It was one of those moments when you realize you are hopelessly out of date, out of step with the current generation.
My girlfriend had declined to move to Boston with me and so I was looking for roommates. I happened to mention it to a guy named Phil, a philosophy major whom I knew shared an interest in jazz. He said he was moving to Boston to go to graduate school too. “That’ll be great!” I said, assuming too much. “What with your record collection and mine, we could . . .”
He cut me off, and rather sharply I might add. “Uh, thanks but no thanks,” he said.
“But . . .”
“No offense, but you probably listen to ‘Stella by Starlight.’”
I didn’t have to speculate as to what I had done to deserve my reputation as a moldy old fig, the term beboppers used to refer to musicians of Louis Armstrong’s generation and their fans. I couldn’t have whistled the tune to ”Stella by Starlight” on a bet, but I knew what Phil meant. William Thomas McKinley, a musician and composer, had said that the only proper moods left for jazz to express by the 1970s were violence and introspection, and I was definitely a member of a retrograde faction. I believed, in flat earth fashion, in melody.
McKinley had once invited one of his protegees, a young saxophonist, to perform for the undergraduate class in jazz he taught at the University of Chicago in the 70s. The young fellow proceeded to honk on his horn for perhaps fifteen minutes, producing sounds that recalled a man stomping on a bag with a goose in it. When the guy stopped–I won’t say “concluded” because the thing he produced seemed to have no beginning or middle, although it thankfully had an end–he spoke a bit about his, uh, art. “I could go on like that for hours,” he said after McKinley praised him.
I had the temerity to put my hand up for the first question. “Why on earth would you want to?”
In a historical sense, Phil and McKinley were right; jazz had devolved to a point in the 1970s where your choices were pretty much limited to angry musicians, who sounded like they were having arguments with their instruments, and neurotic depressed ones, like Miles Davis. Those who had no allegiance to melody fell into step; those who felt that jazz had fled from a city in the midst of its Golden Age–the Jewish/African-American renaissance of music that has come to be known as the Great American Songbook–to a desert plain where all was arid and lifeless, were bereft.
Kingsley Amis, one of the funnier novelists of his generation, once said of the neurotic mode that “if you really feel that life could not possibly be gloomier, try any slow Miles Davis track. It will suggest to you that, however gloomy life may be, it cannot possibly as gloomy as Davis makes it out to be.”
Miles Davis, before he wised up and got depressed.
I was then a member in good standing of several circles of jazz listeners; one connected two Poles, a guy named Ed and another named Richard, both from the Polish neighborhoods of Chicago and both into heavy chaos in their music. The axis on which their favorite music extended was, in cosmological terms, made of dark matter, those modal solos that make the room spin even when you’re not high. The only representative from the neurotic camp I knew was a woman named Suzie who went on to become an anchorwoman in Los Angeles after college. She had little bruises on her feet where she’d shoot heroin since she didn’t want tracks to show on her arms where they’d ruin the effect of a little black cocktail dress. Junkies favored Miles since, if all you can do with your body is nod your head, his music provides the perfect tempo.
But above and beneath this two dimensional plane there were two entirely different realms composed for want of a better term of light matter. Beneath, there was the jazz of the 30′s, sometimes hot, sometimes sweet; Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, Django Reinhardt, played by a friend of mine from New York. At some point he’d hit a rip in the space-time continuum, slipped into the past and never returned. He played the sort of music that one associates with the sound track of Max Fleischer cartoons–Betty Boop, Popeye, et alia, as the lawyers say.
Above it, and reaching to the heavens, were the be-boppers and their precursors; Lester Young on tenor sax, Charlie Parker on alto, Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet, Bud Powell on piano, Boston’s Roy Haynes on drums. Their music was filled with the same sense of joy but was more complex harmonically and rhythmically. They had a firm home base in the blues but weren’t embarrassed to use popular songs as the basis for improvisation. It was Parker, the most gifted of them all, a man who couldn’t breathe without creating wildly inventive figures, who heard “Stella by Starlight” in its original format–as a recurring theme in the ghost movie “The Invited”–and decided to use it as a vehicle for his protean flights of fancy.
