New York City empties out like a condemned playground on a Sunday afternoon in July. People cooped up in air-dried apartments and offices all week escape in search of sunshine and trees. The good things that still happen in the City on weekends happen mostly inside of little hidden enclaves, isolated places well below street level. Places like the Village Vanguard, a wedge-shaped East Village cellar smaller than a one-car garage, where not so much as a splinter of daylight has ever penetrated its night-colored walls.
There is light in The Vanguard, but it's an artificial, blood-stained colored light that seeps out from somewhere behind the ceiling's blackness, coating everything it falls on like a sepia St. Elmo's Fire: Nondescript bar stools. Little one-foot-square tables.
On this particular July Sunday afternoon, it was falling on the dark tailored pinstriped lapels of Percy Heath. It was falling across the shapely wood-carved shoulders of his contra bass, highlighting the instrument's graceful violin shape, its swan's head, the chestnut burls in its dark honey-colored torso.
There in the Village Vanguard's boozy-smelling back space just behind the bar at the foot of the famous stairs that go down from Seventh Avenue, Percy Heath is tuning his instrument. His skin has turned a deep plum color in the bleeding Vanguard light, his left hand flutters at the slender neck of the bass while his right arm reaches ardently across the curved body with the bow producing a softly polished, oak-tinged voice. It's the sound an ancient tree might make during a forest storm, a sotto voce creak that turns into a soft, singing sigh. The dank floor around him resonates with the sound.
He thrums the strings just above the notched bridge, rolling his fingers outward, letting the notes resonate as they escape, moth-like into the surrounding stillness. He walks a few blues-y measures in four-four. And there it is: the unmistakable throb, the exquisitely reliable heartbeat of The Modern Jazz Quartet. Four men that comprise an entire orchestra.
What these four gentlemen brought to jazz and the world of music, out of the careening bebop fury of the early '50's was the sound of elegance. Elegance that swung just as hard as the raucous Count Basie rhythm section, or the leaping schizophrenic Parker-Gillespie-Powell groups. Duke Ellington had shown everyone the possibilities for elegance on a large canvas. But John Lewis, Milt Jackson, Connie Kay and Percy Heath had distilled it into a small, white-hot, opalescent fire in a four-man crucible that defined cool, seemingly effortless swinging. Their music had all the headlong push of bop, the tension and release, the dangerous turns; plus the confident, sophisticated feet-on-the-floor veracity and nuance of a perfectly balanced classical chamber group.
There are moments when the MJQ is all about nuance about the meaning behind the beat, the afterglow of a perfect note bent ever so slightly to increase the tension.
They were "Modern." They were "Jazz." And they were a "Quartet." Four musicians who played, who thought, who pulsed like one. And at the center of that pulse, the bassist. Percy Heath.
They dressed in sedate matching, shadow-colored three-piece suits, like diplomats there to deliver an urgent, possibly even disturbing message in the quietest, most reassuring tones. They stood squarely behind their instruments, piano, bass, vibes and drums in the center of the stage and they played. Their acoustic balance was perfect, honest, with no electronic "compensating" required. When a bass note needed to be let through the curtain of the other instruments, to be louder, to make a point, the other instruments parted momentarily and it emerged in precisely the right place, dropping like a diamond into a velvet glove. Every note they played had that uncompromising exactness. That inevitability. The only possible note that could have been played then and there.
And the Quartet rode on the shoulders of Percy Heath, who, like all good bass players, bore it like an eager workhorse. His contribution was the musical equivalent of charity and of humble support from pure unwavering strength.
I stood a few feet away from the man, letting the sound of his bass notes define the space around us. When he looked up and saw me, a 19-year old college kid just discovering his music, he smiled a little crooked, friendly, smile and went back to his assiduous tuning process. Always the workman.
I had nothing to say, and yet I wanted more than anything to talk with him, to hear him speak, to find out what he could tell me about The Music. I had a million questions and I couldn't think of one. I was here at The Vanguard because I had seen the MJQ a few months earlier "live" on Steve Allen's old Tonight. The Quartet was four or five years old then, just starting to be noticed, like some new constellation appearing unexpectedly in the night sky.