Ahmet Ertegun, founder of the label and now its co-chairman and co-CEO, and his late brother Nesuhi were already jazz fans when they moved to the United States, and were fortunate enough to be able to invite jazz musicians to play at their home, which was the Turkish Embassy in Washington, D.C., where their father was Ambassador. This remarkable life, and Ahmet’s ability to function on all social levels, are documented in an extraordinary two-part New Yorker profile by George W.S. Trow. (I remember that the mystery writer Donald Westlake and I had been discussing the articles when we walked into Carroll O’Connor’s restaurant in Beverly Hills. Ahmet Ertegun was sitting there. Westlake didn’t know who the elegant man in the blazer was, and when I told him, he called his wife in New York to tell her who he had seen.)
From an article by Joe Goldberg, in Billboard, 1/17/98
First they stopped at Big Wilt’s Small’s Paradise Inn at 135th Street and Seventh Avenue and stood for a moment at the front of the circular bar. They drank two whiskeys each and talked to each other about the caper.
The bar stools and surrounding tables were filled with the flashily dressed people of many colors and occupations who could afford the price for air-conditioned atmosphere and the professional smiles of the light-bright chicks tending bar. The fat black manager waved the bill on the house and they accepted; they could afford to drink freebies at Small’s, it was a straight joint.
Afterwards they sauntered toward the back and stood beside the bandstand, watching the white and black couples dancing the twist in the cabaret. The horns were talking and the saxes talking back.
“Listen to that,” Grave Digger said when the horn took eight on a frenetic solo. “Talking under their clothes, ain’t it?”
Then the two saxes started swapping fours with the rhythm always in the back. “Somewhere in that jungle is the solution to the world,” Coffin Ed said. “If we could only find it.”
“Yeah, it’s like the sidewalks trying to speak in a language never heard. But they can’t spell it either.”
“Naw,” Coffin Ed said. “Unless there’s an alphabet for emotion.”
“The emotion that comes out of experience. If we could read that language, man, we could solve all the crimes in the world.”
“Let’s split,” Coffin Ed said, “Jazz talks too much to me.”
“It ain’t so much what it says,” Grave Digger agreed, “It’s what you can’t do about it.”
They left the white and black couples in their frenetic embrace, guided by the talking of the jazz, and went back to their car.
“Life could be great but there are hoodlums abroad,” Grave Digger said, climbing into the car.
“You ain’t just saying it, Digger; hoodlums high and hoodlums low.”
From Cotton Comes to Harlem, by Chester Himes.
It had been a long time. In the nabe of thirty years. I moved to the Bronx. I went back to school. I went into debt. I fell in love. I developed other interests. I got old. I needed sleep. I’m not saying any of these are good enough reasons. But whatever the reason, I stopped going to jazz clubs and following David Murray around like a stalker.
For a while there, though, I was going to see the greatest musicians on earth, playing in rundown bars and basements, sometimes every week. Sometimes in tonier establishments. Sometimes even in concert halls. Or at the old Central Park bandshell, in Summerstage season (Olu Dara once changed the weather while I was listening to him blow cornet there. Go ahead, roll your eyes. I saw it.)
I’ll run down some of the names. Dizzy Gillespie (past his prime, still a showman with few equals). Benny Carter (his prime somehow never ended). Sonny Rollins (once at the Museum of Modern Art sculpture garden, once at the Damrosch bandshell). Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and McCoy Tyner–both at Mikell’s, one of many great uptown clubs that went the way of all things.
I never got to the vocalists much (more of a night club thing, not my scene, stuck to records), but I saw Sarah Vaughan, Dakota Staton. All yours for dinner and drinks, maybe a cover charge. Hell, the Rollins concerts were free.
I caught Murray’s Big Band at the Town Hall Theater once (best acoustics imaginable in a venue that size). Benny Carter at the Cooper Union with the American Jazz Orchestra and an ambitious new composition (good acoustics, tricky sightlines).
Mainly it was clubs. I don’t remember all the names, and most of them are gone now anyway. (The rent is too damn high). Saw Murray with the World Saxophone Quartet at one place I couldn’t find on a map now. There was this girl bending Julius Hemphill’s ear about what a great saxophonist she was. I guess if you want to break in, you can’t be the shy type.
