I don’t know if people look to pianist Jess Stacy as a model for spiritual enlightenment, but perhaps they should. Yes, he’s rightly known for his solo on SING SING SING at the 1938 Benny Goodman Carnegie Hall concert, and for subtle but memorable playing for decades, but he had a revelation in mid-life that has been one of my cherished stories since I first read it. I am paraphrasing because the book it comes from is in New York and I am in San Diego, but I have it close to my heart.
He had been successful as a Goodman sideman but had made the mistake of marrying Lee Wiley — they were spectacularly unsuited for each other, a story you can explore elsewhere on the blog — they had divorced, unpleasantly. And as Jess tells it, he was sitting on the bed in a hotel room, ruminating, despairing, feeling that there was little point in going on. He could, he thought, follow the lead of his friend Bix Beiderbecke, and “crawl into a bottle and die,” which had its own appeal, its own seductive melodramatic pull. But Stacy, although in misery, was curious about life and what it might offer. Musing more, he eventually came to a decision, and spoke to himself, briskly not not sternly, “All right, Stacy. Time to make new memories!” and he got off the bed and lived a fulfilling life.
I hear in that story something that we all have faced whether we are sitting on a hotel bed or not: stuck in our own lives, do we hug the past like a cherished stuffed bunny or do we “move on,” and see what happens? It’s not easy. Despair has a powerful attraction, and memories can feel like a suit of clothing that weighs tons — stifling ye familiar. And let us say what no one wants to say, that the future is always mildly terrifying as well as alluring.
All of this has been running through my own mind (I am not in danger of ending it all through alcohol, never fear) and I have told the story to a few friends in the past week. The wonderful trumpeter Marc Caparone provided a musical illustration of it just a few days ago at the San Diego Jazz Fest — with Brian Holland, piano; Steve Pikal, string bass; Danny Coots, drums — in his performance of MEMORIES OF YOU, a very dear song by Eubie Blake and Andy Razaf. We don’t hear Razaf’s lyrics, but those who know the song well will have them as a subliminal second theme.
And here’s Marc’s very personal exploration of these themes: a model of passion and control, Louis-like but not Louis-imitative, music that I found very moving, as did others at the San Diego Jazz Fest . . .beauty at once somber and uplifting:
I think of Bobby Hackett, saying of Louis, “Do you know how hard it is to make melody come that alive?”
Thank you, Marc, Brian, Steve, and Danny — as well as Eubie and Andy, and of course Mister Stacy.
Let us hold the past for what’s dear in it, what it has to teach us, but let us not sit on the edge of the bed, musing, forever. Make new memories.
May your happiness increase!