Jon was always sitting there in his low-slung chair, always dimly glowing in the yellow warmth of his lamp, always smoking, always drinking black coffee from a cup that, between sips, always sat on the mug warmer next to the ashtray on the side table stacked high with notepads and books of poetry. Undoubtedly, he moved sometimes. He must have walked to his kitchen to brew more coffee and to cook and eat food, walked to his bedroom to sleep, walked to his bathroom to relieve himself, walked the several blocks to campus to attend his seminars and workshops, but in the amber of my memory, he never moves. He sits, smokes, and drinks black coffee all day and night. Sometimes he reads. Sometimes he writes. But always—always—he’s listening to jazz. The jazz never stops.
Jon rented the larger and nicer front half of a small yellow house on Johnson Avenue, a quiet street far from the clamor of undergraduate apartments and fraternity houses; I rented the small, dingy back half. We were both graduate students in a fledgling MFA program—he in poetry, I in fiction—at a regional state university in a small town forty-five minutes south of a much bigger and better university in a much bigger and better city. He was a year ahead of me in the program and many years older. How many more years, I never learned, but his life experience had already been substantial, especially compared to mine, and you could see it in his face—his eyes, particularly, which were kind but always slightly haunted. I knew that he had a child (or possibly children) being raised by someone else in another state, but specifics remained fuzzy. He rarely talked much about his past, and when he did, I never listened all that closely or bothered to ask questions because, at the time, I didn’t care about much of anything except fiction and myself. I was a writer preparing to storm the future, after all, so who cared about the past, especially someone else’s. All I knew was that he had left one life behind in the Midwest and was now looking to start a second one here in central Texas. I, on the other hand, was still trying to start my first.
Jon kept his place immaculate. His flat-pile carpet remained perpetually pristine. I, on the other hand, allowed (okay, probably encouraged) my place to grow grungy, if not downright filthy. The carpet of my one room was a fudge-brown shag so long that all manner of dropped things would disappear forever in its synthetic fibers, such as the bottle caps of innumerable Pearl Beer bottles, their beloved rebus puzzles sometimes solved, sometimes not, depending on how late in the evening they were screwed off and then squinted at during poker games. In the muggy bathroom, mold held dominion, having faced no resistance to its advances. Meanwhile, outside my back door, a thicket of bamboo continued to grow steadily closer each day, an invasive Birnam Wood to my rented Dunsinane. At night, I threw leftovers into its depths to feed the neighborhood’s possums and raccoons just because. And then there were the ever-present iridescent grackles. Each morning way before dawn, a plague of them would wake me with the unoiled door hinges of their loud calls to tell me how many inches taller and closer the bamboo stalks had grown overnight thanks to their constant shitting. Understandably enough, my girlfriend preferred that I come to her place in Austin.
Jon and I never had any classes together, and we had no mutual friends, mainly because the poets and the fiction writers of the program rarely interacted. The fiction writers considered the poets to be flakes and freaks, while the poets considered the fiction writers nothing but mundane materialists with no true appreciation for language. The two camps only ever came together at department functions, such as readings, and their drunken aftermaths, the off-campus parties, but I don’t remember ever seeing him at either, but especially not the latter, and that’s because, being substantially older than most of us, he probably found us immature, but also probably because, as he had mentioned to me in passing no more than just a couple of times, a recovering heroin addict. To keep himself safe and untempted, I assumed (with all my wisdom and life experience) that he chose to stay away from anything and everything addictive, including alcohol—excepting cigarettes, of course. And coffee. And jazz, too, which he mainlined continuously.
