Hello all – some of you may be wondering why there have been no posts from me for such a long while – has Wallace lost it, gotten lazy, is he suffering from writer’s block?
It was actually none of these. Just before the World Series finished I came down with a nasty cough and chest infection which I walked around functioning with like an idiot before it got really bad and turned into what my newly-appointed respirologist called a “rip-roaring case of double pneumonia”.
If you’ve never had pneumonia before, well, take it from me, it’s like having a sandbag dropped on you from a height. The congestion and resulting cough don’t really hurt or anything, they just leave you really short of breath, so fatigued and weakened that little things you always took for granted, like moving around, talking, eating or walking up a flight of stairs become monumental, dizzying challenges. Things get fuzzy and pretty much all you want to do is sleep; more ambitious activities like playing the bass or writing a blog go straight to the back burner. When all this started, I had several pieces half-written which will probably remain unfinished because they were time-sensitive and the iron is no longer hot, so to speak.
Breathing & the Bass.
The bass is not a wind instrument, so the importance of breathing in playing it tends to be overlooked. I realized this early on when I heard the following: A classic Swing-to-Bop session by the Coleman Hawkins quartet, recorded in New York on December 23, 1943. Four numbers were recorded for Bob Thiele’s Signature label that day – “Crazy Rhythm”, “Get Happy”, “Sweet Lorraine”, and “The Man I Love” – by a group consisting of Hawkins, Eddie Heywood, Jr. on piano, bassist Oscar Pettiford and a very young Shelly Manne, on leave from the Navy, playing drums. (Manne was only 23, but surprisingly Pettiford was even younger, just 21. Pettiford though, perhaps because of his appearance, natural musical authority and leadership was the kind of guy who seemed old even when he was young. It’s hard to believe he was only 38 when he died in 1960.)
All four tracks are wonderful, but the most outstanding is “The Man I Love”, taken at a medium-up clip. Heywood takes one-and-a-half sparkling choruses, using both his hands to fashion long, spinning lines, fourth-clusters and interesting rhythmic shapes in a brilliant, very modern solo that Thelonious Monk was reportedly very taken by. Before Hawkins has his way tearing through all these chords in one of his most operatic solos, there’s a very intense half-chorus by Pettiford, one of the classic bass solos recorded up to that time, or ever. I don’t know if it was the microphone placement (doubtful) or if he had a cold that day or what, but in between his pithy melodic phrases Pettiford can be clearly heard taking in big gasps of air, literally letting his solo breathe. This deep breathing is an integral part of the solo and makes the listener realize just how much Pettiford meant every note he played. It’s very dramatic, very profound and made a huge impression on me at an early stage of listening to jazz. Here it is:
I sometimes play this track for jazz students of all instruments as a demonstration of the importance of leaving space in a solo – make a statement, then pause, then make another and pause again – don’t just fill everything up with a bunch of notes that don’t say anything. Breathe, converse with the song and the other musicians. As the normally mild-mannered Jim Hall once said to a young, overly busy bassist, “Don’t just play something, stand there!”.
Despite revisiting this Hawkins track and Pettiford’s solo many times, I took breathing properly while playing for granted until the pneumonia came along. There’s nothing like severely compromised lungs to hammer home this obvious point. I did a couple of gigs before knowing I had pneumonia and they were pretty interesting, to say the least. After one on which I didn’t play any harder than usual, I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror and I was so soaked with sweat I looked like I’d fallen into a swimming pool, just drenched. Then there were the odd bumpy, polyrhythmic bars of walking bass broken up by coughing fits, sort of four-and-a-half-four, or 5/4 over 4/4. Say, maybe this is how Richard Davis got started……
But the worst thing was the loss of stamina. After two or three tunes I was light-headed and winded and as a set reached the forty-five minute mark, when I’d normally just be getting loose and warmed up, I was practically begging for a break, just to stop and sit down. My musical thought process was intact, I was dealing with the mental aspects of playing – chord changes, form, listening, playing time and solos and so on just as always, but the physical weakness was a new thing altogether. It got really bad a couple of times toward the end of fast tunes, when my right arm/hand just wouldn’t do what I was telling it to. It was as though my right wrist had developed a mind of its own, was short-circuiting and wouldn’t connect with my fingers. I knew where the quarter-note was, but my arm seized and my fingers wouldn’t quite play them in tempo; it was a little scary and for a second I thought I was having a stroke. Luckily this happened toward the very end of a set and I got through it with a little more help from the drums than I’m used to. Later, I realized it was just fatigue, that not enough air was getting to the muscles and that whatever I had was a little more than just a cold.
