I was having a cyber-discussion with a dear friend to whom I am much indebted about a certain improvising instrumentalist whose technique and spirit my friend much admires.  I am afraid I startled him with my provincialism when I wrote that I too admired X’s technique, but I feel overwhelmed by X’s playing — torrents of notes come at me whenever X solos.

I thought once again of Sonny Stitt and Lester Young on the JATP bus, Still walking up and down the aisle with his horn, playing extravagantly, superbly, without faltering, chorus after ornamented chorus, faster than the speed of light, and Lester saying, “That’s very nice, Lady Stitt.  But can you sing me a song?”

In Philip Roth’s memorably acidic howl of a novel, PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT, the narrator makes fun of his ancient father and mother.  He takes his parents to a very expensive and elaborate French restaurant; his father turns to the waiter and says, “I want a piece of fish.  And make sure it’s hot.”  I have satirized that in my mind for years, but I understand the beauty of simplicity more and more.  Music that sings, with lots of breathing room.  Basie playing the blues at a medium tempo.

Is it possible that what I am espousing here is not a jaded listener’s revolt against music that is too complicated for his dusty provincialism, but a desire for sounds that evoke our deepest feelings?  That the curlicues in Mildred Bailey’s upper register remind me of birdsong?  That the swish of Jo Jones’ hi-hat is like the regular ebb and flow of the waves?  That the sweet reassuring pulse of Milt Hinton’s bass reminds me on the deepest level of the first sound I must have experienced, even before birth, my mother’s regular heartbeat?  (I could replace these hallowed names with a hundred living players, too, and invite you to do so.)

It could be that I have progressed even more from being the Youngest Kid in the Room to being an Old Codger . . . but I think that what touches our hearts in music, although it is different for each player, singer, and listener, is worth cherishing with all our energies.


  1. Well said, sir. I would add – sounding of course like an old blowhard – that for a lot of us, encroaching middle age brings with it a tendency toward simple old longing for days long gone, people passed on, and a public discourse and popular culture NOT so dumbed down at every turn. I find this sentiment even stronger with the older, Great Depression/World War II generation.

    When we hear these great old tunes performed in such a beautiful way by the musicians who revere them, it’s then that – just for awhile – the sentimentality gets a public validation. That’s part of what makes it such good medicine for a stressed-out and impersonal world.

    Cheers, and thanks for all you do!

  2. In what recording studio of yore was it that there was posted a sign: “Where’s the Melody?” It’s a fantastic reminder about unnecessary “extravagance” and leaving a little something to the listener’s imagination. I liken it to writing with too many commas, “and”s and prepositional phrases. Purify, purify, purify!

  3. Well, that was Decca Records and the sign was Jack Kapp’s idea — or some have reported that there was a wooden Indian with that motto — not always a good thing for Decca artists because sometimes it sat on their creativity, but I know what you are thinking. Simplify, simplify — to quote Hank Thoreau.

  4. Me, too–and then some.

  5. “Thou hast taught me be-bop, and all I know onst is to shred”

  6. “Play something pretty, Caliban, or it’s back in the cave for you!”

  7. When I read your reply, such was my delight and amusement that I foolishly attempted to show off our cyber-exchange to my wife. I drew particular attention to the reference in your post to Philip Roth, whose work – it would appear – you admire at least as much as I do, I would like to report that my wife’s response won hands down: “And does Michael Steinman leave his socks lying around, too?” Affectionate best wishes from a partially-reconstructed other M 🙂

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 )

Google photo

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s