A Darling of Jazz

Who knew the Mets announcer could tell bebop from bunting?

A few weeks ago, I was startled when, in the middle of a broadcast, pitcher turned commentator Ron Darling declared, "I'm a huge Coltrane fan." Baseball Prospectus hasn't confirmed this yet, but it seems likely that this was the first time these words were ever uttered on air during a Major League Baseball game.

Was the Mets broadcaster—the only Yalie ever to play for the blue and orange—faking it? Was one of the most popular Mets in the team's history, the heartthrob referred by Mets fans of all stripes as "Ron, Darling," just trying to earn himself some cheap cultural credentials with the intellectual crowd? Did he have the chops when it came to jazz? Or did he think the words "Take the A Train" are just bad advice on how to get to Yankee Stadium?

I spent several days boning up for our interview and watching Ken Burns's Jazz on DVD. If the man who won 99 games for the Mets in his career and kicked Red Sox butt in the 1986 World Series laid down a false note, I'd be sure to catch it. I started him off with a brushback.

"Do you remember the interview I did with you for The Village Voice in 1988?"

"Uh . . . what did we talk about?"

"Just baseball," I assured him. "But if I had known you were such a jazz buff, I'd have led us into a discussion of bebop or jazz-rock fusion."

"Well, I don't know about buff. I would describe myself as a huge jazz fan, and I would say that for certain artists, I come close to being a buff. But I find that, unlike kids listening to songs on iPods, I go back to a time when artists expressed themselves in albums— entire albums—not just in a song or two." "Speaking of albums," I asked, "how do you feel about Kind of Blue?"

"I've listened to Kind of Blue, I don't know, 40 or 50 times, and each time it's like I'm hearing it new," he said about the famous Miles Davis album. "There's always something I didn't hear before."

Born, as all Mets fans know, in Honolulu to a French-Canadian father and Hawaiian-Chinese mother, Darling grew up, in his words, "with the clanging of dishes being washed and the vacuum run to music." His mother, who was only 15 when he was born, liked pop—Darling recalls one of her favorites was "Be My Baby" by the Ronettes—and he listened along with her; before long, they were listening to the Beatles, too. As he got older, he started to pick up on jazz. His introduction to the more sophisticated world of music was John Coltrane. "My father was in the military in Hawaii for many years, and he and an old Navy friend would go to hear John Coltrane. Coltrane was in the Navy, stationed in Hawaii, and had a kind of Hawaiian-style ensemble for a while. So there was a love of music in our house that rubbed off on me—definitely a love of jazz.

"I can listen to jazz from just about any period, but my favorite is the era from 1946, a year after the war, to the mid-'60s. I like a lot of avant-garde jazz, like Coltrane and Miles Davis. To me, that music never seems nostalgic. It always sounds current."

"Which artists?" I asked. "Were you thrilled by the energy and aggressiveness of Lee Morgan's trumpet? What pianists? Did you groove to Bill Evans's cool introspection? Were you moved by Tommy Flanagan's resourcefulness? Soothed by Oscar Peterson's elegance?"

"Yes to all of the above," he answered. "And lots of others, too—Red Garland, Hank Jones, Ahmad Jamal; I got to where I could identify many of them from a random solo. But as far as I'm concerned, John Coltrane and Miles Davis are in a separate universe."

"Even the late-period Coltrane stuff?" I asked. "Doesn't some of it get a bit too abstract to all but the converted?"

"That's to my taste, too," Darling replied, "but sometimes I feel unworthy. I find that sometimes in his late period, it seems like noise and I can't make it out—but in the middle of it, I kind of understand the beat; it sounds right to me. I always figured it's not Coltrane's fault that I don't get it right away, it's just my lack of sophistication. It all depends on where you are. Something that doesn't make sense today might make perfect sense 10 years from now."

"Did you ask them to play Coltrane riffs for you when you came to bat at Shea?"

"No, they chose the music for us. I think they used to play the Beach Boys' 'Darling' for me, which I thought was pretty good. Funny thing—a lot of the music they play at the ballpark now is '80s pop and rock. A lot of it's the same stuff they played when I was still playing ball."

"Does it make you feel nostalgic?"

"Naw. I don't get it—I thought it was trash then." Allen Barra

 
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