oh so tiny void that existed before the Big Bang, that place where nothing exists, not even intention and certainly not rejection slips of digital brevity?  I make less money than a janitor.  In fact, janitor is my day job, the one I can't quit lest I starve.  I will be asked politely what I have written and I must respond either cutely or sorrowfully.  I haven't published anything important, no best sellers I'm afraid.  Or I'm the guy that wrote ECHOES OF BOILING LOBSTER SCREAMS or YOUR TITS ALMOST SHOW COMPLETELY BUT YOU ALREADY KNOW THAT.  Or I'm the guy who's gotten filthy rich on the Young Adult wizard series YOUR MOUTH IS OPEN YOUR MOUTH IS OPEN YOUR MOUTH IS ALWAYS OPEN.  When I get around to writing the last of the series, YOUR MOUTH IS FINALLY CLOSED AND NOW WE KNOW WHY BECAUSE ITS REALLY AN UGLY THIN-LIPPED LITTLE MOUTH I will sweep my winnings into a tidy pile and depart for casinos run by The Sultan Of Brunei.  When I've lost all my money I will open a little business sharpening vampires' teeth.  I took that six month course at the online University Of East Oakland,"Sharpening Vampire Teeth: a growing lucrative field of dental specialization."
          I have two questions.  Did the calling of Artist take a precipitous drop in prestige or has it always been this way and perceptive artists are only now realizing that the world could give a shit if they're artists (THE WORLD DOESN'T CARE)?!!  I think it's a little of both but when I was last indeed put on the spot for "what do I do?" I experienced icy fingers of apathy creeping along the paths of my nerves and it hit me forcefully: artists are at the bottom of the pecking order artists are laughable poseurs artists are as honored as public masturbators.  I'm talking about REAL artists with real talent, those with soul-crushing passion and experience of the lethal dangers of the psyche. They don't count they never have counted. If there has ever been a time when they counted less it's right now.  Creative people no longer have even the shelter of those little camps they set up for creative people, camps called Mental Hospitals::::there are no more mental hospitals there's no place you can go if you're creative or even if you think you're creative.
          Things are really bad for a society when this happens.  It's like when they decide to kick out all the Jews.  An empire suddenly takes a nose dive when it kicks out its Jews. It happens every time. Jews are like that healthy intestinal bacteria, Jews are the Acidophilus of a society and when the Jews go so does the digestion. The Spanish Armada was drowned shortly after Spain expelled the Jews.  Without Jews there sets in intellectual and moral diarrhea..HEY!  I'M A JEW. I CAN SAY THIS!
          Yow.  I got carried away there.  I'm just so upset.  I don't tell people I'm a writer any more.   I hide my creativity.  That's really scary, when I'm embarrassed to be like one of those people who are psychic but don't admit it because they don't want to be seen as some kind of nut.  I'm not a nut5 bllleeeeh bllleeeehhhh I'm not I'm not I see dead people.  Okay, I'm an artist, I've said it.  I'm the guy at the health club who makes the wrong adjustment and gets thrown backwards off the treadmill, thrown sprawling on top of a weight bench that is currently occupied by a red haired red bearded three  hundred pound Judo instructor. I'm that guy.  Yeah, I'm that guy. 

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Notes On Jazz, Writing and Other Matters

            The following excerpt is from my book CONFESSIONS OF AN HONEST MAN.  It is one of those creative moments when my passion for jazz and my passion for writing merge.  I hope that I can spread some light on the value of jazz so that it need not be a form of music that is virtually ignored..  It isn't the stuff of giant boom boxes that get worn on your head so you look like you've just survived an altercation with an assistant manager at Costco.
          Question: are there still Boom Boxes or have those morphed into Boom Automobiles so you can sit inside your sonic vengeance rather than wearing it on your head?

1967: The Zoot Prestige Trio At The Esquire Lounge


The Esquire Lounge is an archetypal venue: a pure urban jazz club, on the ‘circuit’, right down on Euclid Avenue between the steel mills to the west and Western Reserve University to the east.  The club’s sign has martini glasses jiggling in neon pink and green.  Every time Aaron sees it, he senses that some day it will be a priceless artifact in a museum, “Esquire Lounge” and its dancing long-stemmed martini glasses being studied by serious observers of semiotics and folk art.  
          Zoot and the boys have f inished a week’s engagement at the Jazzland Grill in Columbus.  The drive to Cleveland is a little over two hours.  It is a perfect example of Zoot's genius for scheduling gigs in different cities yet avoiding the road fatigue that can turn a musician's life into a nightmare.
