Jazz Meets Rock

Listen to what may be bringing the generations together again: jazz

About the time I started listening to rock in the mid-sixties, I stopped listening to jazz. I was fed up with the bad vibes, the arrogance, hostility, and craziness of the jazz scene. Guys getting knifed to death at the pimp bar in Birdland. The tone of that day was set by Miles Davis. He consummated its contempt. Every black musician modeled himself after Miles, working behind shades, turning his back on the audience, walking off the stand when he wasn’t soloing, and receiving the press with all sorts of booby traps, ranging from put-ons and lies to outright threats of violence.

Some of the musicians, like Bud Powell or Charlie Mingus, were simply crazy. Bud was an electroshock zombie who had been brought back to New York from Paris by Oscar Goodstein, the owner of Birdland. He could barely get his hands together to play his old stuff. The last time I saw him work, he had a couple of scared-looking kids on bass and drums. Somebody asked him, “Who are those two little twerps? “I dunno,” mumbled Bud. “We never been introduced.”

Mingus was another story. A huge man mountain, always smoldering with paranoia and weight pills, he sometimes erupted with terrifying violence. One night in the Village, he spotted a man walking into the club with two old sabers tucked under his arm. Divining instantly that this elderly antique dealer was an assassin, Charlie lunged wildly toward the man s table and seized one of his swords. Tearing the curved blade out of the sheath and brandishing it maniacally, he sent hundreds of customers screaming and scrambling for their lives.

Miles Davis was a soulman, a sound, a black bogey. But his power was largely the power of the press. “Miles could spit in his horn and it would get five stars in Down Beat,” quipped one A & R man. Actually, the spitting was more likely to be aimed at the audience. Putting down the house was one of the classic mannerisms of the bebop musician.

What Miles did possess in superlative degree were the arts of mime. He was jazz’s Marcel Marceau. With a single gesture he could establish an attitude; with a single note, precipitate a deep mood. Listening to him was like watching Balinese shadow puppets. Everything was a dark profile, a tenebrous outline, a stylized stretch and dip that closed into itself with ritualistic finality.

What Miles lacked most conspicuously was the compositional talent of a great improviser like Charlie Parker. An editor not a writer, an abstracter not an expatiater, a man who spent his whole life trying to sound the ultimate blue note, Miles could not move off the pedestal he had fashioned for his pose. His solution to the problem of what to play was to enlist the services of the arranger Gil Evans, who contrived for him elaborate and beautiful settings based on paraphrases of Porgy and Bess and various Spanish materials. The albums were brilliantly scored and breathtakingly executed by jazz studio bands. I hey carried the art of arranging for jazz orchestra to unrivaled heights. But they also raised the question of how far you could go into concerto treatments of semiclassical stuff without losing the whole sense of jazz as a hot, existential, get-it-off music.

This was precisely the question raised by the work of the Modern Jazz Quartet in the same period. The MJQ spearheaded a movement called “Third Stream” which sought to fuse jazz and classical music in loose, suitelike compositions with fancy names like “Milano,” “Versailles,” “Vendome,” and “Concorde.” Though the members of the MJQ were all first-rate jazz musicians, the tendency of their work under the direction of composer-pianist John Lewis was away from jazz toward the Frenchified art music that has always been the black jazzman’s idea of “class.”

Since the days of Duke Ellington, jazz musicians have made themselves look foolish every time they have ventured in the direction of classic beauty. Their Affected Elegancies, the Modern Jazz Quartet, were the culmination of a wretched tradition.

If contemporary jazz was not to avant-garde, borrow from where the classics was it to or go the in the course of its greatly accelerated development? This was the problem posed by bop. When Charles (Bird) Parker and the boppers were youngsters, jazz was only half musicalized. In the thirties, pure music patterns mingled on equal terms with material that was anthropomorphic. Drawls, shouts, growls, and squeals—the whole rich rhetoric of Negro speech—issued from horns stopped with mutes or fanned with toilet plungers to make them mimic the sounds of human voices. Even when the illiterate stammer of Cootie Williams went out of style and a certain citified casualness and sophistication came in with swing, the great soloists like Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins continued to speak through their horns. With them it was “sweet talk,” the burbling, lisping, attitudinizing speech of city men, but still, the listener could say to the jazzman, “I can hear ya’ talkin’!”