Roy Haynes: Still alive, catch him if you can.
Which is why I say, in the manner of an old Broadway musical segue, what’s wrong with “Stella by Starlight”? I mean, after all: if it’s good enough for Parker, the greatest jazz soloist of the latter half of the twentieth century, if not the entire span of jazz’s first hundred years, why isn’t it good enough for wannabe hepcats like Phil?
The graphic title to Anthony Braxton’s Composition No. 65: “Baby, I love you like a quadratic equation!”
Part of the reason is pure snobbery; if a song first hits the public’s ears from the loudspeakers of a movie theatre, how cool can it be? For part of the pose of the avant-garde is always to define one’s self by what they don’t want to be–the schmucks who suck up popular culture. Members of this school of thought, those two Poles being exemplars of it, likes their art obscure and irritating; you “enjoy” it as a show of strength, like the guy at the health club who has to grunt to let others know how hard he’s working while you’re just–cruising.
Thus instead of a song you could actually sing along to, you get the likes of Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp and Anthony Braxton, who named his compositions with symbols, anticipating the androgynous R&B artist Prince who took a break from ordinary orthography when he changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol. Progress in this world view is represented by exiling emotion from music and replacing it with empty virtuosity, in much the same way that aliens in science fiction films are depicted as having oversize heads and aetiolated hearts.
Charlie Parker and trumpeter Red Rodney
The problem with this s8j#coooxl of m13uxic–now they’ve got me doing it!–is that not all change is progress, especially self-conscious change, and not every musician is a composer. There’s a reason why jazz musicians have a strange affection for chestnuts such as “Stella by Starlight,” “When Sonny Gets Blue” and even, God forbid, “Danny Boy.” They have pretty melodies, and long lines on which to hang your musical ideas.
Before Davis decided that he was incapable of making mistakes and slowed down to a tempo at which they were almost impossible to make (I can point out a few flubs to you even during this phase of his development), he had also played tunes taken from movies, most notably “Green Dolphin Street” from the movie of the same name, and even “Someday My Prince Will Come” from–good Lord–a Disney movie, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”
Those who fret about the smallish audiences that jazz attracts these days must eventually face this fact: an art form that turns its back on patrons, the way Miles Davis did both literally and physically in his dotage, can’t complain when the paying customers turn around and walk out. If you start with music people like to hear, and not the self-indulgent meanderings of a musician out to prove that he’s a genius, you might persuade them to come back.
The unappreciated genius is a stock figure in the literature of jazz, the art form that seems to require long-distance perspective–say, from Europe, or Japan–in order to receive the cultural approval it deserves. Sometimes beauty, like a prophet, goes without honor in its own country.
Phineas Newborn, Jr.
To the list of jazz greats who toiled in obscurity you can add Phineas (pronounced, improbably, “fine-as”) Newborn, Jr., whose failure to achieve the fame he deserved seemed at times self-inflicted.
Newborn was born in Whiteville, Tennessee in 1931 and paid his dues playing in Memphis R&B bands with his brother, Calvin, a guitarist. He recorded with locals including B.B. King in the early fifties, and played with Lionel Hampton and Willis Jackson before serving two years in the military. He moved to New York in 1956 and astounded critics and audiences alike with his precise virtuosity. He could play a fully-scored song with just his left hand, and is credited with inventing a double-octave technique. (This jackleg pianist isn’t quite sure what is meant by that, but it certainly sounds impressive.)
He was 23-years-old when he recorded his first album, The Piano Artistry of Phineas Newborn, Jr., an effort of which jazz promoter George Wein said “the only pianist who has as great, or greater command of the piano is Art Tatum.” Since Fats Waller said one night of Tatum when he saw him in a nightclub “God is in the house,” that would make Phineas a minor deity of the keyboard, one who had only to persist and endure (as Faulkner might put it) in order to become a major one.
Roy Haynes, lookin’ preppy.