          Before checking into the hotel, before doing anything, Zoot wants to see old friends and examine the new soundboard at the Esquire. The gig is going to be recorded for Blue Note Records.  Rumors are flying in the jazz world that the new band is something special, that Zoot has found a pair of "monsters", as they are called, to back him up as he plays his distinctive bop'n'blues style.  For Aaron and Tyrone, it is their debut.  Downbeat Magazine is going to review the record, it will be written up by critics like Leonard Feather and Nat Hentoff. 
          It's big.  It's important.  The album is going to be called “Hot Sax”.
          Zoot enters the club majestically, placing his feet on the carpet as if he is dancing, doing his lanky walk, all his joints subtly undulating.
          “What’s up, buttercup?,” he inqures of the man sitting on a stool behind the bar.  There are five or six people in the club, nursing drinks and chatting quietly.  Two women spread white cotton tablecloths below the bandstand.
          “Zoot motherfucking Prestige!” says the club’s proprietor,  “What is happenin’?” He puts out his cigarette and comes sailing from behind the bar, a tall fat man with a medium afro. He does a series of finger snaps and arcane handshakes with Zoot, then embraces him with a huge laugh.
          Aaron knows these sounds and gestures; they are the greeting rituals of adult black males.  They are tunes of loose laughter, arms and hands swinging wide and making noisy contact.  The words mean little.  The tones of understanding and recognition are everything. He tried, for a while, to imitate this hip black language.  He felt ridiculous.  What kind of spectacle must he be?  A “white Negro”.  What’s that nasty term?  A “Wigger”?  Does he want to be a slang term?  Wait, let’s not forget the Jew.  What is he?  A Nigyid?  A Yidgro?  Oh God, he’s a Yigger!  No, he will speak the way he speaks, act the way he acts, just as he is.
          Zoot does quick introductions.   The club’s owner is Hilton Stubbs.  When Aaron is introduced, Stubbs looks at him coldly.  Then, as if Aaron doesn’t exist, Stubbs points to him and inquires of Zoot, “What is this?”
          Zoot bristles.  “What do you mean, ‘what is this?’, motherfucker.  This is my drummer.”
          “This is a white kid from Shaker Heights, man, this won’t go down.”
          “Hilton, you don’t know shit.”  Zoot extends a protective arm around Aaron’s shoulders.  “You wanna cancel the gig?”  Zoot picks up his saxophone case.  “I can tell Blue Note we ain’t playin’ here.  I’ll go talk to Alvin at Loose End and I’ll have my ass another gig.”
          “Naw, shit man, I won’t do that; but I don’t believe no white kid can play drums with Zoot Prestige and sound like the real deal.”
          “Why don’t you talk to him like he’s here in front of you, fool?”
          Stubbs looks at Aaron.  “Hmmmph.” He lights a cigarette languidly, sizing Aaron up. “Zoot is legendary for being able to find monstrous drummers but I'm havin' a hard time taking you seriously.  You can’t be more than fucking twenty years old, kid.  What do you know about soul?”
          Aaron shrugs.  “Gig starts at nine. You’ll find out.”
          At that moment, several other people come from the back of the club, see Zoot and the greeting rituals are repeated.  Aaron is ignored or treated to a cold stare, a lingering gaze of contempt and then a dismissive de-focusing of the eyes, as if he has simply vanished.  Traveling with Zoot on the circuit, he has gotten a lot of racist attitude. He lets it bounce off him.  He knows that later things will be different.
          The equipment has to be unloaded and set up.  There is already a Hammond organ and a Leslie speaker on the stage. Tyrone helps Aaron with the drums.  At half past five, the recording crew arrives, hauling in a big Ampex eight track recorder in a wheeled case.  Aaron is miked just above his head and in front of his bass drum.  Zoot gets a single mike, Tyrone gets two, and two mikes are placed at strategic points on the stage.   By six thirty the instruments are assembled and a sound check completed.  The band and the recording crew order a few slabs of the Esquire’s legendary barbecue and drink a few beers.
          Zoot leads his band to the Hotel Onyx, next door, where they check in.  Zoot has a room.  Tyrone and Aaron share a room.  They shower, shave, lay on their respective beds and relax. 
          Aaron falls asleep.  At eight o clock, Tyrone shakes him awake.  He has a familiar, crazed look on his face, as if he's about to do something naughty.
          “Hey man, check this out.”  Tyrone holds two sugar cubes in his palm.  They resemble pistils at the center of the long mocha petals of his fingers.  Tyrone’s digits are like the tentacles of a carnivorous plant. 
