The United States is, without question, the most religious country in the so-called developed world. If the pollsters are to…
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A brutally hot night in the city of Chicago – and I am sorely in need of a drink and some jazz.
The concierge at my hotel says that the answer to these immediate needs are just around the corner from us. A club called Andy’s – which a different group every night. And a final set that starts at midnight.
Jazz is such a nighttime activity. And one which I grew to love during my somewhat solipsistic, but always interesting adolescence – when, to escape the ongoing domestic warfare of my parents, I became a culture vulture. Happily my hometown was a skinny little island called Manhattan – and as I was thirteen in 1968, not only was the city a hotbed of counter-cultural creative activity, but a wonderful intellectual playground of independent cinemas, intellectual bookshops, edgy out-there theatre companies, dance companies, pop art, and – of course- jazz clubs.
By the time I was sixteen I was an habitué at the Village Vanguard – because I got to know the guy on the door and he would let me sit at the bar as long as I never ordered alcohol (though I was allowed to smoke). And I also started hanging out at the West End Café up near Columbia University where alumni of the Duke Ellington Orchestra played most weekend nights and where I drank beer while underage, as they never asked me for id – and, back then, American society was far less puritanical about alcohol (now, you can get your legs blown off in Afghanistan as an eighteen year old soldier in the US Armed Forces, but you can’t order a beer nationwide until you’re twenty-one).
I could write many paragraphs about the nights at the Vanguard when I hear Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett (then so young) and McCoy Tyner play. Or the wonders of the great boogy-woogie pianist, Sammie Price, who held forth every Friday at the West End. But more than anything the abiding wonder of this early jazz education was a love of any jazz club going.
Which is why, when I found myself marooned in Singapore a few years ago – that city-state which can best be described as a totalitarian shopping mall – I did manage to spend all three of my evenings there at a jazz joint in the Chinatown corner of the city, and hung out with the New York pianist who – through happenstance and emotional entanglements – had ended up the resident ivory tinkler in this rather decent club, and who played hard bob with a virtuosic edge.
“Can you survive as a jazz pianist here?” I asked him over many drinks at the late night end of his final set.
“Hey I pay the bills. I’ve got steady work. And five days a week I play the piano during cocktail hour in a hotel lounge – which is kind of mind-numbing, but it does keep me in cigarettes and booze”.
Similarly, when wandering into Andy’s Jazz Club in Chicago just last week, I happened on the last two sets of a local pianist named Jordan Baker. The club wasn’t crowded. Then again it was 22.30 on a Monday evening. And there was a couple seated opposite me who insisted on having a conversation over the music at the top of their respective vocal registers until I politely asked them to shut up.
“But we want to talk” the woman said, sounding outraged.
“Then why did you come to a jazz club?” I asked. (She did quiet down after that.)
Jordan Baker was a diminutive, somewhat nerdish-looking type (which endeared him to me immediately). But as soon as he played around ten bars I thought: my word, this is a sensational pianist. Lyrical, rhythmically complex, with a great sense of musical narrative line and contrapuntal nuance, he was one of those jazz pianists who really carried you along the improvised intricacies of his formidable technique. And the guy could really swing.
After the 22.30 set I bought one of his CDs (he was selling them during the break – and thinking that this is the great wonderment of a style of urban life that is so rapidly vanishing: the local jazz joint which (unlike its New York or London counterparts) doesn’t charge a small fortune for the privilege of entering its portals (Andy’s charged a modest $10 cover), and which showcases high-level local talent, and provides a momentarily sense of late-night metropolitan community in an increasingly screen-oriented world.
To drift in off a darkened Chicagoan street and escape the steamy noir of a late summer evening, and to then find yourself in a dimly lit noirish joint where the pianist is an inspired proponent of harmonic complexity… this is urban bliss.