Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Repost from 2008: Why I Love Jazz

Note: I wrote this in 2008 and happened to mention the story again on Twitter today. I've edited it a bit but it's more or less the same. I've since seen Charles Lloyd perform live about a half dozen times, and even told him the cold pizza anecdote after introducing myself following a performance in New York. He laughed. -aah

One Friday night 14 years ago I became a jazz fan for life. I was a newspaper reporter in Idaho and was paid so poorly that I supplemented my income by delivering pizza in my pickup truck on weekends.

The good part about this was that I had a good stereo, and could pick up a good public radio station out of Salt Lake City, KUER, which at that time played a lot of jazz.

Someone got a cold pizza one day because of Charles Lloyd. At the time I was just barely learning about jazz and didn’t yet know what I liked, what I didn’t like. Yes I knew that I liked Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” because that’s very often the record that people who are curious about Jazz start out with. Same for Dave Brubeck’s “Time Out.”

So I was making a delivery and was compelled, literally compelled, to pull over. Something about what was playing on the radio had captured my attention, and there was no way I was going to let anything, not even a pizza delivery interfere with it. It was a long tune, and I realized it had been playing awhile and had a distinctive captivating beat, and a lot of interesting things going on with the saxophone, the piano, and the bass.

What had captured my attention so strongly was Charles Lloyd’s live epic from Monterey in 1966, Forest Flower. It was extraordinary. Have a listen: 

I didn’t really know what it was I was hearing, but I knew I was hooked on this thing called Jazz that had been sort of burrowing its way into my psyche off and on since high school. This music became my link to the outside world of culture and art and intelligence and thoughtfulness during a period when I lived in a place that valued none of those things. I loved the spontaneity, and the fact that Jazz is an improvisational art appealed to me. It was never the same thing twice, and it could never be exactly the same for two people.

As I went on to become a Charles Lloyd fan and to collect many of his records, I learned the Forest Flower is, like “Kind Of Blue“ and “Time Out” are for Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck, merely an entry point. The song, all 18 minutes of it, is actually two tracks, one entitled “Sunrise,” the other “Sunset.” It was a popular crossover hit in the 1960s with the psychedelic set and sold a million copies, and made Charles Lloyd a celebrity.

Over the years I picked up his other records. From the 1960s there are albums like the poppy “Love In“ and “Dream Weaver,” which includes its own epic tune, the 12-minute “Meditation, Dervish Dance.” Like “Forest Flower” it has own hypnotic piano solos. As such listening to mid-1960s Charles Lloyd albums also provide the service of creating an entry point to the work of pianist Keith Jarrett

But it was Lloyd's later records that went on to capture my imagination as my fandom grew more sophisticated. "Canto" from 1997 had me at the first few notes of the opening track. In 2000 came "The Water is Wide"

I made it my business to learn more about Lloyd, and to see him perform live. I learned that at the height of his fame he stepped away from performing and went into a period of solitude. He played with The Beach Boys. He allegedly played the flute on a few Grateful Dead recordings. And, over the summer he played a concert in New York. I was there, as was a reviewer for The New York Times

It was a transformative experience, the sort of performance that made you want to be a better person, that made you want other people to understand that music shouldn’t always be something you turn on to fill the silence in the background when you do other things, but that it should move you and make you wish for more art and beauty in life. 

He delivered a few monologues on his years here playing in Greenwich Village, in his rapid-fire Tennessee drawl, part beat poet, part minister, part cultural historian. The concert opened with a poetry reading by Charles Simic, then the Poet Laureate of The United States. Obviously once moved by Lloyd’s music as I was, he memorialized his flute-playing in a poem called “Two For Charles Lloyd,” describing “the mystery of this moment, the sudden realization that we have a soul.” 

He ends with the lines: “‘Sweet Georgia,’ I hear someone whispering. ‘Without this music life would be a mistake.’”

After the show, I walked up Central Park West a little speechless. It was a hot summer night, and while it seemed a shame to go home and call it night. The musicianship and artistry of Charles Lloyd was a hard act to follow. I was changed by the warm wail of a saxophone and the delicate breeze of a flute.

I snuck a recorder into the performance, but it didn’t work out. My recording wasn’t very listenable. Fortunately, someone captured a soundboard performance of a July 4 show in Vienna, only three days later, which I obtained from a file-sharing site. I'll add a sample or two tomorrow. For now, here's a YouTube clip from another performance on the same tour. 

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