What Is This Thing Called Love?
Published in The Threepenny Review
A boy is born, and after a period of several years that sees his personality form yet leave no mental trace, vague impressions and isolated memories at most, he begins the first phase of his true, conscious personhood. In it, tenderness and thoughtfulness have an overlay of roughness, which exists both for its own sake and for the boy’s protection. Years pass, and for this boy, now a young man, the roughness finds an outlet in the convictions he forms, some of them his own, some reflecting the influence of others. He is fierce, this young man, and knows his purpose – until, without warning, that purpose changes, because he has found love. Following that emotional storm, the young man becomes more thoughtful; he finds that changes, accommodations must be made, because life is not all or even principally about himself now, and perhaps a certain conformity ensues, more so than before, at any rate; but is that so bad? It doesn’t seem so, until the man — no longer quite so young — becomes thoughtful again, this time about different things. All of a sudden it seems to him that the usual background noise of life has stopped, and all he can hear is the steady, theretofore quiet sound of the Timekeeper, setting the pace at which the man is passing into oblivion. With a new sense of urgency, to meet the challenge of doing all he can in the time he has left, the man marshals the forces of his personhood — his roughness and conviction, his tenderness and thoughtfulness, the lessons he has learned from others — exhibiting them by turns as he moves, full-bore, toward the end of his time.
Who is this man? No one, and everyone.
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In July 1952, ten jazz musicians — three alto saxophonists, two tenor men, a trumpeter, a guitarist, a bassist, a pianist, and a drummer — assembled in a Los Angeles studio at the behest of the producer Norman Granz to record several tracks. One of the tracks, one among hundreds of jazz versions of Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love?”, can be found on the compact discs Charlie Parker: The Cole Porter Songbook and Charlie Parker: Jam Session – ironically, since Parker may have the least playing time of all the musicians heard on that fifteen-minute cut, and since Parker, while the most famous today among those men, was not necessarily so at the time. The other two alto saxophonists present that day were the most influential players of the instrument in the first half of the twentieth century. Temperamentally, Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter were similar, both reserved in nature; physically, Hodges was on the small side, while Carter’s stature has been called “imposing”; and in terms of their musical styles, the two could not have been more different. Hodges gained his greatest fame as a member of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, where, like other Ellington stalwarts, he played music that had been written specifically to showcase his unique sound – in his case, a nakedly emotional and sensual appeal that happened to be delivered through the bell of a sax. Hodges’s latter-day equivalents are the soul crooners who seem none the less manly for having a direct line to the innermost feelings of their female fans.
Hodges’s playing could be called “dreamy,” and so could Carter’s — but whereas a Hodges solo might evoke the dreaminess of romantic or emotional yearning, Carter’s stylings are closer to the dreaminess of a man absorbed in arranging his books according to subject. Carter was one of jazz’s renaissance men, proficient on the trumpet, trombone, clarinet, and piano as well as the saxophone; he began working as an arranger early in his career. He was a musician with an overview, a sense of grand design, and he conveyed that sense in his solos — which are so meticulously thought out, so evocative of structure, that it is easy, on listening to them, to forget that you are hearing one note at a time. (One note from a Hodges solo, by contrast, can seem while it lasts to be the only note there is or ever will be.) For all that, Carter, with his lovely, lilting tone, could swing.
Hodges and Carter wrote the book on the alto sax — the edition of it, anyway, that existed before Parker’s arrival. The bebop pioneer Parker, nicknamed Bird, can almost be seen as Hodges and Carter’s stylistic offspring, exhibiting by turns the intricacy and intellectual bent of Carter’s work and the sheer feeling of Hodges. He did not have the older men’s personalities; Bird was a clown, a user of ten-dollar words for comic effect (“my worthy constituent Dizzy Gillespie”), an often charming user of people, a compulsive embracer of life – the last-named quality one that oozed from his music: Bird’s tinny, warp-speed solos communicate a desire to take in all of life at once, to squeeze in as many experiences — as many notes — as possible, an impulse that perhaps accounts for his death at age thirty-four. (It might also account for one of the most vivid passages in Miles Davis’s autobiography, a book with no shortage of vivid passages. Davis recalls being in the back seat of a car with Bird, who ate chicken while a woman performed a sexual act on him.) But the complex, cerebral nature of Parker’s work needs stressing, too: his playing on fast numbers was not simply a mad scramble for notes but a careful arranging of them, even if some of the arranging, as is the jazz way, occurred only seconds before the notes were played. Hearing his melodic tap dance over rapidly shifting chordal foundations can be like listening to someone talk quickly and excitedly about a subject you almost understand, that you want to grasp because he makes it sound so important, so cool.
One of the tenor saxophonists present that day in 1952 was Ben Webster. He was not one of the men who occupied positions on tenor that Hodges and Carter claimed on alto; those spots went to Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. But there was no more distinctive sound than Webster’s on tenor. Webster, a large man, was no stranger to alcohol, leading many who knew him to make comments along the lines of what his friend Jimmie Rowles, a pianist, told Whitney Balliett: “When Ben was sober, he was the sweetest, gentlest, nicest man in the world. When he was juiced, he was out of his head.” Both sides of Webster’s nature can be heard in his tone, a breathy, deeply human sound: it is rough even as it suggests vulnerability, and it seems to be rough because of the vulnerability, as if it hurts to say what he is telling you. He could emphasize one or the other aspect of that sound, playing with an outright snarl in uptempo tunes and with heart-piercing tenderness on ballads.
