Chris Wilson

 

 

A Critical Review Of S. Howell's  "A Critical Review Of
Jazz Music In The Post-Post Modern Era"

 

An old friend of mine recently sent me a clipping of a lengthy essay, published in last month's New Gazette, titled "A Critical Review of Jazz Music in the Post-Post Modern Era." The article, by a Mr. S. Howell, invoked my unbridled ire from the first sentence to—many a grit-toothed hour later—the last. Right away I set about to offer some appeal to his foolery.

To begin with, it is clear that Mr. Howell is not a musician. His essay reads something like an overzealous senior thesis-writer—as Gordy Turner famously put it, "Putting too much art into art." I'd go on, but I suspect this will become self-evident by the end.

Mr. Howell opens his essay—which, in typical Gazette style, is unselfconsciously long-winded—with an account of a visit he paid to the great tenor saxist Jonah Simon two weeks before Simon's death, last May. I'll suffer to reproduce a few lines here:

 

I met Simon in his studio apartment along the border of Central Park. Even in his wildly successful later years he kept monk-like quarters, leaving his three-room flat as bare as a monastery. He was seated in a high-backed rocking chair facing East, overlooking the Park. His saxophone stood upright on a metal stand in arm's reach, but it was immediately evident that he was too weak to play, even though he'd given a concert—his last—in Birmingham only ten days before. The only other furniture was another chair, which he offered me, and an old turntable behind him, which he cut off when I knocked. He had been listening to Mozart.

 

The fact that my colleague at the New Gazette neglects to mention which of Mozart's work J.R. was listening to—the only detail he spares us for the rest of the encounter, which runs into the third column—leads me to believe that, in truth, Mr. Howell has no idea what was playing, other than that it probably had some violins and cellos in there somewhere. (And on the subject of his "monk-like quarters," we can only hope that some novice copy editor slashed what Howell really meant, which was "Monk-like," though somehow I doubt it.) To say that J.R. was listening to Mozart and decorating his apartment like a monastery is the first trace of what Mr. Howell will continue to suggest for the remainder of his treatise: that sentimentalism has spelt the ruins of jazz.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is, well, J.R. always loved classical music. I knew him a little—we met as undergraduates at NYU. Most days instead of going to class, J.R. and I would go over to his apartment in Chinatown and play records from his vintage collection, get high on cheap weed he got from the kid at the Szechwan Takeout and spend hours improvising over whatever was on the turntable—Coltrane or Rollins, Chopin or Rossini. He idolized Mingus above all others, and used to endlessly repeat this one story: Mingus got a call once at two a.m., and when he picked up, "The Rites of Spring" was playing at the other end of the line. A voice says, "Dig this, Mingus"—it was Parker, who proceeded to blow over Stravinsky for ten minutes and then hang up. The story is probably apocryphal, but J.R. loved it anyway—it justified for him why he loved classical music. More than that, though, I think he just loved the story. He used to say to me that what excited him most about jazz was its mythology.

There's a larger point here: throughout his essay, Howell exhaustively implies—without ever coming out and saying as much—that J.R. had gone soft in his old age, turning to the likes of Mozart when jazz had failed him. Howell would like nothing more, I think, than for J.R.'s last year to be a great refutation of the music that he built his career on, like a renowned memoirist admitting on his deathbed that everything he'd written was fabricated. That would be a nice confirmation of Howell's theory, if only it were true, which it isn't.

In reality, J.R. achieved a power in his later years that had eluded him for his entire career. Howell is right about one thing: J.R. did undergo some dramatic change late in life, particularly after the diagnosis. But it wasn't a failure, and to suggest that it was is an insult to all jazz musicians—nay, all musicians—nay, all artists—the world over.

By way of evidence, Howell treats us to an account of J.R.'s last concert in Birmingham. It was heavily attended by critics, fans and musicians, jazz and otherwise, filling the inconceivably large Louis Arena to capacity. What's fascinating is that, of the three or four dozen reviews, columns and articles published in the immediate aftermath, no two authors gave any indication of having witnessed the same concert. In fact, if I hadn't been there myself, I don't really know if I could have brought myself to believe it ever happened. But it did.

My colleague at the Gazette takes particular interest in J.R.'s rendition of "When You Left," the signature tune of his long partnership with alto saxist Ray Hearst, who had died less than a year before. The tune was largely ignored by the critics, so I feel obliged to give Mr. Howell credit for this one observation—that something phenomenal happened during "When You Left"—though I'm afraid he again misses the point.

