I’ve tried to think about it, tried to figure out how a kid who grew up as I did could have learned to like, let alone love, jazz. It doesn’t make much sense. I can’t even imagine how I ever heard it. This should be one of those pieces where the guy tells about the first time and how it was carved into his soul, but I can’t recall the first time. I just recall the way it made me feel, the evenings listening to it while my family watched TV or argued beyond my closed bedroom door.
We grew up with music, but it was Irish music. Not the traditional pieces with pipes and whistles and fiddles that is touring the music scene these days, but the music that was formed out of the experience of transplanted Irish: Danny Boy, Galway Bay, The Mountains of Mourne, Shake Hands With Your Uncle Mike. These were the songs that were sung around the piano in the living room when the family gathered. There always seemed to me a sadness about it, as if we were all supposed to be somewhere else. Each night my mother would lead us in prayer as we knelt at the sides of our beds. Names were evoked; names I had no faces for. But every night we prayed for them, prayed for their health or their souls. It was the music that connected it all, yet it was jazz that spoke what it all felt to me.
Sometime in the mid-50’s, I saw Pete Kelly’s Blues, starring Jack Webb. Or maybe it was The Man with the Golden Arm. I can only recall that I sat in a theater and felt a trumpet player scream out everything I felt. I wanted to be that player. This is an odd memory for me, as I clearly recall deeply wanting to play the trumpet, but it never occurred to me to say a word about it to my folks. My sisters got piano lessons. I was expected to work. This is also odd, in that I was the one who most played the piano in the living room. Take Five. A Taste of Honey. A little Ray Charles. My repertoire was small. The family would go out and I would go straight to the living room to sit and make sounds, runs, chords that made no songs, only moods and phrases.
At twelve, I mentioned that I would love to play drums, but the result was that my main Christmas gift that year was what amounted to a toy drum set. Not the rig that I had envisioned, but a tiny little shrunken version that I was embarrassed to play. I still never mentioned the trumpet. For their part, the family never mentioned the sounds coming from my room. Cannonball Adderly, Getz. Brubeck. Bird.
I would also like to tell you here that I became a secret walking library of jazz, a connoisseur, but it would be far from the truth. My favorite album might have been Hank Mancini’s “Peter Gunn” or “Mr. Lucky”. Definitely middle of the road stuff. Dave Brubeck was probably next. But the album I played when I was feeling good was a Cal Tjader album of south of the border vibraphone jazz that I can’t even recall the name of, except to remember that the cover had this great cartoon of a bullfighting arena and it featured Vince Guaraldi and Willie Bobo. It was 13 year old white kid jazz, but for me it was a ticket to somewhere else.
It wasn’t too long before that ticket became friends-with-cars, or better yet, parents who went off to Vegas a lot, or enough. The thing was that while I was hungry for the music, I had no access to it. It pleased me to no end that Playboy held jazz in regard. I swear to you that, right after the photos and the jokes, I went straight to The Playboy Philosophy and the music reviews, partially forming my life attitude from each. Each year Playboy would unfold their annual awards and I went directly to Sane and Insane, the local record store on Montana Ave., to sample the goods. My taste got more polished and eclectic: Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan, The Duke, Dizzy, Buddy, Oscar, ‘Traine, Ray Brown, and the darkest one of all, Monk.
When I came to drive, I discovered Shelly’s Manne Hole somewhere downtown and felt my own darkness as I slid into that smoky room where one night I waited for Monk himself to slide from behind the curtain for a late set. I was in heaven. A Catholic piece of white bread, absorbing it all like so much thick gravy. I found Cal Tjader playing in Manhatten Beach and a crop of regulars who showed up for weekly open sets at the Lighthouse in Hermosa. The closest to home was the Gas House in Venice. Not exactly a jazz club, more of a coffee house with chess and bongos and poetry. But the place had atmosphere and even if the jazz was only recorded, the place still felt like jazz and the clientele was sufficiently evil looking to satisfy my lust for the wild side. I met my first real Communist there, worked on my chess game, took up pool at the Mecca with Newmanesque moodiness, and learned to take my coffee black and to keep an old paperback in my back pocket for affect.
Here is the part where I am supposed to tell how jazz and I have grooved over the years, how my collection takes up two rooms of my house and my children speak in reverential tones about the great Dexter Gordon. Wish it were so. Truth is I learned to play folk guitar, memorize several dozen Dylan tunes and shifted my allegiances to Leo Kottke and John Fahey, Neil Young, and Jackson Browne. My record collection, such as it was after several dozen moves, got destroyed in a flooded garage, which isn’t really all that sad because the new CD reissues are much better than the old recordings. I mostly miss the album covers, jazz specifically, but all album art actually.
I might have given up jazz about the time I quit smoking. Maybe smoking was part of the package. I don’t really think that I grew out of jazz. A lot of it just started sounding the same. So my love for the music has gotten nostalgic, reminiscences and connotations of who I once was and who I once wanted to be. Yet, when I was sixteen, life had a soundtrack. It is late enough for the stoplights to be flashing yellow. I am alone on the street, or the few others who are about are each alone. I almost had company, but it didn’t work out. There is music coming from somewhere up the avenue… a swish on a trap, some piano, a soft horn… and I can hear it bounce back and forth along the brick and concrete. I am lonely but not unhappy, in fact I feel alive.