Blue in Green

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Date: Spring 2001
From: The Antioch Review(Vol. 59, Issue 2)
Publisher: Antioch Review, Inc.
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 4,528 words

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When I think about jazz, I see the image of my luck. I wasn't born into this music, there was nothing inevitable about my coming to it, but now I can't imagine my life without it--without those sounds, that idiom, that memory, that world. Or rather, I can imagine it all too well, and I don't like the poverty of what I see.

You have to be grateful for luck. You can't count on it, make it happen, but you can embrace it. More than that, you can appreciate it, admire its work. That is, not only exult when it favors you and groan when it doesn't, but make space for it in your understanding of life, watch it do its stuff. The gratitude is a moral feeling, of course, a recognition of grace or its secular equivalent. But the appreciation and admiration are not moral, and not quite aesthetic either. They are speculative, they have to do with seeing where the borders of the controllable lie, and how they shift. They imply a form of advice to the self--take it easy--but the understanding they teach is not easy, because it's not a question of handing off responsibility or just shrugging, leaving everything to luck. It's not even, or only, a question of being ready for luck. It's an acknowledgment of working magic, of the echoing, godless serendipity that on good days looks like the way of the world. Magic without a magician. An enchanted order that is truly enchanted because it is not planned.

Every jazz musician understands this better than I do, and I'm going to leave to them all thoughts of luck in the actual making of music. But I need to take my luck as a listener as my starting point. Jazz memories often sound like a roll call of the dead, but the names and places have their magic too. When I got off the boat from Southampton to New York in August 1964--there were boats in those days, this was my first visit to America--I went straight to the Village Gate, my memory tells me, to hear Bill Evans. Before and after that I heard Miles Davis at the Village Vanguard, Billy Taylor and Mary Lou Williams at the Hickory House night after night, John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones at Birdland. I heard Bud Powell at a club in Paris whose name I can't remember, somewhere just north of the Champs-Elysees. Powell played Benny Golson's "I Remember Clifford," staggered off the stand to go to the john, and came back looking much better. There was also a place in Paris called the Mars Club, where I h eard a very subtle pianist called Art Simmons play a great jazz version of a Villa-Lobos "Bachiana." There were Wes Montgomery at the Half-Note on Spring Street, Billie Holiday at the Olympia in Paris, Nancy Wilson at the Apollo in Harlem, Oscar Peterson at the St. Regis--the most expensive night out we ever had....

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A73410779