All that died when Bird and Dizzy Gillespie began to machine-gun their way down Fifty-second Street. Overnight, jazz was kicked up on a plane of abstraction comparable with that of art music. Bird was a Bartok who sublimated a potent folk essence without losing any of its pungency. He raised jazzmen’s sights and made them aspire higher than ever before. When the war ended, hundreds of musicians enrolled in music schools under the GI Bill. There they discovered affinities between Bird’s linear designs and the writing of J. S. Bach; they also found the source of Bird’s “advanced” chords in the harmony of the French Impressionists. For the first time in the history of jazz, most players could read music and approach expressive problems with a trained musician’s resources. The time seemed ripe for a great leap forward.

Sad to say, nothing of the kind happened. In fact by the time of Charlie Parker’s death in 1955, the bop synthesis had been destroyed. Jazz was either regressing toward its roots or whoring after strange European and Oriental gods.

It took me many years to figure out how bop could have killed jazz when bop was obviously the greatest thing that ever happened to jazz. Eventually I realized bop was a terminal product, that Charlie Parker had taken jazz to the end of the line. Though Parker was hailed as a revolutionary and his music treated as the jazz of the future, the truth was precisely the opposite: bop had simply one-upped the jazz of the swing era, leaving its materials, techniques, and conventions essentially unchanged. Even in his most daring forays, the great Yardbird had remained firmly locked within the circular walls of theme-and-variation form. Round and round he had gone, pouring out brilliant ideas, tossing off dazzling phrases, suggesting rhythms, harmonies, and counterpoints that no one else had ever dreamed of in his little world. But all his creative brilliance had been poured into one of the narrowest and most constrictive of musical forms. When Bird got through with jazz, he had exhausted its traditional resources: nobody could play faster, think more ingeniously, or further sophisticate jazz rhythm.

Jazz fell into a state of crisis trying to find a new direction in which to grow. Part of the hang-up of the fifties was simply the struggle to break out of this bind; that accounted for the experiments with classical music and the alliances between improvising soloists and structurally sophisticated arranger-composers. The other basic problem was the bleaching out of the jazz essence, a process which had begun with Parker’s radical musicalization of jazz. Bird and Diz never had to worry about “soul.” They were steeped to the lips in jazz essence. Their epigones, however, were men of a different stamp. Instead of abstracting their music from the black experience, they abstracted it from the playing of the bop abstracters. The result was a Whiteyfication of jazz leading eventually to the spectral sophistication of Paul Desmond of the Dave Brubeck band.

Loss of the black essence not only meant a weakening of jazz’s emotive force; it meant a loss of homogeneity and purity in the jazz idiom. Jazz is an art of taste. Everything the musician hears must be tested against a mental touchstone, a black Kaaba that dictates this is or this is not jazz. Lots of things that were not jazz originally have been brought into alignment with jazz tradition, but many more have been rejected. By the early fifties, it was becoming harder and harder to know what would work as jazz. Men were toying with Afro-Cuban, Arabic-Spanish, and other folk essences. They were attracted by Impressionism and atonalism. They were into remote periods like the Baroque. How could anyone speak convincingly in such a polyglot tongue?

The answer came in the mid-fifties with the funky, hard-bop regression. Musicians like Horace Silver, Bud Powell, Thelonius Monk, and Charlie Mingus began to play music that was strongly flavored with traditional blues and gospel sounds. All these men were black, and their embrace of the Negro roots was given a political or social interpretation. Fundamentally, however, their motives were musical; they were simply getting back to basics.

At first the soul sounds were more decorative than functional. After an old-fashioned cotton-field “shout,” the players would start to run changes in the conventional figuration of bebop. This meant that the so-called hard-bop school was really further from coining a new style than the despised soft hoppers of the West Coast. Gerry Mulligan, Shorty Rogers, and that gang had at least got their thing together; the heavy swingers in the New York clubs were just reheating what had been cooked in the previous decade—with a little country seasoning. Yet they reminded jazz of its roots and suggested its future. Within a few years you could see soul glimmering on the horizon.