Jazz critic Leonard Feather seconded that appraisal and pronounced him one of the three greatest jazz pianists ever, but Newborn seemed to be overawed by the acclaim with which he was received when he burst god-like upon the world of jazz mortals. He stepped back from leading a group of his own to join Charles Mingus, then Roy Haynes, then faded from the scene, a pattern he would repeat several times over the course of his career.
Whether Newborn’s problems were physical or mental or simply a preference for his native Memphis, he retreated from the limelight, making only sporadic appearances before he resumed recording in the late 60′s. The jazz revival label Pablo recorded him in 1978 at a time when he was in danger of becoming a curiosity, the subject of a whatever-happened-to? question.
I saw him at the Berklee School of Music in Boston in the early 80′s, and the academic setting underscored the marginal place he had been relegated to in the jazz world; Symphony Hall, where by rights he should have been playing, was right down the street, but there symphonic warhorses and the Boston Pops reign.
Newborn was a mentor and inspiration to a number of Memphis-based pianists who came after him including Mulgrew Miller, Harold Mabern and Donald Brown. He died in 1989 at the age of 57.
Like all kazoo players, getting to New York City was always my goal. To turn the Sinatra song on its head, unless and until you made it there, you hadn’t made it anywhere.
“Kind of Blue Kazoo,” my kazoo interpretation of the Miles Davis classic.
Yes, I’d cut every kazooist in the Quad Cities, the sub-metropolitan area of Iowa that from the air appears to be what it is full of–squares. Then I’d moved on to Chicago, like Louis Armstrong, where I found a wider audience for my “kool kazoo” stylings. It may be America’s “Second City” (actually third, but who’s counting) but landing on my feet there was like a forbidden double-bounce on a springboard at a municipal pool that launched me as far as my dreams would take me:
Early jazz kazoo battle.
New York–the Big Apple. As I stepped onto the concrete at the Port Authority Bus Terminal I thought to myself that I was ready to start playing on jazz’s biggest stage.
Boy was I wrong. My first 52nd Street jam session turned into a humiliating defeat.
“You wanna blow some, man?” the bassist at Mendon’s Home of Happy Feet said as I approached the bandstand.
“Sure,” I said, then nodded at the pianist. “Lullaby of Birdland in A flat,” I called out confidently. “A one, a two, a one-two-three-four . . .”
But the backup band ignored my tempo and instead took off like a frightened cat at a breakneck speed that only the top dogs of the instrument could have kept up with at their best. My tissue paper slipped and before I knew it, the drummer was sending a cymbal crashing my way, the signal to step down and let somebody else who was better prepared have a chance.
Claude “T-Bird” Thruelsen, top kazooist of the Swing Era
I left the bar with my tail between my legs, got an apartment in Brooklyn, and proceeded to “woodshed”–to practice in isolation by myself–in preparation for a second try at climbing the steep mountain of success in the cutthroat world of the jazz kazoo.
I had chosen a place next to the subway tracks so that neighbors wouldn’t complain about my inept, amateurish honking, and also to hide my shame. Oh, I put on a good front for the folks back home. “Booked for jazz brunch at Sweet Basil,” I told my mom on my weekly phone call. “I may have a shot at opening for Red McKenzie”–the Godfather of the Jazz Comb Kazoo–”at the Village Vanguard, so keep your fingers crossed.”
I took lessons at Juilliard, like Miles Davis, who had overcome similar problems with his embouchure by proper training. He’d almost been fired by Charlie Parker who grew frustrated at the flubbed notes and limited range of the dentist’s son from St. Louis. “Man, you better watch out,” Bird had told Miles. “You keep this shit up and you’ll end up making millions from gloomy, neurasthenic mood music people think is hip, instead of dying young like me.”
Davis: “Dude–you’re so bad I can’t help you.”
At some point a hepcat pulled my coattail. “Say, man, what you messin’ around with the comb-and-tissue-paper bullshit for?” he said just as he was about to nod off from a potent drug cocktail composed of equal parts benzedrine, cocaine and Yoo-Hoo Chocolate Soda.