Sweet Basil was good if you wanted to see Murray’s Octet–more space, great acoustics and sightlines. Decent food, too. Good beer for the time period (Becks). One time between sets, he sat down next to me to chat with a friend. They talked about his marriage and stuff. I just sat there and questioned the nature of reality. I have never once tried to engage him in conversation, even though we’ve been inches apart. Never figured me for the shy type, did you?
But the place I kept going back to was the Vanguard. Down those stairs, to the most storied basement on earth (smaller than some apartments I’ve been in).
You weren’t necessarily going to see the very biggest marquee names there, during the 80’s. If they were there, you’d have a hard time getting in. But you saw the finest workmen–the ones who drew the people who wanted more than just marquee names. Don Pullen. Kenny Barron. Art Farmer. Milt Jackson. Sonny Fortune. George Coleman. Harold Mabern. Lester Bowie. George Adams. Danny Richmond. Jim Hall. And David Murray.
Max Gordon was still alive when I started going there. I’d see him in the back sometimes, by the bar. Three sets back then, and I’d invariably stay for all three, getting home maybe three in the morning sometimes (these were weekday gigs–back when I could get up after eight and still get in to work on time).
I’d sneer at all the one and two set wimps, who filtered out as the evening went on, until sometimes the band outnumbered the audience. But they still played like it was to a full house composed of crowned heads of Europe. The last set is always the best. Because by that point, they’re playing for themselves.
And much as I might rant to anyone who’d listen about the sheer injustice of it–how musicians with not a tenth the ability had a thousand times the audience (or more)–I wasn’t really bitching so much as bragging. ‘You think you know what music is, but I know.’ Just like I am now. Well, that goes with the territory.
You can go see your rock god in some looming amphitheater, up there in the nosebleeds, far away. Maybe as he ages, you can catch him at a smaller venue, showing his age more and more (I suppose if you’re rich enough, you can do better–a cheap victory, purchased at exorbitant rates, never really about the music.)
It’s the jazz buff who can worship his or her gods up close and personal, hear every nuance, be bathed in the music, lifted by it, know for a few hours what it is to stand atop Olympus–perhaps only pilgrims to Mecca or Rome or Jerusalem ever experience anything comparable. But so briefly, after so arduous a journey. The Vanguard was my Kaaba, my St. Peter’s Basilica, my Wailing Wall. I can be there in 40 minutes if the trains are running right. What took me so long? Did I mention I got old?
I wonder if sometimes he was down there with me. You know. The guy whose name is up top. If not those particular nights, then others–more than me, I’ll bet. The Vanguard, once a speakeasy called The Golden Triangle, opened as a music/comedy club in 1935–not even two years after your man was born in Brooklyn.
It was a full time jazz venue by 1957, by which time he’d come to live in the then-affordable Village, and was writing short stories and sleaze paperbacks to pay the rent. He could have walked it. Cover charge for one set today is thirty-five bucks. I believe it was fifteen when I was a regular, in the mid-to-late 80’s. So maybe a five spot in ’57? When the biggest names in jazz were down there. I think we can assume he was there. (And at the actual Five Spot in Cooper Square, and the long-lost 52nd St. clubs–when he had the time, and the funds. Romance without finance–always a nuisance.)
But far as I know, he never mentioned it. He didn’t write about jazz that much–I think maybe because it was too sacred to him, and (I’m guessing) because he didn’t feel qualified to cover the finer points–but it was part of everything he wrote. Nobody ever valued improvisation more highly than Donald E. Westlake, master of the ‘push’ method. And he was all about collective individualism, if that makes any sense (individualist collectivism?)
And here’s the analogy I can imagine him making: A jazz combo is a string. A group of talented specialists, who band together in a loose-knit confederation to make a score, then go their separate ways.
Somebody has to lead, and some show more talent for that than others, but it won’t always be the same one leading, and it’s never an absolute dictatorship–maybe to some extent with a big band, which requires more regimentation, but that was a short-lived era (too expensive) and the best bands–Ellington, Basie–were never known for over-drilled martial discipline. You don’t lose your identity in a great band, you develop it. And everybody gets a chance to solo. From each according to his means.
At that time in my life I hadn’t heard of him (and as the article snippet up top illustrates, having heard of someone doesn’t guarantee recognition). He could have been sitting behind me, or next to me, and I wouldn’t have known. Though not in front of me, because I was always up front. I don’t think he was living in the city at the time, so maybe our Vanguard eras didn’t overlap. There can be no doubt at all that his ghost is one of many haunting that bass-ridden basement. As mine will be someday, I hope.