By 1959, jazz was desperately in need of its next Messiah. The art was split right down the middle, one half effete artistry, the other funk and gospel. Some big man was needed who could pull these pieces together in a genuinely contemporary style. It is testimony to the incredible vitality of jazz that even at this late date when so many expressive resources had been exhausted and so many jazzmen were up against the wall that jazz did bring forth one more genius and make one final effort to adapt itself to contemporary sensibility.

Ornette Coleman was cast in the classic mold of the jazz hero. He came out of the Southwest like a black Parsifal, innocent of everything save his mission to find the black grail. Appearing at a time when the breakdown in jazz tradition plus the crisis of Negro history had focused keen attention on the black essence, Ornette proved himself the ultimate soulman. He had actually worked for many years right down in the dirt of the Texas rhythm-and-blues scene, honking a tenor horn and lying flat on the floor with feet and instrument pointing skyward like a trussed hog. He was as much a shouter as any big mama in a sanctified church. He had an almost Russian sense of suffering, especially the suffering of an abandoned female, like the one portrayed in his greatest composition, “Lonely Woman.”

No mere primitive, Ornette was an avant-garde composer and theorist with novel ideas about pitch, time, and timbre. He said that pitch was relative to musical motion, meaning one thing when you were going up a scale and something different when you were descending. Subsequent scientific analyses of the playing of symphony violinists proved that he was correct. Ornette was a believer in total improvisatory freedom. Jazzmen had always prided themselves on being free (a value especially precious to the descendants of slaves); but they had all worked in straitjackets compared to Ornette, who advocated absolute freedom, whether for a soloist or a whole group of musicians playing together. It was the amorphous, anarchic, undisciplined character of his playing that prompted the scandal of his first stand at the Five Spot. Many musicians accused him of “jiving”—faking—an odd word for a man who killed you with sincerity.

Basically, Ornette’s aesthetic was that of abstract expressionism. Instead of parodying or paraphrasing the pop tunes of the day—as did the boppers with “How High the Moon?” or “What Is This Thing Called Love?”—Ornette carved powerful new shapes from the raw stone of his musical imagination. He played odd numbers of bars, odd numbers of beats, and sometimes wandered off’ the chord patterns implicit in his expositions. Like the country blues men of his native Southwest, he played by instinct and created sophisticated effects by naively following the promptings of his soul.

Gathering a circle of brilliant disciples around him, he established a style called “The New Thing.” No more precise label could be stuck on a music that refused to commit itself to any rule or tradition save that implicit in the word “freedom.” “Soul” would have been a much better title, because Ornette was closer to James Brown and Ray Charles than he was to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. He had the soulman’s faith in publicly stripping himself bare. He had the soulman’s piercing cry of agony.

Though Ornette gave his pieces pious titles like “Peace,” “Congeniality,” or “Focus on Sanity,” the content of his music was often nightmarish. His world was bleak, cold, desolate, full of frightening violence and the lonely presence of death. When Ornette talked about his life back home in Texas, where he had been a protohippie with thick matted hair and bushy biblical beard, he recounted scenes of humiliation and ostracism.

The greatest of all Ornette’s statements was a remarkable concert he staged in December of 1962 at Town Hall. After programming a very bad string quartet of his own composition, and a series of jazz compositions in which he soloed on one emotional note, Ornette capped the evening with a bizarre performance entailing a frightened-looking rhythm and blues group out of some Uptown bar, an incredibly fast and complicated black drummer, and a virtuoso white bass player of symphonic caliber. Setting these forces in motion and jamming along with them on alto, he produced one of the most cacophonous uproars in the history of music. As the notes came pouring off the stage, all you could do was try to listen first to one, then to another of these simultaneously sounding groups and soloists. The effect was not the saints at Pentecost. It was Babel. When it was over, everyone was asking, “What the hell was that all about?”

