THEY DIDN’T HAVE TO DIE

Jo Jones once told an interviewer that he was writing a book, THEY DIDN’T HAVE TO DIE, a chronicle of musicians he was devoted to who had died too young.  He recalled saxophonist Dick Wilson, hospitalized and on a no-salt diet,  — begging his friends to bring him salt.  Someone did and the thoughtless kindness hastened the saxophonist’s death.

But this post isn’t about excessive sodium.  Today is November 21, 2011, and because it is Coleman Hawkins’ birthday — even though he is no longer here to enjoy the attention — radio station WKCR-FM plays his music for 24 hours.

I always think of Hawkins as being aware of his purpose.  His playing reveals a strong, focused individual: neither tentative nor timorous.  He seems to have known he was meant to be the king of the tenor saxophonists, whether he was competing with Lester Young or Sonny Rollins.  Hawk was a gladiator, intolerant of limitations, a musician who would test others — asking a youthful Oscar Peterson to play IT’S THE TALK OF THE TOWN — but in B natural.  In photographs, Hawkins has the amused swagger of the man who knows he can back up anything he says.  Yet late in his career he became indifferent to anything but his horn and cognac, the latter often taking precedence.  To say only that he “was an alcoholic” is the most limited judgmental of assessments.

His contemporary (and his equal) Lester Young seems a man with an almost unbearable sensitivity, deeply wounded, carrying a lifetime of hurt — from being exiled from the family band to his victimization in the US military, to hearing his music taken over by younger copyists.  I can see why Lester eventually did not care whether he lived or not.

But the mystery of Hawkins — a powerful man defeated — leads me to the question of why some musicians prevail and others succumb.  Some players seem to be — and I write this without moral condemnation — eternal children, deeply in love with play to the exclusion of all else.  Consider Bix Beiderbecke, Jimmie Blanton, Charlie Christian, Charlie Parker.  That sweetly intense focus is both their glory and their doom.  No one can say that they were meant to live to be middle-aged or more.

Some musicians, surrounded early on by situations where alcohol is the common bond, expected reward, the needed stimulus, lose their balance.  When once a drink or two was the impetus to be loose enough to improvise, to “get in the zone,” the servant becomes the master.  At the ends of their careers, both Hawkins and Young had no interest in food.  Too, some of these players seemed to cultivate relationships only with their instruments.  They had friends and colleagues on the bandstand, yes — but not spouses or lovers.  Monogamy has never been the universal panacea, but sympathetic intimate companionship can do a great deal to keep loneliness and despair at bay.

I cannot take Louis as my sole example (tempting as it is) but he was conscientious about his health, had a loving wife and a home, preferred marijuana to alcohol, and took joy in his existence and its simple pleasures.  Perhaps we all need these balances in our life: to be grateful for simple things, to keep our pleasures from overwhelming us, to cultivate a sunny disposition.  Then again, who knows what mixture of nurture and nature is at work?  Perhaps I wish only that both Hawkins and Lester had been happier in their twilights.  It is something I would wish for all of us, not just musicians.

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6 responses to “THEY DIDN’T HAVE TO DIE

  1. This entry brought tears to my eyes. I got deep into the history of jazz after watching the Ken Burns production on PBS. I have read hundreds of books and the pain and abuse these people went through to make this beautiful music was really quite tragic. Lester Young did have a “soul mate” in Billie Holiday for quite a while. But they eventually had a falling out and apparently no one knows why. So sad. But they did leave this beautiful for us to enjoy.

  2. A very touching post, for obvious reasons. I cannot help but wonder just how far,, and how big, would the musicians that died, go….

  3. Ross Firestone

    A lovely, thoughtful piece. Thank you. And keep them coming.

  4. Billie’s falling out with Pres was (I believe) over her use of heroin, which Lester hated (especially the needles…). There is, of course, that incredibly moving 1957 re-union in the ‘Sounds Of Jazz’ TV studio, the film of which (easily located on Youtube) never fails to bring tears to my eyes.

    On the subject of Hawkins, though: like Michael I’ve always been mystified by the sad circumstances of Hawk’s passing. Unless Pres, Bix or Bird, he seems to have been such a strong, commanding figure (well described in John Chilton’s ‘The Song of the Hawk’): what on earth went wrong at the end?

    Joop Viser (in the booklet to the Properbox 4-CD set ‘Coleman Hawkins – The Bebop Years’) writes: “Towards the end, Hawk lost interest, he was not inspired by the avant gards and stated ‘I don’t hear anything in what they’re playing, just noise and crap’. This was a telling statement from a musician who had always prided himself on being ahead of the game. A man who had spent his whole life playing the saxophone, who believed that however long he lived and however much he played, there was always something still to learn. From the mid 1960’s onwards Hawl lost interest in food and started systematically to drink himself to death.”

    By way of contrast, of course, Louis (inpart because of his incredibly deprived background) valued his health, knew how to nurture and conserve his powers and steered clear of anything stronger than he ocassional beer and reefer. Apparently, when he heard about Bunny Berigan’s untimely booze-induced death, Louis was more *angry* than sad, stating simply: “He had *no business* dying like that!”

  5. After reading this touching blog entry I was looking for a soundtrack for it. I don’t know how to insert a video here, but on Youtube is a clip from 1958 with Pres & Hawk playing fours live on tv screen. What a rare and glorious find. I never thought to see a longer clip of Pres than in the “Sound of Jazz” film. Notice the distance between both tenor man in the room. They don’t look at the other.

  6. We all must leave at some point yet the departure of great ones will almost always seem premature. With Hawkins, i think it had to do with competition. He had always been willing to go head to head with the best of any generation. But what does he do when the new guys don’t do that, won’t do that and don’t even play by the same rules?

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