Jazz vs Racism
In college, however, my own understanding of race relations and the history of my ethnic and cultural kinfolkblack Americansheightened and deepened beyond the grainy black and white footage of Bull Connor ordering fire hoses to be used on Negroes in Selma, Alabama, beyond Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream Speech," beyond the annual remembrances of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth during Black History Month in February, and even beyond Alex Haley's mini-series Roots (1977), which I watched with anger and incredulity as an adolescent while going to junior high.
If the devil is in the details, my increasing awareness of the extent of the treachery, cruelty and greed of those who perpetuated human enslavement and social repression tempted me to accept the Nation of Islam's assertion that white people were really devils! Plus, while attending Columbia University for the first semester of my senior year as an undergraduate, I saw the movement to force corporations to divest from investing in apartheid South Africa. The injustice of a white minority dominating and oppressing the black majority there incensed me also, and I became more politicized.
But, lo and behold, Caesar DiMauro (Italian-American), Zoot Sims (Midwestern and southern roots), Paul Desmond (German and Irish), and Phil Woods (Irish and French ancestry) had too strong a hold on my ears and feelings for me to accept such a racist claim as white folks, as a group of people, being devils. (Their sort of mixed lineage and heritage is what I'd later discover writer Albert Murray meant by his phrase, "Omni-American." Wouldn't you agree that the word "white" in fact "whites out" their cultural and ethnic background?)
Listening to Sims and Desmond led me back to Prez toothough Sims had some Hawk and Ben Webster in his swaggerbut I liked them for their own individual qualities. Sims' plangent passion and poised yet explosive swing on If I'm Lucky: Zoot Sims Meets Jimmy Rowles (Pablo, 1977) is one of the recordings that deepened my sonic romance, and the wry dry martini quality of Desmond's gentle tone on his dates with Dave Brubeck and Gerry Mulligan seeped into my young foolish heart.
Yet, at 17, it was Phil Woods' combination of technical mastery in service of emotional expression that totally blew me away. He joined a pantheon of artistsBird, John Coltrane, Sarah Vaughan, Cannonball, Miles Davis and Clifford Brownin which I immersed myself, each of whom baptized me in the improvisational fires of musical greatness. Even more than his sideman work with Thelonious Monk, Clark Terry, Billy Joel, and Steely Dan, I remember Woods' early records that I would borrow, over and over, from the New York Public LibraryAltology (Prestige, 1957), Sugan (Prestige, 1957) Phil & Quill With Prestige (RCA, 1957)as well as his transcendent performance of the title track to Quincy Jones' The Quintessence (Impulse!, 1962), and his awe-inspiring sax prowess on Live From the Showboat (RCA, 1976). Like Cannonball, Woods synthesized Benny Carter, Johnny Hodges and Bird in his own unique way, creating a sound and style all his own.
In 1979 or 1980, while still in high school, I snuck into a performance Woods gave at a high-class hotel in Manhattan to hear his mastery live and direct. I remember admiring the way he seemed to barely move his fingers over the keys of his glistening Selmer sax while producing such incredible lines, some richly melodic and lyrical, others flaming with the exciting velocity of bebop. I wore out the vinyl LP grooves of I Remember (DCC, 1978), and Woods' original compositions and arrangements in tribute to Cannonball, Desmond, Oscar Pettiford, Oliver Nelson, Bird, Willie Rodriguez, Willie Dennis and Gary McFarland became part of my high school soundtrack. His tribute to Desmond, "Paul," cast such a spell that I bought the sheet music of Woods' improvisationto try to learn to play it, yes; but more so to read the music along with the record, as my mouth lay agape in astonishment.
My teacher DiMauro, Sims, Desmond and Woods all became a part of my soul, so my love of them transferred to my moral center and conscience, which ultimately made me recoil from the temptation of racism during college. The beauty of their jazz performances and the wisdom of DiMauro's instruction, in an art form created and innovated by my cultural ancestors, made them, for me, aesthetic heroes whose "race," in relation to appreciating the music, was an insignificant consideration.