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The Velvet Lounge: On Late Chicago Jazz

David A. Orthmann By

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The Velvet Lounge: On Late Chicago Jazz
Gerald Majer
224 pages
ISBN: #023113682X
Columbia University Press
2005

Three men sit around a table in a restaurant that—for one night a week—masquerades as a jazz club. The dinner plates have been cleared, and we're waiting to settle the check. On the other side of a divider, the musicians are getting ready for the night's opening set. The service is slow so there's time to kill before we move into the part of the room where the music will play and finally get down to the real business of the evening. We catch glimpses of and greet some of the performers, most of whom have been encountered in the past, live and on recordings. Each of us is wondering what this particular ad hoc combination of personalities will sound like.

The heady buzz of anticipation has stalled temporarily while we continue to wait. Between the three of us, there's roughly one hundred and fifty years willingly spent in bars, clubs, concert halls, and venues of all shapes and sizes. (A couple of years ago one of us caught two sets at a Sunday morning flea market). The talk turns to whom, where, and when—the details of stories that diehard jazz fans inevitably trot out when there's some downtime. Our personal experiences as listeners and witnesses to jazz history overlap to some degree, yet, in part, it's the differences in perspective that make the conversation something more than, as one wag once put it, "You boys just swapping jazz baseball cards."

A recurring theme is long shuttered jazz clubs—Gulliver's, The Three Sisters, Boomers, The Jazz Forum, Slug's Saloon, The Half Note, just to name a few—all of them an integral part of who we are as jazz aficionados. Because we're in our sixties and seventies, the names attached to some of our cherished memories are becoming elusive. A hint—the name of a professional associate, a record date, or any other kind of minutia—is enough for someone at the table to hit on the name. (It helps to have like-minded friends.) Then, of course, there are the unforgettable performances, the impact and importance of which can't always be communicated to the teller's satisfaction. (You really had to have been there.) Lastly, there are the things we're done (and, perhaps, risked) for the privilege of witnessing peak experiences. As two of our wives sit and converse about other matters (they've been in this loop many times before and heard some of the stories more than once), one of us talks about falling asleep at work under a vehicle he was repairing, the result of a number of consecutive late nights of catching sets by an artist who couldn't be missed.

I discovered Gerald Majer's The Velvet Lounge: On Late Chicago Jazz shortly after its publication in 2005. Like the jazz recordings I return to time and time again, and the memories of live sets I often summon for inspiration, it never completely leaves my consciousness, exerting a profound influence—a broadening effect, a vista of possibilities—in the manner I look at the music and my experiences with it. Reading Majer is, at once, exhilarating, enlightening, disarming, and frustrating. At his best, Majer's writing induces the elation that one feels on those great nights when the artists can do no wrong, and the music stays with you long after the performance is over. When he offers points of view or impressions of particular artists—brief sketches of Wayne Shorter (p. 142), Andrew Hill (p. 153), and Roscoe Mitchell (p. 159) come to mind—they're informal and idiosyncratic, not weighed down by a ton of conventional music theory and certainly not pedantic. In other instances, you slog through a deluge of words, desperately trying to make sense of abrupt changes in reference and direction. During the course of one protracted paragraph, he moves from Rimbaud's system of vowels in relation to color, to a childhood game of smashing bottles on the tile floor of an abandoned building for the sheer pleasure of hearing the sounds and watching the glass explode, to whipping steel cutouts into the air, the shapes of which bring us back to Rimbaud—all in the service of making loose connections to jazz drumming. (p. 92-93)

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