An excerpt from Whitney Balliett’s memorial for Vic Dickenson:
Dickenson . . . seemed almost ageless. As the years went by, he never looked any older, and his playing never diminished. Keeping his cool was essential to him–it was a matter of pride–and perhaps that insulated him. The only thing that visibly gave out was his feet, and their failure left him in his last decade with a slow, leaning-over gait. He had a tall, narrow frame and a tall, narrow head. His arms and hand and legs were long and thin. The expression in his eyes flickered between humor and hurt, and his smile went to one side. He was a laconic man who said he had become a musician because “I know I wouldn’t have been a good doctor, and I wouldn’t have been a good cook. I know I wouldn’t have been a good janitor, and I don’t have the patience to be a good teacher. I’d slap them on the finger all the time, and the last thing I ever want to do is mess up my cool.” (“Vic,” 657-8; Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz).
I read that piece when it first appeared in The New Yorker, and it has stayed with me for almost thirty years. Both Vic and Whitney remain heroes — their work always sounds new but has the comfort of an unexpected hug from an old friend, met by surprise. Balliett’s quiet observant power is still my model.
But I am still amazed that Vic could tell an admiring listener that he became what he was because he was so unqualified to do other things. Whether it was a true self-awareness of limitations or an excessive modesty, I don’t know. But he created singular art for five decades without ever shouting his name in our ears.
I also think Vic’s final lines stay with me because anyone’s cool — that delicate serene balance we strive for — is so fragile, so easily damaged. Small slights, casual acts, emotions coming upon us unaware inevitably “mess up our cool.”
Vic didn’t like to speak at length. He didn’t philosophize, but he left us thousands of heartfelt texts to consider. I refer to Pema Chodron at intervals; I might just as well start the day with a Dickenson solo to learn something about how to proceed through life.
Here he is, playing MANHATTAN — with Dick Cary, Jack Lesberg, and Cliff Leeman — on Eddie’s Condon’s tour of Japan in 1964 (other heroes on this voyage were Buck Clayton, Pee Wee Russell, Bud Freeman, and Jimmy Rushing):
Vic’s version of serenity and balance seems warm and welcoming, as if he is saying, “Isn’t this melody beautiful? I want to shine my sound through the notes so that you will never forget them.”
I hope that no one messes up your cool — or, if it happens, you can think of Vic and set things right.
May your happiness increase!