Matt Lavelle: New York City Subway Drama, and Beyond
Softcover; 196 pages
Jazz autobiographies are a genre all their own, running the gamut from the no-holds-barred disclosures of trumpeter Miles Davis, to the cautious reflections of pianist Paul Bley, to the mystical insights of bassist Victor Wooten. A new and welcome entry is multi-instrumentalist Matt Lavelle's New York City Subway Drama, and Beyond, which has the rare quality of being the story of Lavelle's external and internal journey, as well as a guidebook to surviving as an artist in New York City.
Lavelle has certainly led a colorful life, and he deftly describes a multiplicity of worlds, including his career as a telephone psychic, his encounters with lost souls in the Jersey City YMCA, his days as the jazz buyer for Tower Records in midtown Manhattan, and his many subway adventures, including the time he jumped onto the tracks to save his beloved bass clarinet. His adroit descriptions bring to life a unique cast of characters, ranging from unknowns such as 400-pound Crazy Joe, Cell Phone Asshole, and Crazy Exploding Briefcase Guy, to jazz luminaries including saxophonists Ornette Coleman and Sonny Rollins and drummer Max Roach. Lavelle's spiritual journey runs like an artery throughout every encounter; he has a wonderful gift for finding poetry in the least poetic places, and for transforming even painful experiences into a "source of soul." As Lavelle puts it, he's not searching for the meaning of life, but the meaning in life.
Lavelle does a terrific job exploring physical and psychological survival in public spaces, whether it's the subway, the bus, the post office, or one of the many jobs he has held over the years. His twelve meditations on the subway are some of the finest writing in the book: he paints vivid portraits of himself traveling on the subway and minding his own business, when suddenly violenceor just plain stupidityexplodes around him. These brutally honest accounts of humanity's dark side lead Lavelle to a resounding conclusion: never get too comfortable in New York City, but also don't overlook opportunities to be "an undercover spiritual subway policeman."
For Lavelle, his spiritual quest and his passion for jazz are one and the same, and he is perfectly clear about the strength and sacrifice that jazz requires: "One thing great Jazz musicians all have in common is that they are not AFRAID." Lavelle has had the good fortune to play with and encounter a wide range of musicians, and his stories about these experiences are both entertaining and edifying, whether he's giving trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie a coffee cup for his spittle, standing by saxophonist Giuseppi Logan as he shifts in and out of darkness, or gleaning precious nuggets of wisdom from Ornette Coleman. Lavelle also includes meditations on particular musicians, including saxophonists John Coltrane and Paul Gonsalves, pianist/harpist Alice Coltrane, trumpeter Clifford Brown, and reed player Eric Dolphy, which are full of sharp insights beneficial to both musicians and fans.
Part of the book's appeal is Lavelle's idiosyncratic use of English, what he calls "Grammar Madness." Lavelle has created his own system of punctuation, spelling, and grammar, and his prose surges and sings as he joyfully creates his own break-the-rules rulebook. His language is flowing and often quite poetic: he explains his struggle with sleep apnea as "this sleep ocean I was drowning in," and he describes a dysfunctional couple by saying, "They have some control power dynamic shit going on in their coupleness."
All aspiring jazz musicians should be handed a copy of New York City Subway Drama, and Beyond the minute they step foot in New York. This book is the real deal: it's about working a 40-hour day job, playing gigs at night, enduring endless subway journeys, living in rented rooms, seeking out $1 pizza slices, and learning how to deal with sudden shocks of city violence. But really the book is for anyone trying to live a soulful life: it's a manual on how to be alert to both danger and magic, and how to let one's light shine at all times and in all circumstances. In the world of jazz autobiographies, Lavelle is offering something fresh, expanding the genre beyond the genre so it encompasses the musical and the practical and the spiritual in one exuberant package.