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Eminent Hipsters
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Eminent Hipsters [Format Kindle]

Donald Fagen
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**This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof.**

In the Clubs

I started going to jazz clubs in New York when I was twelve or thirteen, first with my older cousins Mike and Jack, and then later on my own. I remember seeing the mighty Count Basie band at a matinee at Bird-land, with the great Sonny Payne on drums. When the whole band pumped out one of those thirteenth chords, you could feel the breeze on your face.

Once upon a time, the jazz club was a mythic place that signi­fied urban romance, free-loving hipsterism and the Dionysian rites of the Exotic Black Man: in short, the dread possibility of ecstasy. As a survivor of many nights in actual jazz clubs, I can testify that the image was only partly correct.

Like most of the finer things in life, jazz is an acquired taste. As a suburban youth, I would often ride the bus up the New Jersey Turnpike through the industrial wasteland that must be crossed before the island of Manhattan is won. The combined sum of several weeks’ allowance would be burning a hole in my pocket. After docking at the dependably sinister Port Authority terminal, I’d take the AA train to Waverly Place in the West Village, which by then had pretty much completed its transformation from bohemia into Bohemia Land. Tourists nursed espressos at the Cafe Wha? and the Cafe Bizarre. At Figaro’s coffee shop on Bleecker and MacDougal, I’d order a burger and listen to my heart pound as I watched the exquisite, joyless waitresses slink around the room in black leotards. An epigraph on the menu read “Where the Beat meet the Elite.”

By the early sixties, jazz, having already been displaced as America’s dance music of choice by rock and roll, was facing another crisis. College kids, after a brief flirtation with bop and cool jazz, had chosen “folk” music as their official enthusiasm. Unlike gnarly post-Parker jazz, guitar-based roots music was totally accessible and irony free, and almost anyone could play it in some form. Moreover, the leftist anthems of the Depression were easily adapted to become the official music of the early civil rights movement. New clubs featuring Dylan, The Tarri­ers, Judy Collins, Richie Havens, and the like were pulling in a huge share of the business. Nevertheless, the Village was still the best place to hear jazz in its last glorious incarnation.

At the Village Vanguard, my distress at being the youngest person in the audience would dissolve as soon as the music started. In the early sixties, gods stood on that tiny stage. A lot of them drank J&B and smoked Luckies, but they were gods just the same. Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane were still youngish, fearless and working at the summit of their creativity. The proprietor, Max Gordon, once he got to know my face, used to seat me at the banquet next to the drum kit and give me a flat bar Coke. The cover charge was, like, seven bucks.

One of my favorites was bassist/composer Charles Mingus, who’d always bring along his demonic drummer, Dannie Rich­mond. Every time Richmond started banging out that triple time, the vibration of his sizzle cymbal would move my glass toward the edge of the table and I’d have to push it back to the center. I remember Mingus halting a tune in midgallop to lecture us on race, politics, cheating record companies and hypocrisy, both black and white. Watching this tempestuous artist at work, I found the extramusical events just as exciting as the music. I have to admit cringing, though, when Mingus, on one of his rougher nights, started screaming “Uncle Tom!” at old Coleman Hawkins, who was sitting at the bar. Hawk just gave him a world-weary smile and took another swig. Once, when I complimented pia­nist Jaki Byard after a set, he actually sat down at my table and graciously answered some questions about the music.

As the premier club in New York at that time, the Vanguard attracted a crowd that was a mix of serious fans and tourists. Of course there would always be the young preppie in a blazer sit­ting with his date, attractive in a little black dress. Imagine a split-screen: On the left, the kid’s eyes are wide, his face is flushed; he’s transfixed. He can’t believe he’s finally in a real jazz club twelve feet away from the great John Coltrane, who’s blowing up a hurricane.