“What you talkin’ ’bout?” I said, not stinting on the apostrophes, a hipster shibboleth back in those days–and try saying that five times fast.
“Don’t you know everbody’s switched to the one-piece metal units?”
Of course I had noticed the trend among the younger players, but I was a traditionalist; how could I look up at the pictures of Bunk Johnson and Buddy Bolden on my wall with a new-fangled contraption they would have laughed out of a New Orleans bordello.
“So–you think the days of the acoustic kazoo are over?”
“That’s for moldy old figs,” my guide to greatness let drop. “You think any self-respecting guitarist would take on Charlie Christian with just an arch-top hollow body after they heard ‘Gone With What Wind?’”
So I saved up my wages from washing dishes at a Chinese restaurant until I had enough to buy a used Kleschmer “Autocrat” model; fire-engine-red shell, silver “bell” on top. It wasn’t the top-of-the-line, the company’s “President” or “Capitalist” or “Benign Despot” model–one of those higher-priced “zoos” would be my reward when I’d earned it by a little success.
The place to start was back where I’d been first been thrown from my horse–Mendon’s Tuesday night jam sessions.
I played it cool, taking a seat at the bar, ordering a ginger ale and Canadian whisky to limber up my throat while still keeping my wits about me. I saw one, two young cats crap out; the guys in the band had no mercy for neophytes from the provinces, and the sad path back to the bus station was a well-traveled one that night.
“Anybody else out there?” the bassist said after a red-headed man with a bow tie and a plaid jacket left the bandstand in tears. It was a challenge more than a question.
“Yeah,” I said as I stood up. “I wanna blow.”
The guy gave me a once-over. “Haven’t I seen you around here before?” he asked.
“Maybe my identical twin brother Hammersly,” I said slily–the guy didn’t even notice the reduplication I’d pulled off there.
“What you wanna play?” the pianist asked.
“When I Take My Sugar to Tea,” I said. “In C#.”
There were subdued murmurs from the cognoscenti down front. That was the signature tune of Alf Trent, a rising kazoo star of the 40′s whose career had tragically been cut short when his instrument was jammed against his soft palate in a late-night collision on the New Jersey Turnpike.
“It’s your funeral,” the bassist said. He nodded at the others and they began to play in the soft swinging tempo you’d expect to hear when Pee Wee Russell soloed.
Pee Wee Russell, jazz clarinetist
“Naw, not like that,” I said cutting them off. “More lugubrious.”
“What’d he say?” the pianist asked.
“Lugubrious, he wants it lugubrious.”
There were stifled snickers among some of the other players in the crowd, but I stuck to my guns. “You guys can laugh now,” I said. “But when every bohemian coed in America has my album in her collection and listens to it while she stares out the window on rainy days and tries to write sensitive poetry . . .”
“. . . when I’m getting gigs not just at jazz festivals but at student concert series and I’m a freaking cultural icon who gets to sleep with the president of the Arts Forum Entertainer Series who brought me to campus—”
then you’ll wish you’d figured out that it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got an attitude.”
Heroin, some wag once said, isn’t so much the occupational hazard of jazz musicians, it’s the occupation. It doesn’t trigger the schizophrenic visions induced in acid rockers by LSD, and it doesn’t set off the manic bursts of energy–anathema to the lyrical mood–of cocaine. Instead, it acts as a warm blanket or hot bath on the psyche at the same time that it absorbs large quantities of time, the bane of musicians on the road or during periods of unemployment. (Kids reading at home: Please ask mom or dad’s permission before shooting up.) As a result, it’s the drug of choice for those who’ve grown bored of the low-octane euphorics of marijuana.
I’m sorry–I couldn’t resist.
While smack is an equal opportunity parasite, afflicting practitioners of all instruments in the jazz orchestration, it worked particular damage on alto saxophonists during the twentieth century. Frank Morgan, Art Pepper and Charlie Parker–the greatest of them all–all lost valuable time they could have spent creating to the drug.
