Saturday, August 22, 2009

"In the Midst of Life..."

I've developed a tremor in my right arm, and it seems to mark the onset of Parkinson's Disease. But please don't sound the death knell just yet. As Mark Twain didn't quite say, "The reports of my imminent demise have been faintly exaggerated." I expect to hang on for some years yet.

But there's no escaping increased intimations of mortality. One manifestation has me pondering the enhanced late works of certain jazz musicians, who "knew" they were dying and chose to go out in a rush, cramming in all the playing (or composing) possible, creating right to the uncertain end--among them, Billy Strayhorn, Bill Evans, Stan Getz, Art Pepper and, maybe, John Coltrane. The white guys' untimely deaths were likely catalyzed by earlier drug addiction, while Trane and Strays developed killer cancers. (Getz too, but between smack and smokes and pills, he was already living on borrowed time from early on.)

So how did each man face his unmaking?

Before I examine that, let's look at some alternative situations. Most musicians just go on about their business, getting older, maybe less innovative but still in the game, right up to the moment of their departure. Some of them are longlived and wonderfully creative, like Benny Carter, Ray Brown, Gil Evans, Max Roach, John Lewis, Duke (and some are stubbornly still at it like Dave Brubeck and Hank Jones). Others' deaths come suddenly and unexpectedly--Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan, Eric Dolphy--severing that unique creative flow precipitously; even junk-riddled Chet Baker had some years ahead of him (maybe) were it not for that high window in Amsterdam.

Old age and bad health remove some gradually (Satch, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Dexter Gordon, Miles and Mingus), and others drift away on their own--Monk, Red Garland, Ella--choosing to retire from the fray for whatever reason. Still, there are the few who know they are dying too early, and who insist on playing, recording, writing, travelling, making plans for the future, ignoring that lurking, leering grim reaper for as long as possible.

Consider Billy Strayhorn, then a youngish man in his fifties. Once diagnosed with cancer, Strays chose to keep composing and arranging, continuing to produce material for Ellington and the orchestra, even dictating new music straight from his hospital bed as he weakened. Some of those tunes were brilliant instant classics, "U.M.M.G." and "Blood Count" among them. (And perhaps there were one or two others that Duke didn't get to which finally appeared a few years ago on the series of CDs by that Dutch Jazz Orchestra dedicated to recording unknown Strayhorn.) Ellington's great album And His Mother Called Him Bill was a fitting tribute to the unceasing courage and creativity of dying-too-young Billy, who truly did have "Something to Live For."

One of the numbers that Stan Getz made his own as he was slowly checking out was Strayhorn's harrowing "Blood Count." Like the junkie musicians of the Fifties who cut extra sessions to gather cash more quickly for their habits, one senses that Stan over his last few years (one album says "enjoying a respite from declining health and in the throes of personal transformation") decided to record as often as someone would pay him: some Concord sessions, Herb Alpert with a couple of albums for A&M, several miraculous dates for international Verve; quartets captured live and wonderful tenor/piano duets with late mainstay Kenny Barron, performances autumnal but not early. Recorded at Copenhagen's Cafe Montmartre, the CDs titled Anniversary, Serenity, and the two-disc People Time are albums alternately prickly and placid that enlightened listeners at the time and deservedly continue to be spun, constituting a multi-part epitaph to ol' blue-eyed, multi-personae Stan ("A great bunch of guys," drolly remarked Zoot Sims).

As Doug Ramsey wrote recently at his Rifftides blog, Getz never phoned in a solo. But sometimes, as in these late albums, he transcended his own ineradicable greatness. The amazing cri de coeur that marked his best playing is heard everywhere.

Much more controversial were (actually they still are) the late albums of pianist Bill Evans. Introversion, sensitivity, heart-rending ballads, a thin ravaged body curled over the keyboard... those are the images that usually attend Evans. But not his late trio sessions, multiple-CD sets recorded live at the Village Vanguard and the Keystone and elsewhere. Bill smites the keys and pounds out chords and races through the arrangements, his mind leaping ahead of his fingers at times, the rhythm section hustling hard to keep pace. It seems he knew his days were numbered and he took every performance opportunity to "say" as much as he could in a shortened stretch of time, even as the numbers sprawled out at length. (Methadone in his madness? The false, compelling shimmer of cocaine?)

Evans' attendant muse/lover/nurse for his final year or two was a young woman named Laurie, so there must be some sort of irony in the fact that it was another Laurie who supported, organized, and drove cleaned-up saxman Art Pepper in his late, post-junk, post-jail career. Not that he needed that much of a push; "pent-up" is definitely the adjective for ex-prisoner Art, whose emotional, intense music literally exploded out over his final half-decade comeback. Quartets, bigger groups, strings, prescient duets with pianist George Cables, even raging solo tracks: Pepper played them all. And this onetime master of the short and pithy solo, from his Stan Kenton days through the long years of addiction, suddenly was ranging inside, outside, and all over performance stages from Japan to the Vanguard, his alto statements much impelled by the sound, and fury, of ascendant John Coltrane. So many faltered at the feet of Trane... but Pepper somehow burned on through, in the process becoming the dominant alto on the late-Seventies jazz scene. And then he too was dead.

Coltrane, of course, was always a special exemplar, uniquely and incessantly pursuing the ultimate tenor solo, whether it required hundreds of 32nd notes, dozens of shifting chords, or a couple of hours of overblowing. But rather than a madman he was a spiritual leader and gentle, if driven, explorer--a saint of the sax. Yet as his liver and inner light struggled more, perhaps all unknowing he simply played all the harder and longer, determined to get... there... wherever "there" was. The Live in Seattle album, stellar excursions, "interplanetary" duets with Rashied Ali, and late bootlegged concerts together reveal a musician poised on the edge and ready to leap off. With nowhere else to go, he did.

Ah well, excuse the overwriting. Trying to grasp and explicate a talent like Coltrane's is maybe like grappling with Stephen Hawkings' explanations of the universe--perfectly lucid but still unfathomable. Was it Samuel Johnson who remarked that "The prospect of being hanged concentrates the mind wonderfully"? Death does have a way of taking charge whether you are a great musician reaching for the unknown or a straggling, trying-to-catch-up fan. (Maybe it's pertinent that Coltrane admired Getz and once said, "We'd all sound like that if we could.")

As one late, exhausted bass sax player was heard to gasp, "Time to rest my case."


Alan Kurtz said...

One artist who deserves mention in this context is Paul Desmond. Although he lacked the energy towards the end to "go out in a rush," as you put it, he certainly went out with uncommon grace. I especially love the mordant wit (so characteristic of Paul) of the cover photo on his album The Paul Desmond Quartet Live (Horizon, 1975), where his suspenders are decorated with little death's heads. The poignancy of his playing in what he knew were the last couple of years of his life remains inspirational.

I Witness said...

I have smacked my forehead and chastised my intermittent brain. OF COURSE Paul Desmond should have been among those mentioned, especially since the Brubeck Quartet has been so important in "my" jazz life. (In fact, I'll be seeing Dave in a club in a couple of weeks... ghod willing.) Thanks for the visual memory of Paul.

Victor Bravo Monchego, Jr said...

Thank you, my pal.