Eric Dolphy in Copenhagen, 1961. Photo courtesy JP Jazz Archive/Redferns.
In the midnineties, I was a jazz head. I was a poet and I was a jazz head. I loved to read and I loved listening to music. I collected vinyl but also CDs. I shopped at Amoeba Records on Haight Street in San Francisco and brought home records by the bandleaders Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus, Max Roach, Ben Webster, Sonny Rollins, my favorite at the time, and others. And I read the covers of these albums as if they were books, lured in by the various frames commentators employed to situate a given recording, like Leonard Feather opening his notes for Cannonball Adderley’s Somethin’ Else with “WHAT manner of album is this?” At the same time, as a graduate student in poetics, I was deeply immersed in the works of Henry James, Nathaniel Mackey, and Leslie Scalapino, and, although I didn’t know this then, or knew it only slightly, converging in the field between these producers and their various disciplines was a way of thinking about “the invisible” that would shape my life in music and language and art for the next two decades. As I think of it now, the invisible refers to all these inner energies, maps, and syntaxes I’m trying to make present in my drawings and in the unfolding of my sentences, but, in 1995, the idea of it had only just landed in me, and I had little language around it. I felt it most present when I witnessed forms crossing into other forms: sound into thought (in the case of jazz) and poetry into prose (in the case of the books I was reading).
I was drawn to jazz because it felt like mind music to me. It was a way to experience thought without thinking (that is, to experience bodily the map of someone else’s thinking without needing to write my own story on top of it to comprehend it). I found atmospheres compelling. Similarly, to read a Henry James novel was to be in an atmosphere of manners, where action and emotional response were embedded in an elaborate orchestration of adjacency: to read was to wander next to. And to listen to jazz was to enter a space inside the space in which I was living, one that lifted the top off the day or stretched the day beyond itself. I wanted to know what was happening—how this was happening—so I often turned to the liner notes of my LPs for answers. I saw them as a sort of foyer to the music: preparatory time for listening, a way of sublimating. You had to drop down into something to hear jazz, to be there for it—not having it as your background music but rather as a force carving lines into your brain. Jazz asked something of me that was like writing. To listen was to write, I had at some point concluded, and for a few years I tried to figure out the nature of that relationship. I wanted to know how listening was like making something, and what that something might look like.
Between 1995 and 1997, I made several attempts. I began a novel about jazz called “Swang” that featured a philosopher of sound, who held court at a kitchen table, but I didn’t get very far. I wrote a long poem about a group of flautists who traveled in the sleeping hours through the speaker of the poem’s dreams. I can’t remember what it was called. I wrote another long poem about the El Niño rains that flooded the city one winter, creating—in response to the inundation—pockets of late-night attic-clubs, where people would meet and blow somberly into wind instruments (were these the flautists, too?). And though I loved this poem, I left it behind with the others.
Part of what stalled or buried these projects was that I wasn’t creating the space to think the things I most needed to think with regard to jazz. It wasn’t just that I wanted to tell a story of jazz or that I wanted to let these names—Alice Coltrane, Oscar Peterson, Bud Powell, Miles Davis—collide with other words in my lexicon, turn ordinary narratives about navigating city spaces into fantastical edge-roaming thought projects that were cool, that made you feel cool to read them. I wanted to shine light on that space of reading before the music commenced, when I turned certain albums over and found narratives that were more than historical or documentary but rather poetic and meditative. I don’t mean they flowed lyrically, although many did that, too. What I mean is that they tried to put language to something that did not exist in language, and I wanted to say, as a reader of these notes, you could see the bridgework, the architectures of listening. Writers like Ralph Ellison (in his many essays on jazz) and Nat Hentoff and Ira Gitler (both proliferative liner-notes writers) wrote about jazz as if it were alive, as if it had layers of skin that could be lifted to reach other, more integral parts of the experience. You had to put yourself in a state to try to say something about jazz—what it did to you, where you went—but you were also trying to situate the players and tunes in a particular session. I wanted to write about that writing into the invisible. And to say how it was a kind of trying that never actually brought the music forth but that opened up something in language itself: made language more like music. I couldn’t write about this writing either, and by the end of the nineties, drum and bass (a scene upon which I arrived too late to say I was really there) had supplanted my love of jazz. And it seemed that vinyl itself had become some specialized category—something for heads or deejays to go on collecting.
Then it came back. It was 2017, and no one seemed to buy CDs anymore. Stores like Tower Records and Amoeba and Virgin had long since vanished or taken on new identities. Most people’s music libraries were kept digitally, on mobiles or tablets, weightless, accessible by a few swipes or choice words. And though I was aware of the promise of a “digital booklet” that accompanied the albums I purchased, which in the last years had broadened from dubstep (another thing dying out) to encompass the likes of Handel and Scarlatti, Ali Farka Touré and Toumani Diabaté, Valerie June and other contemporary vocalists, Meredith Monk, Julianna Barwick, Library Tapes, and all sorts of clinking, droning sounds from all over the world; and though nearly all of these albums promised booklets, I’ve still yet to read one. Where was it? How do you open a book you can’t hold? But, when I bought these albums, I often remembered those old living spaces I used to read. Perhaps it was not remembering so much as recognizing a loss of those formal structures: there were no foyers or introductions or documents to place next to what you heard; you just went into it. Then, all of a sudden, it was 2017 and I was buying LPs again, and Danielle was buying them, and people were giving them to us as presents. We were given a nice record player for Christmas and soon became those people getting up every twenty-five minutes to play the flip side, and the music we played—are playing—was jazz. Not that jazz had left my life entirely (I still had most of my CDs from the nineties), but it had become background music, sounds to warm and aerate the house. I think what brought it back as that invisible force that raised language in me was the physicality and performance of playing records: the getting up, the pulling out, the setting on, the lifting down, the feeling of vibration taking on color, that duration, then the turning over, again the lifting down.
The day begins to be reshaped by it, and I begin to ask again: What’s exactly happening to me as I listen to this? What are these sounds? I go to the liner notes, many of which are as old as the recordings. But I don’t read them as avidly as I once had. I’m looking for something—the liner notes for albums I no longer own but also can’t recall. I’m not sure they exist. My mind says there’s a record whose liner notes did the thing I’m talking about—reached and tried to say something and make something happen in the trying, but I can’t remember right now. Seems like it was an Eric Dolphy album, but which one? I see dark colors, perhaps some deep green line cutting across. A deep green arch?
Renee Gladman is the author of eleven books, most recently a novel, Houses of Ravicka, and a book of drawings, Prose Architectures. Her essay “Five Things” appeared in issue no. 217 (Summer 2016) of The Paris Review. She lives in New England.
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