I hadn't intended to let any more of his post-post modern mumbo jumbo find space on these pages, but now it seems necessary to reproduce a paragraph or two of his description to identify exactly where he runs astray:

 

The three living members of the original Hearst/Simon Five reunited in Birmingham to gig together one last time. In addition to Simon, drummer Jimmy Calvin and pianist A.S. Waters took the stage, the first such reunion in almost twenty years. It was an emotional moment, to say the least, reaching its boiling point with their rendition of "When You Left," the trademark recording of Hearst and Simon's collaboration. [. . .] Immediately it was clear that this performance could not outrun the weight of comparison to the original, now almost thirty years old. Calvin kicked the tempo up a few notches, and even with the first ghostly notes from Simon's tenor (evidently it's the same horn he played on with Hearst), it was clear that he was not even attempting to live up to his old glory: he was playing the harmony. Younger members of the audience, I suspect, had difficulty even recognizing the piece. But this does not compare to what followed: the rhythm section gave Simon a perfect setup into the first solo chorus, he put the saxophone to his lips and . . . nothing. For five choruses he stood there, frozen in time, his fingers moving rapidly over the keys without producing a single sound. When, finally, he suffered to blow a few notes, they were long, solemn tones, lasting barely a chorus, then back to the head and out. The moment was a somber one. The image of Simon afterward, saxophone at his side, head down, was the image of a man jailed in a perpetual angnorosis, no longer able to breathe in a world of burnt-out shells and sprawling necropolises . . .

 

 

I'll ignore Howell's horribly awkward use of the verb "to gig" to get at the real breakdown in his argument: J.R.'s performance was anything but a failure. In truth, it was a triumphant tribute to what he would call the "mythology of jazz." It was a tribute to Ray Hearst, himself one of the most storied icons of our time. (I should mention here, before it becomes ancient history, that Howell has got a few of his facts wrong. For one, A.S. Waters is not the original pianist for the Hearst/Simon Five. Her sister is. Billie Waters is still going strong, but apparently she and J.R. had not been on speaking terms for two decades. Howell should have realized this, seeing as Billie and Anna parted ways stylistically, some will say, while in the womb together.)

Howell is right about one thing: J.R.'s live rendition of "When You Left" did bare the weight of comparison to the original. That was the point. Any of us who lived and breathed by the original Hearst/Simon album couldn't help but project the shadow of that triumphant recording over the one that day in late April in Birmingham. Simon, of course, played the harmony under Hearst in the original; doing so again, three decades later, was nothing short of a resurrection. This doesn't even begin to compare to the solo. For all of us burgeoning sax players, transcribing and memorizing Hearst's solo on the album was a rite of passage into the world of improvisation. So when Simon put horn to lip and played nothing, every loyal musician and listener in the audience heard Ray blowing overhead. (Howell does note that he saw J.R.'s fingers "moving rapidly over the keys." While I don't hold my colleague accountable for missing the idea here—if he does play anything, it is clearly the French horn—I couldn't help but notice from the front row that J.R. was actually fingering the notes to Hearst's solo.)

I wrote my dear friend Nora Cohen, a fantastic vocalist in her own right who I have gladly accompanied for twenty-five years, and who was sitting next to me in Birmingham, to verify that I am not alone in this assessment. Two days later I received this one-sentence response: "Who, in the name of all that is good on this earth, said Ray Hearst wasn't there?"

The beginning and end of it all, I suppose, is that Howell couldn't be more wrong in suggesting that jazz has become disconnected from its history. Colleagues of mine here at the Revue who follow Mr. Howell's work more closely than I do tell me this is the core of his post-post modern movement: that wanton destruction on the international stage has severed our ties to history, rendering us impotent on the artistic front, etc., etc. I suspect this would make more sense to me if I had graduated from NYU. But insofar as "A Critical Review of Jazz in the Post-Post-Modern Era" is concerned, I feel safe saying it's a lot of academic double-speak. Jazz will continue to be driven forward by the ghost train of the past, and people like S. Howell will continue to miss the point.

Enough. The schoolyard boy in me is telling me my work here is done. I'll end with a short anecdote of my own: I visited Jonah Simon myself days before he passed away; by my closest reckoning it couldn't have been more than a week after Howell made the same visit. Not a lot had changed since he had been there. J.R.'s archaic turntable was still in the corner, his horn still within arm's reach. It occurs to me now that the panoramic window in his apartment couldn't possibly be "facing East overlooking the Park," as Howell suggests, for the simple reason that J.R.'s apartment is not on the west side of the park. In fact, his old building is on the east end.

We talked for awhile about old friends—it turns out he had wanted to do a last concert with Ray for some time. In the end, J.R. did visit him in the hospital twice, and had a pleasant time, which brought both men a lot of peace in their last days, I think.

J.R. had a record playing when I arrived—I'll admit up front I'm not entirely sure what it was, though I think it may have been Shostakovich's second piano concerto. As I was about to leave, he pulled another record off the disorganized pile behind him and popped it on. It was the Hearst/Simon Five. He turned the arm to exactly where Jimmy's quiet symboling emerges from the static—a well-memorized groove—and reached to his left and picked up his horn. He was not too weak to play. He blew some experimental notes, playing the chord tones under Hearst, and when his own solo came up on the recording, he began to play along with himself, almost verbatim, matching note for note with the thirty-year-old riffs. But at a certain point he diverged, leaving his old self behind, climbing up the octaves. In places he harmonized with the original, in others flying off into the stratosphere. I sat there, dumb, listening to the duet, the easy tones wafting out West over Central Park.


Elmer Garret
December 15, 20—
New York City, NY

 

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Chris Wilson lives in Charlottesville, Va., where he is the editor of a local daily newspaper. This is the second story Mr. Wilson has published in storySouth. His first story, "The Dry Season," Summer 2003, was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He can be reached at c_emhardt_wilson@yahoo.com.