Memories of Jazz NightsPrint
You needed stamina, but the payoff was great
By Phillip Lopate
February 3, 2017
A few nights ago I was at Dizzy’s Club in New York’s Lincoln Center, listening to the Fahir Atakoglu Trio, a Turkish modern jazz group. I hadn’t heard of them, but a friend invited me and since I had not yet been to Dizzy’s (overly suspicious, I guess, of anything to do with Wynton Marsalis, the joint’s presiding spirit), it seemed a good idea. The music was lively, complex, driving, an intriguing blend of John Coltrane/McCoy Tyner harmonics and a more dirge-like Istanbul sound. The room was comfortable, with great views of the city, and I wondered why I had stopped going to hear live jazz, when I always seemed to enjoy it.
In my youth I had spent a lot of time in jazz clubs. I started going to them when I was 15 and, being underage—they checked your ID at the door, since they served liquor—I borrowed a photocopied birth certificate from a friend of mine who was 18 and black, hoping that the gatekeepers would not look too closely at the box marked “race.” In the late 1950s through the mid-1960s, I was mad about jazz, but then so was everybody. Jazz seemed to encapsulate the downbeat quality of New York streets, in that city’s gritty, pre-boom, black-and-white era. When John Cassavetes made his first, improvisatory film, Shadows, in 1960, you knew he just had to have Charlie Mingus on the soundtrack to accompany Ben Carruthers walking aimlessly around Times Square.
Still in high school, I listened late at night to the jazz DJs on the radio, Symphony Sid and Mort Fega. It was one of jazz’s golden ages. You had the innovators, like Coltrane and Ornette Coleman and Thelonious Monk and Mingus and Eric Dolphy and Sun Ra and Sonny Rollins and Cecil Taylor, and there were still a lot of great musicians around from the Swing and Bop eras, like Roy Eldridge and Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter, not to mention Duke Ellington and Count Basie and Louis Armstrong, and then there were the hard boppers, Horace Silver, Johnny Griffin, Gene Ammons, and Art Blakey, who weren’t particularly groundbreaking but could swing like crazy. “Finger Poppin’” was the title of a Horace Silver tune, and though I thought it was, well, shallow, I couldn’t keep from jumping up and down when Symphony Sid played it.
Most of the jazz clubs I frequented were in Greenwich Village: the Jazz Gallery on St. Mark’s Place, the Five Spot around the corner on Cooper Square, the Half Note on Hudson Street, the Village Vanguard on Seventh Avenue, and the Village Gate on Bleecker. In college I would take the subway downtown and wait in line at the Jazz Gallery, along with hipsters, hookers in furs, and Swedish tourists. Sometimes one of the Termini Brothers, Joe or Iggy, who owned the club and, rumor had it, were mob-connected (but good guys, because they supported jazz as their legit business/tax write-off), would be out there counting the house. I often went by myself, drinking deeply and pleasurably from the bluesy well of loneliness, as only adolescents can. I remember one night, waiting for Thelonious Monk to come on; I was pissed off that it was 2 A.M. and he still hadn’t arrived, while the Swedish tourists happily accepted the delay as all part of the show. Finally Monk took the stage, played a few notes, hopped off and did a jig, sat back on the piano stool, and carried on erratically for 45 minutes. Genius he undoubtedly was, but I worried he might also be schizophrenic.
In those days I could stay up late, till two, three in the morning, and then greet the Greenwich Village dawn on Eighth Street. That’s one reason I stopped going to clubs: around 10:30 it starts to be my bedtime. But then, I had stamina: I could sit through two sets at least. When I started dating young women, I could take them to hear Coltrane, my favorite. It was a test: if they hid out in the bathroom because they found it too loud, that put the kibosh on any future romance. Coltrane was loud, and he was Serious Business, with his thin black tie, white shirt, and dark jacket. Exploding through My Favorite Things, he looked like a High Priest, and when you sat listening to him you were hitchhiked to his spiritual journey, or maybe it was his ordeal, blowing the lid off a tune, tormented or ecstatic, it was hard to tell. Just before he died, when he started his pounding his chest onstage, I began to fear for his sanity as well.
There could be tensions between some of these African-American jazz giants and the largely white crowd that had come to hear them. One night I trekked all the way to farthest Queens on a snowy light to catch Charles Mingus and his beautiful quintet. There were about 20 people, all Mingus devotees, hardy souls who had weathered the snow storm, and Mingus, who had a real temper, started tearing into us—us!—because the turnout was so small. What was wrong with this country that it failed to honor its one great indigenous art form, etc. etc. Years later I saw him again, playing to a full house of mostly Japanese tourists: he had a band of about 20—an orchestra, really—and he was handing out gobs of sheet music to the musicians who were clearly willing but hadn’t had much chance to practice together. His scores had gotten increasingly complex, symphonic, and the poor musicians were scratching their heads trying to keep up.
Jazz musicians are often playing for each other—how could they not be?—flashing appreciative grins at a fellow player’s felicitous lick. I also saw Eric Dolphy, with that unicorn-like bone protruding from his forehead, having burst on the scene and already a star headliner at the Five Spot, hurrying to the Jazz Gallery when his set was over to sit in with Coltrane, pushing their new music further together. Another time, I was at a Sunday afternoon concert at a Harlem high school auditorium, listening to the trumpeter Freddy Hubbard and the tenor saxophonist Booker Ervin, when near the end of the performance Dolphy rushed down the aisle, joyously hopping onstage to join them, though he hadn’t been listed to appear. It seemed he knew about the gig and just wanted to be part of it.
I have many wonderful memories from that era of going to hear jazz. So why did I stop doing it? Well, I was never very good at hanging out, and I suppose the late night hours and the cover charges and the seediness of some of these clubs eventually wore on me. But the bigger reason was that a bunch of my favorite musicians died suddenly, and with their passing, the music changed—or so it seemed to me. Coltrane died, Dolphy died, Monk died, and Coleman Hawkins, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington. I tried to keep up, going to hear what was left of the Coltrane group, Pharoah Sanders and Alice Coltrane, or Joe Henderson, but it wasn’t the same, didn’t have the same intensity. Or I didn’t have the same intensity, the same need. I had left bohemianism behind and was well started on the road to the bourgeoisie. So I settled into playing my jazz records (now transferred to CDs) at home and, once in a blue moon, going to a club for old time’s sake. I still love to listen to the way a musician will, on a good night, build a solo, phrase by phrase, and strike fire in the midst of that technical craft.
Phillip Lopate is director of Columbia University's nonfiction program, editor of The Art of the Personal Essay, and author of Against Joie de Vivre, Portrait of My Body, and To Show and to Tell, among other books.