Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Quintet

The meeting of Max Roach, Bud Powell, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus and Dizzy Gillespie is wrapped up in a lot of jazz mythology - like the players were all issued NSF checks for the set, Charlie Parker showed up without a horn and had to play a plastic one and was credited as "Charlie Chan" on the original release. I've even heard that the group didn't know they were being recorded, that Mingus and Roach decided to tape it at the last second on the sly and dubbed over their parts. I suspect the apocrypha is just that. All I know is I bought this on cassette as a teenager at a truck stop during a long car trip or family vacation, the first jazz album I ever purchased.

It was after visiting my mom's cousin who lived on the bank of the Potomac river, at the fulcrum of an epic family vacation. It had just dawned on me that I was too old for family vacations. I know I had a driver's license by then, because I remember being sent to the store and scratching up my mom's cousin's car tearing through the woods that surrounded her secluded home. Upon arrival, The cousin seemed unnerved that we were suddenly invading her sanctuary. I got the feeling that we weren't actually uninvited, or had followed up on an perfunctory but functionally insincere "Sure, come stay with me some time" tossed out at a mass family gathering. Honk! Honk! Here we are, Cousin! Over here in the giant RV! Remember, at Steve's wedding? You invited?

There was nothing planned for dinner, so I got sent to the store, maybe the first moment of the vacation where I was set free. We had a habit of clinging in close orbits even when it was apparent that everyone was about to kill each other. It was like we never got the message that it was OK to go to separate corners, just as we didn't get the message that says, "make sure you are actually invited." Missed.

I made it back, and Cousin put on a Louis Armstrong record, which was the wildest thing I could think of an adult doing. I'd seen either of my parents listen to music consciously only a handful of times , and they both seemed a little unnerved by this practice. My sister was learning to retreat into a cocoon of her own weaving - she is so absent from this memory that it is possible she wasn't even on this trip, which speaks a whole second volume about my family. Cousin dispassionately put down plates and found extra chairs for this sudden quintet in which she was participating, muttering along with Louis, radiating distance. I liked her a lot.

At one point in the evening I rode with her back up to the store for ice cream, and brazenly popped my favorite tape, Thomas Dolby's The Flat Earth, in the deck. It was the closest thing in my meager tape case to jazz. Earlier that afternoon, shortly after our arrival, I'd wandered out to the dock that stretched into the river and on a lark, removed my clothes and waded in. I wasn't out there long, but this highly uncharacteristic move on my part was an unconscious baptism in the brotherhood of insouciance. I toweled off with my shirt and wandered bare-chested back to the camper for another before returning to the house. Cousin had switched over to Duke Ellington. I was determined to do things different from here on out. Cousin frowned at Thomas Dolby as we sped up to the Safeway. "I don't get it. It doesn't sound like anything."

She went on to explain that she dropped pop and rock music for jazz early in her youth because it didn't sound like anything to her. She felt like it was just there serving a purpose but not doing anything on its own. "Jazz though, those guys were doing something." She pressed fast forward on the tape. "Is it all like this?" frowning until she arrived at "I Scare Myself" - a Dan Hicks tune adapted by Dolby for his brand of cyborg-noir. The loungey piano and the jazz bass and hiss of cymbals all made sense. She went on to say things about the arrangement and chords and some other jazzbo talk, but I wasn't listening. I was bewildered that something I liked made sense to an adult. Maybe something really did happen out in the water.

Dessert was eaten with less tension than was dinner as some more lighter dinner-jazz accompanied us. She had to work in the morning so we all took turns using up her hot water for showers and retired to the camper looming out in the driveway. I listened to The Flat Earth in my bunk on repeat until the batteries wore out, and in the morning she waved from her newly scratched-up car as she jetted off to work and we trundled out to a hectic day of DC tourism. I convinced my parents I could navigate the subway and would meet them in front of the Corcoran at 7pm. I saw modern art in there with strained appreciation. I nervously navigated the subway to a record store in Georgetown called Commander Salamander and bought a Bauhaus record. I ate a gyro. We'd parked the camper at RFK Stadium and taken the train in, unwitting that there was a Madonna concert that night. Thousands of gum-chewing anti-virgins jammed the train ride back. I was tempted to quickly dissappear into that nest of outer lingerie and crumpled satin headbands. The world was exploding.

The next day, I lingered over the tapes in a massive truck stop in Virgina with a bag of AA batteries, thinking about Thomas Dolby

The earth can be any shape you want it
Any in the world
Don't you point that playgun at me
I might just explode
There are stars buried in your soul
Only a fool would blame the death of rock 'n' roll

and I saw The Quintet in there. It was a knockoff casette labeled "The Greatest Jazz concert in History" Even though I had heard of the names listed on the cover, I doubted the claim. But my dad was at the counter paying up, so I quickly bought the greatest jazz concert in history with my remaining $2.99 and soon was plummeting across the flat earth on an NSF jazz high ready to reshape the world, uninvited, and still wet from the river.

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