Preparing the Ground
This story starts when I was 8 or 9 years old, listening to some instrumental rock & roll record or anotherI can't remember who, probably some group like the Ventures ("Walk, Don't Run", or some such Duane Eddy-ish guitar-centered romp)and remarking to my cousin Steve, older than me by eight years, "I don't know why, but I think I like the songs without words the most." I'm sure he just smiled a condescending, older sibling-type smile and went back to his Little Richard and Chuck Berry records (it was around then that he was suspended from high school for singing "Tutti Frutti" in class when the song first came out. His teachers must have thought he was nuts, singing gibberish, and probably assumed he was high on some sinful something or another.)
His father my uncle and godfatherwas a jazz fan. Big band swing, mostly. Sundays, when we'd visit their house, he would frequently have Benny Goodman's Carnegie Hall Concert playingthat was one thing he did for himself to relax. I can remember Gene Krupa's drum solo in "Sing Sing Sing" breaking loose from that single, monaural box speaker that Uncle Sam had in the living room (at the time, I thought that the song had something to do with Sing Sing, the prison). This wasn't the music that I heard at homewhen my parents listened to records, it was show tunes or Frank Sinatra. Nothing as big as Goodman's orchestra, with Krupa's driving, swinging drum attack.
Three or four years later, Steve came home from college before his mid-term or final exams. He spent what seemed to me an inordinate amount of time studying for those examshe was a serious student, a regular on the dean's list, and I was only about 11 or 12, so we were in very different worlds, scholastically and otherwise. At one point, he came bounding down the stairs from his room and announced it was time for a "break" (whatever that meant). He told me to pay attention, that this was a necessary part of the studying process. I watched him pull an album off the shelf, slip the vinyl out of its sleeve, and slide it onto the turntable. He turned the sound up loudloud. When the music started, he jumped into actiondancing and leaping around the room, waving his arms like he was conducting the orchestra, banging on the bookshelves as if they were a keyboard, slapping the counter as if it were drums. I was awe-struckwhen I think about it now, I picture myself standing there, speechless, mouth agape, eyes about to jump out of my head. This is what college students do? I was riveted in place watching him (maybe his high school was right, after all, when they suspended him for the "Tutti Frutti incident"). Then, as quickly and unexpectedly as he'd started, he turned off the music, smiled and pushed his hair back with one hand, and went back upstairs to his studies.
I can't remember what album it was. It wasn't rock & rollI would have remembered something as familiar as that. No, it was something else entirely, and could only have been some high-energy, big band jazz. (I almost want to say it was Duke Ellington's 70th Birthday Concert, but that wouldn't come along for another 10 years. I must connect that particular Ellington album to my cousin's study-break frenzy because that recording had a similar effect on me by the time I got to college.)
But back to my cousin's jazz-soundtracked frenzy. There I waslittle baby-faced pre-teen, wondering why I liked instrumental rock & roll better than vocal, hearing Benny Goodman records and knowing it was something different from anything I was hearing anywhere else, and watching my usually fairly staid, serious cousin busting loose over some crazy-ass orchestra music. I didn't know it at the time, but I was hookedmaybe it took a while for the hook to set, but it was there. I was mesmerized by the bait, like a fish that isn't sure if it's hungry enough to bite, but tempted enough to keep close to the lure anyway, only to yield eventually to the inevitable.