Not until several years later, when I stumbled upon an interview with Coleman in a jazz book, did I grasp the meaning of that strange symphony. Coleman’s crazy composition was actually an allegory of his soul. The rhythm and blues band represented the past, all the years he had played with such groups in Texas. The white bass virtuoso was the future, that world of classical string music from which the Negro had always been excluded and toward which he might now aspire. The drummer was the present, the still vital, still developing core of the jazz tradition. The possibilities suggested by this grouping were four: the regression to earlier, simpler forms like rhythm and blues; total assimilation of the values and capacities of the white world exemplified by the bassist; continued maintenance of the black tradition at its point of maximum development, as symbolized by the drummer; or—what must have been Coleman’s ideal—a triumphant synthesis of past, present, and future.

What resulted, of course, was a fifth possibility —failure due to radical incoherence. Though Coleman had hurled himself courageously into the battle to weld together these disparate voices, he had been at a loss to know how to compose or direct them. As the uproar mounted that afternoon, his only recourse was to lift his anguished voice in what sounded like a scream of pain.

During 1969, the I hardly heavy thought rock years, about from jazz. 1966 I was to trying to swallow the ocean of new sounds rolling in with rock. I had one close friend who was a devout jazz fan—Robert Gold, the author of A Jazz Lexicon—and sometimes he would drag me down to a jazz club where we heard the same old stuff the guys had been playing for years. It was an embarrassing scene. Jazz had lost its audience and was talking to itself.

Then one afternoon, about two years ago, I got into a conversation about jazz and the younger generation, “My boy Tony wants to be a jazz drummer,” said a friend. “He complains that you never write anything about jazz.” “Wow! That’s a strange kid,” I said. “I thought they all regarded jazz as a dirty word. What does your son think I should write about?” “He’s crazy about this drummer Elvin Jones,” my friend said, “but he’s never seen him and nobody can find him. Tony thinks he’s in Japan.”

“Japan!” (What fantasies these kids have, I thought.) “I know who Elvin Jones is,” I said. “He worked with John Coltrane for many years. He probably toured in the Orient, but I can’t imagine him living there. I wouldn’t be surprised if he were living in New York.” A couple of calls later, I discovered that I was right. Jones was living five minutes away from me on the West Side and was scheduled to play a date in New York that weekend.

My memories of Jones were not all that happy.

He was jazz’s last superdrummer, an artist of extraordinary power and fluency who impressed many of us as being too damned loud. You got an unpleasant feeling that he was not so much supporting Trane as burying him and his little piercing soprano sax. Especially during the last years, when Trane had got deep into The New Thing and would go on for a quarter hour at a crack honking and squealing and clawing at some invisible but palpable prison wall, the incongruity between the blockage in the so-called soloist and the raving freedom of his totally liberated drummer was distressing to a listener of conventional sympathies. That was long ago, however, and Elvin was a leader now, so with an odd mixture of excitement and misgiving, I went down to the joint where he was playing, a place in the West Forties called Danny’s Backroom.

Danny’s turned out to be a crummy brownstone with a bar up front and a drinking-listening room in the back. The hatcheck girl was a big, tall, voluptuous blonde with everything hanging out. I handed her my coat and hat, eyed the whole show, fore and aft, took the ticket, and said “Thank you.” In a deep, masculine voice, she replied, “You’re welcome,” giving me a long, moist look. Suddenly it hit me—this must be a transvestite joint! I began to cast suspicious glances at people going to the ladies’ room. Was everybody here in drag? Were they all into something I was out of?

The back room was Howard Johnson motel modern with a thin coating of evil. The dim lighting gave the place the atmosphere of a sunken bar and grill. All around me were young hippies with beards and jeans, nursing the obligatory beer but passing joints from hand to hand. It didn’t look like a jazz crowd or a rock crowd. It was more like a seance. Up on the stand was Elvin doing his thing. I had forgotten how he looked—or maybe I never really saw him when I concentrated on Trane. He was a striking figure crouched behind his set of beautifully polished walnut and chrome drums, his small, bullet-shaped head raised with the eyes closed, like a blind man staring at the sun, his forehead beaded with perspiration and the smoke of a mouth-socketed cigarette curling up his face in gray swirls. He seemed to be straining away from his arms, incredible blacksmith’s arms with big, protuberant veins, and his hands, huge, splayed hands that could cut through a drum head with a flick of the wrist. He looked as though he were in a trance, and the sound that was pouring out of those drums made it seem as though he were summoning up a hurricane or directing a typhoon across the South Seas. I had forgotten the incredible energy level attained by the greatest jazz musicians. I wasn’t accustomed to those* fast-as-thought tempos, the crowding profusion of ideas.

