My client feels that it was a combination of liquor and jazz that led to the downfall.
~Billy Flynn, from the musical, Chicago
Jazz is the musical equivalent of my life—a hard riff in a Mingus tune.
It was in a dimly lit, smoke-filled room, somewhere in the bowels of Philadelphia where that sweet sound first filled my ears. I wasn’t supposed to be there that day, but, my Uncle Moonie decided his “business” appointment might appear more legitimate to local law enforcement if he had a child in tow.
Uncle Moo was a washed-up, semi-pro fighter with a checkered past. He and his dog Babe, a big, ugly mongrel with bulging pink eyes, spent much of their time sharing companionship and liquor. Both were severely overweight and both had a drinking problem.
While Uncle Moo became immersed in his transaction, I wandered off to investigate a hypnotic sound coming from the adjoining alley. Following the melody to its source, I drifted to a spot where a bearded man sat on a barrel that was propped against a wall. He closed his eyes as he blew into a horn, only slightly opening them when he inhaled. The music was compelling—complicated yet easy. The phrasing formed a kaleidoscope of colors that filled the air with an intoxicating Technicolor brew; and the notes vibrated in a place somewhere deep inside the marrow of my bones.
The experience led me to try and learn everything I could about the genre and its musicians. So years later, when construction of a new sports arena in Philadelphia called The Spectrum was completed, and I heard that the Quaker City Jazz Festival would be hosted at the grand opening, I jumped at an opportunity to usher the event. The festival galvanized my love for the music as I met the musicians whom I had previously only seen on television, or heard on 33 1/3 RPM records.
Not long after the festival, global and personal circumstances resulted in my life becoming nomadic; and I took jazz along with me for the ride. Together we swung through New Jersey, grooved in D.C. and bopped all the way to the West Coast.
At the Monterey Jazz Festival, we met Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson through a couple of New Yorkers living in San Francisco and on their way to Los Angeles. After that, we scatted to Florida where con artists stripped us of our life savings. After that, we beat a path to Texas. But, somewhere between Florida and Texas, jazz got lost.
In Austin, Texas, I thought I had reached the end of the road. Those hot, miserable days were filled with bitter fear and contempt. I looked everywhere for jazz, but only found country and blues—lots of blues.
One sticky, sultry Texas Sunday, I discovered a little park in East Austin that had a bandstand where locals gathered to eat, sing and play music. As I sat under a shady tree, I spotted a figure emerging through a cloud of dust as he slowly walked up the gravel road. He was wearing a colorful fez and dragging something behind him. As he got closer, I could see he had a salt and pepper beard and was slightly built. His skin was the color of dark chocolate, dusted with charcoal. Even though he wore glasses, I could see his eyes told a story of hard times and wisdom that came with a price.
He stopped and chatted with everyone as he entered the park and made his way to the small stage. There, he took out a trumpet, lifted it to his lips, and began to play. I melted under the first few notes as that familiar feeling of euphoria took over my heavy heart. Jazz was back, and its name was Martin Banks.
I found out Martin was known as “the sage,” and played with such greats as Count Bassie, Maynard Ferguson and David “Fathead” Newman.
When I approached him to introduce myself, Martin was as warm and personable as he was talented, and I found talking to him as smooth as the notes that poured from his trumpet.
Although we would have many more conversations as the years passed; I was always careful to spare him the details about Uncle Moonie, Babe, the Monterey Jazz Festival, and the Floridian con artists. But, I did let him know how his music lifted me up and gave me the strength and optimism to go on.
Martin Banks died in 2004.
Uncle Moonie died of liver failure.
The Philadelphia Spectrum is set to be demolished.
I made it back to California in 2005.
And the beat goes on…