At many points in my life, I had to put down the cherished belief in my own indispensability. Yes, each of us is unique, but if we’d never existed, would the cosmos stagger to a halt? This meditation is fueled by the repercussions from a holiday-season view of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, where Clarence the angel-in-training shows George Bailey how the world he knows would be a cistern had he never been born. Yes, JAZZ LIVES believes that even Jimmy Stewart could have had his slot in the imaginary queue filled by someone else.
In science: anyone versed in the history of medicine will tell you that had (let us say) Pasteur had decided to go into baking memorable croissants, or Alexander Fleming taken up carpentry, someone would have discovered pasteurization and penicillin. The history of invention tells us much the same thing: people were racing alongside Edison to patent the phonograph, sound film, and so on. In literature, if James Joyce had been unable to see the page, we would simply be paying much more attention to Lawrence and Woolf, Pound and Eliot.
We don’t much like this heresy in jazz. Imagine, we say, if Louis Armstrong had decided to go into the more lucrative career of crime. If John Hammond’s car radio had been broken. If Coleman Hawkins had stayed with the cello, or Buster Bailey gotten first chair clarinet in the Chicago symphony. Getting darker, think of Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald succumbing to the horrors and blandishments of their environments. Perhaps Jack Teagarden would have invented his own line of automobiles.
It is difficult for us to imagine a world without Charlie Parker, but would his harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic inventions never had happened if his life had taken another path? Would there be no jazz trumpet be if its early stars were Johnny Dunn and Crickett Smith, Johnny Wiggs and Mutt Carey?
And, turning the coin over, imagine the jazz world in which Blanton, Bolden, Brownie, Bix lived on. Margaret “Countess” Johnson and Cassino Simpson, Snoozer Quinn and Emmett Hardy as healthy senior citizens, happy, productive.
Some varieties of creative joyous rhythmically inventive improvised music would have flourished.
As much as anyone, I revere the heroes of our jazz heritage. But art is a collective endeavor. So let us acknowledge with gratitude the other runners in the race while we are celebrating the person who comes in first.
As we say, just asking.
May your happiness increase!