Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Max and Monk

Recently I wrote about hearing Dave Brubeck for the first time (see post). It was 1957 and I was a young teenager living over in Izmir, Turkey, and soon, courtesy of a mysterious older guy in the small circle of military dependent kids, I was also made aware of drummer Max Roach (and, through him, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie). But the connection was only verbal; I wasn't listening to those BeBop giants yet, just hearing about them from Jim (last name long forgotten).

Jim was 17 and a rebel. Oh, the school had a couple of would-be j.d.'s in jeans, with cigarette packs rolled in their t-shirt sleeves, but Jim was different. He was a hipster, wore his long hair slicked back, and also had grown a small mustache; he dressed nattily in a sportcoat and tie while most of us wore whatever casual clothes the local PX could provide--and he played the drums. His drum kit was substantial and his talent astonishing to us music novices. Sitting behind that expansive set, he'd play rolls and paradiddles, hit snare and cymbal combinations faster than the eye could follow, and generally unleash all the tricks of a solid jazz drummer (so far as we knew anyway). And he would tell us about his role model Max Roach--Max's softer way of using brushes, of shaping a story with his solos, but also of how he powered the great Diz and Bird--who?--tracks of the Forties. ("Koko" was Jim's favorite, and he sure persuaded us with his own fast and furious examples.)

We were mesmerized even though we had no idea what he was talking about. To my recollection, we never asked to hear the actual records; we just wanted to watch and listen to Jim. That was also because his cool hipster stance was even more intriguing: he actually smoked marijuana--casually, right in front of us younger guys--and following in the steps of his Bop heroes, he was rumored, or maybe even claimed himself, to be using heroin! I was always a bookish, straight-arrow kid, so I wasn't willing to follow Jim's lead into the drug experimentation that was seemingly easily available in Turkey back then, but I sure did love to watch him get around those drums. And I know his tales of Roach and the others eventually led me some years later to seek out their challenging music.

Jim's father and family rotated out before us, and I have no idea what became of Jim and his dreams. Was he a working Jazz musician later? Did he become a drug addict like so many of his heroes? Did he settle, like most people, for something less than his original dream? Is he still alive? No clues...

But I do know what happened to my next unexpected Jazz mentor. In the fall of 1960 I was a freshman at Northwestern University, living in a men's dorm; and assigned right across the hall was fledgling Jazz pianist Don, a Beat hipster of sorts sporting a scraggly goatee. Don played Jazz records on his room phonograph day and night, and even with the door closed those sounds drifted out and around our floor--lots of saxophone, Hawkins and Rollins and even some young guy named Coltrane, musicians we other residents started absorbing mostly by osmosis.

But Don's main man was this weird cat named Thelonious Monk, and Don would sit for hours downstairs at the dorm piano, drifting around the keys, fingering odd chords, trying to get Monk's staggered, angular attack just right. And he would talk about the quirky pianist to anyone who asked (I was one). He showed me stride piano and then demonstrated how musicians like Duke and Monk took that rhythmic method and simplified or altered it to help build their own styles.

I wasn't ready for Ellington yet (I wasted too many years treating orchestra Jazz as an unwelcome reminder of my parents' listening habits), but Monk's music was strange and cool and fascinating, and I soon bought some Monk LPs. I had to have that one with the pianist sitting in a child's red wagon (Monk's Music), and luckily also chose the one with him smiling from a trolley car, Thelonious Alone in San Francisco, which quickly became--and remains--one of my short-list favorite records.

Don's playing and his choice of albums literally changed my world, set me finally on the lifelong listening path that Brubeck's cheerful music had only pointed to. Over the years I followed that twisty trail back to Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson (and, yes, the Duke), and ahead to Archie Shepp and Air, and past them to musicians today as diverse as Bill Charlap and Cassandra Wilson and Bill Frisell.

Yes, Jazz periodicals may die, or go on-line, but Jazz in all its bewildering diversity still remains.

I just wish I could say the same for my dorm mentor-become-friend. In a tragic confluence of fate and injustice, Don and two other guys from the floor were driving on a Chicago freeway during Christmas break a year later, and their small car was literally run down and crushed flat by a massive 18-wheeler that lost its brakes...

Play in peace, Don. And thanks.

No comments: