Tag Archives: Jazz

Addendum: A Titled Man

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In my shamelessly self-indulgent David Murray review, I was pleased to open with a quote from  Joe Goldberg, referencing a lunch he had with Donald Westlake in Beverly Hills, in the 90’s.

I’ve referenced Goldberg several times here, because that friendship is of interest to me, and I’d like to know more about it.  Westlake dedicated Somebody Owes Me Money to Goldberg (congratulating him on his recent book by referring to him as ‘a titled man’).  He loved to repeat the story about how he was lamenting that Parker had been played by actors as diverse as Lee Marvin, Robert Duvall, Jim Brown, and Anna Karina. Goldberg (who had been working as a script reader for various studios) quipped “The character lacks definition.”  

I just got a copy of his landmark collection of essays, Jazz Masters of the 50’s, and am reading it now.  He had to give up music criticism for a time, because all the clubs closed down, and he made the exodus to the left coast.

Did you ever wonder how Donald Westlake became friends with Joe Goldberg? They were both born in Brooklyn, but Westlake moved upstate when he was very young.  You probably assumed they met at a club in Greenwich Village, or possibly a record store. Maybe just I assumed that. Whoever assumed it was wrong.  As I just found out.

Turns out there’s a blog for everybody–

It didn’t last very long. Not a lot of articles, and most of it seems to be recorded interviews of a very old Joe Goldberg done for an oral history project.  Which are mainly about his work in Hollywood, and I couldn’t find any references to Westlake, but I skimmed.  Because they got a bit depressing.  (I’ve done oral history myself, and you know, probably these things should not be done just before somebody dies, though I guess better late than never.)

Even though this blog only lasted about two months, there’s gold in them thar hills.  My eyes bugged out a little when I spied this entry–do I need to tell you who ‘Hal’ is?  He is, one might say, a man who wrote dirty books.  Then gave up that respectable living to write for Hollywood.  The cad.

Hal writes:

In 1958, I was churning out paperback pornography along with other writer wannabes like Larry Block and Don Westlake.

One of us found a magazine called SWANK or STANK or SLANK that had an article about pulp porn that praised Don Holliday (my pen name) and Sheldon Lord (Larry’s pen name) and Edwin West (Don’s pen name) as being the only pornographers who could write their names in the dirt with a stick.

The article was written by Joe Goldberg which we assumed was a pseudonym. In fact, I thought that Larry had written the piece and Larry figured that Don had and Don was certain that it was my work. But ten or twelve drinks later, one of us had the bleary idea to see if a Joe Goldberg existed in the Manhattan phone book. And sure enough, one did and he became a life-long pal to all three of us.

If we neglected to thank him for the puff piece, well, we do now. Mucho gracias, buddy.

(There actually was–and still is–a dirty magazine named SWANK, but for all I know the other two exist as well, along with SANK, SKANK, and SPANK. Presumably not SHRANK.)

There’s an earlier contribution from Mr. Dresner, but it’s less germane to our interests here.

So.  Let me see if I have this straight.

To pay the bills, in the late 1950’s, three men who were someday going to be successful writers were turning out what was then considered pornography, under false names.

And to pay his bills, a guy who was someday going to be a very influential music critic was reviewing their dirty books for a dirty magazine. Under his own name. (I guess that was considered more respectable?)

And this is how they became friends.

Well, I said it was an addendum.

Joe Goldberg passed in 2009.  Here’s a very informative obit with a link to him ably dissecting the Ken Burns Jazz history docu in 2001.  Nobody thought to do an oral history of him then?  Oh well.

Far as IMdB knows, Hal Dresner is still alive.  He’d be in his early 80’s.

What are the odds, you think, that he would be able to tell me which sleaze novels credited to which pseudonyms of which Westlake poker buddies contain uncredited Parker cameos written by Westlake, as attested to by D. Kingsley Hahn?

I’ve thought about asking Lawrence Block, but how the hell do you open up a conversation like that?  Trying to come up with a segue…….”Mr. Block, you’re probably the only member of your clique who expressed nostalgia over writing those things…..”  Well.  I’ll work on it.

 

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Review: David Murray and Class Struggle, Village Vanguard, 6/22/18

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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.)

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(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.)

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(Taken from my seat.  Piano used to be a Yamaha.)

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(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.)

 

 

 

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Aside: Mr. Fitch and the Theme Music

We’ve reached the point in our review program where Parker and Dortmunder are pretty much the whole show.  Between 2001 and 2008 (the year he died), Westlake published thirteen novels (one of which was written in the Mid-90’s).  Five of them deal with Parker; another five feature Dortmunder and his motley crew.  There was also an anthology of Dortmunder short stories and a Dortmunder novella published in anthology form.

None of this sufficed to overcome Parker’s insuperable edge over all his fictional siblings.  He would remain the character Westlake wrote about most, if only because he was so dominant during the period when Westlake was most prolific.  But in these final years, Parker and Dortmunder enjoyed an almost perfect parity of attention from their creator, and it would be fair to say he cared about them equally–but differently.

And I’ll be talking more about that shortly, but the reason I’m bringing it up here is that I’m going to be re-reading a lot of Parker and Dortmunder books in the coming months.  And that means I’m going to be hearing their themes in my head a lot.  The themes I made up for them.  The music in my head.  I can’t possibly be the only one who experiences this phenomenon.  Can I?

This I know–if you read one of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels, you are going to hear the 007 theme in your head.  If you read one of those Fire & Ice novels, you’re going to hear the Game of Thrones theme that didn’t exist when most of those books were written.  When Carrie Fisher died, everybody was going around with John Williams and the London Symphony orchestra in their skulls.  When you see a picture of Batman, which theme you hear will depend somewhat on the year you were born (I go back and forth between Neal Hefti and Danny Elfman, with a smattering of Shirley Walker).

But there is no identifiable theme for Parker, or Dortmunder.  Yes, they’ve both been featured in multiple film adaptations.  Those movies had musical scores.  But if there was a theme devoted to either character in any of those films, I’m not aware of it.  And being so thematically sensitive, if there had been such a theme, and I never noticed it, it wasn’t much of a theme.  The whole point of a character theme is to create an association between that character and the theme.  I hear a certain theme by the great Japanese composer Akira Ifukube, and I see a gigantic reptilian biped stomping on Tokyo.

So there is no theme for Parker or Dortmunder.  And yet I needed a theme for each of these characters I was obsessively reading about, and later writing about.  So I made them up.

I have no excuse for my utter incomprehension of musical notation.  I had music appreciation classes as a child.  It is, in effect, a language–and all attempts to teach me a language other than English have failed miserably.  I was apparently born to be a monoglot, only able to learn language at a pre-conscious level.  Or else I’m just lazy.  Or too easily distracted.

But I’ve loved music all my life, and have developed tastes that are nothing if not eclectic.  I started off with classical, then moved to ragtime, then jazz, blues, and Irish Trad.  I didn’t learn to appreciate the rock and roll going on around me as a kid until well after that genre had peaked.  I was also a devotee of ‘world music’ which is not so much a genre as a convenient way of saying “Jesus, there’s a ton of great music out there I never heard of before!”  I tried to get into rap as it was starting to take hold, and it was a bridge too far.  In its less commercialized forms I wish it well, and I wish they’d stop blasting it outside my window at 3:00am in the morning, but kids will be kids.

The quote “There’s only two kinds of music–good and bad” has been attributed in various forms to scores of musicians, and I like all of them.  But I myself am not now nor ever shall be a musician.  Let alone a composer.  And yet somehow I have composed two musical themes.  In my head.  Weirdness.

That’s not the right word, really.  To compose something implies you sat down and worked it out, but since I can’t write or play music (I can just barely play the tin whistle, and you seriously do not want to hear me practicing), all the work had to be done in my head, and I can’t even say precisely when or how I started hearing this music, or how long it took for each theme to take on its mature form.  Parker’s theme came first.  Dortmunder’s not long afterwards.  Well, that tracks.

It is possible, indeed likely, that I’ve unconsciously plagiarized elements of both.  I thought I got my Dortmunder theme from the film score for Don Siegel’s Babyface Nelson, starring Mickey Rooney; a grand medley of hard-edged 50’s big band gangster movie jazz (you know the type), but when I watched the film again, there was nothing in the score that remotely resembled my theme, so maybe I got it somewhere else, or maybe it’s actually mine.  Copyright isn’t really an issue when you can’t even write the music down, is it?

I actually do have some small recollection of how the Parker theme started.  A few years ago, summer of 2012, maybe.  I had a medical appointment in Fort Lee (podiatrist).  Afterwards I had lunch nearby (Indian buffet).  I was in no particular hurry to get home.  I decided to walk back over the George Washington Bridge.  (Incidentally, did you know there’s a Parker Street in Fort Lee, just a few steps away from the bridge?   Well, you do now.  I guess every town has a Parker Street.  Put that down as one more unprovable theory as to where Westlake got the name from.)

It’s noisy on the bridge.   The view of the Hudson, the Palisades, and the cityscape is thrilling, and a bit terrifying, depending on the severity of your spatial phobias.  You also have to dodge bicycles on the so-called pedestrian walkway a lot more than would have been the case in 1962. (Sometimes I like to imagine Parker clotheslining some clown in tight shorts, who thinks he’s Lance Armstrong in the final leg of the Tour de France.)

The bridge towers–what’s the word I’m looking for to describe what they do?–oh yeah–TOWER. It’s a lot different than walking over the Brooklyn Bridge, or probably any other bridge.  You feel naked and alone and in the middle of everything and at the edge of nowhere at the same time.  You feel the past, present and future converging and collapsing upon each other.  A good time to have some music playing in your head, though I suppose most people bring something pre-recorded.  I was never really an iPod guy, somehow.

So I must have had some of the elements for the theme assembled prior to this, but this is the first time I remember them all coming together, as I made this roughly twenty minute walk across the busiest bridge on the planet, and felt the summer sun irradiating me, and wondered if I should have applied some 60SPF in advance.

So the inspiration was clearly that 1950’s big band crime movie type of score I was just talking about.  Probably some elements from Van Alexander’s score for Babyface Nelson, but that kind of music was very popular in the 50’s and early 60’s, and you could find it in lots of movies.  Very hard-hitting and merciless, and all about the horn section.

Probably some Count Basie influence as well, of course.  And I was really into Benny Carter at the time.  But that day I was kind of imagining it being played by the David Murray Big Band, sometime in the late 80’s/early 90’s.  That tuneful dissonance they did so well, where they played as a tightly disciplined unit, but also as a motley assortment of incessantly idiosyncratic individualists, with that New Orleans second line quality; never quite marching in step and never once missing a beat.

It starts in low, like an idling car engine, maybe some misguided motorist offering you a lift.  Then the horns come in hard, howling defiance at the world, telling it go to hell….

PAR-kerrrrr!  PAR-kerrrrr!
dada-dadadada-DAHHHH-da-dada
dada-dada-dada-dada-DAHHH-da-dum!
dadadadadadadada-DAHHH-da-dum!

(horns come in lower now)

PARkerrr–(sound like an engine turning over)
PARkerrr (da-DA!)
PARkerrr  (the engine again)
PARkerrr (da-DA!)

(Now the bridge–fittingly enough–starts off like the calm before the storm).

Da-da-dum.  Da-daaa-da-dum.
Dada-dada-da-da-da-de-da-dum!

