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March 1, 2006

TT: One more time

This is an essay I wrote a decade ago for a magazine that never got around to publishing it. The piece subsequently disappeared into the bowels of my computer, and I forgot about it until the other day, when I was cleaning out a file and stumbled across it. I thought you might possibly enjoy reading it.

* * *

The trouble with good advice is that nobody ever takes it. Kind friends warned me that a book tour is the only thing more humiliating than falling in love with someone who likes you back, but that didn't stop me from hitting the road and watching every single word they said come true. The TV people hadn't read my book; the newspaper reporters had, and hated it. As for the in-store appearances, the worst one was in a small town where I did an early-morning guest shot on the local radio station, then went to the mall and sat for five straight hours without signing a single copy.

But I did get to go to Kansas City, the place where I went to college and, later, spent four sweet-and-sour years playing jazz at night and waiting on customers in a bank during the day. I'm always glad to be in to Kansas City, and this time was no different, book tour or no book tour. I had lots of friends to call. I knew where to get good barbecue. And I could still pick up the Kansas City Star, turn to the weekly arts calendar, look at the jazz section and recognize nearly every name in it. I'd heard most of the musicians in town, jammed with many of them, written about some of them, worked with more than a few of them. I played my very first gig in Kansas City, which is something you don't forget, even if it goes well. And so it was that I ate a huge dinner at Italian Gardens, unfolded the Star, turned to the entertainment section, and ran my finger down the listings until I found the name I was looking for: Carol Comer.

Carol and I go back. I covered most of the Women's Jazz Festivals she put together in the '70s; I played bass at countless jam sessions where she bashed away at an electric piano and sang standards in a low, husky, set-'em-up-Joe baritone etched by hard use and chain smoking. I loved her strong, rumpled face, her bowl-cut mop of graying hair, her flip attitude that didn't fool anyone. I hadn't seen her for ten years, and now she was singing at a restaurant on the south side of town, and that was where I wanted to be. So I paid the check, got in the rented car and started driving, and after an hour or so I pulled into the parking lot of a shopping center deep in the heart of suburbia, just off one of the highways that ring Kansas City.

I've been here before, I thought. Not the restaurant, but the neighborhood. As soon as I got out of the car, I remembered: this was where my old girlfriend Debbie used to live. Across the street and around the corner was the house where she grew up, the place to which I returned her in the days when we were going out as often as I could scrape together enough money to buy enough gas to drive across town and back again. The past billowed up around me, tinting the crisp autumn night. I thought about other nights I had spent driving around this part of town, looking for the country clubs where I played dance dates with Bob Simes, the pianist who taught me all the standards I hadn't already learned off my father's 78s. A decade and more slid off my shoulders. I felt if I were still a boy, and still a musician.

The restaurant was just another yuppie-chow joint, run by some cockeyed optimist hopeful that a little music on weekends would make the customers drink more. I knew the jazz policy here would last three months at most, after which Carol would have to start carting her piano to private parties again and looking for another decent job, perhaps even a real jazz gig at a place where the customers knew better than to request "Feelings" or "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown." I got to play maybe half a dozen real jazz gigs, most of them one-nighters, in the whole of my career. I remember them all, especially an Oldsmobile dealers' convention where everybody in the ballroom was falling-down drunk and we got up on the bandstand and blew twenty smoking choruses of "Sister Sadie," wondering when somebody would sober up enough to ask if we knew "Tie a Yellow Ribbon."

That evening stands out in my memory for two other reasons: it was the only time I ever played a four-piece job with Mike White, who was then the best tenor sax man in Kansas City, and it was my last gig. After that night, I never again played bass in public for money. Instead, I went off to New York to become a writer, while Carol stayed in Kansas City and sang her songs. I have never doubted, not even for a moment, that I did the right thing. Yet rarely does a day go by when I don't wonder what my life would have been like had I stayed in Kansas City and kept on playing bass. Gerry Mulligan once wrote a song called "I Know, Don't Know How." That's the story of my life: I am, and am not, a musician. I used to be a musician, and once a musician, always a musician. But now I keep my bass in the closet, which means that I am no longer a musician, because I no longer play music.

I was reflecting on this paradox for the millionth time when Carol walked in, spotted me, came straight to my table and gave me the mother of all bear hugs. Another player, a guitarist, was on her heels. As he tuned up, Carol switched on her piano and started noodling. Then I saw, propped up in the corner of the bandstand, an electric bass. I looked around in vain for a bass player. And it came to me in a flash: Carol is going to ask me to sit in during the second set.

The room began to fill up with familiar faces as the music got going. Some were musicians, off for the night and stopping by to hear Carol and have a beer; others were civilians I used to see around town, the hardcore jazz buffs who came to everything. They all waved as they sat down. They remembered when I used to write about jazz for the Star and play it on weekends, utterly oblivious to any possible conflict of interest. The first set ended, and people started to crowd around my little table to say hello. Carol pushed her way through, grinning like a fool.

"So how the hell are you, anyway?" she growled. "I hear you wrote a book."

"Oh, Jesus, Carol, I'm beat to the socks, you know how it is, if I have to get on a plane once more...."

"Yeah, I know what you mean. Hey, there's a bass over there in the corner. You want to sit in? I'm getting tired of working my left hand so goddamn hard."

"Thanks, Carol, I'd love to, but..." But the truth is that I don't play anymore, Carol, I haven't touched a bass in years, it wouldn't be fun for either one of us, maybe some other time. Long pause. Deep breath. "But promise me one thing--don't make me take any solos."

