They might be called jazz serendipity, those odd moments when out of the blue (and often out of context), you chance to hear a great jazz performance and it simply takes your head off, you’re just gone, palpably reminded of how great and uplifting this music can be.
I had the strangest one of these one summer night after a gig, quite a few years ago. I can almost pinpoint the time because I was working at The Senator and that club closed sometime in 2005, so it was likely the summer of 2004 or 2005. It was a Saturday in August and the city was emptier and quieter than usual, as it gets at that time of the year. I was playing at the club in a trio led by saxophonist Trevor Hogg, with David Braid playing piano. We were presenting the music of Lennie Tristano and his famous pupils Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh. The music was challenging but fun, though a bit lonely for me without drums; I think The Senator was cutting back to just trios that summer in an attempt to stay open.
I left the club shortly after one in the morning. I’d had a few, wasn’t exactly tipsy but I wasn’t feeling any pain either. I crossed Victoria St. to cut across Dundas Square on my way to the subway. There had been the usual drecky live show there that night, but by then the crowd had dispersed and the square was fairly deserted, though there were still bright lights on and a crew was tearing down equipment on the stage. Some music was playing really loud over the P.A. system, but for once it wasn’t the usual mindless electro-crap – you know, YMCA, wokka-wokka-wokka, or Stairway To Heaven – it seemed to be….jazz. What the….?
Over the big speakers, a piano trio was playing an intro, almost in a Viennese waltz style. It sounded vaguely familiar…….could it be?…The singer entered and it was! Holy Mother of F, it was Sarah Vaughan, singing “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story, the opening track from Sassy Swings the Tivoli, I could scarcely believe it.
This was just great, I was gobsmacked, the utter incongruity of it rocked me. What were the odds that this – of all tracks – would be played at this hour by a tech-crew, at such Woodstock volume? I found a place to sit down and lit up a smoke, there was plenty of time to catch the tube and I sure wasn’t going to miss this. Besides, I knew what was coming. Sarah, just singing the melody fairly straight (for her) in waltz time was beautiful enough, but at the end of this chorus, the band hit a crisp stop. Pianist Kirk Stuart played a two-bar Lester Young break, a la Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie – just the tonic, repeated in an irresistible rhythmic pattern to set a whole new tempo – a bristling, fast four. Drummer George Hughes played a press roll into a cymbal-crash on one and bassist Buster Williams jumped in with the throbbing quarter-notes and the runway was cleared for take-off.
The trio provided the wheels, but Sarah Vaughan was the jet plane here, she left the ground and took off with that magnificent, swooping voice and just soared, reinventing the song with all manner of melodic interpolations, bends, bebop inflections and blues phrasing, it was the very essence of heat, of joy, jazz-style. When Sassy sings like this, she’s irresistible, like Pres or Bird and Diz, she makes your skin jump. It built and built till they reached the end of the song’s bridge, then they made a smooth transition back to the waltz and took it out with a tag and a flourish – bang! boom! and roaring applause. The whole thing only lasted about three minutes, but what a trip. In the middle they’d gone from Broadway to Birdland in about a second flat – like one of those muscle-car ads – “zero to sixty in 2.5 seconds!”, leaving the listener damp and electrified.
This listener anyway. When it was over, I just sat there for a minute, stunned and elated, all goosebumps and tingles, had this just happened? It was so wild, when Sassy and Co. were blasting away, I’d wanted to yell out to some passers-by, “Are you guys hearing this shit?” To let out a howling “Whooooo” like a jazz headbanger, but there was nobody around, not a soul. I felt like the rabbi in that old joke, who skips his Sabbath service to go golfing on a beautiful Saturday morning and shoots a perfect round, his punishment being that he can’t tell anybody or brag about it. I’d just had a perfect, surreal jazz moment and there was no one to share it with – maybe that’s why blogs were invented.
It was eerie, I wondered if I’d stumbled into some kind of hole in the space-time continuum (or “spime” as Mose Allison calls it), where the musical order of the universe had been upended and jazz was suddenly the all-popular, go-to music. Would Jazz At the Plaza by Miles Davis be piped into malls, or some Stan Getz bossa nova, poolside on cruise ships? Maybe some MJQ on elevators, Coltrane’s A Love Supreme as the soundtrack to sports highlights? And would this go the other way? When I got home, would my 5,000 jazz CDs now be turned into a rock collection of Q-107 proportions? Would all the Hard Rock Cafes now be Hard Bop Cafes? With maybe a flashing neon tenor saxophone logo in place of the candy-apple red guitar? Hey, wait a minute……there’s a Hard Rock Cafe immediately south of the square and I glanced over….nope, the cheesy Vegas guitar was still flashing on and off, like a strobe beacon of Hell. I was almost relieved.
