Sunday, August 19, 2007

Farewell Max Roach—And Thank You For All That Jazz.

Sittin' in the living room with the headphones on. Boppin', steady boppin'.

(Just taking a brief weekend break from all of this week's tumultuous political news—and when isn't it tumultuous with this crew of late, especially with so many of 'em running to get away like the “no spoken-line” extras at the explosion-filled end of a 007 flick?)

On Thursday Morning, at about 10 a.m., I got a call from one of my oldest friends, a musician and music writer in town. His weighted sigh before saying his usual “Hey!”, gave me immediate pause. Know a guy for 25 years, and you can pick that kind of thing up in a wordless “sigh”.

”Um...are you near a computer right now?”, he asked ominously.

“Got no choice”, I said. “They've chained it to me, here. What's up? What do you need me to check?”

“Have you heard anything about Max Roach?”

“Ahhhhh, no! C'mon man, don't tell me something like that. Max? Shit. Lemme check.”

Check I did, but there was no mention across the wires or anyplace—which meant of course, nothing.

“I don't see anything...but you know how they do with Jazz people.”, I said.

“But Max? Max is BIG.”

“He's still Jazz. It could have happened today, and we wouldn't hear about it until Sunday. That's how they do.”

“But... Max Roach?“

“ˆIt's Jazz, D. I can't get a corroboration here. So, it may be true. May not. News ain't gonna tell us.”

“I heard it half an hour ago on the grapevine. Folks here in Brooklyn are talking about it. It's already on his Wikipedia page.”


“Would somebody do that maliciously? I mean, people do shit like that...but, why would they do it to Max”?

“That 's kinda out there. But...what can you say? There's no other source. We'll know sooner or later, I guess.”

It pretty much cast a pall over the remainder of my day, dwelling on it. I'm a huge Jazz fan, and just thinking about the loss of a giant like Max was a serious downer. Alas, in a couple of hours, it was confirmed—long before it hit the news wires, by my best friend, M______ in L.A., whose father is a Jazz pianist of some reknown. He called me, having heard it from his dad here in NY, who'd heard from Max's family themselves. Broke on the wires about three hours later. Then I saw Hubris's “Farewell, Max” post a bit after that. Brought me waaaaaaaay down.

And it sent me back to me childhood. I grew up in an intensely musical household—my father having been a performer himself some years before, was a big time buff, gravitating towards the phenomenal vocalists—solo and harmony groups, as well as a huge appreciation for Jazz. Even moreso than my hearing Jazz played in the house in those early sense-memory years, I remember a lot of sadness around Jazz. In a one-year span, Jazz suffered a crippling series of losses. From the spring of '67, to the early summer of '68 we lost Billy Strayhorn—one of the genre's finest composers under Duke Ellington (Satin Doll, Lush Life, Something To Live For, Take The “A” Train), John Coltrane—the protean saxophone genius whose experimental spirit (coupled with peerless technique) would lead the musicians who followed to plumb the vistas of their imaginations, and then...the mighty Wes Montgomery, perhaps the most influential, and most beloved Jazz guitarist to ever stride across the bandstand. I remember that sad time all too well, because it seemed to my child's eyes, that Jazz musicians simply died young, and that's all there was to it. Par for the course. How ironic my child's instinct was, with that small sampling I knew of then.

I can still see my dad sitting in the living room, the lights down low, and a tumbler of scotch—one of the only times I remember him drinking hard liquor at home—listening to his Wes Montgomery records the day after he passed away. Chin resting on clasped hands, eyes wet and straight ahead, he sat, mourning. And my mom, I remember, quietly shushing us kids—me, two toddlers and an infant brother, to give Daddy his space.

“Sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-shhhhhh. Give your Daddy some time, please.

And we did.

It wasn't until years later that I learned about tragedy coming in threes—Jazz's awful trifecta of losses in the early fifties, of the shooting star that was Fats Navarro, the indescribable artistry of Charlie Parker , and the sad, freak snatching away of the impossibly gifted Clifford Brown. Or Rock's brutal ten months from September of '70 to July of '71 where Janis, Jimi and Jim all jaw-droppingly checked out. I suppose during those times, we all needed “some time”, and took it when we could. I just remember my Daddy sitting there in the dark...grieving, with Wes's single note plucks “bloomp”-ing from the speaker, flanked by little hi-hat swishes, and a silky bass pulse hanging back in the cut. The sounds echoing off the wall, and back to Daddy's heart—massaging the pain away as best it could.

My father taught us to appreciate Jazz—and by extension all music, as it was through the listening to Jazz, and Daddy's odd professorial bent to immersing us in it that helped me and my siblings grasp music on a more subtle level beyond...“Hey, I like that song.” . He would be standing there in the living room, and as one of us would go by, he'd go, “Hey, come here for a minute...I want you to hear something.”—and he'd bend over, and pick up the needle and set it back a minute or so in the song so we could hear the band really starting to cook.

“Listen here at what the drummer does.”, he'd say, as we heard the player lay off the kick drum, and work the brushes with the occasional snare “pop” under a trumpeter's hot solo—keeping the time, but working subtly to give some “air” to the soloist. Then, a tumbling run on the kick and snare on the trail out, to cue the pianist for his flight of fancy. You could almost “see” the nod from him to the next guy—maybe even hear a faint “Ummmph.” from him on the cue-in.

