New York Minutes

New York Minutes

by Mike Zwerin

copyright © 2004 Mike Zwerin

In 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 Mondaysn 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 was to play during half time at the New Jersey Nets game on New Year's Eve. Sue was 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 originally published these New York Notes in the International Herald Tribune, for which he's written since moving from New York to Paris in 1972. He's currently finishing a memoir of about his life as a jazz journalist abroad.

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