Flee as a Bird


As Groucho Marx used to sing, “Hello, I must be going.” It’s time to move on when you begin to calculate a job’s duration the way children identify their ages. Whereas I used to think in round numbers, lately I found myself muttering, “29 and a half years,” “30 years and two months,” “30 years, seven months, two weeks, five days”—which is correct as of my pub date. Or am I confusing children with convicts? This was the hardest decision I’ve ever made, and like Artie Shaw, who has a different answer every time he’s asked about quitting clarinet, I’m not sure why—except that I want to focus on books, I don’t like writing short, and it’s time. In jazz, time is all.

Shortly after I joined the Voice, Martin Williams swore off criticism for a spell (and produced a series of albums that forever altered jazz education). When I asked him why, he answered, “I’ve said everything I had to say.” Tough-minded fellow. I don’t feel that way at all. I’m as besotted with jazz as ever, and expect to write about it till last call, albeit in other formats. Indeed, much in the way being hanged is said to focus the mind, this finale has made me conscious of the columns I never wrote.

John Lewis and I had a joke about the end of projects. I once told him that I held certain musicians, about whom I knew very little, in abeyance—that when I ran out of everyone else, I’d turn to them and then know I was done. I cited, as an example, Stan Kenton. One day when we were planning American Jazz Orchestra programs, he said, “You know, we’ll have to get to Stan Kenton. He’s important.” I gave him a look. He said, “Maybe just one set.” I kept looking. He said, “Then we’ll know we’re done.”

It amazes me to realize that in all these years I never wrote a column on Booker Ervin, a great and neglected tenor saxophonist, and the subject of one of the first articles I ever published (elsewhere). Every time a new reissue came out, I’d swear I was going to write about it, and something else always intervened. I had the pleasure of meeting Booker shortly before his death, when I was a student and he was working midtown with Ted Curson’s quintet. I asked him about the “hidden register,” those squealy high notes that were the rage of the 1960s, and presumed to be the result of ardent virtuosity. He said, “That’s easy. You bite the reed”—and, sitting at the table, gave a numbingly funny demonstration.

I never wrote a column about Charlie Rouse—can’t explain it. When I first got to know Stanley Crouch, we bonded over our mutual outrage at how three favorite tenors had been critically disrespected when we were growing up: Rouse, George Coleman, and Paul Gonsalves. We set out to render justice. Rouse’s pithy, almost epigrammatic phrases; sandy timbre, by way of Wardell Gray; and uncanny ability to blend in with the tones of Thelonious Monk’s piano amounted to a rare oasis in a frantic era. Come to think of it, I never wrote a long-planned column on Wardell. What the hell was I doing? Nearly 650 Weatherbirds, maybe 400 Riffs, yet no Rouse, no Gray, no Ervin, no Tristano, no Dameron, no James P., no Teschemacher, no Lee Morgan. Mea multiple culpas.

Or blame Christgau. The Dean made it a point of professional pride that we write essays and not tethered briefs. Some musicians (not those mentioned above) only merit briefs, but the beauty of the Voice is that we had our page and could stretch out—less now than once upon a time, but still. Occasionally, exhausted, I’d rankle and hand in “Twelve Albums With Strange Covers” or “Five Bands I Heard Last Week,” though rarely more than once a year, not including holiday wrap-ups. Essays require deep immersion, the inhalation of an artist’s life and work. There’s also an obligation to concentrate on musicians who are alive; you can do only so many historical pieces without morphing into the ghost of jazz past.

Unexpectedly, 2003 closes a circle in that regard. The early ’70s were weak on new recordings, yet provided a bonanza in excavations: Lester Young rehearsing with Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington in Fargo, Roy Eldridge at the Arcadia, Art Tatum and Hot Lips Page after hours—practically every week something old that was new. (At this point, you might put down the paper, get Clifford Brown’s The Beginning and the End, and play the first 4:53 of “A Night in Tunisia,” the Dead Sea Scroll of trumpet solos.) Three of the best albums this year were also buried: Bossas and Ballads: The Lost Session of Stan Getz (Verve, 1989), Jaki Byard’s The Last From Lennie’s (Prestige, 1965), and Andrew Hill’s Passing Ships (Blue Note, 1969), to say nothing of the deconstruction of Miles Davis’s Jack Johnson (Columbia/Legacy, 1970). Hill’s inspired December 8 Merkin Hall duets with Jason Moran (one of the most musician-heavy audiences I’ve ever seen) provided ample proof that the torch has been passed and that—despite label mergers, a corrupt FCC, and a Congress that misprizes the public domain—jazz ascends. Weatherbird sees no paucity of subjects for others to explore.