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 was an archetypal venue: a pure urban jazz club, on the ‘circuit’, right down on Euclid Avenue between the steel mills to the west and the college to the east.  The club’s sign had martini glasses jiggling in neon pink and green.  Every time Aaron saw it, he sensed that some day it would be a priceless artifact in a museum.  The neon tubes spelling “Esquire Lounge” and its dancing long-stemmed martini glasses would be studied by serious observers of semiotics and folk art.  
          Zoot and the boys had finished a week’s engagement at the Jazzland Grill in Columbus.  The drive to Cleveland was a little over two hours.  
          Before checking into the hotel, before doing anything, Zoot wanted to see old friends and examine the new soundboard at the Esquire. The gig was going to be recorded for Blue Note Records.  Rumors were flying in the jazz world that the new band was something special, that Zoot had found a pair of "monsters", as they were called, to back him up as he played his distinctive bop'n'blues style.  For Aaron and Tyrone, it was their debut.  Downbeat Magazine was going to review the record, it would be written up by critics like Leonard Feather and Nat Hentoff. 
          It was big.  It was important.  The album was going to be called “Hot Sax”.
          Zoot entered the club majestically, placing his feet on the carpet as if he were dancing, doing his lanky walk, all his joints subtly undulating.
          “What’s up, buttercup?,” he inqured of the man sitting on a stool behind the bar.  There were five or six people in the club, nursing drinks and chatting quietly.  Two women spread white cotton tablecloths below the bandstand.
          “Zoot motherfucking Prestige!” said the club’s proprietor,  “What is happenin’?” He put out his cigarette and came sailing from behind the bar, a tall fat man with a medium afro. He did a series of finger snaps and arcane handshakes with Zoot, then embraced him with a huge laugh.
          Aaron knew these sounds and gestures; they were the greeting rituals of adult black males.  They were tunes of loose laughter, arms and hands swinging wide and making noisy contact.  The words meant little.  The tones of understanding and recognition were everything. He had 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”?  Did he want to be a slang term?  Wait, let’s not forget the Jew.  What was he?  A Nigyid?  A Yidgro?  Oh God, he’s a Yigger!  No, he would speak the way he spoke, act the way he acted, just as he was.

          Zoot did quick introductions.   The club’s owner was Hilton Stubbs.  When Aaron was introduced, Stubbs looked at him coldly.  Then, as if Aaron didn’t exist, Stubbs pointed to him and inquired of Zoot, “What is this?”
          Zoot bristled.  “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 extended a protective arm around Aaron’s shoulders.  “You wanna cancel the gig?”  Zoot picked up his saxophone case.  “I can tell Blue Note to move their gear over to The Loose End and I’ll have another gig.  Tonight.”
          “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 looked at Aaron.  “Hmmmph.” He lit a cigarette languidly, sizing Aaron up. “I never seen Zoot Prestige with a bad drummer.  You can’t be more than fucking twenty years old, kid.  What do you know about soul?”
          Aaron shrugged.  “Gig starts at nine. You’ll find out.”
          At that moment, several other people came from the back of the club, saw Zoot and the greeting rituals were repeated.  Aaron was ignored or treated to a cold stare, a lingering gaze of contempt and then a dismissive de-focusing of the eyes, as if he had simply vanished.  Traveling with Zoot on the circuit, he had gotten a lot of racist attitude. He let it bounce off him.  He knew that later things would be different.
          The equipment had to be unloaded and set up.  There was already a Hammond organ and a Leslie speaker on the stage. Tyrone helped Aaron with the drums.  At half past five, the recording crew arrived, hauling in a big Ampex eight track recorder in a wheeled case.  They placed microphones where needed and a sound check was done.  The band and the recording crew ordered a few slabs of the Esquire’s legendary barbecue and drank a few beers.
          Zoot led his band to the Hotel Onyx, next door, where they checked in.  Zoot had a room.  Tyrone and Aaron shared a room.  They showered, shaved, lay on their respective beds and relaxed. 
          Aaron fell asleep.  At eight o clock, Tyrone shook him awake.  He had a familiar, crazed look on his face, as if he were about to do something naughty.
