I knew Jim Leigh as a writer covering the West Coast scene for THE MISSISSIPPI RAG — someone observant, witty, occasionally satiric. Later, I knew him as a solidly rough-hewn trombonist, with plenty of pep and lowdown spice, what Dicky Wells called “fuzz.”
But it’s only recently that I have had the opportunity to savor his prose at length, and his memoir, HEAVEN ON THE SIDE: A JAZZ LIFE, is a splendidly moving book. I apologize to Jim for coming to it so late — it was published in 2000 — but I bow to no one in my enthusiasm for it. When a friend gave me a copy in September, I found myself reading it while standing up in my hotel room, and I quickly was so entranced that I rationed myself to only a few pages at a time because I didn’t want it to end too quickly.
Readers familiar with the literature of jazz know that many jazz memoirs follow predictable patterns. Some musicians offer us the familiar path: early discovery of the music, early study, scuffling, the first breakthrough, then a listing of gigs and encounters. Other books are a series of vignettes — associations with famous people . . . “and then I told Louis,” and so on. Other chronicles depict battles with addiction and other unhappinesses — ideally they end in triumph and freedom. All of these books can be irresistible on their own terms, but they often become cheerfully formulaic once the subject has succeeded.
Jim’s book is not only a history of his own musical development (how he learned to play “Whispering” in its key, not Bb), or his brushes with the great and near-great . . . but, like A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN, it is a record, seen retrospectively, of the growth of a consciosness, the creation of a discerning self. The combination of his prose (modest, expert, not calling attention to itself) and the insights he has come to — makes for a book that’s not only readable but memorable.
I won’t summarize the insights — that would do Jim an injustice — but they have to do with his development not only as a trombonist and a listener, but as a full-fledged adult with a deep understanding of himself, of his relations with others, and of the music. In these pages, we observe someone grow, which restores us as we participate in it.
The temptation for me, as someone fascinated by HEAVEN ON THE SIDE: A JAZZ LIFE, is to retype great chunks of it. I will let readers take their pleasures and surprises on their own — and offer only one excerpt from the book, Jim’s encounter with the great and somewhat inscrutable Herb Flemming (world-traveler and Ellington alumnus) in Fuengirola, Spain, circa 1965:
. . . a man considerably older than I lived with a small white mixed-breed dog. I kept imagining that I heard the sound of a trombone from his second-floor apartment, often playing a part of “Sophisticated Lady” or “In My Solitude,” typically the bridge, repeating it, perfectly, perhaps a dozen times. Discreet inquiry in the large and heterogeneous foreign community provided only a rumor that the man, “some kind of an Arab,” had “played with Duke Ellington, a long time ago.” Whether because he was too self-sufficient to require conversation or too anti-social to permit it, he was said to be taciturn to the point of utter silence. Or, as Wacker, the retired Australian soap opera writer down the street, put it, “Bloke seems to be missing the old vocal chords.”
One day when I was walking along the Paseo Maritimo, next to the beach, I saw him coming, as always with his dog on a leash. Thinking that it was perhaps now or never, I spoke to him. He stopped and listened, impassive, his eyes focused on a patch of Mediterranean somewhere beyond my shoulder, but did not answer. “I’ve heard that you used to play with Duke,” I said.
He echoed me tonelessly. “Duke,” as if the word meant nothing to him.
He let me wait a bit. “Yes, I did.”
I told him my name, and that I lived across the street from him. “Next to the Casa Blanca,” I said. “You know, the Danish bar?”
“I don’t pass my time in bars,” he said. He let his eyes rest steadily on my face then. I saw his calm gaze, but decided not to mention that I, too, had played the trombone, and waited. He must have reached some sort of decision, because, without looking away, he stuck his free hand inside his jacket and brought forth a calling card, which he handed me. I thanked him.
“Mm,” he said, and resumed his stroll. The card read Nicolaiih El-Michelle (Formerly Herb Flemming),” and below that “Trombonist”. It bore a Paris address, pencilled out but not amended. He and his doggy were already on their way. We never spoke again.
There are writers who would make an equisitely sad little vignete out of the former Herb Flemming. I might have been one of them 30 or 40 years ago, but no longer. If our brief experience taught me anything at that time it was that the former Herb Flemming did not require pity any more than he required conversation. He had his dog, he had his trombone: what more, his manner said, did a man need? Someone might call him for a gig, I thought. As Sister Rosetta Tharpe so memorably sang, strange things happen every day. If someone did call, I was sure the Former Herb Flemming would have his chops together.
The book is full of these brief moments of revelation, quietly persuasive but never self-congratulatory. Any of us might have encountered Herb Flemming, and perhaps with similar results, but only Jim Leigh would have come to understand that moment as he has . . . and only Leigh would have written of it in such a sweetly understated way. HEAVEN ON THE SIDE: A JAZZ LIFE is full of personalities and stories, from Turk Murphy to Louis to Frank “Big Boy” Goudie and Django Reinhardt, to Dan Barrett and Clint Baker . . . but what compels me is the steady, often amused, man and writer, experiencing his life and learning from it, every chorus, every day.
It’s an invaluable book. Visit http://www.xibris.com/sales to obtain a copy. An actual bookstore (they still exist!) could order it under its ISBN number, which is 0-7388-5602-9.