Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Pennies for the Old Guys

I was on the road for several days, with time to contemplate the fitful hours, and the major events of several months...
Bud Shank, 82, sailing his alto into the variegated sunset. Elegant Hank Jones tiptoeing away as well, ending at 91 the brilliant Jones Bros. era. Dave Brubeck celebrating his 90th birthday for a week or three. Genial James Moody uncommonly silent and withdrawn, succumbing to cancer at 86--then days later, nearly unnoticed, Clark Terry tootling quietly past his 90-year mark. Tony Bennett easing back a bit, 84-years-young and still radiant with Astoria-Italian soul. Randy Weston standing tall at 84, for Duke and Monk and stride and, always, Africa. Benny Golson, a spry 81, blues-marching on with slick chick Betty and funky Killer Joe. Sonny Rollins and his sax blowing more angularly year after year--a mere kid of 80...

I look around imagining I might well discover centenarian Benny Carter still composing and conducting and playing his tempered alto, with Johnny Hodges and Charlie Parker taking note(s)! The stalwart giants of Modern Jazz are still leaving tracks, still making their marks. I'm very happy to add that the above rollcall of musicians represents Jazz masters I fortuitously got to see and hear live (all save Golson and Weston), whether in concerts or clubs--or in the case of Moody and Terry, in separate performances with the fine Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra (add Jimmy Heath to that select group), during which the featured gents all showed themselves to be moving more slowly but staying cheerful and witty, still able to get around on their horns--even two at a time in Clark's inimitable fashion. (And the only mumbling was intentional.)

Long-lived and alert, secure in their individual approaches to playing, without becoming slaves to their own styles... I think of poet William Butler Yeats aging into greatness, writing better and better the older he got, as opposed to the more typical range of artists who make a splash when young but cannot progress much beyond that (Hemingway and Faulkner, Eliot and Frost). Which values growth (or change at least) and staying power over instant, flash-in-the-pan success--Matisse or Picasso, say, instead of Warhol and Pop Art, or most of the Abstract Expressionists. (I actually revere all the names I've dropped here, but who would dispute the locked-in, long dying fall of many artistic careers?)

But getting back to Jazz, every one of the musicians mentioned above released praiseworthy albums in the 21st century's first ten years. Bud Shank was a whirlwind, recording almost yearly, challenging himself right through to his final CD, Fascinating Rhythms. Every Hank Jones album was a blessing, but especially his separate tributes to brother Thad (with brother Elvin assisting) and to their father. Brubeck alternated quartet projects (London Flat, London Sharp) and solo piano treats like the grace-filled Indian Summer and his unique reminiscence of WWII music called Private Brubeck Remembers. Moody went out with a dual bang, gifting us with sax-and-rhythm sets featuring Kenny Barron and stripped-down titles 4A and 4B. (Hank and Moody also teamed up for Our Delight, which I had missed but now have on order for some suitable seasonal cheer.)

Perennial off-the-radar brass man Clark Terry had two CDs I'm on the trail of, too (grammatical or no), his Porgy and Bess using the Miles/Gil Evans charts but with Clark on flugelhorn, and One on One's duets between Clark and 14 different pianists. Tony sang Duets too, soundly trouncing the feeble Sinatra sets, and more recently joined the current Basie "ghost" aggregation for some Christmas Jazz--while Benny recalled Art Farmer and Curtis Fuller for a near-Jazztet album, then gathered a tight new crew for his New 'Tet CD. Randy took us back to Africa with The Storyteller, and Sonny took us out on tour with his Road Songs, not to mention the harrowing live set recorded in Boston a few days after 9-11. And I'm ignoring all the reissues and special compilations and retrospective box sets each of these gentlemen merited.

Yes, it was a decade of grandeur for the great elders of Jazz...

Yet as a flailing 67-year-old who has survived (survived so far, that is; and knock wood for me, would you?) too-early prostate cancer and now the shaky onset of Parkinson's, I can only marvel at the excellent genes and general good health of so many of the music's distinguished seniors. As 2010 shudders and fades, I'm haunted by shabby, two-cents-worth "Intimations of Mortality" (no Immortality per Wordsworth seems likely), bumping up against Jazz's continuing... call it "Integrations of Improvising," the brain and the fingers staying agile, the breath available, each player's place in the scheme continually being discovered and claimed, and all present then "articulating sweet sounds together."

Yeats got it wrong, you see: Our best retain all conviction, full of passionate intensity right to the end. All unknowing perhaps, these aged Jazzmen have held to their roles and played their parts:

A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress.

No musician, I pray that I too may be--dying young or old--another such foolish, passionate man.


Alan Kurtz said...

Ed, thanks for a lovely post. It's refreshing to read this at a time of year when fake jollity abounds. Santa's Ho-Ho-Ho seems strained, given 9.8% unemployment, our armed forces warring in a distant land, and the Party of No, Hell No poised to take over Congress. Thankfully the elders you name inspire us to remain upright on the declining slope of age, to welcome each new day as a gift no matter how unattractively it may be wrapped, and to keep on truckin'.

I'm not religious, but I'm impressed by the way this Bible phrase equates perseverance with longevity:

"Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, whereunto thou art also called, and hast professed a good profession before many witnesses."

I Witnesses, no doubt. Merry Christmas, Ed.

I Witness said...

Alan Kurtz is one of the most stringent and astringent writers on the web, which makes his comment doubly amazing and valued by me. He has a new book available via Amazon, titled Stereotypes in Black Music: The African-American Crossover Compromise--a most rigorous examination of race records old and new, racial stereotypes black and white, and race-baiting by any and all. Read it for the good of your soul and the betterment of our staggered, staggering society.