The other tenor man on the scene was Flip Phillips. An August 5, 1975 New York Times article noted that while “Ben Webster is often cited as the basic influence on Mr. Phillips’s playing,” there is “now also a strong feeling of Lester Young.” As they say in New York these days, Ya think? The casual listener might have thought Phillips was Young, even back in ’52, given their similar lightness of tone and Phillips’s tendency to copy Young’s techniques, if not his inventiveness; in one passage in “What Is This Thing Called Love?”, he uses Young’s trick of repeating one note in staggered fashion, giving a sense of simultaneous forward and backward motion, the audio equivalent of log-rolling. . . The trumpeter Charlie Shavers was on hand – Shavers, who described himself as “a wanderer, you know, a rebel,” who performed high-flying acrobatics on the instrument he called “the iron master” . . . On percussion was J. C. Heard, who once said that he and the eminent drummer Papa Jo Jones “played so much alike – personality, everything,” leading one to wonder if, on that day in July 1952, Heard reminded Parker of Jones, the man who had ended a teenage Bird’s incompetent solo by tossing a cymbal at his feet . . . The guitarist Barney Kessel was there. Kessel once played in a trio with the dean of bassists, Ray Brown, and the piano luminary Oscar Peterson — the other two men present for “What Is This Thing Called Love?” — and said about that experience, “It was as if I joined the trio at a time when I was just about capable of driving a sports car at 60 miles per hour, but straight away Ray and Oscar kept pushing that pedal down and I found I was trying to control a car at eighty!”
* * *
The lyrics to “What Is This Thing Called Love?” are your standard I-loved-you-but-you-done-me-wrong fare: “I saw you there one wonderful day/You took my heart and threw it away . . .” What gives the song lasting power is the wistful tone created by its bent, or blue, notes -an important element in jazz. But the whole of the sung portion of the tune, as recorded by, say, Frank Sinatra, lasts a mere sixteen bars in four-four time, barely enough space for a jazz ensemble to clear its collective throat. A jazz version of a pop tune is about expanding, exploring, digging like oilmen for the dark treasure beneath the surface, and sometimes, discarding: one could strain one’s ears – as I did – to identify a semblance of Porter’s original melody in the version played by Parker et al before realizing that it simply isn’t there, that what Parker and the boys did was to create a new tune by burrowing down to the song’s chord structure, where, you might say, they hit a gusher.
A period that sees his personality form . . . Oscar Peterson begins it all, laying out the basic chordal pattern, each left-handed chord followed by a four-note melody from the right. Then the rest of the rhythm section kicks in: J. C. Heard keeps a steady beat, not the dominating rumble of Art Blakey or the impossible dexterity of Tony Williams but a ticking, like that of a souped-up second hand on a watch, the beat that gives the tunes its great beauty and power, its sense of musicians working, blowing, plucking, living against time.
Tenderness and thoughtfulness have an overlay of roughness . . . Now comes Ben Webster, his first two notes seeming to say, “I’m here,” his tone both rough and easy until, about a minute into his solo, he turns more fierce. Charlie Shavers follows — the roughness finds an outlet in the convictions he forms — making the clear, sharp declarations that only a trumpeter can, nailing notes in the high register, until Johnny Hodges takes over, laying out buttery tones at the beginning, alternating between ardor and tenderness, different modes of love, as his solo progresses. Barney Kessel’s mellow, introspective turn comes next, with its gentle, pearl-like individual notes, followed by Benny Carter, thinking, building a structure through sound and seeming to ascend, over the course of several measures, to its peak. Now there is Flip Phillips, conforming, his light tone containing just a hint of the Ben Webster crust as he plays longer than anyone else, sliding here and there into a Lester Young-like maneuver. Bird takes over, as thoughtful as Carter, this time about different things, starting phrases in a high register and tumbling downward, descending where Carter had ascended; until –
The horns stop. For half a minute there is just piano, bass, and the ticking of Heard’s drums. Peterson prompts Ray Brown, who supplies round tones that seem to come from deep, deep down, like a heartbeat; and like a heartbeat, they will not continue forever.
The trading of fours begins. Hodges, Webster, Carter, Parker, Phillips, Shavers -all but the guitarist Kessel, that mellow element missing now – takes turns for the last twenty-four bars; urgency is the only constant as the sounds of intellect and ardor alternate, at one point seeming to clash: for one space of less than a beat, Phillips either cuts off another horn (whose?) or starts in one direction and turns sharply in another. Now Shavers, now Bird, now Carter . . . At just short of sixteen minutes, the end comes, the melody, the beat, the chords all cease. Are the musicians content? Did they achieve what they were aiming for? Did they have enough time? Does anyone?