Elliott Murphy - Jazz

There was a time, back in high school, when I listened to jazz more then any other kind of music. Not at Harlem clubs of course (I was too young and too white to get in) or even on my home stereo but when I was actually there in the school building, bored out of my mind, waiting for the bell to freedom to ring at 3:05. At home we had a few record players, my older sister had one that folded up like a suitcase with two speakers that swung out on either side where you could stack 45rpm pop singles on a thick bobbin, one dropping on top of another. My parents liked those albums of Broadway musicals that they had already seen like My Fair Lady or The Music Man and maybe some Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Perry Como or Johnny Mathis too. They had a powerful mono record player in a dark cherry wood cabinet. Personally, I don’t think I had a big record collection at that age, just a few singles and albums, but I liked surf music and The Kingston Trio and especially Dion. Still do, in fact.

In 1965 I was a junior in high school, sophomore year, and my father had died that autumn soon after I entered school for the new year. It was like everything changed in my world and yet nothing changed in the world around me; like living in a void and trying to avoid being sucked into a black hole of sadness that was always waiting in the emptiness. I don’t even remember how I felt and that’s a good thing, I suppose. After my father died, the music kind of stopped in my house although there were musical instruments everywhere: baby grand piano, Hammond B3 Organ, even a shiny Xylophone. But my mom couldn’t bear to listen to any of the records she and my father had loved and she stopped singing along to records while cooking dinner, something she had always done and I always loved. Later, she got into rock ‘n roll and even now at 87 years old that’s all she listens to. She even sings a little.

My high school homeroom teacher was Mr. Borat and I still remember his name, not because there was a film with that same name a few years ago but because he was a cool guy and he let me slide when I arrived late to school as often happened. He also taught chemistry and I was in his class as well. My scholastic pattern, from Junior High on, had been to do very well the first quarter – sometimes even making the honors list – and then it went downhill from there. Basically, I couldn’t get into the concept of homework. When I got home all I wanted to do was watch TV or play guitar. And still, I always knew what I was missing in terms of past assignments and many afternoons I took home all my books thinking this was the night I was going to catch up. And I never did and was dragged down by guilt. White Middle Class blues …

I suppose I did okay the first quarter of chemistry class but when my father died I was out for a week or so and it was so strange going back to class. I walked through those same gloomy halls and friends came up to me and said how sorry they were that my Dad passed away. Teachers too, because he was well known and the word went around town fast. But I didn’t want to hear any of that. I just wanted to escape. Still can’t stand going to funerals but I guess I’m not alone in that. Mr Borat kept giving me passing grades in chemistry when I was obviously failing and said he understood it was tough for me to concentrate with everything that was going on in my head. Like I said, cool guy.

My junior year was 1965-66, my Dad died in October and the school year ended in June like always. By the spring of 1966 I wasn’t the same square kid in chino’s and a button down shirt who started classes that past autumn. I was smoking pot, growing my hair long, playing in bands and my guidance counselor told me I was turning into a hippie although I didn’t know what that meant. The summer of love was still a year away and Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool Aid Acid test, which spread the adventures of LSD pioneer Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters around the world didn’t come out until 1968. The most radical books around that I could relate to were still Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and Kerouac’s On The Road. But those got me by. 

Like all high school students I had classes in English and Math and Biology and all the usual subjects that you can’t figure out how any of it will ever apply to real life. But I did take two high school courses, which proved invaluable later on – the first was typing (and I’m a very fast typist to this day and was ready when computers took over the world) and the second was business math where I learned how to balance my checkbook. Scholastically, I was in a netherworld because in the 8th Grade, before high school officially began, I was put into advanced classes as I had scored high on those tests they give you that show your potential. And that I passed those advanced courses meant that they would count toward my high school graduation credits. But I didn’t want to be top of my class, wasn’t cool to my way of thinking. High potential/low achievement – that was the club I wanted to join! Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that I was fucking off pretty regularly my last two years in high school but it didn’t really matter. In fact, I tried to get left back to avoid the draft and Vietnam and was confronted in the parking lot by the principal who told me I was a bad influence – guess he meant that long haired, pot smoking musicians were not welcome to stay on another year – and he would make sure all my teachers passed me which they did, much to my disappointment. 

But getting back to Jazz: sometimes you were stuck in these non-classes that were called “study hall” but if you wanted you could skip that and go to the Library instead where you had access to all the books you needed to study, I guess, which I never did. Garden City, Long Island, was a wealthy upper-middle class town, forty minutes from the New York City and the public school system was lauded as being as good as any private school. So I guess for parents who didn’t want to send their kids away to school and still wanted them to get into good colleges it was the perfect town, 99% white and middle class where sports passed as culture. 100% boring for me who would have preferred to have grown up in some California beach town like, say, Laguna Beach, where I could surf and skateboard. And now I live in Paris which is about as far from southern California as you can go life-style wise. But then again, maybe not, as there’s a lot of wine being downed in both places. But not by me, anymore, I might add.

