Friday, April 03, 2009

The Building of a Jazz Man

Beneath the Spin * Eric L. Wattree

The Building of a Jazz Man 
There are two things in this world that allow me to remain sane–writing and music. I’d be in absolute agony if I ever had to choose one over the other, because they are one–one is an extension of the other. Each in its own way allow me to express a part of my being. There are some concepts that I can only express in words, in which case, I sit down and begin to write; but there are other things that spring from a place so deep within my soul--the pain of loss, deception, or of being disappointed by a friend or loved one, for example--that it can only be expressed through raw emotion, which means my horn--it's cathartic. So I’d be completely remiss if I didn’t mention such an important part of my life in the context of this written interview.
The saxophone keeps me connected to my roots, and who I am fundamentally, so it contributes to my writing in that way as well. Sometimes when I get on my high horse and begin to speak the superficial language of the Washington pundits or the mainstream media, I simply have to glance at my horn to remember why I started writing in the first place–to present the views of those who are too often overlooked. In fact, it reminds me that I’m much more of a translator than I am a writer.  I seek to translate the emotional truths that Bird, Miles,Trane, and others set forth in their harmonic and melodic constructions into readable prose. As I mentioned above, that’s not always possible, but my horn keeps me in touch with my mission, and it reminds me to remain focused on doing the best I can in that respect.
My father put that horn in my hands when I was a kid. While he had many flaws (one of my first memories in life was of the police coming to my house in the middle of the night, shooting my dog, and dragging him off to the penitentiary), but at his core, he was a good man, a loving father, and a jazz fanatic. For him, the Sun only rose in the morning so it could keep Charlie Parker's reeds warm. So he wasn’t able to give me much, but what he did give me turned out to be one of the most potent and enduring forces in my life.
I’ll never forget the day he gave me that horn. It was on a Sunday morning. He opened the case, and there it was, smiling at me for the very first time, with its pearly-white keypads and glistening gold body gleaming in the sunlight against the deep blue felt lining of its case. Even now, I can remember my excitement as the newness of it’s smell filled my young nostrils.
But to my surprise, he also brought Jimmy home with him - for what, I didn’t know. Jimmy was the neighborhood’s quintessential dope fiend and general substance abuser. Thus, to my even greater surprise, it turned out that he had brought Jimmy home to teach me to play the saxophone. I was very doubtful that Jimmy could teach anyone to do anything but shoot dope, toss back a pint or two and nod, but I wasn’t worried about that at the time - I just couldn’t wait for him to put that horn together.
It seemed like it took him forever to extract the pad-saver and adjust the reed on the mouthpiece. Then they finally put the strap around my neck. Jimmy showed me where to place my fingers, and then I blew my first official note on the saxophone, and I got one of the most horrifically agonizing sounds out of that horn that ANYONE has ever heard. It made my mother jump up out of bed and run into the living room yelling, "What is going on in here!"
I became immediately frustrated, because I just couldn’t figure out how something that was so beautiful could produce such a horrible sound. Then my father said, "Wait a minute, son. Jimmy, show him how this thing is supposed to sound."
Jimmy, as I mentioned before, was not only a dope fiend, but over the years he had degenerated into an extremely unkempt drunk as well. He had become the kind of person who was completely dismissed by even the most down-on-their-luck adults, and the kids used to like to play practical jokes on him when we found him nodded-out somewhere in the neighborhood. And I'm now ashamed to say that I was one of the most prolific and abusive of the bunch. But when Jimmy put that horn into his mouth and began to play "Round Midnight," he became a different person. Now he was in his element - Jimmy was in command. All of the disappointments and humiliations in life slipped under his fingers and out the bell of that horn as some of the most beautiful licks that I’d ever heard before or since.
Even as a kid I could see the confidence, the focus, and knowledge reflected in his eyes. I could see the young Jimmy. I could see all of his hopes and dreams that seems to have gone astray. And to this day, I have never heard ANYBODY play "Round Midnight" with such passion and ease of facility, and I’ve heard it played by some of the greatest saxophone players who has ever lived, but not one of them has been able to touch me in the spot that Jimmy reached that Sunday morning of my youth. And this was playing cold, on a brand new saxophone, and he probably hadn’t touched a horn in years - and not to mention he was loaded (one of the last times I ever saw him in that condition, by the way).
When Jimmy was done, my father told me, in his typically graphic and offhand way, "Now, I want you to hang on to this horn like it’s your momma’s tiddy, and you’ll never be broke or alone." Then he looked over at Jimmy and added, "unless you start shootin’ that shit." I followed my father’s advice, and his words have turned out to be prophetic. But actually, after watching the transformation in Jimmy when he picked up that horn, my father didn’t have to say another word.
So even as I respond to this interview, and speak of my love for the written word, a lifelong friend sits in its stand with that same beautiful smile that first greeted me as a child. The beauty of its song is a constant reminder that the written word is only one part of my life. Unlike a corporeal being, its only reason for existence is to carry out the blessing of a long departed father upon his son. But much like a sensuously flawless and indulgent woman, it waits patiently, still gleaming in the sunlight with its glistening keys and curvaceous body, as though longing for my loving and passionate embrace.
So thank you, Jimmy, for pulling your life together long enough to give me one. This one's for you, my man:
was told as a child 
Blacks had no worth,
Not a nickel’s worth of dimes.
I believed that myth 
‘Til Dex rode in
With his ax 
In double time.
horn was soarin’,
The changes flyin’,
His rhythm right on time;
My heart 
Beat with the pleasure 
Of new found pride, 
His blood 
Flowed through mine.
Took the chords 
The keyboard played,
And danced around each note;
Then shuffled ‘em 
Like a deck of cards,
And didn’t miss a stroke.
B minor 7 with flatted 5th,
a half diminished chord,
He substituted a lick in D,
Then really began to soar.
He tipped his hat 
To Charlie Parker,
and quoted 
Trane with Miles,
Then paid his homage to 
Thelonious Monk,
In Charlie Rouse’s style.
He took 
a Scrapple From The Apple,
Then went to Billie’s Bounce,
The rhythm section, now on fire,
But he didn’t budge an ounce.
He just
dug right in 
to shuffle again,
This time
A Royal Flush,
Then lingered a bit 
Behind the beat,
Still smokin’
But in no rush.
Then he
doubled the time
just like this rhyme,
in fluid 16th notes,
Charlie and Lester,
“your baby boy, Dexter’s,
on top of the 
bebop you wrote.”
like a banshee,
this prince of saxophone,
His ballads dripped of honey, 
His Arpeggios were strong.
Callin’ on his idles,
Ghost of Pres’ 
within in the isles,
smiling at his protege, 
At the peak of this new style.
His tenor
Drenched of Blackness,
And all the things we are–
Of pain, and pleasure, 
And creative greatness
Until his final bar.
Eric L. Wattree

Religious bigotry: It's not that I hate everyone who doesn't look, think, and act like me - it's just that God does.

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