Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Charlie's Jam Session

Today is my friend Charlie's 93rd birthday. Charlie hosts a weekly jam session in his pre-war apartment, at which I'm a regular.

Here's Charlie, genteelly greeting a guest at his 91st birthday party:

For years, Charlie led Lester Lanin's famous society band. The difference between a society band and your garden-variety event band is that while the latter performs amid towers of chopped liver at catering halls, society bands would play stuffy affairs like Charles and Diana's wedding reception (one of Charlie's gigs). And rather than "Eye of the Tiger" and "Celebrate Good Times", society bands would play "Cheek to Cheek" or "The Night They Invented Champagne". You know the scene: guys with toupees in tuxedos, playing seated. A bit bloodless. But their sound was the sound of a generation for a certain class of person.

Charlie was widely recognized as the most kind-hearted, least apoplectic leader in the business, renowned for treating everyone with respect and dignity. He was also, I understand, a good trumpet player. But I wouldn't know. I came into the story only recently, after Charlie had retired from the business and put his horn away. At the jam, he contributes via spirited chorusus of scat singing, and he gives it his all, applying such energy and intensity that he often cracks himself (and the rest of us) up.

Here's how the jam session came about: Charlie lost his wife, a minor 1940's theater star (there's an eye-popping black and white glossy of her on his wall, and another with her and Louis Armstrong giggling together), and he was feeling blue. So some of his old bandmates began dropping by to play and hang out. Strangely, even though they'd worked together for many years, none of them had ever played jazz together.

Our drummer, Bobby, was a show drummer all his life. Last week, after we played "C'est Si Bon", Bobby wistfully recalled playing the tune every night with Eartha Kitt (here's a video of Kitt, and I wouldn't be surprised if that's Bobby on the soundtrack). It's only lately that he's even tried to play much jazz....but he plays great and swings hard. It comes naturally, because that music flowered during his time, even if he wasn't directly involved.

Our pianist is my old trombone teacher, Ephie. At age 81, Ephie's teeth became too loose to keep playing, forcing him to abandon his lifelong obsessive quest for the quality that had always eluded him: consistency (the same quest has driven more than a few brass players mad, human beings never having been designed to buzz lips into metal). Ephie resourcefully switched to piano, where he makes himself just as obsessively crazy - and plays just as beautifully.

They say we lose the ability to master new skills after age 30, but Ephie has transformed over the last five years from a (legendary) trombonist who noodles a little on piano to a terrific and distinctive pianist. You can hear Ephie's trombone at its glorious peak as the soundtrack to this bittersweet slideshow showing the buckets of food I was forced to eat when the genius installed in charge of Chowhound after it was sold to CNET commanded me to eat, nonstop and solo, across America for two solid months.

I just called Charlie to wish him 93 more happy years. Charlie - who's still sharp as a tack and who speaks in the nearly extinct tones of the sort of guys who used to carry around The New York Review of Books under their arms - wished me, in turn, another fifty. I demurred, replying that another twelve or so would probably suffice.

I agree with Jerry Seinfeld's insistence that life's not too short, it's too long. We do the same crap over and over for decades; it's mind-numbingly repetitive. While some people are comforted by familiar routines, I'm not wired that way. And I'm surprised less and less often as I get older, compelling me to try harder and harder to seek out fresh surprise.

And I also try to "be the change", by being as surprising as I can, for example via my trombone playing, though I fall back to the familiar way too often. Same for this blog, though I'm more repetitive here than I'd prefer, as well. As anyone with a grandparent can attest, people grow more repetitious as they get older. So I'm figuring the curve of diminishing results will dry up my ability to be surprised at around the same point where I, myself, become largely unsurprising. Hence the twelve year outlook I expressed to Charlie.

On the other hand, Charlie - who was my current age during Woodstock, who was 65 when I graduated college, and who is of a previous and forgotten generation even for present-day 75-year-olds - can still surprise with his scat singing, as well as with his overall joie de vivre (however hesitantly it may occasionally flow). So I can only hope I'll be like Charlie when I grow up.

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