Home / Jazz Workshop: In the Presence of the Masters

Jazz Workshop: In the Presence of the Masters

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As an ersatz jazz journalist, I have two people that I hold in the highest possible esteem. One is Ornette Coleman — the most outrageously original musician of the last 50 years. The other is Gary Giddins — for 30 years the jazz columnist in the Village Voice, and the most authoritative and eloquent writer about jazz that I've ever encountered. Last weekend I got to share an evening with both.

Zingzing and I have been IMing just about every day for a while now, and talking about our respective musical interests – modern classical for him, jazz for me. He was quite taken with the LaMonte Yong installation he blogged about not long ago, and I, of course, was as besotted with the music of Coleman as ever — and still finding new things in it to love. Because Zingzing and I both live in major cities with important performance venues — the kind often frequented by big-name musicians of all stripes — he and I made an agreement: the next time Ornette Coleman was playing someplace we could both get to, we'd both go.

So, it was a thrill to open my inbox not long ago and discover an announcement that Coleman was playing at Town Hall, that historic Times Square venue where so much jazz history has occurred, on March 28. I got the e-mail about an hour before Zingzing logged onto IM, and I practically danced in my seat (as though I was a four-year-old who had to pee) waiting for him to get in. The moment I heard that log-on chime, I minimized all my work stuff and messaged him:

"Remember what we were saying about how we'd go see Ornette together whenever we had the chance? Well, if you have any plans on March 28, cancel them. He's at Town Hall on 43rd Street."

Zingzing understood immediately. His question: "What time?"

This is a good six weeks in advance of the concert. Nonetheless, by the end of that week, we'd solidified a schedule. On the day that tickets went on sale, he would go to the box office on his lunch hour. I would mail him a check in advance, as would another friend who would fly up from South Carolina. We'd meet at Zingzing's office, take the train down to Times Square, and would see Ornette. I knew what train to get on, what time I needed to be there to see the show, and not long afterwards had booked bus fare.

Seeing Ornette Coleman is serious business.

So, it was that last Friday I boarded a budget shuttlebus from downtown Washington and gladly undertook what developed into a nearly six-hour trek during Friday night rush hour into the heart of Midtown Manhattan. Traffic was so dense that our driver was warned to stay away from the absurdly convenient Lincoln Tunnel and to instead take the ludicrously far-off Holland Tunnel into the city. With nary a second to spare I met my friend from South Carolina just outside Penn Station, and we sped uptown to meet Zingzing, stow our bags in his office, grab a sandwich from a nearby deli, and hustle back down to Times Square so we could find the small nondescript venue tucked away from the garish lights of the world's most visually obnoxious neighborhood.

And there he was, on the stage at Town Hall. Ornette Coleman, 78 years old and still an inspired and inspiring man. He was dressed head to toe in green plaid (well, okay, the head was actually in a gray sportscap), and the minute he put the plastic horn in his mouth the soaring alto tone carried the house away.

It was tremendous. It was unforgettable. Ornette, his drumming son Denardo, and two bassists ran an odyssey through the material on his Pulitzer Prize-winning Sound Grammar, as well as a number of the classics: a bluesy, almost sleazy rendition of his Monk-ish "Turnaround;" "Theme from a Symphony," the opening track of Prime Time's debut Dancing in Your Head; and a uniquely rhythmic setting of the prelude from Bach's Suite for Cello No. 1. The encore of "Lonely Woman" completely did me in, of course. There were oddities about the set — electric bassist Al MacDowell could drown out some of Coleman's subtler passages, and Denardo Coleman on drums may also have been a bit ostentatious — but I didn't care. I was seeing Ornette Coleman. It was a dream come true: here was the most significant voice in jazz, indeed in much experimental music, since Charlie Parker died, and I was watching him work.

When "Lonely Woman" died away and the quartet at last walked offstage (my cellphone camera following them off), we were all ecstatic, clambering down the balcony stairs chattering to each other about what we just saw. "Man! That drummer was amazing! What was up with the bass player and the bow? Ohhh, I'm so glad he played 'Lonely Woman'! What was that one really famous classical one?" 

The place was emptying fast, and I was looking around to see who I might recognize from the jazz cognoscenti. Crouch? Hentoff? Chinen? Well, there was one: Howard Mandel, a longtime editor and contributor to Down Beat and an accomplished jazz writer in his own right. He's also been one of my mentors, and extraordinarily generous with his guidance. "Hey, guys," I said. "That's Howard. I gotta go say hi." Indeed, I'd never actually met Howard, only corresponded and talked over the phone.

"Howard? Mike West!" I said.