The first few times that I walked around the outside of the yellow house to knock on his front door for some reason or another, I knew that what I heard coming through his open windows was jazz, but to me it sounded like nothing but random noise trying to disguise itself as art. As a child of the seventies, I had grown up in a hippy household where the turntable spun nothing but rock (Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan) or outlaw country (Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Jerry Jeff Walker). Jazz was something I remember hearing only when I occasionally stayed up with my parents to watch Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. I remember a bewigged grandmother in giant eyeglasses, Ella Fitzgerald, shrieking nonsense syllables while Doc Severinsen and the band squealing behind her. I thought at the time, as did my scowling father, that this was just about the stupidest thing to ever pretend to be music. Undoubtedly, my father must have also said something that’s overheard at every exhibit of abstract expressionism: Well, hell, any fool could do that,” and then demonstrated the truth of this statement with a series of ridiculous honks, bleeps, and blats. And I would have agreed. Wholeheartedly. This so-called music was, it seemed to me, nothing but the aural equivalent of the emperor’s new clothes. Well, there was no fooling me!
When I eventually confessed to Jon my low opinion of his favorite music, I tried to offset my comment a bit by also noting my complete unfamiliarity with even its most basic history. Here’s all that I knew: Louis Armstrong was the sweaty guy with the white handkerchief and the gravelly voice who smiled and mugged for the camera and also played the trumpet. Dizzy Gillespie was the guy with the enormous chipmunk cheeks who played a trumpet that looked like a bicycle had run over it. There was also someone named Coltrane who got mentioned a lot, but I heard it as Coal Train, so I thought it was a nickname. Billie Holiday had been a tragic singer who always wore gardenias in her hair, and then there was Miles Davis, who had looked like an angry alien in a gold lamé suit the few times I saw him on TV before he died in 1991. There was also someone named Charlie Parker, who was supposed to have been better than them all, but he died young, and everyone called him Bird. And, of course, there was Ella Fitzgerald, who scatted (“scat’s what you call the shit of a wild animal,” my father said once, “so that’s perfect”) and shattered drinking glasses on commercials for Memorex audio tapes.
Nevertheless, despite my lifelong distaste for it, I had finally grown old enough and mature enough to realize that I didn’t really know enough about it to make the sort of informed judgment that I, a bona fide graduate student now, had begun to take more pride in making around this time, especially regarding an art form that I knew was loved by millions of people, none of whom I knew but Jon. How exactly had something so awful-sounding come to mesmerize such a smart guy? Couldn’t he tell that the emperor was obviously buck naked? Or was I the one with poor perception? In a flash of intellectual and creative curiosity that I’m now incredibly grateful for, I realized that I needed to settle the matter once and for all, just so that I, as an intellectually curious writer and adult, could be absolutely sure my gut reactions hadn’t led me astray: I humbly asked him to give me a crash course in jazz. Even though he knew I didn’t expect him to be able to change my mind, he graciously agreed.
Today, if I were interested in learning a bit about jazz, it would be such an easy thing to do. I’d first go to Spotify and find a curated playlist, probably one titled something simple like Jazz Classics. There I would listen to some knowledgeable stranger’s idea of the one hundred or so best songs in jazz history. If I liked what I heard, I might explore any of the thousands of other playlists that highlight any of the thousands of possible subcategories (instrument, artist, region, style, era, mood, tempo, etc.). The rabbit hole would burrow as far into the earth as I wanted it to burrow. What did bebop sound like? I could find out. Free jazz? Jazz fusion? Chamber jazz? Modal jazz? I could find out with a click. Back in 1994, however, since there was no jazz available on my radio airwaves, FM or AM, had I not asked Jon for a primer, I would’ve continued to live in the dark, at least as far as the wonders of jazz are concerned, for years to come. And there’s no guarantee I would’ve ever grown either curious or bored enough once Spotify or any of its many ancestors and siblings came into being to click on any sort of a jazz playlist for beginners. So much is available so quickly and so easily and so cheaply now that some, if not much, of the pleasure and pride that one could once take in the gradual and laborious acquisition of a relative expertise in some arcane field of interest has been irrevocably lost. Gone—essentially forever—are those miraculous days of both hard-earned and serendipitous discoveries that meant nothing to anyone but yourself. Everything—everything—is so close now, so immediately accessible, so ready to reveal more than we could ever need or even want to know.
