Meet Me at Jim & Andy’s: Jazz Musicians and Their World.
by Gene Lees
Oxford University Press. 265 pp. $18.95.
Clint Eastwood’s movie Bird, a remarkably precise evocation of the life and times of jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker, is a brutally frank portrait of a psychopath who also happened to be a musical prodigy. Parker’s appetites—for food, for drugs, for women—were gargantuan. Widely regarded as the greatest improviser of his generation, he was notoriously unreliable and spent the last couple of years of his life unable to find steady work. When a heart attack finally felled him at the age of thirty-four, the doctor who filled out Parker’s death certificate was convinced that he was twenty years older.
Far from being a typical jazz musician, Charlie Parker was a walking worst-case scenario. But the self-destructive genius who lurches through Bird is in one significant respect characteristic of his colleagues, for he is portrayed in the movie as a private, even enigmatic man who offers no apologies and no explanations for his frequently bizarre behavior.
Most jazz musicians have generally preferred to keep their troubles to themselves. Some of them, like Miles Davis, shun all contact with their audiences; others, like Duke Ellington, hide behind ornately artificial stage personalities. Their sense of separation from the “straight” world is in many cases so profound that sociologist Howard Becker devoted a whole chapter of Outsiders, his 1963 collection of “studies in the sociology of deviance,” to jazz and the men and women who play it. As a result, few writers have won the confidence of jazz musicians, and fewer still have written about them with intelligence and comprehension.
Gene Lees, author of Meet Me at Jim if Andy’s: Jazz Musicians and Their World, is a notable exception to this rule. A lyricist (“Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars,” “Someone to Light Up My Life,” “Yesterday I heard the Rain”) and a former editor of Down Beat, Lees wrote memorably about jazz and popular music for High Fidelity and Stereo Review until, two decades ago, he “switched sides.” He abandoned music criticism, moved to California and, in 1981, started Jazzletter, a monthly newsletter for and about jazz musicians which publishes what Lees calls “criticism on behalf of the artists.”
Jazzletter was an inside secret among musicians and well-connected jazz fans until Oxford University Press discovered Gene Lees a couple of years ago. His first book for Oxford, Singers and the Song, was an anthology of Jazzletter essays on popular singers and their art. Meet Me at Jim if Andy’s, his second Jazzletter collection, concentrates on jazz instrumentalists and bandleaders. These intimate essays, “written about friends for friends,” brush aside the concealing curtain of celebrity journalism to describe in unprecedented and knowing detail the everyday lives of jazz musicians. (The title essay is a sharply etched portrait of Jim & Andy’s, a Sixth Avenue bar which, unknown to the “straight” world, was for more than a decade the principal hangout of New York’s jazz community.)
Nine of the essays in Meet Me at Jim & Andy’s are biographical profiles of famous jazz musicians, among them Artie Shaw, Woody Herman, Bill Evans, and Paul Desmond. Lees recounts their frequently tragic stories with sympathy, passion, and, at times, anger. Above all, he has the grace to let his characters do most of the talking, and he brings to the telling of their tales a candor unmuted by the claims of friendship.
In “The Poet: Bill Evans,” for example, Lees indelibly captures the edgy, marginal quality of the jazz musician’s existence in a single harrowing anecdote. As the scene opens, Lees is carrying a message to Evans, the most influential jazz pianist of the 60’s and a long-time heroin addict. The message is from Creed Taylor, Evans’s record producer. The well-intentioned Taylor, in a desperate attempt to prevent Evans from buying heroin, has decided not to advance Evans any more cash against his record royalties, offering to pay his bills directly instead:
So again I went up to Bill’s apartment. The electricity had been turned off. He had run an extension cord from a light fixture on the wall of the hallway up to and under his door. To this line a lamp was attached, the only one working in the apartment. . . . I gave Bill the news.
He was furious. “You people don’t understand!” he said. “I’m kind of attached to shit.”
“Bill,” I said, “that may qualify as the understatement of the year.”
“No, I mean it,” he said. “You don’t understand. It’s like death and transfiguration. Every day you wake in pain like death, and then you go out and score, and that is transfiguration. Each day becomes all of life in microcosm.”
The simplicity with which this terrible story is told is a measure of the literary skill which Gene Lees has brought to his intensely personal chronicle of jazz and its makers. While jazz has spawned its share of solid histories and biographies, it has produced precious little in the way of belles-lettres. Otis Ferguson wrote beautifully about jazz for the New Republic fifty years ago, and Whitney Balliett has been writing beautifully about it for the New Yorker since the 50’s. In Meet Me at Jim & Andy’s, Gene Lees writes about jazz with comparable taste and sensitivity—and he does so from the unique perspective of the insider looking out. In so doing, he has contributed another essential volume to the slender shelf of first-rate writing about jazz.