September 9, 2005
Old School Jazz
A friend of mine sent me two CDs this summer. He had stumbled across long-lost recordings of us from back in the day when we were in our high school's jazz ensemble and members of the best David Bowie cover band in the entire state of Iowa. I'm serious--they loved to hear us play "Young Americans" and "Panic in Detroit" from Des Moines to Ames. We were called Little Queenie, which is the name of an old light-rockabilly blues song, I believe written by Chuck Berry. He, along with Muddy Waters, Sam & Dave and countless others provided the source material for Little Queenie's barnstorming career. But I digress.
Back in the day I fancied myself quite the musician, an idolater of my own mythology. I embraced the "band geek" identity thrust upon me by the more socially Darwinian students in my class. I was a saxophonist with a paying gig, so I could afford to be typecast. I made plans to study music in college and make my living as a musician.
That was a long time ago. Now I fancy myself a writer, so much so that I blog, endure rejection or neglect from any number of print or online publications, and anxiously track the day-to-day sales of my book while fantasizing about my still-forthcoming appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman . . .
Sorry, drifted off there. Anyway, as I listened to these disks I was struck by a few things, one of which being that I wasn't much of a saxophonist. Oh, I know that in comparison to my peers I was decent--I got a fair amount of affirmation from people who ought to know--but in comparison to my mythology, I was just awful. I played the same tricks over and over. I never ventured beyond simple scales and rote arpeggios. I fancied myself the Eddie Van Halen of saxophonists. Just awful.
However, I was surprised while listening to these disks just how good the bands were. This little high school jazz band, this little white-bread blues cover band--we were really good. The music was filled with energy, the collected individuals played in near-perfect harmony and rhythm, the band members had fun, the spirit was infectious.
I walked away from these disks with a more humble sense of self and a more intelligent appreciation of the talent I'd observed in my friend, my brother and my long-forgotten bandmates. But I didn't go to the closet and pull out my dusty old alto sax; I started writing about it. I guess I have completed the metamorphosis from band geek to writing geek.
But the whole experience gives me pause, frankly. I know I'm a decent writer--I get opportunities to write from people who know bad writing--but twenty years from now what will I think of this very sentence? What regrets will I have for the words I've put together and put before the public? Even more distressing, though, is the fact that twenty years ago I was convinced that twenty years later I'd be playing saxophone all over the world. I gave up that mythology long ago, but what's to come of the mythology I'm making today?
The core of a young person's mythology is that they'll live forever, and for as long as that forever endures they'll love what they love and be who they are. The young make their moments into eternity, and they generally have fun doing it. We get older and we discover that we are now what we once weren't, that we no longer love what we once couldn't live without, that time has lured us away from our pastimes. It's dangerously easy to lose sight of the joy of eternity.
When those suspicions weigh too heavily on me, it's time to listen to some old school jazz--to remember how long a beatcan be, and just how much you can fit into it.