In A Mellow Zone; Lax Reality

At the end of February my wife Anna went to visit her sister Fran, who lives in the little town of Courtenay, nestled in the Comox Valley on the east coast of Vancouver Island. It was part holiday, part nursing mission – Fran had to have some surgery done in Victoria and Anna is an excellent care-giver. I went out on March 24th to join them and give Anna a break, staying about sixteen days, which explains why I haven’t written a blessed thing in some time. Let’s just say that when you’re in a setting this beautiful and relaxed, you get a little mellow, even if you don’t partake of the local cannabis crop, which I didn’t. Well…OK, a small toke once, a kind of “when-in-Rome” concession to the local economy.

Apart from being chief cook, bottle-washer and dog-walker, I had nothing but time on my hands, which you would think might translate into a lot of writing. But there’s something about being surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, mountains, rivers, fresh air, bald eagles, seals and approximately sixty billion trees that keeps you away from the computer and pretty much anything else that might be considered “connected” or “productive” in any East Coast sense. You decompress a whole lot, find yourself slowing right down and marveling at the fact there are about fifty varieties of flowering trees here – magnolias, azalias and such – in full bloom, whereas it was twenty degrees below zero when I left Toronto. Or that the local mall looks pretty much like any other mall, until you notice the glacial mountains rising in the background above the usual Jiffy Lube, A&W and Provigo signs. Or that velvety green moss grows on everything – not just on the bark of trees, but on iron fences, people’s shoes, tires, the roofs of houses. Of course, there has to be a catch to all this natural splendor – it rains here at the drop of a hat – but then again, something has to feed this lushness. But when the sun shines here, as it did for the last six days of my visit, this is as close to paradise as it gets, provided you’ve brought along some jazz records. Which I did, obeying Roy Eldridge’s dictum of “always carry your needs”.

Time does strange things here….the pace is so slow and easy, yet the days pass very quickly, merging into one another without much in the way of a schedule or regimen to distinguish them except for the frequent breathtaking sights, which also run together. For example, one day I was sitting on a bench at a place called Goose Spit Park, beholding a postcard vista of beauty that was almost too much to take in. The sky was achingly clear and blue, there was a beach before me, and beyond it the Pacific Ocean, as far as the eye could see, interrupted only by the distant shapes of various islands – Tree, Denman, maybe Hornby. Seen from a distance, these islands are a lovely purplish-blue and their blurred outlines take on a mystical, smoky softness. Off to the left were the coastal mountains of the mainland, some of them snow-capped and also having this misted appearance. To the right, the Beaufort Mountains towered, stretching as far as I could see and beyond. The vastness and unspoilt perfection of it stunned me, it’s almost madly gorgeous when the sun is shining. Just then a bald eagle flew directly overhead, opened his bomb-bay doors and just missed me with a huge strafe of crap; it reminded me of a sign I saw on the roadside during another visit here, which read “Don’t Believe Everything You Think”. I felt very lucky to be seeing all this loveliness, yet very puny and insignificant at the same time, something as mundane as writing a blog suddenly seemed very far down on the list of priorities. I mean, just what exactly is there to say in the face of all this almost accusatory beauty and grandeur? What do the eagles care if I ever write another word? I couldn’t process it all, what I was seeing seemed crystal clear yet hazy; real, yet not quite real.


Once again though, as it has so often, jazz stepped in and saved me before I gave in and went right over the “oh wow man, this is like soooo beautiful, dude” edge for good. All this pristine nature reminded of a funny Al Cohn story Rob McConnell told me many years ago. Rob and Al were among the musicians playing a jazz party weekend at a plush rural resort on the Pacific Coast of Oregon called The Inn at Otter Crest. They had lovely adjoining rustic suites with second-floor balcony decks overlooking the splendid wooded scenery. The Friday night sets went really well, they really enjoyed hanging out and playing together, each of them taking a fair amount of booze on board in the process. Late Saturday morning, Rob was sitting on his balcony with his wife Margaret, hoping some coffee and aspirin would smooth out the kinks of the morning after. The sun was gently filtering through the canopy of trees, the birds were tweeting, the chipmunks were frolicking, there was a gently babbling brook, the gorgeous Pacific coastline provided a breathtaking backdrop, it was perfect.

This blissful tranquility was interrupted by a sudden bump and Rob glanced over in its general direction to see Al stumbling out on to his balcony, looking a little the worse for wear in a ratty old bathrobe and slippers, his thick glasses akimbo over the beak of his nose. He gave a feeble wave in Rob’s direction and made a “shhh” sign with a finger over his lips, wincing at the hullabaloo of Mother Nature. He surveyed the idyll below dyspeptically, belched, yawned, then sighed languidly and made a Hollywood producer’s pronouncement in his deadpan, slightly nasal Brooklyn delivery, “It lacks…… reality…”. Then, mustering as much hauteur as he could manage under the circumstances, one of the funniest jazz musicians who ever lived turned and withdrew unsteadily to the safe, dim haven of the great indoors.


My return to the concrete-grey, comparatively treeless urban reality of Toronto came on April 10, but the habit of not writing has persisted; I’ve been quite active with gigs and social commitments, plus I’ve been busier than usual here at the library. If all this sounds like excuse-making, well…. it is – I’ve missed blogging and feel quite badly about being away from it, writing has become as much a part of my sense of identity as playing the bass. Also, I began planning and looking forward to a trip to a habitat that most definitely does not lack reality – New York City. My good friend Bill Kirchner invited me down for a visit while his wife Judy and a friend were off in Hawaii for two weeks in early May. A while back, Bill commented that he and I had one hell of a hang in our future, so this would give us a chance to do so in “jazz-bachelor” style.

I hadn’t been to New York for a ridiculously long time – since October of 2001, so I looked at my schedule, thought about it for all of two seconds, and gratefully accepted his kind offer to put me up in his Riverdale apartment on 238th Street for a few days. This would be a special visit, not only because I’ve never been above 118th Street, but mostly because Bill and I have never laid eyes on one another; ours has been an email friendship punctuated by the odd phone call. We’re in almost daily contact and I feel like I know him quite well, but I was really looking forward to actually seeing him in person. The trip greatly recharged my batteries and gave me a fresh outlook as only New York can, so my next few posts will likely be about this visit and my impressions of the city after such a long time away. Consider yourselves warned.







© 2015, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

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