NEW YORK, 12 January
2004In 1941, Les Paul invented the solid-body electric guitar, which
could be cranked up to split ears and with all sorts of distortion effects and
it eventually gave birth to rock 'n' roll. One nice thing about New York City
is that you can still hear the 88-year old Paul play his guitar on Mondays at
the Iridium jazz club on 51st Street and Broadway.
Except for his
patented reverb, there is no rock 'n' roll in Paul's old-time two-step
renditions of Broadway standards. The still perky Paul has become known for his
between-tune antics, which are reminiscent of the late London club owner Ronnie
Scott. Paul tells the audience that he bought his hearing aid at Radio Shack
and he should have gotten it from Sam Ash, a guitar store, instead, so that "I
could listen to Jimi Hendrix." This from the man without whom there would have
been no Hendrix. He asks a ringside customer if he can borrow his table napkin
and promptly blows his nose in it. When somebody mentions that B.B. King has
turned 78, Paul says, dismissively: "I can't even remember when I was 78."
Meanwhile, a waitress comes over to a table to explain that there's a
minimum charge and that the minimum is more than the price of one drink but
less than the price of two so would you like a cup of coffee or another drink,
Sir? Figuring that out took a bridge of "Over The Rainbow." She came back later
in the set to propose two different ways of paying the service charge and
choosing one of them took up almost an entire chorus of "Brazil." These are
what are known as New York minutes.
Another nice thing about New York
is that the Village Vanguard is still at the same location on 7th Avenue in the
Village, that the ambience and the acoustics are still terrific, and that the
fabled kitchen is still, as they say, cooking. The alto saxophonist Jackie
McLean had been scheduled to be the headliner with the trio of veteran pianist
Cedar Walton but he injured himself shoveling snow and canceled at the last
minute. Grumbling, not quite believing McLean, Lorraine Gordon, widow of and
torchbearer for the Vanguard's founder Max Gordon, hired trumpeter Roy Hargrove
instead. It amuses Ms Gordon to affect a hardboiled, cynical persona but she
really has a heart of gold.
When Sue Mingus, another widowed
torchbearer who employs musicians, heard the snow-shoveling story, she said:
"They make their excuses to fit the season." When Sue says "they," meaning the
musicians, it is always with profound respect and love. She obviously considers
herself one of them and has an insight only a close relationship could provide.
Mingus memorial orchestras appear Thursday nights at the Fez on Lafayette
Street. Speaking of which, one not-so-nice thing about New York is that not one
of the above three clubs was more than half full.
In his new New
York City Jazz Guide, Steve Dollar observes that Sue Mingus's "humorously
testy relationship with the musicians" is "in the Mingus tradition as much as
the music itself." Post-Charles Mingus bands do not provide full-time work for
any of the 100 or so musicians in the pool and so just about any reasonable
excuse to cancel out, even at the last minute, is accepted. They can, however,
be lame - a trombone player said he couldn't make the gig at the Fez one night
because his girlfriend's grandmother was sick. Handing out paychecks, Mingus
will tease a musician if she thinks his solo was too long or too loud. "I am
this woman who is always screeching in the wings," she says. "I am the leader."
Mingus was in Paris in November to sign copies of her book Tonight
At Noon, about her life with Charles, which has just been published in
France as Pour l'Amour de Mingus. It won the Academie du Jazz prize as
the French jazz book of 2003. German and Italian translations have also
recently come on the market. She has begun to write another one. She still
lives on the 43rd floor of a windswept tower far west on 42nd Street which she
and Charles moved into after he grew terminally ill with Lou Gehrig's Disease.
Paper files and video and audio tapes are piled on chairs. Volumes by Marcel
Proust, William Blake and George Eliot are in the bookcase. The bass fiddle in
a corner is not far from a Mingus tote-bag. Mingus posters and framed
manuscript pages are on the walls. Her grandmother's harp - Sue has begun harp
lessons - stands in the middle of the living room.
The Mingus Big Band
will play during half time at the New Jersey Nets game on New Year's Eve. Sue
is thinking of performing Mingus's classic "Boogie Stop Shuffle," which she
thinks sounds suspiciously like the "Spider Man" song - or is it the other way
around? Either way, it just might work for basketball fans who have never even
heard of Charles Mingus.
Mike Zwerin has
been jazz and rock critic for the International Herald Tribune for the last
twenty years. He was also the European correspondent for The Village Voice.
Zwerin is currently writing a book called "Parisian Jazz Affair" for Yale
University Press and he is the jazz editor of Culturekiosque.com.