Nothing in jazz is harder to describe than the playing of the greatest drummers. A late-model percussionist like Elvin Jones has the mental processes of a computer. He has developed a revolutionary technique that allows each of the four playing limbs almost total independence of action. Doing effortlessly with one hand what was traditionally done with two, Elvin constructs patterns of polyrhythmic complexity that are hard to hear and impossible to remember. Nobody could do them justice in the zippy prose of the slick weeklies. “Goddamn!” I thought, “how did I get suckered into this mission impossible?”

When the seven-hour set finally ended, Elvin wavered over to my table, stalking on stiff, skinny shanks and flashing a big toothy grin. He had a fascinating face, with very dark skin, flaring cheekbones, a crude, leonine nose, and eyes that opened so wide you could see white all around the pupil. He was drenched with sweat and dying for a drink. He ordered a vodka and beer in a voice that rasped tightly as if there were a peg in his throat. As we began to talk, I marveled at the emotional transparency of his face. One minute his grin was like a sunburst, the next his face was clouded over and an air of menace was coming from his smoldering cigarette.

Musicians are supposed to be inarticulate, but black jazzmen generally talk their heads off. Elvin was no exception. He was a great talker with a vocabulary that was peppered with impatiently inflected obscenities and pungent proverbial phrases. “Why, he thinks he’s the greatest thing that ever shit over two heels!” “Why, he was as happy as a sissy at the Y!” “Why, tryin’ to get him out of there was like coaxin’ a houndog offena’ garbage truck!” His basic note was that of a man who couldn’t understand why things weren’t better managed in this ridiculous world.

The next day I went up to his apartment in the West Eighties, off Central Park. His Japanese wife, Keiko, met me at the door, and Elvin asked me to slip off my shoes in the house. He was strolling around barefoot with a careless rolling gait. He had a little room-and-a-half, with a mattress on the floor, a tiny table for eating, and a kitchen in the wall. The place was plastered with pictures and awards and plaques and statues commemorating his achievements. At forty-three he was widely acknowledged as the world’s greatest jazz drummer. Yet he had nothing to show for it except this little pad which, they told me, was the first apartment they had had, the early years of their marriage having passed uncomfortably in a Greenwich Village hotel room. The only reason he had this apartment was that one of his sidemen. Joe Farrell, owned the building (left to him by his father-in-law), and the apartment was dirt cheap.

Jazzmen have never been prosperous, but in the old days it was often their own fault. They made money and blew it supporting their habits. When Charlie Parker was making the huge sum of $900 a week at Birdland, he had a runner who plied back and forth between the club and Dewey Square in Harlem scoring dope for him. Elvin had once been into drugs, too, but now he was straight. He drank beer all afternoon out of a jelly jar clinking with ice cubes, and bobbed his head with a shy grin saying grace before dinner. Though he always made his gigs and took care of business, he was just as poor as any old junkie. He did enjoy one great luxury. He didn’t have to get up at eight in the morning to go to the studio and record jingles and make a whore of himself. He played only jazz and was resigned to never having a nickel.

That first afternoon in his pad he really won my heart. Here was a guy who had more talent than any ten amateurs, and the only thing he owned was a set of drums, which he had gotten free. The other quality that appealed to me was his amiability. Jazz fans of my generation were brought up to regard jazzmen with a mixture of awe and dread. Now, this guy was obviously pretty tough; he was a notorious brawler who had once crowned a French nightclub owner with his bass drum and then wrapped up the bartender and the rest of the club. He wasn’t pulling any punches in his personal relationships either. He said just what he thought about everybody. But you felt a strain of beautiful disinterestedness in his personality. He was in command of his life and he knew his own worth.

