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Sons of Miles
by Mike Zwerin
1 April 1998

"We're close enough for jazz."
One trombone player to another, tuning up.

I am in love with music. I cannot see straight for the love of her. But if music is, as Duke Ellington put it, my mistress, then we have had a stormy relationship. I have cheated on her, lied to, neglected and beat her. On the other hand, she is too demanding. When she nagged I left her and when I neglected her she left me. I spent my time under too many hats, between too many stools. It has been a stormy affair.

High-school hipsters slouched through my living room, eyes red, leaning forward with gig-bags cradled in their arms. They wore Dizzy Gillespie goatees and berets. Those who were not junkies scratched their noses and spoke with a rasp to make believe they were. Charlie Parker was a junky and that was hip enough for them.

"Groovy, man. What a gas!" they'd say as my father looked over his New York Times in disbelief. They'd climb the stairs to my attic studio where there was a wire recorder, an upright piano and pictures of jazz giants on the wall. Earl Brew burned some piano keys but my mother did not say anything because Earl was black and she was a Socialist. She thought the burns were from cigarettes.

When we weren't playing music we were listening to or talking about it. We did not have to ask each other: "What do you want to be when you grow up?" We took professional names. Bob Milner became Bob Mills. Frank Hamburger chose Duke Frank. I was Mike Wayne. Al Goldstein picked Al Young in honor of Lester Young but everybody called him Lester Goldstein.

My attic studio overlooked the Forest Hills Tennis Club. The tennis players complained because our jamming jammed their concentration. We were the first Jewish family in Forest Hills Gardens, an exclusive enclave. My father suspected the tennis players were anti-Semitic. The tennis players accused him of operating a rehearsal studio in violation of zoning laws. Lester Goldstein loved to honk out the window during set points and Lester really knew how to honk.

I cut high school to catch noon shows at the Paramount, the Capitol, the Strand - Broadway theatres where my heroes rose hungover from pits for the first of five daily shows playing "Blues Flame," "Take The A Train," and "Let's Dance," my own "Star Spangled Banners." I was dazzled by the sparkle of spots off brass. I daydreamed of future hungover noons rising from pits. I knew big-band personnel like other kids knew big-league baseball lineups.

My parents took me to a Catskill Mountain hotel for a summer holiday. After breakfast one morning, walking in the crisp mountain air, we passed the hotel-band bass-player coming in with a dazzling suntanned brunette on his arm. We had talked and he knew I wanted to be a musician. "You're up early," I said. He hesitated: "Yes...early." Later I realized he had not in fact been to sleep. How I envied grown-ups who could stay up all night playing music and be with beautiful women. Now when I think of that hack working in the Jewish Alps for the summer, I wonder how children survive their fantasies.

In the summer on 1949 I was in New York on vacation from the University of Miami where I was majoring in sailing. No, actually sixteen of us were on full scholarship to play for dinner in the streamlined student cafeteria which was cantilevered over an artificial lake. It was sort of like sailing at that.

In those days, to mix metaphors, I played my horn like a kid skiing down a slalom, with more courage than sense. Falling on my face never occurred to me. One night I climbed up to Minton's, where bebop was born, in Harlem. A lot of white cats considered Minton's too steep a slope. I never imagined somebody might not like me because I was white. I was absolutely fearless. I took out my trombone and started to play "Walkin'" with Art Blakey, then known as Abdullah Buhaina, a fearful cat I was later told.

When I noticed Miles Davis standing in a dark corner, I tried harder because Miles was with Bird's band. (Miles loved dark corners). He came over as I packed up. I slunk into a cool slouch. I practised cool slouches. We were both wearing shades - no eyes to be seen. "You got eyes to make a rehearsal tomorrow?" he asked me. "I guess so." I acted as though I didn't give one shit for his stupid rehearsal.

"Four." Miles made it clear he couldn't care less if I showed up or not: "Nola Studios." Driving over the Triborough Bridge to the house by the tennis courts at five-AM, I felt like a batboy who had been offered a tryout with the team.

The next day at four I found myself with Miles, Gerry Mulligan, Max Roach, John Lewis, Lee Konitz, Junior Collins, Bill Barber and Al McKibbon playing arrangements by Mulligan and Gil Evans. We would come to be called "The Birth Of The Cool."

That's when I started cheating on my mistress. I went into my father's steel fabricating business to support my young wife and three young children. When my father died, I became President. I was the only President my friends knew. Everybody's Only President had problems presiding. He had a closet full of neckties, custom shirts and a suit for every day of the week. By the age of twenty-three his ambition was to grow old. Responsible people call this attitude "responsible," "mature," "serious." Youth was a preparation for old age, music a tangent and vacations were spent to work more efficiently when they were over. You might have asked Everybody's Only President whatever happened to his burning love for music. He asked himself....Wait a minute. Talk about alienation. What's this third person shit? That was me!

I quit the business when my first wife left me, came to Paris to "find myself," practiced my trombone a lot, went back to New York and joined Maynard Ferguson's big band. Realizing my ambition, I rose out of pits hungover. Maynard's band worked opposite Miles and Trane in Birdland for two weeks. I felt extremely hip walking from my Tenth Avenue apartment across 57th street to Birdland carrying my horn. A few weekends later, I drove one of Maynard's cars to Cincinnatti and back through a snowstorm for a one-nighter. He gave me two checks; $35 for playing and $102 for driving. And so Everbody's Only President was reincarnated - "responsible, mature, serious."

There was a flash. I had moved to Greenwich Village. My local paper, The Village Voice, had no jazz critic. I would be it. I became it. It became me. The idea was to get a name in print so I could work with my own band, a rationalization for cheating on mistress music. Wearing still another hat, I stopped practicing and only started again a decade later, after marrying my French wife when we were both vegetables for too many seasons in the Vaucluse and I had nothing better to do.

Which more or less brings us up to date. Oh, I forgot a few details - I have been writing for the International Herald Tribune for 21 years, I toured with a French rock band called Telephone and I had a son...not necessarilly in that order. I am the only living trombone player ever to have played with Miles Davis and Telephone. My son, seven at the time, came on tour with us. Kids are good luck on the road and the members of Telephone, kids themselves, carried him on their shoulders, played ping pong and video games and rolled around dressing room floors with him. During concerts, he sat on-stage right behind drummer Richard Kolinka, who juggled his sticks and painted his face like a pirate. When the tour was over I asked my son to keep me company going to the office to get paid.

"Gee whiz?!" he exclaimed. His bright little face lit up: "You mean people give you money for playing music?!"


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