His date, on the right side of the screen, is in hell. Although she’s heard her boyfriend talk about jazz, this is her first real exposure. She’s been in this tiny, smoky, smelly room for almost an hour now, nursing screwdrivers and being forced to listen to four Negroes create a din that sounds like nothing imagined on God’s earth. She’s got her head in her hands down on the table because it hurts, a real pounder behind the eyes. Most humili­ating is the fact that her boyfriend has forsaken her for a black man who seems to be using his silver horn as a satanic instru­ment of masturbation. The two sides of the screen merge when she finally pulls on her date’s arm and demands to be escorted out. In the clubs, this classic scene can still be glimpsed today, always interesting, always poignant.

Two of the most mind-blowing musicians I got to see at the Vanguard were both patriarchs of early jazz who were still active in the sixties. Earl “Fatha” Hines had been a member of Arm­strong’s original Hot Five and, during the thirties, had been the main attraction at Al Capone’s Grand Terrace Ballroom in Chi­cago. As if that weren’t enough, the band he’d led in the forties, the one that included Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Gene Ammons and Wardell Gray, was the first big band to feature bebop players and arrangements. Hines’s gold lamé jacket, leg­endary smile and many-ringed fingers had the same effect on me as I’m sure they had on the crowd at the Grand Terrace. And then he began to play. I pretty much knew what to expect: he still played clean and swinging. I suppose it was my romantic imagi­nation, but the music seemed to be enhanced by a sonic glow, an aura earned on its journey across an ocean of time.

The same could be said of the music of Willie “The Lion” Smith. In the twenties and thirties, Willie had been one of the mighty virtuosos who developed Harlem “stride” piano. In the sixties, Willie was still sharp and strong, a past master who seemed to have walked straight from a Depression rent party into the present, complete with cocked derby, milk bottle glasses and clenched cigar. He’d worked up his act into a semi­nar in jazz history, alternating pieces from his repertoire with stories about the musical life of Harlem, the cutting contests, the gangsters and the nuances that defined the styles of his con­temporaries James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, Luckey Roberts and Eubie Blake. He had a special affection for his protégé Duke Ellington, whose works he generously performed.

Claiming that his father was a Jewish gambler, Willie pep­pered his tales with Yiddishisms and made a point of wearing a Jewish star. Though the jive was fascinating, the real fun began when he commenced his abuse of the Steinway, his phe­nomenal left hand pumping like a locomotive as the right fili­greed the melody. After knocking out his version of “Carolina Shout,” Willie’s comment was “Now that’s what you call . . . real good.” But he could be lyrical too, as he was on his own “Echoes of Spring.”

One more thing about the tough, road-hardened African American entertainers from the twenties who had to be heard without the benefit of microphones, men like Willie, Earl Hines, Coleman Hawkins, Ellington’s band: they could play REALLY LOUD!

Bill Evans at the Vanguard was always a gas. Those familiar only with his studio recordings don’t realize what a spry, funky hard-charger he could be on “up” material in a live setting. When he played quirky tunes like “Little Lulu,” he could be funny, too. Of course, even then, he rarely shifted out of that posture you see in photos, doubled over at the waist, head inside the piano as if trying to locate a rattly string. By the late seventies, I noticed that this quintessential modernist had developed an odd, loping shuffle in his right-hand lines, as if he was regressing to an anti­quated rhythmic style dating back to Willie Smith’s day. What was up with that?

Real fans and serious hipsters remember Slug’s Bar on Third Street between avenues B and C. The neighborhood was dicey but the sounds were happening. Some nights, the audience would be just me, eyes darting around nervously, and maybe two heavily medicated patrons nodding at their tables. Cedar Walton, Jackie McLean, Art Farmer and Jimmy Cobb were among the regular performers. In 1972, trumpet star Lee Mor­gan’s girl shot and killed him out front.

