It may be apocrypha, or a bit of crypto-knowledge passed around in adolescence, but I remember reading that the Zen masters taught the art of indirection. If you truly want to get a bull’s eye in archery or other endeavors, close your eyes. Stop aiming so earnestly. It might work very poorly with real arrows, but it is a strong piece of metaphysics. One way to have something you want badly come to you is to assume the attitude that Castiglione, in The Book of the Courtier, called sprezzatura — nonchalance — and the desired object will, in its own time, show up, although it may take years.
Those ruminations are supported by my recent experiences at a yard sale in Portland, Maine (the town I am now writing from), flea markets in Woodstock, New York, and Lambertsville, New Jersey.
I’ve spent a long time as an anthropologist-without-credentials in New York suburbs, where such informal commerce proliferates. Hence the following generalities. Yard sales seem feminized: they put forth outgrown baby clothing, coffee mugs and bread machines, mystery novels, self-help books, videocassettes and other amiable domestic debris. Garage sales often seem male: shovels and power drills, six-packs of automobile engine additive, rock salt for clearing snowy sidewalks. Both of them, true to their names, are held outdoors, goods sprawling across lawns and driveways. Tag and “estate” sales, cutting across gender lines, pretend to be far more serious affairs, run by officious professionals who place price tags on clothing, jewelry, or furniture. But all four varieties of sale might have a box of phonograph records, sometimes hidden under a table, objects of limited importance.
Two days ago, at a Portland yard sale, I was drawn to a carton of long-playing records. Usually they’re low-level knockoffs (“The Hollyridge Strings Play the Beatles”), Christmas collections by Andy Williams, 1970s Carly Simon, motion picture soundtracks, heavy metal, disco hits. Jazz is understandably rare. So I was astounded to see a Dave McKenna solo record, LULLABIES IN JAZZ, on the Realm label, recorded in 1963. Before he was recognized as a phenomenonal solo pianist, McKenna had recorded only twice on his own – one Fifties session for ABC-Paramount; and this one for Realm. I had never before seen this record and had only heard selections from it — all the songs have to do with sleep, the kind of gimmickry that record producers thought would sell records — on Ed Beach’s WRVR-FM jazz program, circa 1972. Incidentally, the original lp has this quote from Oscar Peterson: “Dave McKenna’s left hand is a full rhythm section.” How true!
For perhaps twenty years, McKenna and Bobby Hackett were friends and musical associates. Hackett, who had played with everyone, thought McKenna unquestionably the finest pianist he had ever worked with. So it was fitting that, a few records deeper into the same box, I should find a Columbia stereo record, NIGHT LOVE, featuring Hackett playing classical and semi-classical themes over a lush background arranged by Glenn Osser. What could be better than to hear Hackett muse over Puccini’s “Un bel di” from Madame Butterfly? For whatever reason, this record is still sealed — no one has played it since purchasing it in 1962. A musical time-capsule, perhaps? Each record cost me twenty-five cents: a small price for such music and such associations. And, in the fashion of the time, the covers of both records sport attractively dreamy women, their larger-than-life faces turned toward the camera, sending some message or other.
In true secular-Zen fashion, while loafing around cyberspace, preparing for this posting, I found that there is a McKenna website — which I urge you to visit, especially because it has more than a half-dozen beautifully-recorded and authorized solo CDs for sale. The proceeds go directly to Dave, who is no longer performing. It’s http://www.aahome.com/dave.
A few weekends back, the Beloved and I went to Woodstock, New York, to experience this fabled town. We spent a pleasant few hours at the official flea market, whose range was astonishing. I sniffed out several boxes of records, most of them dull or odd, at least to me. But one man had a few 78s in a binder. Usually 78s are Forties and Fifties pop (Arthur Godfrey, Xavier Cugat, Eddie Fisher), polkas, or symphonies. In this context, a Goodman record is a find, and the mint Keynote 78 of a small band led by drummer J.C. Heard a revelation: ALL MY LIFE and GROOVIN’ WITH J.C., featuring Buck Clayton, Flip Phillips, Johnny Guarneri, Milt Hinton, and Heard. What was even more resonant was that the paper sleeve someone had kept this 78 in had once housed Charlie Parker’s Dial record, “Dewey Square,” certainly a powerful association. Someone, who may now be dead, had very good taste, Thank you, whoever and wherever you are.
Another box offered up the lp, “ON THE ROAD with The Vic Pierce Orchestra,” clearly a home-grown production on a local label. Born Vito Pesce in Woodmere (another suburb), Pierce was a bassist, so the cover of this record was clever — a line drawing of an automobile-sized string bass on wheels, driving on to the gig. That in itself wouldn’t have convinced me to buy it, but the liner notes said that several songs featured trumpeter Billy Butterfield. Online research uncovered little about Pierce except that he died not long ago: I would have liked to ask him about this record date. Cost: three dollars for the pair.
Thumbing with tepid interest through a box of audiocassettes — almost all professionally made — I stopped cold when I saw the handwritten words PEE WEE RUSSELL / EDMOND HALL on the side of a box. Someone in the early Seventies had used this then new medium to make a portable listening experience, ninety minutes long, of favorite selections by these two clarinet masters, with Dave Tough, George Wettling, Wild Bill Davison, and others. The cassette’s owner was male (judging by his handwriting) and meticulous: each song had its personnel listed, its origin. Someone had treasured this music and loved this cassette: the dollar I paid for it was a fraction of its emotional worth and warmth.
Finally, DIXIE LAND, its title reproduced accurately, which I found at a flea market in Lambertsville, New Jersey, the sole trophy of an unpromising visit. (Neither the Beloved nor I had realized that devoted buyers and sellers start their pirouettes at 6 AM on a Sunday, so we showed up quite late by community standards, and it was parchingly hot.) An obviously serious record collector had his inventory arranged, without prices, by genre. I looked through the assorted jazz and found nothing essential except a fairly tattered low-cost issue featuring Buck Clayton, Vic Dickenson, Bud Freeman, Pee Wee Russell, Lou Carter, “Arnell” Shaw, and Jo Jones. What made this record desirable wasn’t the splendid music, which I had already heard, but the cover picture — Pee Wee dressed in a plaid shirt, Jo Jones bending over to say something to one of his colleagues, Bud Freeman sharp in suit and tie, Buck Clayton laughing at something Lou Carter had just said. I had never seen the photograph, still lively in nearly garish shades. Considering it as a possible purchase, I slid the record out of its sleeve and saw it was worn, saying politely to the dealer, “This one looks somewhat chewed. What do you want for it?” He took umbrage at these sentiments and snapped at me, “I’ll tell you what the condition is,” and continued abruptly, “Two dollars. And don’t try to get the price any lower.” I would have paid four, so I handed him two singles, thanked him, and said no more. Even though I am far from a phonograph, these acquisitions will enliven me in September.
What’s the moral? Perhaps this: with luck, nothing is really ever lost. Unless they are smashed or burnt, the venerated artifacts of someone else’s past come around, as they should, to new owners who appreciate them anew. Yes, so much has disappeared, but so much remains to be cherished.
And, going back to the apocryphal Zen masters: if the only way to assure yourself of a desired result is to give up hoping for it, let me declare right now that I renounce all the Bluebird 78s by Frankie Newton. I have no thoughts of any Nat Pierce records with Ruby Braff, Phil Woods, and Doug Mettome. I eschew and abjure all jazz acetates or test pressings. Is that clear? Meanwhile, I am going to treasure the things that I have found: worth so much more than I paid for them, rare and special.