Morgan and Pepper made it back from the brink, in Pepper’s case celebrated by the song “Straight Life.” Parker struggled with the drug, growing plump during periods when he kicked the habit by feeding on his favorite food, chicken (yardbird, hence his nickname) then turning wraith-like when he fell off the wagon.
Charlie Parker, during a clean period
Some altos steered clear of the drug entirely; Paul Desmond, whose quicksilver phrasing you hear on Dave Brubeck’s “Take 5,” was satisfied with a dry martini. Johnny Hodges, whose career linked Sidney Bechet and Duke Ellington, seems to have stayed away from the stuff, as did Benny Carter.
Charlie Parker, Johnny Hodges, Benny Carter.
Parker’s inability to kick the habit was perhaps a reflection of his musical persona; protean, a fire hose of ideas whose solos–even his off-hand riffs–were torrents compared to his peers’ glasses of beer, or in lesser cases, eye droppers. Perhaps he needed the drug to turn off his rational madness from time to time.
Parker died sitting before a television set watching the Dorsey Brothers show, but this is no reflection on their sweet sound. He died of any or all of four causes; pneumonia, a bleeding ulcer, cirrhosis and/or a heart attack. His body was so ravaged by the effects of heroin that the coroner estimated his corpse to be that of a man between 50 and 60. He was 34.
In December of 1938 a short, bespectacled young man of twenty-three persuaded a friend of a friend to arrange for him to meet Duke Ellington, the jazz pianist and composer whose orchestra was in Pittsburgh for a performance. After hearing the young man–Billy Strayhorn–play a few songs on the piano, Ellington offered him an undefined job on indefinite terms. “I don’t have any position for you,” Ellington said. “You’ll do whatever you feel like doing.”
Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington
With no more assurance than that–no written contract or verbal agreement as to pay–Strayhorn moved to New York and joined Ellington as arranger, composer, sometimes pinch-hit pianist and songwriting partner. Their relationship would continue for nearly three decades, an extended improvisation much like those they collaborated on.
Strayhorn was a piano prodigy who worked odd jobs while still in grade school to buy a used upright piano. His first love was classical music, but a combination of circumstances–there were few obvious ports of entry to European art music for a young black man in the thirties–and exposure to jazz pianists such as Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum persuaded him to put his skills to work in that vernacular idiom.
Joe Henderson: Lush Life, the Music of Billy Strayhorn
As far as I can tell, there are no memorials to Strayhorn in Pittsburgh, where he grew up, or in Dayton, Ohio, where he was born, but the case can be made that he is in a class of his own among American composers; his work is classical, and yet people listen to it with enjoyment, not to be improved, instructed or edified as is so often the case with modern classical music. You may know that Strayhorn wrote Ellington’s theme song–Take the A Train–but you have probably heard other songs, such as A Flower is a Lovesome Thing, After All and Lotus Blossom–without knowing they were his.
At his first meeting with Ellington Strayhorn probably played a tune that he then called “Life is Lonely,” but which we now know as “Lush Life.” The song has been interpreted by hundreds of jazz singers (and butchered by more than a few), and it provides some perspective on the man whose characteristic mode was the lament; sad, poignant melodies over rich chord changes interpreted best by those masters of blue moods, Johnny Hodges on alto and Ben Webster on tenor. Strayhorn began composing Lush Life when he was eighteen and finished it when he was twenty-one, and yet it tells a fatalistic, bitter tale of alcohol and fading youth that would seem more appropriate coming from a man four decades older.
Strayhorn was gay, and perhaps he saw that aspect of his being closing off many doors to him, just as his skin color effectively barred him from prizes and fellowships that might have fallen his way if he’d been a white classical composer. Throughout his life he drank too much for his own good, and he may have already realized at a relatively young age that alcohol would be a satisfying but embittering companion as he grew older. He describes the life of a lush with music that is also lush, in the other sense of the word; rich. What he may have seen as he looked ahead was a life that was limited by his race, sexual preference and the bottle, but full of possibilities nonetheless. As Dorothy Parker put it with resignation, you might as well live.
