By Mike Zwerin
17 February 2000- Don Budge, the legenday tennis-man who died
recently at the age of 84, built his style on a combination of
Ellsworth Vines's power and taking the ball early while it was still
rising, like Fred Perry. Budge spent an entire winter working on it; "It
seemed so innovative at the time. I knew I was on to something. Come
to think of it," he paused and continued with a wide smile: "I
guess Charlie Parker played like he was hitting a rising ball. A lot
of guys must have spent a lot of time trying to figure that one out."
was Paris, 1989, the smart person's guitar hero Jim Hall had called
from New York to suggest I interview the legendary tennis-man Budge
while he was here for the French Open. He had won it exactly 50 years
earlier, along with all three other grand slams - the first person to
do that. "You'll never meet a more enthusiastic jazz fan,"
In 1939, Tommy Dorsey promised Budge he could
play drums with his band if he defeated Ellsworth Vines in Madison
Square Garden. It was his first match as a professional. "My band
is your band," Dorsey said when winner Budge entered the New
Yorker Hotel ballroom that evening. The leader motioned the drummer
Dave Tough away and Budge sat in his place. When a dancer requested "Marie,"
Dorsey replied: "You'll have to talk to the drummer. It's his
Once upon a time, during a short spell as a
Monday night racket hacker in a redecorated warehouse in the New York
borough of Queens, I considered tennis one of life's hardest-hitting
metaphors. Which is one reason the spell was short. When I lost, and I
lost often, I was a loser in life. Everything was lost, as it were.
When I lost I would be so upset that I would sulk with the kids when I
got home. When I won I could race through "Little Willie Leaps"
without a clam on my trombone. I did not win often enough.
tennis is, oddly enough, not unlike playing jazz. When you lose the
forward motion in the middle of a set on the bandstand, it takes the
same sort of endurance, courage and confidence to turn it around in
your favor as it does when you are down 1-4 during a set on the court.
There are "sets" in both and like jazz, tennis is not work,
you "play" it. They are both played in public in real time.
There are no second takes, no triple faults.
puzzled when I asked him what he thought about all that. Drawing such
a parallel apparently had not occurred to him. But if an activity can
be judged by the nature of the people attracted to it, Don Budge is a
credit to jazz. He was so far from the cliché
inside-information hipster image of the jazz fan, and yet his love for
it was so hot. Or rather so cool. He was a member of another, sports
world, élite. And yet he was, you know - "Hip." You
come away realizing that jazz has a wider appeal than you had thought.
This was no up-tight retirement-age country club dixieland
moldy fig. He related to the music with sophistication and stylistic
taste was surprisingly wide for his age (he was 74 at the time).
Passionate about the best in jazz, he was also tolerant of its flaws.
His instincts were excellent. He did not automatically dislike players
who did not touch him personally. In other words, he knew how to
differentiate between taste and quality. He asked for explanations -
about Miles playing rock, for example - and he listened hard to the
response. Speaking of musicians he had met, he sounded honored to have
Artie Shaw took him to hear "two guys who are
going to set the world on fire" - Lester Young and Jo Jones,
before they were well known. "It's what Jo doesn't play that's
the most interesting," Shaw explained to him. And now Budge
remarked: "When you listen to what the good players have to say,
you can learn a lot."
"I have to tell you a Lester
Young story," he continued. "He was playing in a club in
Cleveland while I was playing in a tournament there and I went to hear
him. I applauded after he played the melody of Body and Soul' -
before he started to improvise. The melody had never sounded so
beautiful. Later, Lester came over to me and said, Nobody ever
did that before. Thank you very much.' He was very pleased."
seemed delighted to be able to tell his jazz stories. After listening
to an up-tempo recording by his friend Benny Goodman, he went out and
played a match with the music still in his head. It gave him energy
and helped him win. The stories came tumbling out, a succession of
names, often without transitions or context. Charlie Parker, Clifford
Brown, Bob Dorough, Phil Woods, Shelly Manne...just pronouncing them
gave him pleasure. One emerged above all - "my pin-up," the
late pianist Bill Evans.
Evans introduced himself to him one
evening after a set in the Village Vanguard. "Mr Budge," he
said. "I heard you were a jazz fan and I've been watching you.
You sure know how to listen to music." Another night in the same
club, Evans asked to borrow $20. "Sure," an embarrassed
Budge replied. "Is that enough?" Evans said that would do
"It's so sad." Budge said, puzzled: "What
was he on? Heroin? Never having taken drugs, I don't understand it.
What a waste. I wanted to cry when he died. Do you know his rendition
of A Child Is Born?' It's so moving. To think there will be no
more Bill Evans records..."
Ah. At last. The hoped-for
connection between the sport and the art: "I think John McEnroe
is the tennis player who is most like a jazz musician. He has that
instinct you cannot learn. He is not a great disciplinarian, he
doesn't sweat practicing and working out like Borg or Lendl. It is as
though he plays with a wand rather than a racket. Like Bill Evans - he
had that wand."