"Mike!" he shouted and gave me a big smile. "Glad you could make it!"

Unfortunately, I'd caught him at a bad time. Howard is president of the Jazz Journalists Association and was, at that moment, caught up in some serious business talk with another colleague. I stood quietly, not wanting to butt in and figuring I'd simply wait my turn, while my friends milled about a little bit, waiting for me, but not really sure what else to do in the meantime. (Sorry, guys, if I put you in a bad spot.) 

Then came another interruption, as a balding middle-aged man with a good-natured grin came strolling up. "How are you with tunes?" He asked, sauntering into the small circle that Howard, myself, and the other writer had made. "Tunes," he repeated. "I need a setlist. Who knows what the tunes were?"

"Hi Gary," Howard said.

It was Gary Giddins. Gary. Flippin. Giddins. The man who made me want to write about jazz, who'd inspired me with his book Visions of Jazz, was standing before me. I was so stunned, so taken aback, that I actually gasped and put a hand to my chest.

The motion caught his eye."You?" he said, smiling at me. Howard introduced us briefly, but Giddins was too focused on his mission and I was too dumbstruck for either of us to really notice. 

"Um," I mumbled, "I knew the names of, like, five of them."

Never letting his grin go, Giddins walked off to find more information. I watched him go out into the lobby of the theater, and suddenly realizing Howard had more important things to attend to I broke away.

At the bar I caught up to him. "Mr. Giddins," I said, surprised to hear myself out of breath, "I didn't get to say anything back there–" he looked confused.

"I was the one standing with Howard in the theater," I added. "Um…" then I felt myself rushing through the words "Ijustwantedtosaythatyou'remyidolinthisbusinessandI'msocompletelythrilledtobestandingheretalkingtoyou."

"Wow," he said. "I'm flattered. What was your name?"

"Mike West," I said. He stuck out his hand, and it wasn't until I shook that I realized how badly my own hand was trembling. "Um," I continued, the flop sweat now dripping down my forehead, "I'vegotareviewcomingupintheVillageVoiceand…"

He seemed impressed. "You have a review in the Voice?"

I was flustered. "Well, yes. Not a review OF me, but one I wrote…" God, I'm a blabbering idiot!

"Wow," Giddins said again. "You know, I don't much get the Voice anymore, but I'll pick it up this time." 

I blushed. "Wow, thanks!" I said. "butyouknowInearlygavemyselfanulcerthinkingIwasfollowingyou…"

"Don't do that," he smiled.

"I'm okay," I said. "But you know, it was like…I was so intimidated!"

He nodded. "Yeah," he said. "I felt the same way — still do — when I consider Dan Morgenstern."

That helped. It's good to know that your role models get nervous around their role models, too.

"And when does your review come out? Next week?"

"Well, it's due this Wednesday, so…"

"So next week. Okay, Mike, I'll look for it."

"Well, thank you," I stammered. "Anditwasanhonortomeetyou."

"Okay." he grinned, nodded, and disappeared.

I turned around, and there were my friends, with knowing smiles on their faces. I'd just been in the presence of two heroes, and they could see it all over me.

"WOW!" I said. "WOW! Holy shit! I just saw Ornette and met Gary Giddins! WOW! Holy shit! …I gotta call my wife."

There's no overriding theme to this column. I just wanted to gush about my unbelievable evening with the jazz stars.

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About Michael J. West

  • Great story!

  • Wait a minute, you met….zingzing? Holy shit, what an evening!

    All joking aside, that whole thing getting to catch Ornette perform and rubbing elbows with the big boys of jazz journalism sounds like a pretty damn cool experience in my book.

  • zingzing


    meeting me is something you never forget. unless you drink so much that you forget everything. which happens all the time. or more frequently than it should. mike, apparently, doesn’t remember me peeing on his leg. which was a lot of fun.

    it was an interesting evening. after the concert we went down to some club in the east village and saw some more jazz, of a decidedly trad nature, with ping-pong and pool going on all around us. there was a plethora of barely-clothed women and vomiting into sinks. AT A JAZZ CLUB. ahh, new york.

  • Ahh, yes. The barely clothed women and the vomit-filled sink at Fat Cat were a nice little bonus.

    Pico, I’ve actually known zingzing since we were 6. We’ve been music-geeking together since high school, drinking together since college, and generally making asses of ourselves in large metropolises all across this great nation of ours.

  • zingzing

    to a quarter century together! raise your tee-ball bats high! higher, mike! swing at the ball, not the tee! for fuck’s sake, you little shit, figure it out!

  • I dunno zing, maybe Mike didn’t notice you because he was too busy peeing down his leg himself when he met Gary Giddens ;&)