So this is all very Jesuitical of me. I want to review Murray’s gig. I don’t have a jazz blog. I don’t feel like starting one, or think there’d be any reason to read it if I did. (I can’t even read music.) So I’ve sought and found a way to justify posting my review here. And having done so–the review. (Not a long prologue by my standards.)
(It should be noted, I’m hardly the first Westlake buff to give Mr. Murray his due.)
So what happened was, I read that Lorraine Gordon died. I felt like paying my respects. I checked the website (used to look in the back of the Village Voice to see who was playing, but you know, most Bohemian institutions haven’t aged as well as the Vanguard). Guess who’s coming to visit? Used to be I just paid at the door, and if I could go in the middle of the week, maybe that’d still work, but I reserved online for Friday. Both sets. I may be old, but I’m no wimp.
Jumped on the #1, got there shortly before the first set began, grabbed a slice at Tivoli Pizza (still there!), burned the roof of my mouth wolfing it down , went downstairs, and displayed my virtual ticket on the screen of my smartphone. Some things change, some don’t.
Sold-out house. Would I mind sitting right by the stage? Oh, I’ll bear up somehow.
Same pictures on the walls (maybe some new ones, but they all looked the same age). Same beat-up tuba (one of these years, I’ll ask whose that was.) Same wobbly circular tables. Same Philip Stein mural by the bar. (Did you know he studied at San Miguel de Allende in Mexico? Same town Westlake wrote about in The Damsel? Me neither.)
(Taken between sets. You are basically supposed to forget cellphones ever existed while the music’s playing, and make sure nobody else is reminded of their existence, all of which is fine by me.)
(Taken from my seat. Piano used to be a Yamaha.)
(I checked for a dialtone. Just to make sure I hadn’t gone back in time. Not that far, anyway.)
So not much had changed since last I was there. And then the band got onstage, and Murray hadn’t either. He turned sixty-three last February. Looked about the same as he did thirty years ago, carrying a bit more weight, not showing it much.
Craig Harris, Murray’s longtime collaborator, maybe the best trombone player alive, showed every one of those thirty years, though he is not even one year older than Murray. He’d gone the other way, grown thinner, legs a bit shaky, and he needed to sit down catch his wind frequently. Life is not fair. His chops were strong as ever. Jazz is.
And when he was between solos, he’d come over and sit by me on the long cushioned bench, apologizing when he jostled me a bit. (Craig Harris stepped on my foot. I can die now.)
When it was time for him to stand and deliver again, Murray would shoot him a meaningful look, and Harris never missed that cue. I think I know now, in a way I did not before, what musicians meant when they talked about Benny Goodman giving them ‘The Ray.’ And why Harris, at that Town Hall concert I mentioned, referred to Murray as ‘The Little General.’
Though I was there to hear Murray, in some ways Harris’ performance moved me even more. Every solo took a lot out of him, but he kept finding more. That’s a tough instrument, the slide trombone. As analog as a horn can be, sticking way out in front of you, demanding big moves, as well as a strong embouchure. Takes finesse and power to make it talk the way it should. It’s fairly high-maintenance (I know a guy who has become legendary in the ranks of brass and reed players for his ability to fix their ailing axes). Harris would stop here and there to apply some lubricant to his ax. Then back to the woodpile.
There were moments of unspeakable eloquence, when he teased at the bell of his horn with a plunger mute (the kind you get at the hardware store), kneading it into just the right shape to get just the right note. Sam Nanton never did it better.
(I was also reminded of the existence of the trombone spit valve. Got a little on my foot–I was wearing Birkenstocks. Anointed, you might say. Jazz is not purely an aural sensation at the Vanguard.)
It’s a sextet, Class Struggle. A mix of older and younger musicians, the senior statesmen being Murray and Harris, both well into their sixties. The younger generation is represented by Murray’s son Mingus on electric guitar, Rashaan Carter on bass, and Russell Carter on drums (that must get confusing sometimes). They all soloed ably, laid down the rhythm track with elan. If I’m being honest, I don’t come to clubs to hear bass and drum solos, and my tastes in jazz guitar run more to the Jim Hall school. But if you were napping (not that I ever was), Murray the Younger’s acidic biting licks would jolt you awake PDQ. Everybody solos in jazz, or it’s not jazz.
