I began my jazz life rather innocently as a Listener: a child sitting close to a V-M (The Voice of Music, it said on the inside lid) three-speed phonograph. I can summon up the worn brown felt of the turntable, the pattern of the speaker grille. And as I listened to the record of the moment I watched the label revolve, transfixed both by the music and by the whirling shapes the writing on the label made. When the record ended, I picked up the tone arm and placed it in the outer groove to hear and watch it, dreamily, again.
I progressed through different phonographs, tape recorders, portable cassette recorders, and learned (as life became busier) to start the music playing and do other things at the same time: type an undergraduate Milton essay while Louis and his Hot Seven played in the background, make breakfast while listening to Lee Wiley. But the musicians had no more tangible presence than what I might see on television or in the pictures adorning a record’s liner notes. I did see Louis Armstrong and the All-Stars in the spring of 1967, but that is another essay.
Aside from Louis, I didn’t truly see live jazz until 1969 or 1970. I think it was at Town Hall in New York City, produced by the late Dick Gibson, featuring not only the World’s Greatest Jazz Band but also Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Joe Newman, and perhaps Garnett Brown. Heady stuff! Now, from my seat (clutching my forbidden cassette recorder) I could watch Al and Zoot speak to one another; I could see my hero Vic Dickenson, tall, thin, leaning slightly to one side.
I had moved away from the speaker, even though concerts in large halls kept the musicians as tiny, eloquent figures whom I could hear but not converse with. It was only in the very early Seventies that I was able to see jazz performed in clubs — where I could timidly approach Bobby Hackett, Vic Dickenson, Bob Wilber, and others to ask for their autographs. And the conversations that sprang out of these encounters were barely defined as “conversation.” Nervous and admiring, a Fan, a record album clutched under my arm, I would timidly ask, “May I have your autograph?” or “Would you sign this for me, Mr. Sims?” (I showed Zoot Sims an album he had appeared on for English RCA, and he said, “Gee, they must have made this when Bucky and I were appearing at Soerabaja. I’ve never heard it.” I said, “Would you like me to make you a copy of it?” He grimaced and said, “Oh, no, no thanks.”)
While I was busy being a Fan (and occasionally an Amateur Photographer), I was also bringing various tape-recorders, which made me a Taper . . . evoking occasionally strong reactions. Cyril Haynes refused to play until I put my cassette recorder away; Wild Bill Davison wanted to be paid off in Scotch; Dicky Wells pantomimed vigorous negation; Kenny Davern rather kindly told me that my microphone placement was all wrong (after Mike Burgevin had assured him I was on the right side of things); Ruby Braff lectured me by mail on the importance of having fresh batteries. I saw Ray Nance several nights in a row in a Long Island club — he played and sang marvelously — and when I gave him a reel-to-reel copy of a concert he had performed in two years earlier, he looked at it as if he didn’t quite know what he was supposed to do with it, although collectors had been offering him such things for decades.
Being a Taper was delicate business, but often rewarding, although musicians (with justification) tend to view me with skepticism: what is going to happen to those tapes that kid is making? Does he have his own bootleg label; is he going to make money out of my work?
I became more than a Taper in 2000, when I began to write CD reviews . . . first for the IAJRC Journal, then the Mississippi Rag, for Cadence and All About Jazz (associations that happily have continued), for Coda and Jazz Improv . . . and liner notes. These effusions brought me into a different relationship with the musicians.
Simply put, I got closer to the players but often my distance increased.
A paradox, you say? As a Listener, I was invisible and anonymous; as a Fan, I appeared and had substance for a minute or two. As a Taper, I was mostly a nuisance, although some musicians actually wanted to hear what the tapes sounded like.
But as a Reviewer, a Writer, a (whisper this), a Critic, I had a name and perhaps the power to exalt or to annoy. Most often, I was the person who said to Bill Charlap, “You don’t know me, but I loved your _______ CD and wrote a very enthusiastic review of it for Cadence.” And he politely, happily, said, “Yes, I remember that review. It was very nice — thank you so much!”
I haven’t had to deal with musicians who are irritated by what I’ve written, although I’ve received a few sharp-edged emails from a producer and another jazz critic, both of them who told me I was being deeply unfair when I thought I was telling the truth.
But when I began to be someone ever so slightly known in local jazz circles as the fellow who could help you publicize your upcoming gig in the Mississippi Rag, or the person who might write a laudatory review of your self-produced CD, a slight edge crept into some interchanges. Nothing dramatic happened, but I felt that relations between me (a non-Musician) and the Musicians were simpler when I was not in a position to say something in print about their latest efforts, to effect their livelihood.
There were immense rewards, of course: I got to meet and talk to many more of my heroes on a different footing — a Friend of the Music as well as a Member of the Jazz Press, and I am always happy when people come over and say hello.
All of this changed slightly more than two years ago when I created this blog, and acquired the first of a series of video cameras. The experience of this blog has been more favorable than I can say, and I have used it to celebrate improvisations from the whole range of jazz’s history and to make it possible for people who live far away to see and hear their heroes.
The video camera, however, is a different matter. The cassette recorder, the reel-to-reel recorder, the digital recorder, all came with their own baggage or perhaps freight, all understandable. The musician who has a cold, or would rather be elsewhere, looks down at the technology and might say, inwardly, “Oh, damnit — all my imperfections are going to be recorded for posterity; jazz collectors who are this guy’s friends are going to be getting free copies of my music; they won’t have to buy my CDs. What will I get out of it?” But when I discovered YouTube — probably years after many more technologically-sophisticated jazz fans — the world opened up for me. Not only could I bring home an audio recording of what I’d just heard (to copy for the musicians and a few friends): I could record the event visually as well as audibly, and send it around the world.
Most of the musicians have been exceptionally tolerant and gracious. And there have been only a few times in two years of video recording where a musician has asked me to remove a performance from circulation, which I’ve done quickly in the spirit of fairness. Were I the proverbial fly on the wall — certainly not a unique phenomenon at any jazz club — would I be happy with the way I was characterized? “Does any musician see me at a club and think, “I surely will be happy when Michael goes away for a few months, then I can play in peace without looking up and seeing that little camera staring at me, capturing everything . . . “?
I originally felt that this posting was heading for gloom, a rumination on the equation between intimacy and distance, on the responsibilities that begin in dreams, even musical ones, but there were three cheering encounters last week at the Ear Inn, my Sunday night haunt. One of the musicians came over (unsolicited) to say he thought what I was doing was worthwhile and that he thought the new camera was swell; later on in the evening, I was approached from left and right (Peter and Margarethe from Uppsala and Fumi from New York) by grateful people who said that they had found the club solely by watching these videos.
I can imagine that in the future my age, health, and circumstances would make it difficult for me to get to jazz clubs as I am doing now. And I can envision ending my career of jazz love and appreciation as I began, as a Listener, although the Voice of Music phonograph has been supplanted. But maybe I will spend the last chapter of my jazz life delighting in the music’s sounds and shapes through YouTube and other versions not yet discovered, even if I’m not behind the camera.
I hope that there will always be the kindness of strangers who know how to swing. And know what it is to share their pleasures.