Strayhorn’s lifelong smoking and drinking probably contributed to the esophageal cancer from which he died on May 31, 1967, in the company of his partner, Bill Grove. As he lay dying in the hospital he submitted his final composition–Blood Count–to Ellington, which can be found on Ellington’s memorial album for Strayhorn …And His Mother Called Him Bill. The song is, like Strayhorn’s life, a brief thing that reaches its own melancholy resolution, but leaves you wanting more.
Tadley Ewing Peake “Tadd” Dameron once described himself as “the most misplaced musician in the business,” and one needn’t call the missing persons bureau of the jazz precincts to determine that he may have been right.
An unabashed romantic in a guild that, like the butcher’s union, isn’t supposed to sample the marbled inventory that it handles on the job, Dameron tried to marry the sentimental products of Tin Pan Alley with the hard-edged experiments of be-bop. He synthesized the two schools under the higher principle of beauty. “There’s enough ugliness in the world,” he told Metronome magazine in 1947. “I’m interested in beauty.”
Dameron was a passable pianist, but he found his calling first as an arranger, then as a composer who crafted not just melodies and chords but fully-instrumented charts for Harlan Leonard’s Kansas City Orchestra, then Jimmie Lunceford, Count Basie, Billy Eckstine and Dizzy Gillespie. If your only exposure to big band jazz has been to the white “sweet” orchestras that took the music of black arrangers such as Fletcher Henderson and cooled it down and straightened it out, check out Lunceford, whose motto (and hit song) was “Rhythm is Our Business.”
You have probably heard Dameron’s music even if you don’t know it; he wrote jazz standards such as “Good Bait,” “Hot House,” “Lady Bird” and “If You Could See Me Now,” a tune inspired by a riff of Gillespie’s that became a hit for Sarah Vaughan.
While Dameron is known for his lush and yet surprising harmonies, he was no mere effete aesthete. He played and arranged for Bull Moose Jackson, the honking R&B tenor, his bop credentials include a nonet with Clifford Brown and he collaborated with John Coltrane on Mating Call in 1958.
Bull Moose Jackson
Dameron’s principal interpreter was Fats Navarro and while the association produced memorable music, it may also have contributed to his downfall. Navarro was an explosive trumpeter who epitomized the “hard” bop style, but he eventually priced himself out of gigs because he needed to support the heroin habit that contributed to his early death at 26. Dameron became a user of the drug, which has filled the long, lonely and boring stretches between gigs for many jazz musicians, and he eventually ended up going to jail for it in 1959.
When he was released Dameron was still highly-regarded, and he wrote for Sonny Stitt, Milt Jackson and Benny Goodman, among others, but he would die of cancer within four years at the age of 48.
Much of Dameron’s music is still in print, including his complete Blue Note sessions, and there have been both tribute bands (Dameronia) and recordings of his music by all-star groups (Continuum, “Mad About Tadd”). The quality that will keep his music alive, however, is something that is often overlooked these days by artists who think their first priority should be to shock, offend or irritate: “It has to swing, sure,” Tadd told jazz critic Ira Gitler, “but it has to be beautiful.”
When the hounds of spring are on winter’s traces,” wrote Swinburne, “The mother of months in meadow or plain/Fills the shadows and windy places/With lisp of leaves and ripple of rain”? And who are you or I to gainsay that sentiment, however loaded it may be with hissing sibilants and fricking frickatives?
But those lines, depicted tongue-in-cheek by James Thurber, give no hint of an answer to a more troubling question that arises this time of year: Why are the best of songs about spring–sad?
Swinburne: “Konked,” as Lou Rawls would say, “to the bone.”
It’s that time of year. In spring, we ought to be happy; winter is over, and spring, so long longed for, is here. Perhaps the much-awaited fulfillment of a fervent wish is bound to disappoint.
In spring, as e.e. cummings put it,
when the world is mud-
luscious the little lame baloonman whistles far and wee.
A “little lame balloon man”–pretty sad, if you ask me, but you didn’t.
