Love for Sale and Other Essays

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This article appears from the story "For Bean" Love for Sale and Other Essays by Clifford Thompson (Autumn House Press, 2013).

I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s in a semi-detached brick house in Washington, D.C. The house from which it was not detached belonged to my aunt and uncle; my great-aunt and great-uncle lived in the house on the other side of them; and still another aunt and uncle were up the street. People seldom appreciate what they have when it's there, and it is only now, living in a New York apartment surrounded by neighbors I sometimes have trouble even recognizing, that I understand what I had as a boy. In those days my neighbors were family members, transplanted country folk, who often dropped by unannounced—a rarity today—and stayed to chat for half an hour, an hour, or more. These chats were not the polite, antiseptic exchanges of neighbors who understand that they will probably never be friends; they were full of the shared humor and allusions, the warmth—sometimes the heat—that grew among adults who had known each other all their lives. For a child there is nothing like such talk among adults, even if the child is not listening or consciously aware of hearing it. What is important is not so much the words as the tide of sound on which they reach the ear: the low, whiskey- and tobacco-tinged voices of the men, the knowing tones of the women—sounds that tell a small boy, as he plays on the floor with plastic soldiers, that while he may not understand the workings of the world, he is in the care of people who do.

There are many definitions of adulthood. One of mine is: a period spent alternately running from, and trying to recapture, childhood. Sometimes, when I am nostalgic for the adult voices of my youth—most of which can no longer be heard—I imagine I can hear something similar to them in the recordings of a number of jazz musicians, themselves gone, who often played together. The group includes the trumpeter Roy Eldridge, the tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, the drummer "Papa" Jo Jones, and others. At its center stands the towering figure of Coleman Hawkins.

Hawkins—nicknamed Bean—was the first important tenor saxophonist, the man who turned a horn previously relegated to circuses into the quintessential jazz instrument. His sound was mighty, its vibrato pronounced, like the tremblings of the ground as a giant makes its way across it; he awed, inspired, intimidated other sax players for forty years, from the era of the flapper to the sweltering days of the civil rights movement. If I fancy I can hear something like my relatives' voices in his playing, maybe it is partly because he was colorful and eccentric enough to have been one of them. Onstage, in contrast to Louis Armstrong, he was all business (a forerunner, in this way, of Miles Davis, who at one point took to playing with his back to his audiences). In person, though, he was a practical joker, who would set friends at odds by telling each he had been slandered by the other; someone who could talk knowledgeably about art, flowers, or automobile assembly; a sharp dresser; a frighteningly fast driver; a man whose distrust of banks was so complete that he would walk around with thousands of dollars in his pockets; a big, sturdy man who could drink staggering quantities of alcohol and then play flawless solos.

Hawkins was born a century ago, on November 21, 1904, in St. Joseph, Missouri. (He was fond of telling interviewers that he had been born at sea as his parents were returning from a vacation in Europe.) At his request, on his ninth birthday he received a tenor saxophone, and by the time he was twelve he was playing it professionally at school dances. Before his eighteenth birthday he had made it to New York, where he performed with Mamie Smith's Jazz Hounds. In early 1924 he began his decade-long stint with Fletcher Henderson's group, the first important swing band, with which he made many recordings and won worldwide fame.

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