Three Short Essays on Jazz

Three Short Essays on Jazz

Haruki Murakami
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Billie Holiday

I listened to Billie Holiday a lot when I was young. And I found her moving. But I didn’t really appreciate how marvelous she was until later, when I was much older. Which means, I guess, that aging does have some compensations after all.

In the old days, I listened to the music she recorded in the 1930s and early ’40s. During those years, her voice was fresh and youthful, and she was coming out with one tune after another, most of which were later reissued by Columbia Records in the United States. They were brimming with imagination and acrobatic flights of song. The whole world was swinging in time to her swing. I mean, the planet was actually swaying. I am not exaggerating. We are talking magic here, not just art. The only other musician I know with such magical virtuosity was Charlie Parker.

The younger me didn’t listen that hard to Billie Holiday’s later recordings, her Verve era, which she recorded when drugs had coarsened her voice and corroded her body. Or maybe I consciously steered clear of them. I found her songs of that era, especially during the 1950s, painful, oppressive, pathetic. As I moved through my thirties and into my forties, though, I found myself putting those songs on my turntable more and more often. Unbeknownst to me, I was beginning to crave that music, physically and emotionally.

What was it that I was growing able to hear in Billie Holiday’s later songs, songs we might label somehow broken, that I could not hear before? I have thought a great deal about this. Why have they come to draw me so powerfully?

It hit me recently that the answer may somehow involve the idea of “forgiveness.” As I listen to Billie Holiday’s later songs, I can feel her reaching out to embrace the hearts of the many people I have hurt in the course of my life and my writing, those who have suffered for my many mistakes, and drawing them to her. It’s alright, she sings to me. Let it go. This has nothing to do with “healing”—I am not being healed in any way. It is forgiveness, pure and simple.

I know this take on Billie Holiday’s music is deeply personal. I would never suggest it applies to every-one. That is why I am recommending her superb Columbia collection. If I had to choose one song, without question it would be “When You’re Smiling.” The Lester Young solo in the middle is also delightful, a work of genius.

“When you are smiling, the whole world smiles with you.”

And the world does indeed smile. You may not believe it, but it’s true—it actually beams!


Stan Getz

Stan Getz was a complex, emotionally troubled man whose life could hardly be called happy or tranquil. His ego was like a steamroller, while his body was steadily eaten away by massive quantities of alcohol and drugs. In fact, he hardly knew a moment’s peace from the day he was born until the day he drew his last breath. Almost always, he wounded the women he became close to, while his friends ended up walking away in disgust.

Yet, however violent and extreme the flesh-and-blood Stan Getz’s life may have been, the sweet magic that filled his music like the beating of angel wings never wavered. When he stepped on stage, in-strument in hand, a whole new world came into being. Just like poor King Midas, whose mere touch turned everything into gold.

We can see gold, too, in the shining melodies that lie at the heart of Getz’s music. However hot the up-tempo riff he was cooking up, it was always spontaneously rich and lyrical. Like a singer blessed by Providence with a perfect voice, he manipulated his tenor sax with complete virtuosity, weaving wordless verses of transcendent clarity. There have been countless saxophonists in jazz history. None, however, has ever been able to play as passionately as Getz without ever lapsing into cheap sentimentality.

I have lost myself in many novels over the years, and been entranced by many jazz performances. Yet, for me, F. Scott Fitzgerald means “the novel,” while Stan Getz is synonymous with “jazz.” Come to think of it, there are certain similarities between the two men. For one thing, the art of each had several obvious flaws—that should be clearly stated from the start. Had they not paid the price for these defects, however, it is doubtful they could have left behind works of such lasting beauty. This is why I can love everything they created, both the beautiful and the flawed, so unreservedly.

Of all Getz’s works, my very favorite is the two-disc set recorded live at the Storyville jazz club in 1951. Getz truly surpasses himself in this performance—every facet of his art is superb. It may sound trite, but I find these records eternally nourishing. Try listening, for example, to the track entitled “Move.” The rhythm section of Al Haig, Jimmy Raney, Teddy Kotick, and Tiny Kahn is perfect: they come across straight and cool, yet their rhythm flows with the smoldering force of subterranean lava. Even so, Getz is far and away the best. Soaring like Pegasus, he sweeps away the clouds to reveal in a single, blinding moment the bright panoply of stars. The music crashes against us in vivid waves, transcending time. What explains this power? It is because his melodies mercilessly awaken the pack of starving wolves each of our souls holds within itself. The breath of these beasts sinks wordlessly into the snow, so thick and white and beautiful you feel you could almost cut it with a knife. It is this that Stan Getz’s music allows us to contemplate, the fateful cruelty that lies shrouded in the deep forests of our souls.


Thelonious Monk

At one stage in my life, I felt drawn as if by fate to the music of Thelonious Monk. Every time I heard the unmistakable sound of his piano—like a chisel striking hard ice at some strange yet effective angle—I would sigh, “Aah, this is jazz!” It cheered and inspired me.

Even today, a particular scene connects me to Monk—strong black coffee, an ashtray brimming with cigarette butts, a set of big JBL speakers, a partly read novel (perhaps something by Georges Bataille or William Faulkner), the first sweater of fall, the chilly loneliness of a small jazz coffee shop. I still love picturing this scene. It may have -little connection to anything that actually happened, but it is preserved in my memory, beautifully balanced, like a well–composed photograph.

Thelonious Monk’s music was obstinate and sweet, intellectual and eccentric; yet for some reason I have never been able to put my finger on, it was always right on the mark. It was like a “mystery man” who shows up without warning, drops some incredible object on the table, and disappears without a word. To experience Monk’s -music on one’s own was to embrace something mysterious. Miles Davis and John Coltrane were musicians of amazing genius, but neither was ever a man of mystery in this sense of the word.

I can’t recall just when Monk’s music started to lose its original brilliance, when the mystery stopped being a mystery. Among his later works I loved Underground, but strangely I can remember almost nothing else from around that time. Just as Monk himself slowly faded into the mist without my being aware of it, so did the balance and mystique of the scene of which he had been a part of gradually disappear. Then came the incoherence of that most unheroic era, the 1970s.

I bought Monk’s symmetrically titled LP, 5 by Monk by 5, at a shop called Marumi Records near Hanazono Shrine in Shinjuku, right in the heart of Tokyo. It was an imported record and thus pretty expensive for me, given the state of my wallet. In fact, I was planning to buy a Red Garland Prestige album, but when the shopkeeper saw my selection, he laid into me. “A young fellow like you shouldn’t buy that junk,” he lectured. “Give this one a good listen instead,” and, practically against my will, I was forced to buy Monk’s record. He was a strange old guy.

But he was right. I listened to 5 by Monk by 5 over and over; yet no matter how many times I heard it, I never got bored. -Every note, every phrase, was so rich, so full of nourishment, that you could squeeze and squeeze it without ever running out of juice. And I, with that special privilege that comes with being young, absorbed every drop into my very cells. Monk’s music was constantly playing in my head, even when I was just walking down the street. Yet I could never explain to anyone why I loved Monk so much—the right words just didn’t seem to exist.

I realized then: this is one of the most pressing forms loneliness can take. And it was OK! Sure, I was lonely, but that was fine. It seems now that back then I was intent on gathering together all the forms of loneliness I could. While smoking a mountain of cigarettes. 

Translated from the Japanese by Ted Goossen

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