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Sons of Miles
MIKE STERN: "Well, Hell, You have To Do Something"
by Mike Zwerin
18 February 1999

Trying to make 10 traffic lights bouncing down Park Avenue South, the taxi driver said he was writing a book about the history of "The Great American [unprintable act]," which he traces back to the French influence on American Doughboys during World War I. I gave him $4 for the ride and $2 for the rap and got out in front of 55 Christopher Street.

The enthralled audience made the 55 bar seem more like a tiny temple than a joint. Mike Stern was reconciling Wes Montgomery, Jimi Hendrix and John Coltrane picking his electric guitar through a hard-driving neo-bop version of "Meadowlands." A pair of eager young Japanese men were taping the set with the latest miniaturized sound hardware. It was many years since I had been in the place. Like so many places of my youth, it was sinister no longer. Or maybe it was I that was no longer sinister.

Come to think of it, before it became a temple, the 55 was more of a hospital than a joint. Some of New York's creative elite like the poet Delmore Schwartz and Paul Desmond had been infamous and all too mortal drinkers in here.

Dealing with this music in this sort of place in our time it was totally impossible to avoid observing and even experiencing the desperate act of getting as stoned as humanely possible, and then, fortunately, as it turned out, the even more desperate act of kicking. Just why all of this was, is another story.

Stern had been a rocky guitarist on more than one level during his three years with Miles Davis. In between pressing his wah-wah pedal to push the volume past distortion point he'd be sniffing what he called "paragraphs" rather than lines of cocaine.

I am not too proud to admit that I was right along there with him, whenever possible. And that most of the time I was too cheap to offer to pay. What the heck, when it comes to dope there is no morality at all and the rationalization was that his family owned an eponymous department store. (Anyway, he didn't seem to mind.) He also drank whatever was around. We were dirty white boys. Or we hoped we were.

Young jazz players, including the young Davis, followed Charlie Parker into drugs in the '40s a/nd '50s and then into the long darkness. The following generation followed the mature Davis the survivor away from them in the '80s. But first Davis fired Stern in 1983, saying: "Come back when you cool out."

Mike Stern

Now with impressively bright eyes and healthy attitude and body, Stern looked back and said: "When Miles told me that, I had to take it seriously. I realize now that I was that close to checking out." He put his thumb and forefinger a centimeter apart. "I joined several rehab programs. Eventually I got more centered.

"It may sound corny but reality really is better. It's helped my playing but it can get complicated. I recently heard an old record of mine for the first time in years and for a while I didn't recognize myself. I said, 'Who's that? Sure sounds good.' Then I remembered it was me and the kind of person I was back then and then I didn't like it so much any more."

To be frank, there are times when getting high did indeed make you play better. Or at least it made you feel better while playing. It's a certain level of abandon. But afterwards listening again you can also hear the overwhelming lack of finesse, lack of control. It's dirty, not the "you" you want to be or hope you are.

Once he had found himself, he returned to Davis for eight months in 1985. He has since recorded as a leader and was featured with the hot Michael Brecker quintet. In a cover story, Guitar Player magazine called Stern "the jazz guitar voice of the late '80s."

We made an appointment for an interview for Sunday morning - rehabilitated "square" time for an ex-addict - at his apartment on 23rd Street. When I arrived, he was with Steve Khan the Steely Dan guitarist, who was producing his second record. They were discussing whether to orient the album more toward sophisticated rock or contemporary jazz. When Khan left, Stern brewed two bowls of coffee so strong it might have just been illegal. He laughed between sips: "Well, hell, you have to do something." At least he had not, as so often happens, lost his sense of humor along with his habit.

I remembered one cleaned-up old-timer telling me: "These young guys today are a bit too clean. They could use some more suffering." This is a fragile hair to split. Stern seemed as though he had split the difference just fine.

I asked him how he could play the emotional, energetic, mature straight-ahead jazz I had heard in the 55 the other night and even consider recording anything else. Is it necessary for absolutely every level of daredevil to be purged at the same time in order to be considered "healthy?"

"To tell the truth I'm kind of schizzed out about it," he said. "I'm not trying to go for any preconceived notion of what the public wants, but I grew up with the Beatles and then fell in love with jazz. I come by both honestly. That may be my biggest dilemma, or gift, I'm not sure which - probably both.

"I'm just going to make the best record I can - and later when I listen to it I'll probably hate it." He stopped for a beat. "I'm hard on myself. But bebop and rock don't mix on the same album. Someday maybe I'd like to do a kind of suite with all my influences in it, but I'm not ready for that yet.

"Then there's the problem of technology. That can be a hassle. And you might call me a hasslee. It's confusing, how far to go. Those electronic toys can sound so slick, people get seduced. I think it will eventually assume more perspective.

"Maybe the same fight took place over the piano. Some harpsichordist probably screamed, 'This isn't music!'"

By noon I was walking down 23rd Street, shaking like a leaf, high in the lowest possible sense, from all of that legal coffee.

Photo: Mike Stern
Credit: Christian Rose

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