I once knew a man who saw Nijinsky dance, heard George Gershwin play, and was present at a recording session by Billie Holiday and Teddy Wilson. The party in question was B.H. Haggin, the famously curmudgeonly music critic. He was in his eighties and I was in my thirties when we met, and the vast difference in our ages gave additional force to his memories: Gershwin, after all, died in 1937, while Nijinsky’s only visit to the United States was in 1916. Even more powerful, though, was the fact that Haggin’s memories were unique, since Nijinsky was never filmed and the only surviving sound film of Gershwin at the piano is a mere snippet.
Now that I’m on the verge of turning fifty, I find myself wondering what memories I’ll trot out to stun the youngsters of 2036. (Note the planted axiom in that sentence!) My last “Second City” column for the Washington Post was a list of the ten most memorable events I covered for the column, which ran from 1999 to 2005. They were all extraordinary in their various ways, but this is the one I expect to still be talking about thirty years from now. It happened in 2001, three months after 9/11:
Of all the things I did in December, the one that best summed up the spirit of this wounded city was a midweek visit I paid to the Village Vanguard, New York’s oldest jazz club, down whose narrow stairs I stepped gingerly one night to hear the Bill Charlap Trio. Imagine my astonishment when my eyes adjusted to the dimness and I spotted Tony Bennett sitting in the corner–and imagine my delight when he sauntered up to the tiny bandstand and sang “Time After Time” and “The Lady Is a Tramp.” Yes, we’re battered and bruised and living with the worst kind of uncertainty, yet there we were, drinking up our minimums and goggling at a living legend, after which we all rushed home to call up our envious friends and tell them what they’d missed.
The age of mechanical reproduction, alas, has sharply diminished the value of the eyewitness account: I saw Count Basie in concert a half-dozen times when I lived in Kansas City, for instance, but I also saw him on film and TV so many times that it’s hard for me to distinguish between my first- and second-hand memories. Still, I’ve seen plenty of amazing things at which no cameramen were present. What else measures up in sheer uniqueness to that unforgettable night at the Village Vanguard? Here’s my personal you-had-to-be-there list, arranged in rough chronological order and subject to revision without warning:
• I saw Mikhail Baryshnikov dance Spectre of the Rose–and I was sitting directly behind Lauren Bacall when I saw him.
• I saw Van Cliburn give a solo recital in 1978, the year he retired from the concert stage.
• I saw Carlos Kleiber conduct Der Rosenkavalier at the Met.
• I saw Jerome Robbins’ Broadway four times–once from the front row.
• I saw Suzanne Farrell‘s last public performance.
• I saw the 1992 Matisse retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art.
• I was in the studio when Diana Krall recorded All for You: A Dedication to the Nat King Cole Trio (and wrote the liner notes for the album a few weeks later).
• I’ve interviewed Paul Taylor twice, once at his Manhattan home and once at his Long Island beach house (and was present at the performance of Taylor’s Piazzolla Caldera seen at the end of this documentary).
• I saw Bill Monroe play at the Grand Ole Opry, then met him backstage after the show. This is what I wrote about the latter experience in the Teachout Reader: “He stood six feet tall and looked at least seven, and his expressionless face might have been carved from a stump of petrified wood. He wore a white Stetson hat and a sky-blue suit with a pin in each lapel–one was an enamel American flag, the other an evangelical Christian emblem–and everyone in earshot called him Mister Monroe. Never were italics more audible.”