So the spacious and affluent library of Garden City High School was well stocked with books, newspapers and magazines and even a few soundproofed rooms where you could listen to LPs, of which there were a few hundred. Now I’m sure you can imagine what kind of records they had there: John Phillip Souza marching band music and some corny folk music like Burl Ives singing about a woman who swallowed a fly. There must have been a classical section as well but I glazed over that when I found that there was a pretty decent jazz collection, most of it untouched. I always thought cool Mr. Borat must have had something to do with. Once I asked him what he did on weekends, he was a bachelor and lived in the Bronx. Not many of the teachers at Garden City public schools could afford to live there. There were a few, especially Mr. Goodwin, who got me writing short stories when I was 13 years old. He was a hipster who lived in a cool funky old house and turned me on to John Steinbeck. God bless him.

Mr. Borat told me that on Weekends he went down to the village to listen to jazz. I asked him where he went and he said he liked the “The Five Spot” and that name always stayed in my brain. Who he went to see, I don’t know. Maybe Charlie Parker. Was he still alive? I know he liked Miles Davis but his favorite was Thelonious Monk. I never knew too many jazz musicians although I did know Don Cherry and sort of jammed with him one night at the old Tramps on 15th Street. Don lived in the same building in Long Island City as my bassist Ernie Brooks and we met there a few times when I was rehearsing at Ernie’s. 

The old Tramps on 15th Street in NYC was not really a jazz club, more of a blues and rock place, but Don Cherry had a gig there one night in the early 80′ and I went down alone to see him. First I went to eat some Sushi at a place I liked on 2nd Avenue that Garland Jeffreys had turned me onto and that night I got inspired while sitting at the Sushi Bar and wrote a poem about the place that I don’t have or remember anymore. But it was called something like “hold up at the Sushi Bar” and then I went to see Don Cherry at Tramps with a few Saki’s under my belt and he asked if I wanted to come up and jam on stage. How it happened, I don’t know. Did I tell Don I had this poem? Did he ask me to come up and sing or play guitar? Anyway, I got up on that little Tramps stage and kind of did a thing with my poem, half singing, and half talking while Don riffed around it with his pocket trumpet and we got a nice round of applause. Always wondered if anyone recorded it. Hope so because that was my moment with a jazz legend. But I also should mention Richard Davis, an extraordinary jazz upright bassist who played on “You Never Know What You’re In For” on Night Lights. Made it swing, he did!

Okay man, let’s get back to 1966 and my father was dead and my schoolwork was dead and I was hanging in the library and was about to get thrown out for making too much noise or something and decided to go check out the music section. I think you had to fill out a request and give it to the librarian who would get the record for you, maybe three at a time was the most, and I had heard of Miles Davis so he was the first one I asked for. Study hall period lasted just about an hour so that was just about one albums worth of time. And I remember doing that every day and then staying after school to listen to more jazz albums by Monk and Coltrane and Charlie Parker and any of those Bebop guys. I was taking a music course at the time and wrote some jazz quartet piece called Clouds which I got me an A in and the teacher, Mr. Konowitz, told me I could be a real musician if I put my mind to it and stopped fooling around. But I didn’t stop fooling around and I became a real musician anyway.

Sometimes in the library, I sat with my pals Chuck Phinney and Dave Greene who were in my class and proto-hippies like myself who had also had started smoking pot. There weren’t more then half a dozen of us that I knew about. But I was looking for pot, had read about it and knew the jazz guys smoked it and Tommy Tucker, who played in all my high school bands, and I bought a nickel bag from Charlie Frazier who played the organ with Bo Diddley sometimes and whose mother played organ at the Episcopalian Church. Charlie told us what to do with it and we had to buy some rolling papers, which was pretty scary, and then we drove into Hempstead, the mostly black town next store, and parked behind the bus terminal and smoked the joint. I don’t even know if we got high but I felt pretty good about the whole experience. Like a new life had arrived after the old one had died with my father.

Now, I find I’m listening to jazz again. Last summer in lieu of taking a vacation, I bought myself a decent Hi Fi system and now I try to buy vinyl records each week, mostly jazz because its easy on my long-suffering ears, that’s one thing, and its so outside of what I do for a living that there’s no conflict, no pressure, because I accept that I could never do what those guys did. But now I’m getting into it and I even know that there was an optometrist from Hackensack, New Jersey named Rudy Van Gelder who had a recording studio and was a brilliant engineer and his records are supposed to sound the best so I look for his name when I’m searching through the Vinyl bins that seem to be growing lately. They say Vinyl sales are up something like 30% this past year. Mostly, I see guys my age picking through those LPs with a concentrated look on their face like we’re retracing the tracks of our youth. Serious stuff for us aging baby boomers.

Today, nearly fifty years later, I can still see myself sitting at a round table in the Garden City High School library with Chuck and Dave and the stern faced librarian coming over, telling us to keep it down, because we were probably stoned and caught in fits of laughing, and me going off and getting a Miles Davis record and sitting in this little sound proofed room with and listening to Jazz and entering another, safer world. There were no vocals on those instrumental jazz albums, no words, no one saying sorry about my father’s death; just a bunch of exceptionally brilliant musicians trying to connect their soul, brain and heart, to get them working together to create something harmonic and meaningful and inspired. And that’s what I was trying to do as well, get back into the rhythm of life and out of the stillness of death and get my own soul, brain and heart back from the grave. Dig it!