Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Breaking Winds of Change: I

This is going to be one of those posts that runs off onto the shoulder of the road before getting on with the Jazz Journey. It’s going to feel like we’ve run right into a tree, but it’s just the shoulder of the road. It starts like this:

The Southern states lost the American Civil War because of a fart. Take it literally. A fart changed the history of the United States.

Feels more like a concrete wall than a tree? Yeah, it could. Here’s the story. In the first few years of the war the South was winning, the agricultural south, the non-industrialized, the slave-holding South, was winning. They were winning primarily because they had smarter Generals, as Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, to name the smartest, were fighting more intelligent, and therefore more victorious battles than George McClellan and Winfield Scott. It just happened that way, before the South seceded, everyone went to West Point, and best and the brightest were Southern.

One evening after dinner Stonewall Jackson needed to take a walk outside of camp. To smoke, the historians say. They also say that he must have snapped a twig too loudly because one of his sentries turned and fired, killing Jackson. This changed the course of the war.

If you think carefully about this incident though, thinking about the quality of the meal, thinking that beans were probably a part of it, and that only a distinctly human sound could have caused that reaction from a sentry—after all, a breaking twig could be caused by just about any animal—then, my dear Watson, there can be only one conclusion.

This little story has been floating around in my mind for some time, one of the ways I support the idea that the smallest events can cause the greatest changes, innocuous choices can change history. This came rumbling forward as I commented on another site regarding the passing away of the brilliant, hate-filled, full blown psycho, Bobby Fisher. In my comment I mentioned that such nuts can only come to prominence because others who may be just as gifted, for whatever reason, do not get to the top of the mountain, although, in terms of talent there isn’t any difference. It’s one of the problems of the world, that the dastardly can still defeat the humble. Another commenter took me to task, and I responded. He took me to task for daring to quote from Studs Terkel’s book Working, from an interview with steelworker Mike LeFevre, who asked “How many Mozarts are working on an assembly line?”

Came the reply, None. Short, simple, insulting to everyone working. Terkel is banal. And I responded.

None. Here are three examples of “None” within 25 square miles. Years ago Elvin Jones said something interesting in Downbeat, that he’d really heard only one drummer who could truly outplay him, and this man is selling fish in St. Louis. Elvin Jones/fishmonger in St. Louis. Jones was referring to the legendary Joe Charles, a magnificent drummer who I had, not just the pleasure of, but a moment of true ecstasy of, hearing one night at the Broadway Oyster Bar. It was the finest band I have ever heard, the Joe Charles Quintet, playing harmonies that sounded as whole and natural as diatonic harmonies, but completely different. I went over to the trumpet player’s house soon after and he showed me the music—not only did I not understand any of it; the chords were so strange I couldn’t even play it. And yet the music swung, the polyrythms Charles played were magical, and the music is gone. Every so often I will run into a great musician who heard Charles play, because I ask if they’ve heard him, and a sense of awe sweeps over them. They can only nod, the affirming words get stuck, held back by g-forces within their soul, as Charles’ music takes them to another time, a vanished dimension.

Willie Akins is a tenor man in St. Louis. I know that he teaches now, but I don’t know what he did for a living years ago—when Cannonball Adderley called him to join the Sextet. He wasn’t home at the time, his wife answered the phone, and Cannonball probably began talking as only he could, Akins wife was as transfixed as all of us get, and she forgot to get a return phone number. By the time Willie could find a return number, the group was set, and we now know of Yusef Lateef and Charles Lloyd, but few know of Willie Akins. Guess what? I’ve heard all three. Akins is the man.

In every city, before the world of Guitar Center, there were Mom and Pop music stores, actually Mom and Pop smoking dope music stores, and within some of these stores there was someone who works there who knows the work of just about every guitarist of every style—ever. “Grabold Waterfork? The finest Lute player in Medieval Venice! He was Norwegian really, but he followed the music to Venice…” I walked into the store one day, tried out a few guitars, mentioned the name of my teacher—Bill Mamer. “Did you say Bill Mamer?” asked the historian. I nodded. “One of the…six…finest guitarists who ever lived." I can tell you with just as much certainty, this is a true statement. But Bill could see the writing on the wall, that jazz was dying, he saw great players come through town, one of which had to sleep in the kitchen of the place they were playing, and he knew he had to leave music. Combine Kessel, Montgomery—and Mozart. He had those kind of ears. Never forgot a note he’d heard, could play anything after hearing it once, improving it, making it magnificent, and playing with a passion and beauty—again words fail. Soulful g-force.

Soulful G-Force.

1 comment:

Kyle said...

Hi Bob! I was also a student of Bill Mamer (as well as a classmate of yours back at Parkway). I have some tapes of Bill soloing during my lessons - I listen to them now and they still blow me away nearly 40 years later. I have tried to find you over the years because I remember you as someone who dedicated his soul to music - I would love to get together and play. If you see this post, please contact me. Do a search for Mark James Physics and you will find me...