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Robert Levin: The War is Over - A Conversation About Jazz

By Published: August 21, 2010
I admire Cecil for all kinds of reasons, not the least of them being his belief in himself. He had his ambivalent periods and he made his mistakes, but he held to his vision. George Wein, who'd wanted to exploit Cecil's enormous talent for its potential commercial possibilities and whose ideas about how to do it Cecil steadfastly resisted, actually said to Cecil not too long ago: "Well, you did it, and you did it your way." Cecil did do it his way and, initially, with very little support. But if Cecil didn't require approval to pursue and accomplish what he has, he certainly wanted it. Wein's remark was a source of immense satisfaction to him.

Of course the man whose approval Cecil really wanted but never got was Miles Davis. Miles had exclaimed in a Down Beat "Blindfold Test": "Who's that motherfucker? He can't play shit!" And Cecil was deeply wounded by that. Cecil and Miles were on several concert bills together and they would get into verbal exchanges backstage, but Miles refused to acknowledge what Cecil was doing as legitimate. I would try to cool Cecil out by telling him that it was precisely because Miles "got it" that he was so hostile to it, and that if Cecil's aesthetic took hold it would, in Miles's mind, diminish his accomplishment. But Cecil wouldn't accept that argument. Achieving Miles's validation became a minor obsession for him and when he answered Miles's "So What" with "D Trad, That's What," I think he really believed that Miles would come around.

EB: I know that Miles reacted in a similar fashion to Ornette Coleman.

RL: Yes, that's true, he did. "[Coleman] must be screwed up inside to play like that," he said. But I've just now reminded myself of another of Cecil's disappointments. This one involved a nasty reaction to his music at a black bebop club on a summer night back in the early '60s. Don't ask me to remember the name of the club—it was somewhere deep in the bowels of Brooklyn—or how Cecil got booked there. Cecil, [alto saxophonist] Jimmy Lyons
Jimmy Lyons
Jimmy Lyons
1933 - 1986
sax, alto
and [drummer] Sunny Murray
Sunny Murray
Sunny Murray
b.1937
drums
, none of whom had played this place before, were scheduled to do a weekend and Jeanne Phillips, a long-time friend of Cecil's, and I went with them on opening night. Cecil was excited about working at this club. The people there were precisely the people he wanted to reach. He wanted to demonstrate to them what was possible in the music now. Well, it was a Friday night and the place was jammed—every table was occupied and people were standing three-deep at the bar. It was also very hot; what passed for air-conditioning was thoroughly neutralized by the quantity of bodies in the room. The band was assigned to a small pit behind a railing opposite the bar and things started to get seriously tense just a couple of minutes into the opening number.

If Cecil still had one leg in bebop, the other was dangling well outside of it, and what the band was playing wasn't exactly what the folks there were expecting or ready to hear. Men at the tables began standing up, shouting obscenities and making threatening gestures. Women, too. It was quite a scene. But the band, lost in the music, was oblivious to what was going on. If they heard the noise at all they probably assumed they were being cheered. A year before a drunk had waved a gun at me in a bar, but I wasn't nearly as alarmed by that as I was when two men approached the pit and, with their arms folded, stared at the band in a very menacing way. It didn't help that the bartender, a giant of a man—I thought of him years later when I heard the Billy Crystal joke, "The guy was so big his crucifix had a real person on it"—looked so panicked himself.

I was standing near the door with Jeanne (who, every bit as fearful as I was at that point, had grabbed my arm and wouldn't let go), when I saw him frantically motioning to us. I managed to get over to him and he said, "You need to take them out of here. And right now!" So while Jeanne was focusing on Cecil and Jimmy, I was leaning into the pit trying to get Sunny's attention. But neither of us was having any success. Sunny, who was dripping with sweat, had his head way back and his eyes tight shut and all he was hearing was the music. Finally the bartender came out from behind the bar and yelled at the band: "That's enough! Goddammit, that's enough!" That worked—or maybe it was the long and heavy shadow he'd cast over the pit that did the trick. A couple of minutes later we were on the sidewalk. Jimmy's alto was still hanging from his neck. He'd left the case inside and no way was he going back to get it. I'd never seen Cecil quite so crestfallen.

EB: Wow! How did he handle that?


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