Speaking the Language


On Music

Occasionally, when my mind is feeling overrun, flickering and buzzing like a dying electric light, I go down to Fat Cat on Christopher Street, in the West Village. Of the standard venues one goes to see jazz in New York City, Fat Cat is not one of them. The club is a huge recreation center, a dark and boozy suburban fantasy basement packed with pool tables, Ping-Pong tables, foosball tables, plush couches, dusty rugs, shuffleboards, chess boards, and booths where skinny NYU students play Backgammon or Scrabble. If the alcohol were removed, it would be a perfect place for a children’s birthday party. Above the music swirl youthful, exuberant screams of delight, punctuating either a winning serve or an eight ball sunk in its intended pocket. And off to one side, like an afterthought, is a makeshift bandstand, and at a certain late hour on most evenings there is a jam session in progress. Most of the drinkers busy themselves with games, but a few hang around and listen to a group of nomadic musicians riff on, say, “Polkadots and Moonbeams.” Nearby, expectant bass players hug their encased, cumbersome instruments, impatiently tapping their feet, waiting to get in on the action—they’ve just come from a low-paying gig across town, seeking a real payoff.

It is a high-art frat party, a safe zone where all kinds of New Yorkers can, for a night, indulge in what they may loathe, but perhaps long for: a sense of cultural superiority on the one side, or a bit of dumb Greek fun. No one seems particularly interested in jazz, save for the sidelined musicians, who are restless because they have talent to burn, if only they were given the opportunity. Because I’m myself restless, a writer waiting his turn, I have, more than once, gone to the club alone to stand with them in an improvised support group. Together we watch those musicians onstage take up their instruments. We watch them get acquainted and blunder and stumble into the opening bars of the tune, trading insecure glances, wondering if they’ll find the groove. We watch the trumpet player step forward for the first solo, puff out his chest, and raise the bell of his horn. We hear his first notes, typically tentative, as if he’s dipping his foot in the melody, just testing it out. And we hear him finally dive in, headlong, committing to the sound.

If this sounds romantic, or even sentimental, I promise there is really nothing romantic or sentimental about it. The rhythm section, for instance, typically does not find the groove, and the trumpet player usually falls on his face. Such are the perils of jam sessions. The old cinematic cliché of virtuosos spontaneously collaborating in the thick of history and neon cigarette smoke, artistically advancing the genre minute by minute, does not generally apply. I do recall, however, a few years ago, listening to a hapless rendition of “All Blues,” when an old man in a newsy cap, probably a dude in his day, elbowed me and said, “I once saw Miles Davis, bombed out of his mind, walking down the street with two fat, drunk hookers. Can you picture that? I’m suddenly reminded of it now.”

And yet, I don’t go to Fat Cat to hear Miles Davis—I go because I find consolation in a good metaphor when I see one. Here jazz lives apart, in a dark corner, generally neglected by this fast-paced, upwardly mobile crowd, but existing nonetheless, almost outside of the present tense, timeless, a self-sustaining ecosystem that does not require light or attention: a counterpoint to the unstoppable bullet train of contemporary progress. Which makes for an amusing irony. After all, jazz once was the bullet train of contemporary progress, a frenetic film reel in which one image was always replacing another. Swing. Bop. Hard Bop. Modal. Fusion. Free. Electric. Over the course of fifty years, jazz seemed to meaningfully reinvent itself every decade. When the music ceased to behave in this hyper-accelerated manner, it was pronounced dead, a very American conclusion. The French, those haughty socialists, did not receive the memo. Jazz has not been murdered in France. In their culture, health and vitality are not the logical consequences of upward mobility and advancement. Or, in other words, ascension, alone, does not signify the measure of life.

But you can’t talk about jazz in America without describing something dying. But jazz did not die; musicians died. Miles Davis died. But Jazz remained a language. And languages only die when they are no longer spoken. Musicians at Fat Cat speak the language. They play for the joy, and consolation, of language.

Chet Baker understood this. Baker was often maligned for betraying his talent—for refusing to complicate what he already considered perfect. He was of the West Coast, cool style, which, politically, is similar to leading from behind. He had a gentle, feminine touch, and looked like James Dean. His approach did not sit well with masculine critics who believed jazz must, at all times, be pushed and urged. Chet was a visionary accused of lacking vision. He seemed to know that a genre whose livelihood depended on conspicuous reinvention, or relevance, was fated to burn out. For him, relevance was beside the point; he saw Jazz as a language that sustained musicians.

Right now, I’m listening to Jason Moran, a young, ethereal pianist with a delirious sense of timing. The music is eccentric, strange, and beautiful, the audio equivalent of dust motes—little swirling particles contained within in a beam of light. Which is to say the notes are disorienting, but they never stray too far from the wire or disappear into space. And yet while the product can be kinetic, Moran’s touch is patient; his songs are patient. It’s a mature sound, comfortable inside its own skin. It doesn’t owe anything to anybody.

I first encountered Moran on Pandora a few years ago, when, one night, I created a Cannonball Adderly radio station. (Cannonball is still my favorite jazz musician, and “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy! Live at ‘The Club,’” was my first jazz album, purchased on a whim due to the appeal of the name Cannonball.) Moran was third or fourth on the rotation, after a song by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. The transition was appropriate. Blakey, a drummer who could drive a truck with a backbeat, was known for featuring young musicians in his band, and when one of these fresh talents stepped up to take a solo, before he began, Blakey would play a tight roll on the snare, his signature flourish, as if to formally announce the presence of a debutante. Moran, as if taking his cue, launched into a gospel figure, playing a simple motif of up-swinging chords, and testing the space between with tickled blue notes. He had, at one point or other, absorbed the Hard Bop soul of the Messengers, and it was as if, now, he were conversing directly with Blakey, a man dead for over twenty years.

Occasionally Moran covers the old jazz classic, “You’ve Got to Be Modernistic.” This is the final irony: “You’ve Got to Be Modernistic,” recorded in the early days of jazz, in the nineteen-twenties, was a sort of credo; a guide to relevance. Now, almost a century later, it is a punchline. Timeliness, of course, is synonymous with shortsightedness, the province of the hip and anxious—the youth. What is timely is not meant to last, but rather built to address the moment, like a temporary shelter. Jazz exists outside of time. Jason Moran plays the song to suggest that out in the ether, beyond the realm of instant feedback and Instagram, there is still a home for those that speak the language.

Mike Spies is on the editorial staff of the New Yorker, and is a writer living in New York.