          “Hey man, check this out.”  Tyrone held two sugar cubes in his palm.  They resembled pistils at the center of the long mocha petals of his fingers.  Tyrone’s digits were like the tentacles of a carnivorous plant. 
          Aaron sat up.  Outside the window of the room, a neon sign was going bing! bop! bing! bop!  Rooms!  Hotel Onyx!  Rooms!  Hotel Onyx!
          “Aw shit, what is that?’’  Aaron rubbed his face, yawned.
          “Hee hee.  Owsley acid.  The purest.”  Tyrone was full of mad mischief.  His eyes seemed to melt and harden like molten glass.  Aaron loved him, loved his playing, loved his daring.  He was virtually illiterate, had dropped out of school in the fourth grade, but he was 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 would kill them with my lethal B flat.  What the fuck, man, it’s not like you aint done it before.  Here.”  He handed a cube to Aaron, then sucked the remaining cube into his mouth.  His cheeks dented inward so that the goatee on his chin went down like a sword blade.  Behind his glasses his eyes were like the fires of a kiln.  Aaron ate the cube, with a tiny twist of fear.  He knew taking a psychedelic was like going for a ride on a tiger’s back.  It could connect him to the primal power; or it could turn on him and eat him alive.  He would risk it.
          Having made this commitment, Aaron now had other preparations to make. He wished he hadn’t eaten the barbecue.  It sat in his guts like a greasy snake.  No matter, he would sweat it off.  He sat in a quiet corner of the room, putting himself into lotus position.  There was a terror of annihilation in him, residue from other psychedelic experiences.  He had learned to let go of himself, had even learned to function, to play music, to walk around in the ‘ordinary’ world of people.  It was the initial phases of the drug rush that were the most difficult.  Suddenly, one finds oneself….utterly….without significance, lost in a vastness beyond vastness, so that the personality of Aaron Kantro was some kind of silly joke.  It was this silly joke that Aaron had 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 heard Tyrone settle down beside him.  Yoga was something Aaron had imparted to his friend, only to discover that Tyrone had a natural ability to settle into a deep silence.  He was, perhaps, less intellectually encumbered.  Whatever the reason, Tyrone was a natural yogi, he meditated and conjured mind exercises of stunning imagination.
          Zoot would come to fetch them at quarter to nine.  The young men had to don their tuxedoes.  The drug was working, beginning as they meditated, stretching their imagery into an immense hall in which they could hear one another’s thoughts like echoes from walls of a cave. 
          “We got a gig,” Aaron reminded Tyrone as he uncurled his legs.  Tyrone opened his eyes slowly, and they were like search lights being uncovered, a mighty glow emitted from their orbs.  Pulling themselves into the mundane world, the musical brothers dressed and looked at their reflections in the mirror, giggling.  “Be cool, be cool, “ Tyrone admonished, 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 confirmed.  He was serious, he knew he had a responsibility to his mentor to behave and play like a professional jazz musician. 
          Zoot entered the room, sat in the one easy chair and let both legs splay over the chair’s arm rest..  He brought out his little pouch and crumpled some weed into the corncob pipe.  He examined his compatriots with an air of suspicion, but he had seen this before and had a measure of faith in his sidemen.
          “Dudes look good,” he said.  “Feelin alright? Tight?  Outtasight?”
          “Just fine, Zoot.  Lookin’ forward to it, “ Tyrone replied.  Aaron nodded agreement.
          Zoot eyed his sidemen speculatively.  “Gonna get cosmological on me?  Gonna do Coltrane riffs?”  This was one of Zoot’s cautionary admonitions.  He loved John Coltrane but knew his bread and butter, knew what the patrons of the Esquire Club came 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 were rattling complex drum patterns on his kneecap.  Warming up. 
          “There’s something about you two, tonight.  You’re glittering a little bit.”  It was impossible to tell whether or not he winked, because when he wanted to, Zoot could wink but not wink.  Aaron suspected he had winked.  The saxophonist lit the pipe, inhaled.  Then he loaded it again and passed it to Aaron.  “I would 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 affirmed, making it sound like a solemn oath. Aaron repeated it.  “We will play some shit.”