Finally, we got down to cases. I had come up with a gimmick to rationalize an article about him. He was going to do a jury on the leading rock drummers, some of whom regarded him as the grand old master of the skins. He had a little phonograph of the sort you’d give your twelve-year-old daughter if she were deaf.

I put Santana on the table and waited for his reaction. Elvin was a heavy listener. It was work for him, just like playing drums. He lowered his head, sweat beaded from his brow. Zeus was checking out the pygmies. “Fiery”—that was his word for the Frisco kids, but I could tell he thought their music was electric wallpaper. Then he was listening to Keith Moon going full-blast during the “Underture” to Tommy. “See there, where the tempo started to die, how he picked it up! The man is a drummer. Everything they play, he contains it.” That was interesting. Now the big test. Ginger Baker in an enormously long solo on Blind Faith’s “Do What You Like.” This was the drum break that brought down houses from coast to coast and convinced millions of kids that Ginger was a genius. Jones liked the opening; then he began to cloud over and his head withdrew between his shoulders like a turtle’s. After what seemed an hour of ominous silence, he raised his head and rasped, “Nothin’ happenin’. Cat’s got delusions of grandeur with no grounds. Know what, Al? They should make him an astronaut and lose his ass!” I thought, “How can I print that?” I wrote up what he said, and a few weeks later the piece ran—without changes.

Then the fun began. About a week later, the phone rings and it’s my agent, or rather one of his girls calling me. She’s all excited, a Hollywood producer is calling, something about Elvin Jones on the Coast. What happened was that they were just about to start shooting a film called Zaccariah, a rock, shlock, cowboy musical turn-of-the-century thing starring Ginger Baker, when the drummer OD’d and had to be replaced.

I discovered later that they had called a thousand different people and asked them if they wanted to do this movie. James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Little Richard, et al., baby. I don’t know why they tried so many blacks, but apparently the only thing you can substitute for Ginger Baker is a black man. Anyway, they hadn’t gotten too far with it; most people were already committed. Finally one day they were sitting in their office, uptight, and they saw this article about a guy who was a drummer. It was all like a repeat of Lenny Bruce’s routine about the talent scouts who have to find a “dictator type” and come up with Adolf Hitler.

The Coast was nervous. They had a million questions: Is this guy on dope? Does he hate whites? Does he really look the way he looks in that picture? “Oh, he’s incredible-looking,” I said, “and he has this sexy way of moving, and he’s a genius.” So they sent a lawyer with a contract and flew Elvin out to Mexico with his wife, his drums, and his Zildjan cymbals. (A Zildjan cymbal is a big hunk of Turkish brass with a hole punched through the center. Elvin Jones’s way of testing the cymbal is to stick it on his thumb and then give it a clonk with his thumb while he holds it next to his ear. One day at the factory, he told me, he went through a couple hundred cymbals. His ears didn’t stop ringing for a week.)

When Elvin got out to Mexicali, Mexico, he found that he was playing the part of a tough, mean gambler. He wore a blood-red shirt with a silver vest, rode a horse up onto the front porch of a bordello, played a long sweaty drum solo, and in one scene was challenged to fight by another tough. The director saw great dramatic possibilities in this scene. He said to the other actor, “Ad lib something about Elvin’s color. Say, ‘Come out of there you black bastard, or something like that.’” So the white actor did the line, and Elvin pulled his gun, came up to him, gave him one of his death-ray looks—and the actor had a nervous breakdown! Broke into tears, refused to continue, had to be replaced.

When Elvin came back to New York, I hardly recognized him. He came into my apartment wearing a thickly fringed Daniel Boone jacket of expensive suede. Putting his arms around my waist, he lifted me straight up in the air and gave me a big kiss, the way you would a baby. Making the movie had really given him a charge. For one brief moment it looked as though he might really take off. There was talk of another film, of a tour, of renaming Danny’s “Elvin’s.”