When we sing of spring, we tend–unless we’re idiots humming “Here Comes Peter Cottontail”–to sing sadly.
Like “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most”–lyrics by Fran Landesman, music by Tommy Wolf.
It is the anti-spring song, one for those who once threw their hearts away each spring, but who now say a “spring romance hasn’t got a chance.”
Here is a fine version by Ella Fitzgerald. Landesman has the look of a woman for whom lines of regret such as
Spring this year has got me feeling like a horse that never left the post.
I lie in my room staring up at the ceiling.
Spring can really hang you up the most
were more than an exercise in poesy; someone who was a lot of fun, but who may have waited for some calls that never came as men chose other leggier, prettier girls for–as Cleveland Amory said of a young man from Boston backed by a long-winded reference–breeding purposes. She was called “the Dorothy Parker of jazz,” and many assumed (including me) that she’d been disappointed in love because of her acerbic lyrics.
That view, as it turns out, couldn’t have been more wrong. Landesman was happily married for six decades to her husband Jay, publisher of the beat journal Neurotica, and yet he allowed her a wide latitude in romantic affairs. While there’s no registry or clerk’s office in which to record extramarital acts and deeds, it is widely assumed that Landesman was a lover to, among others, both Jack Kerouac, whom she called the handsomest man she ever met, and Lenny Bruce, who proposed to her. “Let’s you and me go on the road,” Bruce wrote to her, “and send Jay a little money every month.”
She described her relationship with her husband in the poem “Semi-Detached”:
We each have a side that’s as free as the air,
And people don’t see the side that we share.
Our set-up is sweet. There isn’t a catch,
The secret is living semi-detached.
“Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” was a play on T.S. Eliot’s line “April is the cruellest month” from The Waste Land, and was apparently part of a high-brow self-deprecating trend among the beatniks to lampoon themselves by re-casting classics such as Shakespeare into hip argot. (Are today’s hipsters in Brooklyn or elsewhere doing anything similar, or even capable of it?) It was first performed, along with “The Ballad of the Sad Young Men,” in a musical developed from Jay’s unpublished novel about the beat scene in New York, “The Nervous Set.” The show was a huge success in St. Louis, but closed after three weeks when it moved to New York. A half-century later, though, “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” is still being performed.
Happy or ecstatic as Landesman may have been with her love life, when she featured it in her work she tended to shine a melancholy light on it; she titled two collections of her poetry Scars and Stripes and How Was It for You? Freed from the convention of monogamy, she may have found pleasure but not necessarily fulfillment.
At the end of her life her sight failed, but she continued to perform her poetry–in a half spoken, half sung fashion all her own–from memory.
The woman who was sometimes called “the godmother of hip” died in July of 2011 at the age of 83, five months after her husband.
He walked into the restaurant;
we weren’t open yet, but that didn’t stop him.
He had the look of a dignified hustler, sly
with a learned air, but still familiar.
“Say, could I get a cup of tea?” he said
as if he were a guest in a country house
instead of the evening’s entertainment.
“Sure,” I said, knowing who he was and
what he played, much of which didn’t
make sense to me, heard from wood and fabric
speakers on a roommate’s stereo.
“Twenty-five cents,” I said as I handed
him the cup and he gave me a look like a minor deity,
asked to pay for a sacrifice. “Now really,
brother,” he said with a knowing
smile; the teabag was already in his hand.
What was I going to do—grab it back?
“All right,” I said. No one would ever know
but I felt as if I’d been swindled.
Later, listening to him play, my poor dreams
of rock stardom dissolved in the wave of
sound and masks and painted faces, bizarre
yet dignified. Spectacle, the least important
element of tragedy according to Aristotle,
lends an air of the occult to music.
A self-conscious primitive nonetheless
partakes of the madness of divines.
Today I checked the menu of the H&H Café,
a soul-food restaurant on Chicago’s South Side
for the year 1970; breakfast served
all day, $1.10 for two scrambled eggs and grits,
a side order of brains and two buttermilk biscuits.
That twenty-five cent cup of tea seemed a bargain.