Jon selected five CDs and told me to listen to them for a couple of weeks. Really listen to them. When I returned, we’d talk, he said, and if I wanted to continue, he’d give me five more to try, depending on how I reacted to the first five. Which did I like the most? the least? And most importantly, why? And if I didn’t want to continue? Well, that was fine with him, too. It would be my loss, he said coolly, not his. He looked at me through cigarette smoke, smiled. I couldn’t help but think how at peace he seemed. He was no hard-selling evangelist determined to convert me; I had to find my own way. I promised him that I would listen with an open mind, and I meant it. But, as I’ve already indicated, I expected nothing to come of this, though I did hope soon to at least be able to claim with greater conviction that I had made a valiant effort to appreciate it, much as I’d recently done with a few other things that I had disliked since childhood, such as cantaloupe and going to church. No thanks, not for me. I’ve tried all I can stand.
I don’t remember each of the five of the CDs from that first group, but I know he didn’t start me off by going back to the beginning, the 1920s and 1930s, as someone else might have, so I didn’t hear the scratchy recordings of Bix Beiderbecke, Jelly Roll Morton, and King Oliver until much later. Instead, he introduced me to records that highlighted particular instruments—namely piano, saxophone, trumpet, drums, and guitar—played by masters. What I clearly remember: pushing Sonny Rollins’s Saxophone Colossus into my CD player for the first time and hearing Max Roach’s rolling drums at the beginning of the first track, “St. Thomas,” followed by the lilting, playful tone of Sonny’s tenor saxophone. What I clearly remember: being absolutely and inexplicably captivated by this track and the four that follow it, though I could not explain why. This wasn’t foolish honking noise at all! What I clearly remember: staring at the album’s iconic cover while I listened—the dark silhouette of Sonny Rollins, blowing his saxophone, against a field of cobalt blue—and falling in love with its assured, unfussy aesthetic. Eventually, I would learn—and come to appreciate within an ever-expanding context of what came before and after—that these five tracks had been recorded on a single day—June 22, 1956—for the Prestige label (in Hackensack, New Jersey), with Tommy Flanagan on piano, Doug Watkins on bass, and the peerless Rudy Van Gelder serving as the producer. At the time, however, all I did was listen again and again and again, all the while chiding myself for having been so dismissive of something capable of such imagination, energy, tenderness, and majesty—sometimes separately, sometimes all at once.
What was it about what I heard that day (and the days and months that followed) that affected me so much? Seeing as how I was then—and still am now—an utter illiterate when it comes to the basic components of music, I literally can’t explain it. Things such as keys, chords, and scales mean absolutely nothing to me, which also means that, though I love Time Out by the Dave Brubeck Quartet from 1959, I have no clue how its uncommon time signatures such as 9/8 and 5/4 (which I’ve read about but can’t identify) differ from common ones such as 4/4 (which I also can’t identify). In all seriousness: what the hell does any of that mean? “Blue Rondo à la Turk” simply sounds amazing to me, even though I’ve never reacted to it in any way other than as an utter primitive: emotively and instinctually. Trying to write about music is, of course, “like dancing about architecture,” as someone—possibly Frank Zappa, possibly Elvis Costello, possibly even, believe it or not, Martin Mull, the comedian—once famously said. Yes. Exactly. And since I can’t meaningfully convey in words what those sounds made by Sonny Rollins in 1956 did to me in 1994, I hope you understand why I will also not attempt to do a rhumba about I. M. Pei’s Pyramide du Louvre.