Within a few weeks, the old jazz luck started to drag him down. The movie was just talk, the concert tour failed to materialize, and Danny’s was closed for unknown reasons, its liquor license revoked. Elvin didn’t bat an eye. He was accustomed to wipe-outs. They were just part of his job. He went to work organizing a new group, which played very successfully in all the old joints.

During the same winter that I met Elvin Jones, I began going down to the Half Note, it legendary jazz club on Hudson Street near tne Holland Tunnel in the dockside, warehouse district of Manhattan. The Note looks as though somebody had broken a little piece off the old Fiftysecond Street and dropped it on the way to Jersey. The outside is a 1940s streamlined, plate-glass window, a cupola awning, and a corny neon sign with four skinny half notes on it. When you get up close, you see a hand-lettered bill in the window. By now it could be printed because it always announces the same guy, Zoot Sims. Zoot’s been playing at the Half Note for twelve years.

If you hit the Note on a bad winter night, you feel like you’ve stepped into the ultimate loser’s bar. It’s somber, shadowy, Saroyanesque, and it’s virtually empty, with a neighborhood drunk slumped across the bar, a couple of bird-dog regulars in a corner, and maybe two bronzed Texas loudmouths shouting at the band, “Let’s dance!” If you hit the club on a good night, when it’s doing business and the vibes are right, you see it as the supreme setting for jazz. Glowing red walls tiled with nostalgic album covers, oilcloth-covered tables crowned with flickering candles, a whole maze of seating, serving, and playing areas focused comfortably on the musicians, who stand above the bar in the classic situation, where they can shower music down on the patrons who lean and drink or those who sit and eat the good, wholesome, gutsy Italian food. What more could anyone ask from a room designed for listening to jazz?

When I first started going down to the Note in February, 1970, the club was clearly dying. Apart from a few devotees, there was no one who would brave the dark streets down there at the end of the world just to hear a couple of jazz licks. The proprietors were into the Shylocks for thousands of dollars. The piano was way out of tune. They had nights when they did $40 business. Hatcheck girls used to make that.

Zoot Sims seemed to embody the mood of the club. The last of the great swingers had gained weight over the years. He looked now like a youthful Lionel Barrymore with bushy brows and a burgeoning bay window. Zoot’s note, once bright and pealing, was full and deep and tinged with sadness. As his superbly modeled phrases emerged from the dusky light of a bossa nova, you realized that he had become a master of musical chiaroscuro. He had also become a clockwork figure on that tiny stage. As soon as he finished playing, he would retire to the stage steps and stand there impassively, a carved statue in a niche, one hand resting on the crook of his grounded horn while the other negligently held a half-empty glass of whiskey.

The Canterino Brothers, Mike and Sonny, who had operated this club for years, with their father, Frank, and their mother, Jean, and Mike’s wife, Judy, were a classic Italian-American family. You had the feeling that the whole world could perish tomorrow, and they would build it up again like Noah after the Flood. They were like the owners of family-operated bistros in Paris; you were their guests, and they offered you the hospitality of the house. Unlike the high-strung proprietor of the typical jazz club or the spaced-out young operator of the typical discotheque, these were people who exuded human feelings and a sense of human concern.

By the spring of 1970, I was deeply involved again with jazz. I could see that my own drift back to the jazz clubs was being paralleled by an unexpected resurgence of interest in the music by the rock world. Ever since Blood, Sweat & Tears struck gold with their plastic Bop ‘n’ Basie, rock bands had been dropping chunks of jazz into their arrangements. Similarly, the purveyors of hot buttered soul were feeding ever-increasing amounts of jazz improvisation into their ethnic mulch. Soul-jazz was just like the Memphis Sound before it: a skillfully contrived synthetic that distilled the most potent aromas of blues, funk, gospel, and jazz into an attar of blackness. In New York it came pouring out of an excellent radio station, WL1B, “The Black Experience in Sound,” masterminded by a disc jockey named Del Shields. Black broadcasters had an audience that was almost as ignorant of jazz as were white listeners. But in the ghetto there was a feeling that jazz ought to be heard and studied because it was part of the black heritage.