In the middle was the piano man, Lafayette Gilchrist, who is fifty. As Murray himself says, it’s rare to have guitar and piano in a small combo. I had never seen him play before, and I dug his style a lot (also his porkpie hat–wish I could pull that look off).
Murray tends to favor pianists who can go barrelhouse when the occasion merits it. Gilchrist used his elbows some, as well as his educated fingers. He’d play finely articulated arpeggios on the right, then come down hard with his funnybone on the left. That’s a fine way to treat a Steinway. If he anchors a group of his own at the Vanguard, I’ll be there.
But I was there to see the best tenor sax player of the late 20th, and I really doubt anybody has knocked him off so far in the 21st. Bring back Lester Young, and we’ll see.
Back in the 80’s, Murray moved his shoulders while he played, bobbing and weaving like a prizefighter, which is what he is. I saw less of that this time. (Rotator cuff trouble? Maybe he just decided it wasn’t helping anything.)
But he still swung like nobody else. This is a man who took a bite off of just about every great tenorman’s plate, though most often they talk about Gonsalves and Webster in his mature style. He still retained what learned from Ayler and Shepp–that beauty comes in many forms, some of them outwardly dissonant, but melodic down deep. Old, new, borrowed, and deeply blue.
He is the living embodiment of jazz history–all the lessons learned along the way, all the accumulated influences, distilled into something alive, thoughtful, questing–neither rejecting the past nor living in it. Drawing upon it, like fuel, to provide the escape velocity into a better future. (Westlake would have approved.)
He only picked up his bass clarinet once during the second set, and man I missed that deep sound it makes. A lot of sax players have used the bass clarinet as an alternate, including Dolphy and Coltrane, but none of them treat it like Murray–he recorded the best-ever version of Fats Waller’s Jitterbug Waltz on that horn, and that’s what he does–he waltzes with it.
He didn’t play Jitterbug Waltz this time, or Morning Song, or Bechet’s Bounce, or Dewey’s Circle, or any of the numbers I remember from the 80’s (some of which are better suited to a larger ensemble).
I wish I’d taken notes about what they played, but then again, I really don’t. A bit of Ellingtonia, a bit of Albert Murray (not related), and of course some compositions of his own. He mainly didn’t even bother to tell us what they were playing, because after all, isn’t that what we have ears for? Mine were rusty, after so many years. But they appreciated the grease.
While Harris, for all his inspired blowing, needed to take frequent breaks, Murray played as hard as he did in his 30’s–and stayed on his feet the whole time (I think he did take a bathroom break at one point, but I didn’t ask.) Some players, like Benny Carter, like Max Roach, just don’t seem to tire–age doesn’t touch them, at least until it’s time for them to go.
Each set ran close to ninety minutes, with very little in the way of verbal asides, because they were there to talk by other means. To anybody who could hear them.
Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. (Nobody agrees who said this first.) Then again, why not dance about architecture? Why not sing about novels? Why not write poems about lovemaking? (Actually, isn’t that something most poets do?)
David Murray does all of that and more, and hard as I’ve tried to explain what he does, I didn’t come within a parsec of what Mr. Himes said in that little passage up top. Jazz talks too much to us, and most of the time, we don’t listen that long, or well.
I watched, a bit smugly, a bit sadly, as most of the people at the first set (sold out) got up and left to make room for the people coming in for the second set (also sold out). That hadn’t changed either. (Though back in the day, the third set was never sold out). They’d had their fill. My appetite was barely whetted.
Well, the seats aren’t exactly built for comfort (as my ass was telling me by the end.) The drinks aren’t what you’d call cheap (much fancier bar menu than I remember–no Molson Golden anymore.) I had Pellegrino the first set, Wild Turkey the second. Got to watch the alcohol lately. Long story. Aren’t they all.
Between sets, I briefly met one of Max and Lorraine Gordon’s daughters, and I suppose I should have said I was sorry for her loss, but she’d heard plenty of that already, and I was thinking more of our gain–that there was another generation of Gordons to keep the flame lit a while longer.
Long enough for me to get down there a few score more times before my flame goes out, I hope.
Good morning to all of you, and here’s a song. (And I’m pleased to say, that neon sign was a brief aberration–some change is for the good.)