          Each of them had the requisite two hits of weed, enacted the pre-set ritual that was as much a part of their working life as their instruments and their PA system.  They headed down the long stairs with its purple carpeting, into the foyer with its thousands of tiny hexagonal tiles and green trim.  Euclid avenue was a parade of horsepower vanity.  Caddies,Continentals and Grand Prix convertibles gurgled toward the traffic lights.  A bit of rain had fallen and the smell of wet pavement and gasoline fumes mingled in the air. Reflections from neon lights bounced up from the sidewalks.  Aaron inhaled and marveled at the wild beauty of the world.
          They went around to the kitchen entrance of the club.  Zoot gave a signal to Hilton Stubbs.  The proprietor nodded and went to the bandstand.  It was a good house.  The tables were taken.  The bar was already two rows deep.  The recording engineers were perched at their boards like alchemists over tables of potions and unguents
          .“Ladies and gentlemen,” Stubbs said 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 came through the swinging door and made their procession to the bandstand. When the applause and whistles died down, Zoot looked at Tyrone and Aaron, snapped his fingers and counted off a blistering tempo for “All the Things You Are”.  They were off. Tyrone’s organ vamped behind Zoot’s solo like butter rolling down a split yam.  Aaron was crisp as a new hundred dollar bill.  The stick in his right hand came down on the ride cymbal almost lazily; just enough behind the beat to give it tension, to make that indefinable suspense that was the elusive quality of swing.  He pop popped with his left hand on the snare, talking to Zoot’s cadences.  It was a glory.  It was jazz. 
          They played Monk’s tune, “Well You Needn”t.  Then, to slow things down, Zoot called for “Angel Eyes”.   That’s when the LSD began working at its full intensity.  Tyrone played the dark moody chords of the song.  Its story was that of an urban barroom drama, of souls sliding toward damnation but gripping their humanity with ferocious desperation.  When Tyrone’s solo came, he landed on one of those blue tones that the organ could sustain forever, while his right hand trilled and trilled pure funkiness.  It was musical laughter.  Aaron’s smile grew larger than his face, a Cheshire Cat grin where the rest of him disappeared into the curling lips and glowing teeth.  Zoot rocked his horn and arched his back.  The audience was screaming approval.  The walls started to melt.  Hilton Stubbs looked like a goat or a devil, behind the bar, smiling so that his gold tooth flashed across the room.  Tyrone glanced at Aaron, wicked sly wit oozing from his eyes.
          Stay inside, Aaron mentally signalled.  Don’t get crazy.  Tyrone nodded.  Don’t worry; I can get crazy and still stay inside.  They were IT.  They were tradition.  They were milking all the conventions, all the known things of jazz.  Tyrone arpeggioed to get to the head of the tune.  It was like ocean waves, surf rolling in perfect cylinders toward the shore.  Zoot heard the cue and they restated the brooding melodrama of Angel Eyes.  The tune ended in a wash of cymbals, organ and saxophone.  Perfect. 
          Zoot knew what was happening, but said nothing.  As long as they played well, he would let it slide.  He couldn’t sit on these two young horses.  He could go with them, out to the boundary.  If he felt them slipping off, he would give them the infamous Zoot Stare.  If he could keep them right there, right at the boundary but still within the vocabulary, the vocabulary itself would become the realm of exploration. 
          It worked.  It worked all night.  At one moment, Aaron took a drum solo and felt his arms multiply, felt as if four right hands and four left hands were striking and bouncing off the drums with incredible speed.  He was a Hindu God, he was eight-armed Ganesh, the elephant god, the lord of Jupiter.  He rolled and crackled and flamed but kept it together, never got abstract, hit the One, the downbeat, right where he was supposed to. 
          There wasn’t anyone in the room who was wondering if Aaron could play drums. There wasn’t anyone in the room who was thinking about black or white, soul or without soul, paid dues, ain’t paid dues, hipness or squareness. 
          There was only the miracle of music.