My apprenticeship lasted only twelve months, but it felt much longer, thanks to its immersiveness and intensity. When Jon graduated and moved out of the yellow house on Johnson Avenue to head for the Northwest after graduating, a perfectly nice woman moved in, but I never made friends with her. In fact, I resented her even occupying the space where Jon had once smoked, drank coffee, thought about poetry, and listened to jazz. And her taste in music, which I heard leaking from her (his) windows, was mostly Phish and Dave Matthews Band. No thanks, not for me. But before he left, Jon revealed to me so many artists who would go on to sustain and inspire me over the years, artists whom, without him, I might still be oblivious to today, the thought of which makes me nearly nauseated. While I certainly grew to love all of the most famous figures I had once only vaguely knew of before I met Jon (including Ella and her scatting, especially on such songs as her incomparable 1945 recording of “Flying Home”), I’m thinking in particular of how incomplete my life would be without the melancholic romanticism of Bill Evans, the ecstatic turmoil of Charles Mingus, the plaintive simplicity of Chet Baker, and the jarring, implausible perfection of Thelonious Monk. My world would be incomplete, a shadow of itself, without them. And others. So many more, the list of which you may skip but which I feel compelled to include as a disciple’s demonstration of true gratitude: Art Blakey, Milt Jackson, Wes Montgomery, Blossom Dearie, Dexter Gordon, Ben Webster, Bud Powell, Lester Young, Sarah Vaughn, Oscar Peterson, Ornette Coleman, Gerry Mulligan, Stan Getz, Cannonball Adderley, Art Farmer, Yusef Lateef, Nina Simone, Lennie Tristano, Hampton Hawes, Tadd Dameron, Don Byas, Lee Konitz … I could go on. And on.
How wonderful are moments of genuine artistic discovery. They plant themselves as landmarks on our life’s path, forever separating the time before we learned of them from the time afterward. For instance, I remember in vivid detail reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera in the Undergraduate Library at the University of Texas at Austin instead of what had been assigned for class, and it being like Franz Kafka’s “axe for the frozen sea within.” I went on to read One Hundred Years of Solitude, which was even better, and then everything else I could find of his that had been translated into English. A similar thing happened again when I read Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son without interruption on a Christmas Day instead of participating in my family’s holiday activities. I similarly remember my first exposure to Rene Magritte’s paintings, Sam Shepard’s plays, and David Lynch’s films. The world that contains these magical things remained the same as always, but it also slipped slightly from its axis, never to return, not quite, to its prior position.
I haven’t seen Jon since he moved away all those years ago, but I do still occasionally receive emails from him. He never tells me much about his current circumstances, and he rarely asks me for information about mine. His emails, when they drop unexpectedly into my inbox once a year or so, never concern anything but jazz. That is what binds me to him and him to me—nothing else. “Listen to this,” he writes, and he includes a link for me to click. That’s it. And I listen. Sometimes it’s something I’ve heard of, sometimes not. Usually not. I tell him what I think of it, but now that I’m older and less self-centered, I also want to ask him how he’s doing, how he’s really doing. Being fifty-two years old myself already, I wonder—and worry—about him these days. How is his health? I can’t ask, and if I did, he’d probably ignore the question, and that’s because our relationship was never like that, which means I also never tell him about my life—my job, my wife, my children (who both can play piano), my writing. We set the tempo for our duet a long time ago, and at this stage, there’s no space for us to add any more elements to the composition without likely making a mess of it.
When I replied to his last email (which was yet again nothing but a file for me to listen to), I asked him if he’d heard the recently discovered songs recorded by Thelonious Monk in 1959 for Roger Vadim’s film, Les Liaisons Dangereuses. He had, of course. And as I did, he loved it. That was it. That was the end of our communication until the next time, but just as in jazz, the spaces we left open were important. Words not said, notes not played, can be loud in their own quiet ways, implying and suggesting all manners of things. I’ve come to realize that I don’t need him to ask me questions about specific aspects of his life, just as he doesn’t need me to ask him. I know he wishes me well, and he knows I wish him the same. After all, I remember the hug we shared when he left Texas, and I know he does, too—though of course he’s never said as much. Knowing the details of each other’s daily lives is, strangely enough, immaterial. The sentiment is always there in our offerings to one another. Listen to this, friend. When I heard it, I thought of you.
Kevin Grauke is the author of Shadows of Men (Queen’s Ferry Press), winner of the Steven Turner Award from the Texas Institute of Letters. His fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared (or are forthcoming) in journals such as The Threepenny Review, Bayou, The Southern Review, Quarterly West, and Columbia Journal. He’s a Contributing Editor at Story, and he teaches at La Salle University in Philadelphia. Twitter: @kevingrauke