I went to see my doctor, a delightful Scotsman from Nova Scotia who looks like the actor Donald Sutherland and is a real jazz fan, he’d trade his medical degree to play piano like Teddy Wilson. My visits usually consist of him taking my blood pressure, renewing some med scripts and asking how I’m feeling, then we get down to the real business of talking jazz and he’ll ask me about records or obscure tunes like “Lost April”. He listened to my chest and concluded it was either bronchitis or maybe pneumonia and prescribed a couple of inhalers, an oral steroid and an antibiotic. The six-block walk home from his office in the wind and rain didn’t help any and the next morning I set off for work and walked about two blocks when I stopped and realized I wasn’t going to make it to the subway. I was off work for the next eight days, another reason I haven’t written anything for a while. I don’t write much at home because I’m hardly ever at a computer, whereas I’m in front of one all day here at the library.
I went back to the doctor three days later on a Friday afternoon and he listened again. Whatever was going on in my lungs was much worse, he didn’t like the sound of it at all, saying it was likely pneumonia and sending me to get an x-ray. He also told me to stay inside and rest completely.
There’s never a good time to come down with pneumonia, but the timing here was particularly bad for a couple of reasons. One, I had three straight nights of playing I was looking forward to – that Friday and Saturday night with the Barry Elmes Quintet at The Rex and Sunday night at The Jazz Bistro with singers Alex Samaras and John Alcorn. I was going to have to sub out of all of these and was particularly concerned about Barry’s gig. It was now about 4:30 on the afternoon of the gig and his long-organized band plays mostly originals that would involve tricky sight-reading and other problems for a sub. I called Barry and broke the news to him and we both started calling guys. I also called Alcorn and he very kindly told me not to worry about it, he’d get someone to cover Sunday. Much to my surprise, three very good bass players were available to sub on such short notice – Jim Vivian, Pat Collins and Mike Downes – thanks, fellas. I was relieved, but at the same time it’s not exactly a good sign about the amount of work on the local jazz scene these days.
Secondly, just down the road a piece I was booked to play on a jazz cruise to the Caribbean with Guido Basso. My wife Anna was coming, we were looking forward to it as a kind of working vacation. Now I wasn’t sure I would be well enough to go (or what kind of shape I’d be in to play), but didn’t look forward to cancelling, which would create all sorts of headaches. Even if I found a suitable replacement for the eleven days – not likely on such short notice – they might not have the necessary paperwork. Plus Anna and I really wanted to go and I didn’t want to disappoint her or Guido, who has been grappling with some health concerns of his own.
So I was in a bind and it tightened a few days later. My doctor moved mountains to get me an appointment with a respirologist. He interviewed me, showed me the x-rays and listened to my breathing, saying it was definitely a bad case of double pneumonia and prescribing a really powerful antibiotic. I asked him about going on the cruise which would start about five days later and he said, “No, absolutely not”. Just like that, assuring me he didn’t normally make snap judgements like this. It was mainly the flight to Florida that concerned him, there are always plenty of germs on airplanes and the air quality isn’t great either. And if anything went wrong, I’d be in the middle of nowhere in the Caribbean, ship’s doctor or no.
This really threw me for a loop. My own doctor had said the cruise was “about 50/50”, but with a twinkle in his eye, as in, “It’s with Guido Basso and a great band, of course you’re going.” I’m normally cowed by doctors, particularly specialists, so at first I took the casual finality of his pronouncement to heart. But I talked to Anna about it and a few other people I know, some of whom are medical, and they all thought the respirologist was just being careful, essentially “covering his ass”, and that some time in a warm climate might do me some good. I’ve been on these cruises before and you don’t have to lift a finger, so there’d be plenty of time to get some rest. The gig schedule certainly wouldn’t be taxing, just five two-hour mini-concerts in eleven days with a band that would be easy as pie to play in. My own feeling was that he knew his stuff about lungs, but nothing about the jazz business, me and my career, Guido Basso, or the stickiness of cancelling, he was just looking at the narrow picture of his specialty. So, even though I still didn’t feel great, I resolved to disobey his orders and that Anna and I were going, come hell or high water.
Speaking of high water, I’ll be back shortly with a report on this cruise, “Jazz On the High Seas”. In the meantime, it feels good to be back writing again, I missed it.
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