Staring at sound


Been struggling with a couple new things, neither of which is yet fit to be seen, and since one is supposed to blog daily (I think that’s the idea) here’s an oldie I’ve cleaned up and annotated with this nice wordy preface. I’m not so crazy about the title I came up with when I first converted this into a blog post a year or so ago, but oh well. The piece (minus a paragraph or two) was taken from a Brick’s Pick’s column in the LA Weekly circa 2008. Alas, the thing never made it to print since my umpteenth editor was canned before he or she (they all blur together after a while) got a chance to look at it. I suppose this is the first time it’s appeared in public. It must have been a slow week in the clubs…when things were slow or shitty in the listings I’d wind up with all kinds of space to fill with pretty writing. I sure filled it here. Couldn’t get me to shut up, waxing deep and heavy and meaningful. I remember this party–though not why we threw it, as if it mattered–and I remember this kid. An artist and a horn player, trumpet, I think. Or cornet. The party was our usual handpicked boho wacko mix, and with the economy having sinkhole’d beneath our feet only weeks before there was a helluva lot of imbibing of booze–always a bad idea, hard alcohol, though watching grown men swill port from the pricey bottle was entertaining–and all the musicians seem to be suffering from aches and pains and depression and hangnails and were medicated accordingly, and had the cards to prove it. Somewhere between the gentle beers and the hard stuff the conversation below took place, and being the sober guy in the pad I remembered it. The next night I condensed it into this column, always one of my favorites, tho’ none of you ever saw it.

The kid was an artist, a painter, and consumed with all the passion and absurdity of his age. We were all talking, who knows what, and something was spinning behind us, the tenor breaking though the chatter and booze and smoke. The painter kid froze. We all kept talking.  He didn’t move. Just some freak at a freaky bash, standing there and staring at sound. That’s Pharaoh Sanders, he said. He was right. He’d been taking it in, communing or reverberating or something quasi-mystical. Someone tried to talk to him. He absently waved him away. That tenor was roaring now, crazy whipsnake ups and downs on the horn.  Listen to Pharaoh, the kid says, he’s speaking. We shut up and listened.  The kid was right.

OK, he was crazy young. Kids get so overwrought sometimes, so into this stuff. Music becomes everything. Creativity is like oxygen in an anaerobic world. Breathe it deep, man. Suck on it like a big phat joint. Let the notes get into you blood, into your brain, into your soul. Forget all about your lousy job, or not having a job, or whatever’s really getting you down all the time, and ruining your life. Let a jazz musician make you realize that nothing matters but expression.  Oh, those crazy kids.

Still, though, it’s not a bad way to approach things and music and life. Even if we’re older, more jaded, more realistic, less exciting.  Yeah, yeah, yeah we have responsibilities and families to support; there’s gods to pray to, people to vote for, ruts to follow.  But that feeling, like the painter kid there seized with stoned, inebriated focus that sucked him right into the core of Pharaoh’s mad playing….we all need to do that sometimes. The more miserable the vibe out there the more we need that jolt . The pure electricity of suddenly getting it and knowing what the player means. Hearing his message. Letting a solo talk to us, and speaking its language, if only for a few minutes in some dark, half empty club. Like Charles Owens this Sunday at Charlie O’s….blowing his smart soulful madness through some spontaneous suite that surrenders to the most lovely, devoted Trane, or out to lunch Eric Dolphy, a very down dirty blues, and electrifying Eddie Harris.  Just sitting there stage side, and nursing a Jamesons and letting his groove turn your atoms inside out. Listen hard enough and it hits you….you get it! You really do. You can’t even explain it to anyone, let alone to Charles Owens when after the gig you sputter a man that was soooooooo cool and he nods and smiles. He knows. It got him too. Hell, he was playing it.

But you can get that vibe anywhere this week, not just Owens. Hell, at Charlie O’s there’s Rickey Woodard on Friday and Azar on Saturday, and that’s pretty nuts.

And you just won’t believe what you just saw, heard, and felt. But you know it got to you, grabbed you by your insides and shook you to your rattling bones, so you walk out of the club that night feeling different. Renewed. Blessed. So maybe it’s not like doing some deer in the headlights frozen trip at a party, freaking people out a bit with your intensity….you can’t get away with that past your twenties, I mean Jesus…. But you can still get so moved by some cat’s playing that your life just got better just by experiencing the right music at the right time.

Try it yourself. The music is in the clubs, playing. Go listen to it.

Staring at sound. I saw Gerald Wilson do just that a couple nights ago, staring right into the bell of a screaming tenor sax. Kamasi Washington was blowing like a freaking hurricane, just roaring, and Gerald stood maybe two feet in front of him, letting that crazy dangerous torrent of notes wash right over him. He watched and counted time almost invisibly, nodding ever so slightly for another chorus, and another, and another. Kamasi was loud, a big huge room filling sound, and Gerald, 95 years old, never flinched. I was sitting a few feet away, with a profile view of the scene and wishing so bad just then that I was a photographer and not a writer because I could see the picture, still can, and if I had taken that picture I’d stick it right here and cut out a thousand words. But all I have is that image burned into my brain, as perfect a jazz image as I’ve ever seen. And one I’m not likely to see again, not so close, not so perfectly framed. Gerald comes from a different time.

Kamasi Washington (from

Kamasi Washington

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s