Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Draft book prolog

Dim lights. Sparse audience. Break is over. The bartender silences the recorded music. The band strolls back to the stand, also known as “the altar” in some jazz clubs.
It’s a Sunday night jam session and I sat in at the end of the first set. Maybe they will call me up to play again because the night is slow. My tarnished brass saxophone lies behind me on the bar and I lean back to face my friends adjusting themselves on stage at the piano, bass and drums.
The music starts.
The front door swings open. In walks Nat King Cole’s piano playing brother, Freddy, and trumpeter Eddie Henderson. The duo is on the road and performing at Seattle’s Jazz Alley. After their show they must have decided to visit the local scene. Although we have never met, I recognize Eddie from attending his shows and owning several recordings that feature his portrait. Carmel skin, bald head, wire rim glasses and strong jaw line. He plays like a trumpet god.
Oh man! If I get called up now to perform, there are some serious listeners in the house. My heart races as my confidence scurries to safety behind the bar. Even though the lights are still dim, my saxophone feels like it’s under a spotlight. My ego tries to twist fear into bravado.

Freddy and Eddie sit at the other end of the bar, watching the band. Eddie glances down the bar, sees my horn, makes eye contact and walks toward me.
I chant “Eddie” or “I’m not worthy” or maybe nothing. I can’t remember. I raise my arms and bow repeatedly in his direction. Playful and respectful at the same time.
“This drummer isn’t doing it for me,” he says. As if we were old friends, he launches into a detailed description of magic he witnessed in 1967 at John Coltrane’s next to last public performance. Coltrane seated but towering musically over the room. The transfixed audience. The transcendent sound.
I’m in awe. I encourage him with words of agreement. He’s the preacher. I’m the congregation. He’s the leader. I’m the work gang. He’s the call. I’m the response.
He closes by nodding to the band. “Jazz isn’t just what goes on up there.” He points back and forth between us. “It’s this, too.”
*****
I have been an aspiring saxophone improviser for almost four decades. I still enjoy adding to what fits inside the word jazz.
So what is jazz? “The sound of surprise,” Whitney Balliet said. Some say it’s a 20th Century name for the oldest dance – the mating call. Some say it’s a racist label that constrains the scope and quality of musical expression. Others declare it is revolution. Maybe it’s democracy. Sidney Bechet said it is the sound of celebrating freedom.
To me, jazz is an echo of that old song or duende sung by the mix of Moors, gypsies, Jews, Gauls, Germans, Romans, Greeks and blended Muladi from the Iberian Peninsula. This ancient soul combined with communal rhythm of West African tribes fertilized the mouth of the Mississippi and every city in upstream tributaries – New Orleans, Memphis, St. Louis, Kansas City and Chicago.
Most of it is unwritten, passed from hand and mouth to ear in the moment of creation. It lives as long as people perform and listen. Each innovator and unique voice sings briefly. Their songs and lives are remembered in new generations of listeners and performers.
The music is jazz, the stories are jazz and the community is jazz. This is seldom told, but well known among those with the good fortune to participate.
Many focus their attention on the moment of creation in a recording studio, at a concert or through an artist’s individual journey. But what about those who foster creating out of earshot from the public? Who nurtures the community of peers lifting their lives through music? Who spreads the music without narrowing the focus to themselves?
This book is the story of one of those generous artists whom I never met in person but am learning from through others. He was a dedicated learner and teacher, a jazz saxophonist who chose community over fame, an activist through action instead of words, admired by his peers but unknown to a wide audience – Joe Brazil.

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