Tag Archives: Philip Roth


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.