Monday, August 15, 2016

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


Recently, I’ve been sharing personal memories of student years in the early 1970s, especially in recalling a couple of brief brushes with James K. Baxter (see The Baxter Problem). Reliving those days, forty-odd years ago, means mainly reliving the loneliness of being a student, mooching aimlessly about the campus between lectures. I have never been particularly gregarious, and I was extremely inept at socialising at that age.

But solitude was punctuated with moments of sheer, irrational joy and here is one of them.

The date was February 1972. Duke Ellington and his orchestra were playing just one concert in the Auckland Town Hall. It was their sole engagement in New Zealand that year as they passed through from Australia back to the USA. They had given three performances on an earlier trip to New Zealand in 1970.

Ellington (born 1899) would have been getting on for 73. He died just two years later in 1975. So (though I didn’t know it at the time, of course) this would have been the last chance New Zealanders had to see him.

I was excited. I had frequently plundered my eldest brother’s collection of jazz LPs and my head whistled with the early stuff – “East St Louis Toodle-oo’, “Creole Love Call”, “Black and Tan Fantasy” (don’t cite that title in the presence of an Irishman), “Prelude to a Kiss”, “In a Sentimental Mood”, “It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got that Swing” and the deep baritone voice doing the vocals in the sentimental “I’ll Come Back For More”; a voice which I once mistakenly believed was Duke's – all the great things from the late 1920s and 1930s.

Then there was the stuff from the late 1930s and early 1940s, when Rex Stewart was blowing his horn and Johnny Hodges his sax and Ray Nance was fiddling and Billy Strayhorn was composing and arranging for Ellington and out came the great “Take the A-Train” and “Harlem Airshaft”.

And there was the orchestra’s move into the quasi-symphonic.

Those who don’t know much about jazz think that Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” was the greatest jazz-infused orchestral work. Nah! Listen to Duke’s 1946 recording of the two-part “Happy Go Lucky Local” (so long it took two sides of an old 78 – in other words, about six minutes) and see what a real jazz orchestra sounds like, with coherence amid complex changes of tone. This was Ellington’s aural portrait of the railways and one of its themes was so catchy that one of Ellington’s sidemen later ripped it off and sold it as his own composition under the title “Night Train”.

And by the 1950s, LPs were giving Ellington the space to really expand into the symphonic with his tone poems about Harlem. But he never gave away the joys of the four or five-minute thrill that old 78s delivered. And his image as a perfect gentleman (honed and perfected in the ‘30s) was proven in the way he collaborated with other jazzmen, even those whose style was very different from his own. I now treasure my CDs of Ellington’s studio sessions with Louis Armstrong (recorded 1961 and 1963) and with John Coltrane (recorded 1962), neither of which I’d heard when I was a student.

Anyway (reverting to 1972) I eagerly got in early and bought my ticket to Duke Ellington’s one-New-Zealand-performance-only of that year.

When I was seated, on my own, in the town hall, my heart was chilled by the fact that the house was only about three-quarters full. Was I really living in a culture in which the nitwits had triumphed and people thought that there was some music after 1960 worth listening to? Bah humbug! I’d heard idiots on campus who thought there was something to be said for the Beatles or the Stones or the Doors; but I knew what idiots they were and was safe in my knowledge that all real musos understood modern music peaked with jazz. And yet the house was only three-quarters full and the tickets hadn’t been expensive.

So I am on my own, preparing to listen to a jazz legend, but noting that most of the audience have grey or greying hair, and the only contemporary of mine I register in the audience is a laid-back druggie guitarist (who later did himself in). A moment of depression flashes through me.

Then the orchestra take their places. One of Ellington’s sidemen slouches up a side-aisle next to the audience in the stalls, where I am, and he gives us a disdainful look, which to me says something like “So here we are again, performing for a hick audience in the middle of nowhere.”

And then the orchestra is all settled and Duke comes on and sits at the piano.

And by God they deliver.

It’s “Take the A-Train”. It’s “Satin Doll”. It’s favourites and it’s unfamiliars. It swings. It rocks. It bounces. It thunders. It wrenches at you from the horn sections. And it has intelligence and harmony and the ensemble voice of a real orchestra, not of a band.

I can’t restrain myself. I am on my feet and bopping up and down to “Rocking in Rhythm”. I now know I should be grateful that there are not many people behind me to shout “Siddown!”

I’m into it as far as I can be.

I know, I know, I know that every word of the patter Duke Ellington gives between the music has been rehearsed and delivered thousands of times before. I’ve heard this patter on live-recordings of concerts in America and Europe. (“We want to thank you for the wonderful way you’ve inspired us. You are very beautiful and we do LOVE YOU MADLY”). But it doesn’t matter. That manly voice is so cool, so persuasive that I don’t have time to calculate that this man is tired, has just flown the Tasman, will tomorrow be flying the Pacific and we are for him a routine whistle-stop. He is a performer who becomes the man he is playing – a real lover of his audience.

They threaten to go.

They play an encore.

We are all – greyhairs and the tiny minority of youngsters – howling our approval and bloodying our hands with clapping.

They go.

And I find I am standing – STANDING – on my seat. I didn’t realise I had climbed on it in the wave of pure, irrational joy that swept over me as I was applauding.

Years later I saw not once, but twice, in live performance in Auckland, another of the legendary greats of jazz, the French violinist Stephane Grappelli. I loved him too. Also, a couple of years after Ellington’s visit, I had just met my wife and we both went to Western Springs and heard the still-young Joan Baez. But even if it was folk, that was too much like a rock-concert experience for my tastes.

Besides, nothing could cap the moment of pure irrational joy when I stood on a seat in the town hall and howled for Duke.

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