          Aaron sits up.  Outside the window of the room, a neon sign is going bing! bop! bing! bop!  Rooms!  Hotel Onyx!  Rooms!  Hotel Onyx!
          “Aw shit, what is that?’’  Aaron rubs his face, yawns.
          “Hee hee.  Owsley acid.  The purest.”  Tyrone is full of mad mischief.  His eyes seem to melt and harden like molten glass.  Aaron loves him, loves his playing, loves his daring.  He is virtually illiterate, dropped out of school in the fourth grade, but he is a thinker, a philosopher, a musical intellect.
          “Owsley acid.  It’s always Owsley acid.  How do you know it isn’t bathtub PCP?  With all the shit I just went through being white, you want me to take a psychedelic and play a gig?”
          “I am Tyrone Terry, man, THE Tyrone Terry.  Nobody twacks bullshit dope on me.  I will kill them with my lethal B flat.  What the fuck, man, it’s not like you aint done it before.  Here.”  He hands a cube to Aaron, then sucks the remaining cube into his mouth.  His cheeks dent inward so that the goatee on his chin goes down like a sword blade.  Behind his glasses his eyes are like the fires of a kiln.  Aaron eats the cube with a tiny twist of fear.  He knows taking a psychedelic is like going for a ride on a tiger’s back.  It ccan connect him to the primal power; or it can turn on him and eat him alive.  He will risk it.
          Having made this commitment, Aaron now has other preparations to make. He wishes he hadn’t eaten the barbecue.  It sits in his guts like a greasy snake.  No matter, he will sweat it off.  He sits in a quiet corner of the room, putting himself into lotus position.  There is a terror of annihilation in him, residue from other psychedelic experiences.  He has learned to let go of himself, has even learned to function, to play music, to walk around in the ‘ordinary’ world of people.  It is the initial phases of the drug rush that are the most difficult.  Suddenly, one finds oneself….utterly….without significance, lost in a vastness beyond vastness, so that the personality of Aaron Kantro is some kind of silly joke.  It is this silly joke that Aaron has learned to dismiss with a figurative wave of his hand.  What does it matter if I matter?  Move forward into the risk, take the grotesque with the beautiful, take it all.  Inhale and exhale universes with each breath.
          Aaron hears Tyrone settle down beside him.  Yoga is something Aaron has imparted to his friend, only to discover that Tyrone has a natural ability to settle into a deep silence.  He is, perhaps, less intellectually encumbered.  Whatever the reason, Tyrone is a natural yogi, he meditates and conjures mind exercises of stunning imagination.
          Zoot will come to fetch them at quarter to nine.  The young men must don their tuxedoes.  The drug is working, beginning as they meditate, stretching their imagery into an immense hall in which they can hear one another’s thoughts like echoes from walls of a cave. 
          “We got a gig,” Aaron reminds Tyrone as he uncurls his legs.  Tyrone opens his eyes slowly, and they are like search lights being uncovered, a mighty glow emits from their orbs.  Pulling themselves into the mundane world, the musical brothers dress and look at their reflections in the mirror, giggling.  “Be cool, be cool, “ Tyrone admonishes, sinking his head between his shoulders as if to mimic stealth.  “The Zoot will be wise to this, and he won’t be happy if we’re melting.”
          “Promise I won’t melt,” Aaron confirms.  He is serious, he knows he has a responsibility to his mentor to behave and play like a professional jazz musician. 
          Zoot enters the room, sits in the one easy chair and lets both legs splay over the chair’s arm rest..  He brings out his little pouch and crumples some weed into the corncob pipe.  He examines his compatriots with an air of suspicion, but he has seen this before and has a measure of faith in his sidemen.
          “Dudes look good,” he sayes.  “Feelin alright? Tight?  Outtasight?”
          “Just fine, Zoot.  Lookin’ forward to it, “ Tyrone replies.  Aaron nods agreement.
          Zoot eyes his sidemen speculatively.  “Gonna get cosmological on me?  Gonna do Coltrane riffs?”  This is one of Zoot’s cautionary admonitions.  He loves John Coltrane but knows his bread and butter, knows what the patrons of the Esquire Club have come to hear:  stompin’ blues shoutin bop-till-you-drop tenor saxophone organ trio music. 
          “Don’t you trust us, Zoot?  We know the gig.”  Aaron’s hands are rattling complex drum patterns on his kneecap.  Warming up. 