Da-da-da-DAAAAAAAH-da-dum.  Dada-dada-dum
Dada-dada-da-da-da-de-da-dum!

(repeat several times, stronger, harsher, and a bit more dissonant each time, as the storm builds, and the rhythm section holds it all together somehow, then back to the main theme one last time, as the band crescendos like Gabriel on Judgment Day)

PAR-kerrrrr!  PAR-kerrrrr!   PAR-KERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR!

And that’s my Parker theme, as of the moment I stepped off the bridge into Washington Heights.   Since it’s jazz, or aspires to be, endless variations are possible.  But that’s the core of it.  It usually comes to me strongest at the end of a novel, and scenes of the aftermath, various things that might have happened sometime after the final chapter, flash before my eyes.  Like at the end of The Seventh, I imagine the fates of the various surviving characters, and then a lonely gravestone marked ‘Ellie Canaday’, with an opened bottle of beer left in front of it, while a big man whose face we can’t see is walking away in the distance, his hands swinging at his sides, because I’m a romantic, sue me.

It’s a big band theme, brassy and uninhibited, but Dortmunder calls for a small intimate ensemble of underappreciated artists, all specialists, all quietly offhandedly brilliant.

Just to be perverse, I’m going to hire the Hampton Hawes quartet for this gig–a Los Angeles based band.  Dortmunder would not approve–until he heard them play.  Anyway, he’s not originally from New York either.  Eldridge Freeman was born in Illinois too–Chicago.  That’s almost a city.  Dortmunder’s no bigot.  A good string is a good string, wherever they hail from.

Piano: Hampton Hawes
Bass: Red Mitchell
Guitar: Jim Hall
Drums: Eldridge ‘Bruz’ Freeman

Special guest performers would be Johnny Griffin on tenor sax, alternating with Milt Jackson on vibes.  Somehow Dortmunder and trumpets don’t go together, but if there was a trumpet present, there’d be a Harmon mute plugged into it.  I mean, if you can’t pull a job with five guys, it probably shouldn’t be pulled at all.  But it would depend on the book.

Where Parker’s theme is overpowering, Dortmunder’s is underwhelming–quiet, covert, sly, downright sneaky, and maybe a bit scared, but never to the point of backing down.  A bit halting and hesitant at points, gaining confidence as it goes along.  You need a good brushman on the trap set for this one, and Bruz was one of the best.

Dada-dadada-dadadadada-DA!
Da-dadada-dadadadada-DA!
Da-dadada-dadadadada-DA!
Da-dadada-dadada-dadadadada-DUM!

DA!-dada-dah!-dadadadada-dum!
DA!-dada-dah!-dadadadada-dum!
DA!-dada-dah!-dadadadada-dum!
dada-dada-dadada-dadadada-ta-DAH!

Man, you can just hear it, can’t you?  Okay, fine, only I can hear it.  My notational system has certain inherent limitations.  I should have paid more attention in music appreciation class.

I tend to hear this one when Dortmunder is going someplace he’s not supposed to go, with every intention of coming back out again, but no precise idea as to how he’s going to do that.  And sometimes when he goes into that weird fugue state where he’s putting a bunch of ideas together to make a plan. And always at the end, when he’s both won and lost, and somehow the difference between the two seems academic, but May’s got a tuna casserole in the oven, and things could always be worse.

In any given rendition, a different instrument might carry the tune, while the drums keep time.  Lots of changes you could blow to this one, but it’s a much simpler theme than Parker’s.  Dortmunder’s a much simpler guy.  It’s a theme of resigned fatalism combined with dogged determination.  He can never win the game, but he can’t ever quit either.  Not until the very last note has been played. Any jazzman could relate.

And I think that’s all there is to say about the music in my head.  Unless one of you is a practicing psychiatrist.  If so, contact me privately.   Next up is Bad News, and that might require a pow-wow drum.  Anyway, casino gigs pay well.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder, John Dortmunder novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark, Uncategorized