Around 1965, the folk/rock club Cafe au Go Go started a Mon­day night jazz policy. These were jam sessions featuring top players who happened to be in town. The one I attended was one of the best all-around nights of jazz I ever saw. The rhythm sec­tion alone—Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Willie Bobo on drums—began the set. The other players—Hank Mobley on tenor, Dave Pike on vibes and Curtis Fuller, I think, on bone—fell by as the night went on. Jamming on standards and blues for over two hours without a break, Mobley and Kelly were monstrous: hard-swinging and composing in the moment. It was the shit and I knew I was lucky to be there.

When the civil rights movement became more militant in the mid-sixties, the music followed suit. In those years, a lot of jazz was motivated by righteous political fury, or directed toward a spiritual ...

Revue de presse

Praise for Eminent Hipsters

“[An] excellent. . . and satisfying memoir.  This is less about Fagen’s career than about his tastes. . .He writes insightfully about music, films, and books. . .with this remorseless, hilarious book, Fagen reveals himself as a first-class grump. . . Eminent Hipsters is also a convincing testimonial to the honing effect of a lifelong devotion to the culture of misfits, weirdos and cranks.”Rolling Stone
“Fagen is utterly charming when he describes other performers. . .he defends TV and film composer Henry Mancini from charges of fuddy-duddyness. . . his essay on Connie Boswell is the kind of top-notch, incisive cultural critique you ain’t gonna get from the likes of Keith Richards.  Just like the lyrics he penned for the Dan, Fagen’s writing here is charged with a zingy, acerbic intelligence.”—Slate.com
“As you would expect from someone who has been one of the most consistently sardonic voices of rock, Fagen can write.”—GQ.com

Présentation de l'éditeur

In Eminent Hipsters, musician and songwriter Donald Fagen, best known as the co-founder of the rock band Steely Dan, presents an autobiographical portrait that touches on everything from the cultural figures that mattered the most to him as a teenager, to his years in the late 1960s at Bard College, to a hilarious account of a recent tour he made with Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald.

Fagen begins by introducing the 'eminent hipsters' that spoke to him as he was growing up (and desperately yearning to be hip) in suburban New Jersey in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The figures who influenced him most were not the typical ones - Miles Davis, say, or Jack Kerouac - but rather people like Jean Shepherd, whose manic, acidic nightly radio broadcasts out of WOR-Radio had a tough realism about life and 'enthralled a generation of alienated young people'; Henry Mancini, whose chilled-out, nourish soundtracks, especially to films by Blake Edwards utilised the unconventional, spare instrumentation associated with the cool jazz school; and Mort Fega, the laid back, knowledgeable all night jazz man at WEVD, who was like 'the cool uncle you always wished you had'. He writes of how, growing up as a Cold War baby, one of his primary doors of escape became reading science fiction by such authors as Philip K. Dick, and of his regular trips into New York City to hear jazz. Other emblematic musical heroes Fagen writes about include Ray Charles, Ike Turner, and the Boswell Sisters, a trio from the 1920s and 30s whose subversive musical genius included trick phrasing and way out harmony.

'Class of '69' recounts Fagen's colourful tumultuous years at Bard College, the progressive university north of New York City that attracted a strange mix of applicants, including 'desperate suburban misfits with impressive verbal skills but appalling high school records' (like himself). It was at Bard that Fagen first met Walter Becker, with whom he would later form Steely Dan. The final section of the book, 'With the Dukes of September', offers a day-by-day account of a tour Fagen undertook last summer across America with Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald, performing a programme of old R&B and soul tunes as well as some of each of their own hits. Told in a weary, cranky, occasionally biting and always entertaining voice, Fagen brings to life the ups and downs and various indignities and anxieties of being on the road - The Dukes were an admittedly 'low-rent operation' compared to a Steely Dan tour - as well as communicating the challenges and joy of playing every night to a different crowd in a different city.

Biographie de l'auteur

Donald Fagen was born in 1948 and grew up in New Jersey. He is a graduate of Bard College, where he met musician Walter Becker, with whom he formed Steely Dan. His writing has appeared in Premiere, Slate, Harper’s Bazaar, and Jazz Times. He lives in New York City. Visit donaldfagen.com.
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