          “There’s something about you two, tonight.  You’re glittering a little bit.”  It is impossible to tell whether or not he winks, because when he wants to, Zoot can wink but not wink.  Aaron suspects he has winked.  The saxophonist lights the pipe and inhales.  Then he loads it again and passes it to Aaron.  “I will righteously appreciate some discipline from you young monsters.  Don’t think I don’t know what’s going on here.  This ain’t speculative fiction.  This is the Kingdom of Funktonics.  Aaron, you gotta stay inside the groove and let these Black Nationalist motherfuckers know you can play some shit.” 
          “We will play some shit,” Tyrone affirms, making it sound like a solemn oath. Aaron repeats it.  “We will play some shit.”
          Each of them has the requisite two hits of weed, enacting the pre-set ritual that is as much a part of their working life as their instruments and their PA system.  They head down the long stairs with its purple carpeting, into the foyer with its thousands of tiny hexagonal tiles and green trim.  Euclid avenue is a parade of horsepower vanity.  Caddies, Continentals and Grand Prix convertibles gurgle toward the traffic lights.  A bit of rain has fallen and the smell of wet pavement and gasoline fumes mingle in the air.  Reflections from neon lights bounce up from the sidewalks.  Aaron inhales and marvels at the wild beauty of the world.
          They walk around to the kitchen entrance of the club.  Zoot gives a signal to Hilton Stubbs.  The proprietor nods and goes to the bandstand.  It is a good house.  The tables are taken.  The bar is already two rows deep.  The recording engineers are perched at their boards like alchemists over tables of potions and unguents
          “Ladies and gentlemen,” Stubbs says into the microphone.  “The Club Esquire is honored to present the reigning Master of Funk, the Prestigious One, The Zoot with the roots and his smokin’ recruits,  the one and only…… Zoot….. Pres…..tige!”
          They come through the swinging door and make their procession to the bandstand. When the applause and whistles die down, Zoot looks at Tyrone and Aaron, snaps his fingers and counts off a blistering tempo for “All the Things You Are”.  They are off! Tyrone’s organ vamps behind Zoot’s solo like butter rolling down a split yam.  Aaron is crisp as a new hundred dollar bill.  The stick in his right hand comes down on the ride cymbal almost lazily; just enough behind the beat to give it tension, to make that indefinable suspense that is the elusive quality of swing.  He pop pops with his left hand on the snare, talking to Zoot’s cadences.  It is a glory.  It is jazz. 
          They play Monk’s tune, “Well You Needn”t.  Then, to slow things down, Zoot calls for “Angel Eyes”.   That’s when the LSD begins working at its full intensity.  Tyrone plays the dark moody chords of the song.  Its story is that of an urban barroom drama, of souls sliding toward damnation but gripping their humanity with ferocious desperation.  When Tyrone’s solo comes, he lands on one of those blue tones that the organ can sustain forever, while his right hand trills and trills pure funkiness.  It is musical laughter.  Aaron’s smile grows larger than his face, a Cheshire Cat grin where the rest of him disappears into the curling lips and glowing teeth.  Zoot rocks his horn and arches his back.  The audience is screaming approval.  The walls start to melt.  Hilton Stubbs looks like a goat or a devil, behind the bar, smiling so that his gold tooth flashes across the room.  Tyrone glances at Aaron, wicked sly wit oozing from his eyes.
          Stay inside, Aaron mentally signala.  Don’t get crazy.  Tyrone nods.  Don’t worry; I can get crazy and still stay inside.  They are IT.  They are tradition.  They are milking all the conventions, all the known things of jazz.  Tyrone arpeggioes to get to the head of the tune.  It is like ocean waves, surf rolling in perfect cylinders toward the shore.  Zoot hears the cue and they restate the brooding melodrama of Angel Eyes.  The tune ends in a splash of cymbals, organ and saxophone.  Perfect. 
          Zoot knows what's  happening but says nothing.  As long as they play well he will let it slide.  He can’t sit on these two young horses.  He can go with them, out to the boundary.  If he feels them slipping off, he will give them the infamous Zoot Stare.  If he can keep them right there, right at the boundary but still within the vocabulary, the vocabulary itself will become the realm of exploration. 
          It works.  It works all night.  At one moment, Aaron takes a drum solo and feels his arms multiply, feels as if four right hands and four left hands are striking and bouncing off the drums with incredible speed.  He is a Hindu God, he is eight-armed Ganesh, the elephant god, the lord of Jupiter.  He rolls and crackles and flames but keeps it together, never gets abstract, hits the One, the downbeat, right where he is supposed to. 
          There isn’t anyone in the room who is wondering if Aaron can play drums. There isn’t anyone in the room who is thinking about black or white, soul or without soul, paid dues, ain’t paid dues, hipness or squareness. 
          There is only the miracle of music.

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