Another jazz track came on after Sassy, but for the life of me I can’t remember what it was and anyway it was time to shove off, maybe check the record collection at home, just in case. I’d been a little pooped after the gig but was now sky-high, just flying after this unexpected jolt of Sarah; it would take a couple of stiff belts before I could even consider going to sleep. As I headed to the subway, I knew I’d look pretty silly singing “I feel pretty…”, but also knew this was inevitable, I couldn’t get the joy of the track out of my head. I thought maybe if I could disguise it by singing it in 5/4, as in “I feel pretty…good, oh so pretty…good, I feel pretty…good and witty…good and …”
Nobody beat me up on the subway and I arrived home safe and sound, but still pretty revved. I went to the kitchen, filled a glass with some ice and lime juice and added a big whack of gin….there, that calmed me down a little. I checked the record collection and it was intact, still starting with Pepper Adams and ending with Joe Zawinul, phew, thank you God. And while I’m at it, thank you for bringing me those three minutes of “Sassy Swings the Square”, message received loud and clear.
I know what some of you are thinking – steady on Wallace, how could you get so worked up about a singer doing a bit of fluff like “I Feel Pretty”? I confess that somewhere deep down I was asking myself the same thing with some sheepishness, even as the joy of it took hold of me. But, the heart wants what the heart wants, and it doesn’t lie, doesn’t fool you the way the mind can. It’s all well and good for your intellectual side to tell you you’re above this twee Broadway stuff, but the intellect doesn’t have ears, or feel anything. And besides, this wasn’t just any singer, it was Sarah fucking Vaughan. And OK, “I Feel Pretty” is a bit campy and easy enough to make fun of, but it’s Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim for God’s sake, not exactly chopped liver. If Sassy decided to turn the laser beam of her unique genius on a frothy show tune like this, then who was I to argue or resist? At any rate, I couldn’t have, even if I’d tried.
While I’m making with the rationalizations, jazz is full of such instances where a great artist finds hidden depths and inspiration in the most unlikely of material, these are some of the best demonstrations of the transformational nature of improvisation. They show what jazz is capable of at its best, that it’s not what you play, but how you play it that counts. How many times has Sonny Rollins done this, for example? Scaling heights on shopworn, out-of-the-way Tin Pan Alley show tunes like “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby, With A Dixie Melody”, “I Told Every Little Star”, “How Are Things In Glocca Morra?” or “Kiss and Run”, among countless others? Check out Zoot Sims playing warhorses like “Goodnight Sweetheart” or “Bill Bailey” on his great record Down Home and see if your foot is patting or not – if not, check for a pulse. Or Monk doing chestnuts like “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”, “Just A Gigolo” or “There’s Danger In Your Eyes, Cherie”. Bill Evans’ or Ben Webster’s versions of “Danny Boy”, which are just cosmic. Miles Davis, with “Diane”, “Baby, Won’t You Please Come Home?” or “Fran-Dance” (his version of “Put Your Little Foot Right There”), he completely transforms them.
There are countless other examples and maybe it was Louis Armstrong who showed the way with this, as he did with so much else in jazz. His luminous versions of “Sweethearts On Parade”, “Sleepy Time Down South” and such seemingly non-jazz vehicles as “La Vie En Rose” and “I Get Ideas” (to name but a few) are all transcendent. The “human light-bulb” doesn’t play down to this material or the listener, he simply trains the sun of his voice and horn – that incandescent sound – on these tunes, and they don’t have a chance or a choice, they become jazz. He even did this late in his career with “Hello, Dolly”, shoving The Beatles and others off the top of the Hit Parade. Those who think that this was just a matter of luck and the Broadway show’s sudden popularity should think again and really listen to the trumpet chorus he plays on the single, it’s as devastating as almost anything he ever played.
The everyday familiarity of these simple songs allow the inventiveness that jazz musicians bring to stand out in bold relief, making these “sow’s ear to silk purse” moments among my favourites in jazz. They show, with so much feeling, what jazz artists are truly capable of, while bringing a lot of pure joy in the process. I feel lucky to have been reminded of this by hearing Sassy so unexpectedly that night and I’d almost forgotten it had happened until my sister-in-law Fran paid us an extended visit recently.
She’s mostly a classical music fan, but has been checking out lots of jazz in the last few years, especially pianists and, more lately, vocalists. She told me she’d come across Sarah Vaughan and was just knocked out by her – that impossibly rich, Belgian-truffle voice, the range, the lustrous, beautifully controlled vibrato, the amazing ability to reinvent melody – they didn’t call her “The Divine One” for nothing. I was delighted to hear this and began rooting around for some Sassy CDs for her to listen to. I pulled out a few favourites – Sarah Vaughan In Hi-Fi (the one with Miles playing behind her), After Hours, Live at Mister Kelly’s. And of course, Sassy Swings the Tivoli, which brought this whole “Sarahndipitous” moment flooding back to me. Remembering it, I feel pretty…good.
“And a nightingale sang in Dundas Square”.
© 2013, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.
Jazz was at its best when it had good pop music to transform. The public had a built-in link to what the jazz artist was doing… But what can be done with ‘a Miley Cyrus tune’?
And as to playing old standards, there may be something in what Raymond Chandler, in a novel’s preface said: “Only a hack tries to break the mold. . . . A true pro tries to go as big as you can within the fold. “
Steve. I haven’t had a drink of booze since 2005, but every time I listen to Sarah, I’d like a stiff bourbon and a cigarette.