The strangest thing happened to me last night at dinner. I'm in Oakland, California, spending a few days with my childhood friend Maggie. On Monday I had lunch with two of my musician buddies, Chris Siebert and Marcus Shelby. Chris brought a couple of his pianist pals. Lunch was three hours of music talk, anecdotes and copious laughter.
Then I went to play tennis with Maggie at her club. They play doubles there. I'm strictly a singles guy (in more ways than tennis). I found the experience challenging. It's still see-the-ball-and-hit-it, but there are all these extra bodies moving around—very distracting. I got better the second set.
If you know me, you know that I have this crazy memory. I remember all kinds of stories and details from long ago. I used to know hundreds, maybe even thousands of jazz pieces where I could sing all the parts from beginning to end. Now, sadly, I look at some titles and draw a blank.
Last night Maggie and I had dinner with two of our former classmates. It was even more fun than I thought it would be. We talked about our teachers and other classmates who weren't there to defend themselves. About halfway through dinner a story came up about how in 4th grade, four kids, of whose names only three could be remembered, broke into our elementary school.
One kid put a small stone in between the door and the jamb on Friday and then all four came back on Saturday when the school was empty. All of a sudden it hit me like a ton of bricks. I was there. I was juvenile delinquent #4. We walked down the ramp to the music room and opened the door. I remember running down the empty halls that Saturday afternoon. We played a few harmless pranks like moving pencils from one desk to another, and then we left without being caught.
It seems that one of the criminals confessed and named two confederates who then had to deal with the principal and their parents. I don't remember being punished, so I guess they didn't turn me in. What's so interesting about this story is that I'd completely forgotten it. But as soon as it came up in conversation, there it was like a movie with every little detail.
Who can explain why we kids did such a thing? We weren’t bad kids at all. It was some kind of Tom Sawyer/Huckleberry Finn mischief—just a harmless prank. There was no point to it, but I guess it just seemed like a good idea at the time to a bunch of 10-year olds.
The following year Maggie and I were in the same class with our favorite teacher where Maggie and I edited the class newspaper. One day I was sent to the principal’s office for writing a humorous short story in what I thought was Southern dialect. I nervously sat on the bench outside Mr. Wilson’s office. Finally, he opened the door and called me in. He told me that he read my story and loved it. Go figure. I thought I was in trouble, but it turned out to be the opposite. Life is full of surprises.
That was a magical year where I was introduced to poetry. What I mean is I had my first experience being moved by poetry when Mr. Lurie read us Richard Cory.
BY EDWIN ARLINGTON ROBINSON
Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.
And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
"Good-morning," and he glittered when he walked.
And he was rich—yes, richer than a king—
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.
So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.
When Mr. Lurie said, "And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head,” it sent shivers up my spine.
Wow! In one sentence I became aware that even though someone seems to have everything going for him or her, they could still be desperately unhappy. Also we can think we know people and not really know them at all. It's such a short poem, and yet it packs a wallop kinda like Ellington's 3-minute recordings, only shorter.
I'm fascinated by brevity. If I can say it in 3-4 minutes, why go on? I'm reading The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison. The book is 1000 pages, but many of the letters are only a single page. If you haven't read his Invisible Man, run, don't walk to your nearest library. Unfortunately, Ralph never finished his second novel, Juneteenth, but he wrote some wonderful short stories and essays, many of which are about jazz.
I met Ralph about 30 years ago. He told me that he had originally set out to be a jazz trumpet player. I asked him what changed his mind. He said that when he heard Louis Armstrong, he realized that he lacked the musical talent to be great, and he needed to be great.
Reading his early letters, I can see his determination and hard work. He was never going to let poverty and racism beat him. His goal was to get to New York and write the great American novel. Mission accomplished.
It's not just what he says, it's how he says it. He's definitely in the pantheon of American writers. He may not have written as much as Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, or Twain, but he captures the American experience like no one else.
I'm not sure greatness has to include records, awards and longevity. The three greatest pitchers I ever saw hurl a baseball were Nolan Ryan, Sandy Koufax and Dwight Gooden. Ryan is the undisputed king, but both Koufax, whose career was shorted by arthritis, and Gooden, whose career was destroyed by drugs, had a few seasons of as-good-as-it-gets and were beyond thrilling. That has to count for something.
Raymond Chandler's seven short Philip Marlowe detective novels are in the same boat. Like jazz—they’re not symphonies; they’re not pretentious. It's lowly pulp fiction, but Chandler’s writing transcends the medium.
It took jazz decades to gain ivory-tower respect. I'm not so sure that is a good thing. You can try too hard to be an artist. I think it works best if you just put one foot in front of the other and do what you do. What makes art great is not the veneer but what's on the inside and how it all fits together to tell a unique, truthful, deeply personal, but universal story. You can't force it.
Some people just have a natural curve ball (Uncle Charlie), and then there was Gooden’s Lord Charles. It's been over 30 years and baseball announcers still make the comparison to Doc. He'll never be in the Hall of Fame, but he's in my Hall of Fame. Greatness is undeniable. It's love at first sight. I've forgotten a lot of things in my old age, but never love at first sight.