As a jazz-loving teenager in San Francisco, I tuned into KJAZ every Sunday night to hear a weekly tribute show to the late Lester Young, Prez, as he was known, the president of the tenor sax. The charming host of the show, Bob Houlihan, was a stone-cold Lester Young junkie. At that point in my life, I don't believe I'd ever heard one human being consistently express so much passionate enthusiasm for another, and it was Houlihan's ardor, as much as Young's music, that got me to tune in.
It so happened that I liked Lester Young fine. I enjoyed his solos with the Basie band, particularly his subtle work behind Billie Holiday. I loved the story of his legendary jam session with tenor giant Coleman Hawkins in Kansas City-the jazz world's inversion of the tortoise and the hare, in which the sleek, light-toned Prez outcooled the hard-blowing, majestic Hawk. I understood Lester's profound influence on a generation of musicians, and I believe I was even hip to the metaphoric properties of his style: that a bit of subtlety, a swerve of indirection might get you home in a more elegant and beguiling way. But I was never as knocked out by Prez as I was by Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. Lacking their clear virtuosity and harmonic inventiveness, Prez was probably too subtle for me.
But people who had the Lester Young fever had it bad. A professor in grad school told me that he began studying the tenor sax in his fifties just so that he might play a phrase or two before he died that sounded like Prez. Imitation as a form of adoration is even more common to jazz than it is to writing, and Lester Young may have had more professional imitators than anybody besides Bird.
David Meltzer's book-length poem, No Eyes: Lester Young (Black Sparrow), is written in imitation of Young's noted use of hipster language. He spoke in a code language of his own, in hopes of keeping most of the world at arm's length. Meltzer views his project as a "prolonged meditation on the last year of Lester Young's life." (Much has been written, by the way, about the final years of Prez's life-the alcoholic tenor man died in 1959, at age fifty, in a miserable New York hotel called the Alvin-and the Dexter Gordon film, "Round Midnight," was based on Young's last years. The best portrait of Prez's late years that I've read is Bobby Scott's magnificent essay "The House in the Heart," which is available in Robert Gottlieb's omnibus Reading Jazz.)
Meltzer prefaces his poetic enactment with a dissertation on the title term, "No Eyes," and then waxes symbolic about his enterprise with the following paragraph: "The metaphor of creation and negation, of despair's art and the art of melancholy, haunt this poem. It's about death and Young sits in as a metaphor for an imaginary (yet acknowledgeably great) artist living and dying for and with his art."
The long, uneven poem does have its moments. I had no trouble giving myself to the following crafted and imaginative passage:
- if exhaustion were an ocean
- I'd dive in head first
- & forget how to swim
- down to the deepest deep
- creep along bottom's bottom
- & sleep w/out dreaming
- turn blue in salt cold
- shrink old prune gray
- water filled folds pop open
- on sunny days
- no more sweet or sour
- just hour after hour of no time
- is nobody's time w/ nobody around
- if misery were the sea
- & blues were the sky
- I'd still sink and fly. . . .
- But much of the poem reads to me like an automatic, loosey-goosey, second-string beat riff, in which anything goes:
- Lester's insouciance was cool
- a word that's lost all coolness
- its power to defuse & confuse
- diffused in Netscape blips & MTV
- hip hop flip flop meager wages
- surface glare & glide
- slide easy digital tic toc
- cool clock cool time
- everything's so fucking cool
- bodies float up on vicious poolside pane
- shot through fiberoptic hairstrands
- Prez adrift saunters off the bandstand
- across the street in a reet
- buzz of blue serge words.
Come to think of it, I really like those last two lines. So I'll be seeing you "across the street in a reet/ buzz of blue serge words."
Bart Schneider is the authof of Blue Bossa (Viking); both he and David Meltzer participated in the JJA on-line forum "Re: Jazz and Fiction." Schneider is the editor of the on-line periodical Book Bag, where this "riff on Prez" first appeared -- to Subscribe to Book Bag, send a blank message with "subscribe" in the subject field to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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