But we learned to hear the interplay from the band at work, and how the music sounded while being made in real time. The pushing, the pulling, cajoling and resting. The building up, and peeling back of the massed instruments for effect. Sensitivity to each other's playing—setting up your fellow band member for a magic moment. The feeding off one another, and the band, and the song becoming an organic, living thing as it moves along.

And there would stand Daddy, his hands fluttering in the air, as he conducted the song, fingers stabbing as he'd point to the horn section, a swooping hand that stops on a dime to cue the piano solo. He knew the songs cold, and that knowledge was shared with his children—fired by an exuberance for the music itself.

Those “Toscanini” moments of his taught us how to listen to music in general, to its subtlety. I thank him for that. but I truly thank him for instilling that love of Jazz itself, beyond its use as a teaching tool.

That appreciation has given me so much joy in my life, in so many ways. Many a night has been spent sitting up in my own grown-up living room, grooving to Mingus, and Duke, and “The Hawk”, and Bird. Transported to Tunisia, then Back to the Chicken Shack, reveling Body and Soul, Moanin' while dreaming of A Love Supreme.

Beyond the headphones, there was enjoyment, too.

That day in Nantés, France as I walked down a side street, and from someone's window, Art Blakey's “Moanin'” began to play, echoing off the buildings—and a man several paces in front of me, walking along, his pace soon matching Blakey's propulsive beat, and finally my chuckle as he did a little Fred Astaire hop-skip, just as the horns kicked in on the main melody line, and then strode hard the rest of the way—dead-on the beat, as if in his own private MGM musical dance number.

Or the day I realized my dad knew Art Blakey—while walking up Sixth Avenue near West 48th St. in Manhattan with Daddy, who should we run into but Art himself, going west with a bevy of people in tow. Daddy and Art hugged hard, exchanging pleasantries and some small talk, as passing musicians on their way east on 48th stopped and gawked at the impossibly famous white-haired Black man gabbing with the unknown, white-haired one, and then, the goofy teen looking on with his mouth dropped open in awe. Turns out Daddy and Art knew each other from their old Nation Of Islam days in the late fifties. Daddy and Blakey, reeking of Canoe and 4711, cloves and barely-filtered Salems. Just yakking at the corner of 48th and 6th. Damn.

The best night of all—my 8 1/2 months pregnant ex-wife (a Jazz singer, of course) and I go on a whim, to see The Incredible Jimmy Smith—the greatest Jazz organist, ever, with Kenny Burrell on guitar, and the sublime Grady Tate on drums at a club on a rain-drenched NY Saturday night.

How often do you get to see the best ever at something, live at work? We did. Found ourselves seated three feet from the bandstand, our table looking right at Jimmy and that burbling Hammond B-3 sound pouring out of the whirling Leslie speaker. Jimmy rocked “The Sermon” and “Au Privave”, while Kenny vamped liquid lines and Grady sang a lush “It Might As Well Be Spring”. It was magical. The wife and I sat there swooning with eyes closed much of the time, and when we opened our eyes we saw Jimmy smiling at us, He pointed at her belly, and looped right into a few bars of “Rock-A-Bye-Baby” in the middle of a solo, and laughed while shaking his head—living and loving the moment. And when the set was done, he came and sat with us at the table, that happy genius, laughing and talking—“I was gonna play that baby right outta ya'll! I know you're about due!” He sampled the ex's beef ribs right off her plate, pronounced it “spectacular”, and then picked up the tab, and quietly comped us for the second set—I guess because we seemed to enjoy the music so. This giant played for us, and then hung with us, and then played again, swinging so hard that I know he upset the earth's axis that night. Eyes pinched closed on solos, fingers flying and sound erupting—shot from brain, straight through, to the mighty B-3.

Thank you God, thank you...for letting me see The Incredible Jimmy Smith live.

And thank you for Max Roach, For all 83 years of him. An eternity in the shooting-star firmament of Jazz. A door closes with his leaving—the last link to the period when Jazz passed puberty and grew to adulthood. The first class of Be-bop “U”. Diz. Bird. Monk. Clarke, Powell. And Max. He was the last of that crew of innovators who changed the sound—swinging “swing” so hard that it looped the loop and came down as something else entirely.

Max was the last link, this proud, super-talent with platinum hands and the golden ear. A chameleon who could thunder with Blakey one minute, and then go cat quiet on the brushes, keeping perfect time, with enough air left to hear everyone else clearly. Again, a protean talent, growing, changing—ever open to influence, yet also a fiercely dedicated fighter for equality, sometimes letting us all know that the art itself was not enough, protesting in the middle of concerts—not all of them his. But doing what had to be done at the time.

A teacher. A sharer. He reminded me of my father, with his love for the music, and enthusiasm. And his fiery spirit of justice. I miss my Daddy. And I shall miss you, Max. A son of North Carolina like Daddy was.

I have a lifetime of memories of my father. I can turn them on when I want to, and smile. I can turn you on when I need to also, Max. A turntable, an iPod and an iTunes library full of you keeping time. Driving the combo, and accenting a line. Classy, fiery, gentle and propulsive.


Thank you for it. For all of it.