Kevin Grauke ~ Yellow House Jazz

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