Neither jazz-rock nor soul-jazz is the pure, uncut stuff of mainline jazz; both belong to what an earlier, more idealistic age would have called “commercial” music. Yet their value to pure jazz cannot be exaggerated. Without broad popular styles, like those developed by the big bands of the thirties and forties, jazz is doomed to dry up and die. Pop jazz provides good-paying, on-the-job training for young musicians who may someday elect to starve with the masters. It entices young people onto the jazz scene and allows their listening tastes to develop at a normal pace. Most important, the pop styles feed the master jazzmen with fresh folk materials which they can parody and paraphrase up to the taxing altitude of their most sophisticated selves.

Obviously, there can be no revival of the jazz scene of earlier years; most promoters and recordmakers are reluctant to use even the good old fourletter word. What is happening now is the return of jazz in disguise. Everybody on the crashing pop scene is picking up on jazz licks, jazz voicings, and (in the studio, where they don’t show) veteran jazz hands. Laura Nyro slips Zoot Sims into one record and arranges to make another with Miles Davis. Astute operators like Herbie Mann and Les McCann develop pop styles that sell hundreds of thousands of albums and boost them way up on the charts. Rock critics even begin to hail jazz as the savior of the beat!

As soon as people began to pay a little money and attention to jazz, the whole scene brightened. Every night the Half Note was jammed, and Zoot came out of his winter slump to bat .400 for weeks on end. He not only raised his energy level to a point higher than anyone could recall, he dipped into jazz history to bring back all sorts of fascinating material from the thirties (when he was just a kid). The night Duke Ellington was elected a member of the National Academy, Zoot paid him an unannounced tribute with tunes like “Rockin’ in Rhythm” and “Do Nothing Till You Hear from Me.” He captured the quavering, querulous vibrato of Johnny Hodges and the heavy, burbling sound of Ren Webster. Then he wrapped up the set with Fats Waller’s cascading, lilting “Jitterbug Waltz.”

That performance showed how perfectly the great jazzmen have assimilated their own history, how Proustian is their enhancement of the past. Jazz is eighty years old. Its history is terraced back and up. layer after layer, like ancient vineyards. A jazz artist can move you strangely by journeying across this sharply demarcated, indelibly colored time map, by drawing the past into the present, or by rolling the current style back toward its roots. Far more sophisticated and beautiful than the silly, campy antiques the rockers fabricate in the name of nostalgia, the timetrips of jazz are, nonetheless, only to be appreciated by those who have the listening experience to recognize the stations along the line.

This has always been one of the limits on jazz’s popularity: the knowledge demanded for initiation into the cult. In earlier periods, the self-involved complexities of the music were received as a challenge which many young men and women rose to meet; today, in the age of passivity, the reign of terror of standards, such demands are almost certain to be refused. Yet there is no real reason why the kids can’t get with jazz. Jazzmen are, after all, their true fathers. Who knows more about drugs than jazzmen? Who has experienced more social alienation and ostracism? Who has suffered more of poverty, harassment, and despair? Jazz was “loose,” “groovy,” “hip,” “ballsy,” “funky,” “soulful,” down to the “nitty-gritty” long before the current generation was born. To treat it as an artifact of the uptight, three-button older generation is to evidence colossal ignorance of American history.

Some nights now in New York’s oldest jazz clubs, like the Half Note and the Village Vanguard, you can witness a spectacle almost unparalleled in contemporary American society. You’re down in some low-ceilinged, smoke-blurred basement, and you look around and dig—what would you call it?—a hip church social! It’s college kids and middle-aged hipsters and gray-haired couples who first heard jazz on a Strombcrg-Carlson tuned to The Fitch Bandwagon, all sitting together, all eating and drinking together; and up on the stand is this band of old men and young, black and white, playing our greatest American music and really getting it off, rewriting the charts as they honk. Suddenly you realize: Hey! This is my music, my people, my scene! And you feel so great, so proud, so possessive, you could almost walk up to the bar, like the old-timers used to do, and growl: “Give those boys a drink—they’re blowin’ pretty hard tonight!” □