Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
The daze you get when watching the great ones, that is.
Listening to a number by the sensational Ella Fitzgerald the other evening, I remembered that I was lucky enough to have seen her in person near the end of her career. She was accompanied by the equally sensational Joe Pass on guitar, and my one regret is that I wasn’t at all interested in jazz guitar at the time so I didn’t pay enough attention to Joe. I’m sure he was spectacular. As for Ella, she was under the weather that night and had to perform the whole show sitting down. She was gaunt and frail and her voice sounded raspy, but I knew I was in the presence of real greatness. It seems impossible now to think she lived another ten years.
Then I remembered all the other jazz greats I’ve been able to see in person over the years. Sometimes, in their old age, they had to phone it in or otherwise disappoint to some degree. They knew what they were doing was bigger than the performance, though. They were trying to introduce themselves to new generations, hoping, I think, to keep jazz alive a little bit longer.
I saw Anita O’Day at a small San Francisco club in the mid-‘90s, back when she would have been in her late seventies. What a hoot she was, her voice like a sack of pea gravel, growling out “Sticks!” when she wanted a drum solo. She introduced Cole Porter’s “Love For Sale” by saying, “This number’s a little bit naughty, so you’re gonna have to have an open mind, all right? Just bear with me! You’ll love it.”
Ornette Coleman was a surreal experience, performing his piece called inexplicably, Tone Dialing, and presenting during the intermission a bizarre display of extreme body piercing I’ll never be able to get out of my brain.
Art Farmer almost fell asleep on his stool. His horn had gone from mellow to somnolent.
The Modern Jazz Quartet was as cool and elegant as I’d have expected, though John Lewis had slowed down the tempos quite a bit.
Sonny Rollins was incredible in his 60s, Joe Henderson too, doing a lot of stuff from his bossa nova album, Double Rainbow, plus Herbie Hancock showed up for one number. Shirley Horn was in great voice and I was grateful to have been able to see her before she left the planet. Bobby Short, the epitome of the cabaret crooner, had lost a little of his energy, but there he was, the legend, and I’ll never forget his rendition that night of “When Lights Are Low.” Keith Jarrett and his trio astounded too, even if his mumbling and muttering distracted sometimes, but that’s Keith.
Then there was my main man, Kenny Burrell, and you better believe I was into jazz guitar when I saw him just a few years ago now. He reminded me that getting older is no excuse for not swinging. He’s 85 now, and 83 in this clip, and yes — he still swings big time.
What a pleasure to have been able to witness artists like this in my lifetime, even if I have some wistful regret that I didn’t get to see (and probably could have at one time or another, if only I’d been smart enough) Dizzy, Bill Evans, Miles, Stan Getz, Sarah Vaughan, Charlie Byrd, Freddie Hubbard, Grant Green, Dave Brubeck, Dexter Gordon …