How could I say no? How many times in your life do you get to turn the skies back, to take the road not taken, if only for an hour or two? Even if I fell flat on my face in front of a roomful of people, even if I couldn't remember the bridge to "Don't Blame Me," I knew I was going to get up there and play.

The literature of jazz is about the musicians who kept on playing until the day they died. The reality is different. For every Charlie Parker or Johnny Hodges, there are a thousand second alto players who spent six months on the road with Les Brown and now sell life insurance. There is nothing mysterious about them: they are the journeymen of jazz. The real enigmas are the virtuosos who quit at the top of their form, the Artie Shaws and Shorty Rogers and Dodo Marmarosas. They were the ones I could never figure out back when I was making music all day and most of the night and coming back for more the next day and the day after that. And yet good people are always quitting. Not long after I graduated from college, my viola teacher moved to Texas and went into the real-estate business. He'd been the principal violist of the Kansas City Philharmonic. I felt as if he were a deserter, a traitor to the cause.

As for me, I stopped playing when I decided that I wrote better than I played. Not that I saw my retirement as a turning point. I didn't understand then that I was quitting for good. Even though I must have known on some level that I would probably not make my living as a musician, it never occurred to me that there might come a time when I wouldn't play at all. Yet that was exactly what happened. I moved to New York and took a magazine job, and all at once my playing days were a thing of the increasingly remote past.

At first, my new life was too crowded for second thoughts, however tentative. But I began at length to feel an ache in my heart that couldn't be soothed merely by sitting in clubs and listening to other people play. I missed the act of spinning what James Lincoln Collier aptly calls "the ribbon of sound" that comes out of a jazzman as he improvises, floating blissfully in the eternal present. I missed the near-sensual pleasure of negotiating the changes of a ballad like "Body and Soul" or "Lush Life," of knowing all the different ways of moving from chord to chord and choosing among them with ecstatic deliberation. I missed the feeling of being in the middle of a rhythm section on a good night, when every note you play is right and the beat becomes a great glowing presence that fills you with warmth and buoys you up. I also missed the culture of jazz, that endlessly tolerant late-night world of scuffling, easy camaraderie and wry jokes unintelligible to the outsider. It was the only club to which I had ever belonged, and it suited me right down to the ground.

So I dragged out my bass one evening and tried playing along with a few favorite records, and it just didn't work. The sounds that came out were all wrong. My ears remembered the clean, supple way I had played after years of practice and months of steady gigging, but my hands didn't. I simply couldn't play well enough to please myself, much less anybody else. I sighed, returned my bass to the bedroom closet and resigned myself to the inevitable.

In time, I even stopped writing about jazz, except for a dreamlike week-long interlude when I went out on the road with Woody Herman's band for a magazine piece. That was a fluke--or so I thought. But the piece grew and grew and turned into a book about growing up in the Midwest, which contained two chapters about my short, happy life as a jazzman. I found a publisher and signed a contract, and the next thing I knew, I was tuning up somebody else's bass in a restaurant in Overland Park, Kansas, nervously wondering what tune Carol Comer would call first. There are no coincidences.

I wish I could tell you exactly what happened next, but most of it is a blur. I do remember that I ended up playing two whole sets, and that I had lipstick on my collar when I got back to the hotel, because there was a lot of hugging and kissing after the last set. I also remember that Carol, glad though she was to see me, made no allowances for my rustiness. If I couldn't cut it, that was my problem: every tub, as they say in jazz, stands on its own bottom. She played her usual set, leaving me to stagger through some tricky turnarounds. (Lou Levy, Peggy Lee's old pianist, has a toast suitable to such occasions: "Here's to all the guys who died coming out of the bridge of ‘Sophisticated Lady.'" Thanks a lot, pal.) Then she called a blues, "Centerpiece," and I finally settled down and found the groove. Grace descended and things began to swing, and suddenly it was all over and everybody was clapping, and I was crying.

Even as it was unfolding, I knew my evening with Carol was a unique experience, not to be repeated on pain of disillusion. I didn't sell my bass after I got back to New York, but I haven't gotten it out of the closet, either, and I don't plan to any time soon. As Crash Davis says to Annie Savoy at the end of Bull Durham, I hit my dinger and I hung it up.

This isn't to say I will never make music again. In fact, I make it nearly every day, if only for a few minutes. I like to sit down at the piano between paragraphs and fake a chorus or two, and sometimes I knock off for a half-hour or so and put in a little mock-serious practice. But it's purely for my own pleasure: there is no beast in view, and I was never more than a part-time piano player to begin with. In golf, there are duffers; in chess, patzers. I'm a piano patzer. Stealing licks off Bill Evans records is the extent of my latter-day performing career, and it'll have to do. The real thing has come and gone.

Instead of playing music, I write about it, and I am a better critic for knowing how it feels to be on the bandstand. I'm never tempted to score off a player just to make myself look good. I understand the miracle of getting the curtain up every night. I also understand the power of an amateur's passion: it is the seed from which great audiences grow. That is something I didn't know until long after I threw away my union card and joined the ranks of the amateurs. They also serve who only sit and listen.

Somebody asked me once if I were a frustrated musician. "No," I said, "I'm a fulfilled writer." But that doesn't mean I never think about what might have been, much less what used to be. The way I feel about having once been a musician is not unlike the way some reformed alcoholics feel about booze. They know they can't live with it anymore, but they also know how much they liked it, and they remember, as clearly as if it were this morning, how good that last drink tasted. I remember, too.

Posted March 1, 2006 12:00 PM

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