I’m going be a little personal this week. I was in the process of responding to a written interview that I was invited to take this week when a White friend and fellow journalist told me that I should just respond to my life as a political columnist, and stay away from the fact that I’m also a musician. He also advised that I should simply say that I was born in Los Angeles–“why do you have to say Watts?” He pointed out that bringing up these things take away from my image as a credible journalist.
I don’t see that. These things are a part of who I am. My experience and background speaks directly to my point of view, and to turn my back on them for the sake of trying to gain “credibility” in the media suggests that the opinions of the people that I speak to, and try to speak for, are less than valid, and somehow bring me down.
So hide it? On the contrary–I want to shout “Watts” to the top of my lungs, because I take great pride in who I am, and the people I represent. This is my response to one of the questions. If it causes me to lose credibility, so be it:
There are two things in this world that allow me to remain sane–writing and music. I’d be in absolute agony if I ever had to choose one over the other, because they are one–one is an extension of the other. Each in its own way allows me to express a part of my being. There are some concepts that I can only express in words, in which case, I sit down and begin to write; but there are other things that spring from a place so deep within my soul–the pain of loss, deception, or of being disappointed by a friend or loved one, for example–that it can only be expressed through raw emotion, which means my horn–it’s cathartic. So I’d be completely remiss if I didn’t mention such an important part of my life in the context of this interview.
The saxophone keeps me connected to my roots, and who I am fundamentally, so it also contributes to my writing in that way as well. Sometimes when I get on my high horse and begin to speak the superficial language of the Washington pundits or the mainstream media, I simply have to glance at my horn to remember why I started writing in the first place–to present the views of those who are too often overlooked. In fact, it reminds me that I’m more of a translator than I am a writer–I seek to translate the emotional truths that Bird, Miles,Trane, and others set forth in their harmonic and melodic constructions, into readable prose. As I mentioned above, that’s not always possible, but my horn keeps me in touch with my mission, and reminds me to remain focused on doing the best I can in that respect.
My father put that horn in my hands when I was a kid. While he had many flaws (one of my first memories in life was of the police coming to my house in the middle of the night, shooting my dog, and dragging him off to the penitentiary), at his core, he was a good man, a loving father, and a jazz fanatic–for him, the Sun only rose in the morning so it could shine on Charlie Parker. So he wasn’t able to give me much, but what he did give me turned out to be one of the most potent, and enduring forces in my life.
I’ll never forget the day he gave me that horn. It was on a Sunday morning. He opened the case, and there it was, smiling at me for the very first time-with its pearly-white keypads, and glistening gold body, gleaming in the sunlight against the deep blue felt lining of its case. Even now, I can remember my excitement as the newness of it’s smell filled my young nostrils.
To my surprise, he also brought Jimmy home with him–for what, I didn’t know. Jimmy was the neighborhood’s quintessential dope fiend and general substance abuser. So to my even greater surprise, it turned out that he had brought Jimmy home to teach me to play the saxophone. I was very doubtful that Jimmy could teach anyone to do anything, but shoot dope and nod, but I wasn’t worried about that at the time–I just couldn’t wait for him to put that horn together. It seemed like it took him forever to extract the pad-saver and adjust the reed on the mouthpiece. Then they finally put the strap around my neck, Jimmy showed me where to place my fingers, then I blew, and got one of the most horrifically agonizing sounds out of that horn that ANYONE has ever heard. It made my mother jump up out of bed and run in the living room yelling, “What is going on in here!”
I became immediately frustrated, because I just couldn’t figure out how something that was so beautiful could produce such a horrible sound. Then my father said, “Wait a minute, son. Jimmy, show him how this thing is supposed to sound.”
Jimmy, as I mentioned before, was not only a dope fiend, but over the years he had degenerated into an extremely unkempt drunk as well. He had become the kind of person who was completely dismissed by even the most down-on-their-luck adults, and the kids used to like to play practical jokes on him when they found him nodded out somewhere in the neighborhood. But when he put that horn in his mouth and began to play “Round Midnight,” he became a different person. Now he was in his element–he was in command. Even as a kid I could see the confidence, the focus, and knowledge reflected in his eyes. And to this day, I have never heard ANYBODY play “Round Midnight” with such passion and ease of facility. I never looked at Jimmy the same way again. From that day on, he became a man to be respected, and to be taken very seriously–at least, in my eyes.
When Jimmy was done, my father told me, in his typically graphic and offhand way, “Now, I want you to hang on to this horn like it’s your momma’s titty, and you’ll never be broke or alone.” Then he looked over at Jimmy and added, “unless you start shootin’ that sh*t.” I followed my father’s advice, and his words have turned out to be prophetic. But actually, after watching the transformation in Jimmy when he picked up that horn, my father didn’t have to say another word.
So even as I respond to this interview, and speak of my love for the written word, a lifelong friend sits in its stand, with that same beautiful smile that first greeted me as a child. The beauty of its song is a constant reminder that the written word is only one part of my life. Unlike a corporeal being, its only reason for existence is to carry out the blessing of a long departed father upon his son. But much like a sensuously flawless and indulgent woman, it waits patiently, still gleaming in the sunlight with its glistening keys and curvaceous body, as though longing for my loving and passionate embrace.
When Jackie McLean first appeared on the scene
he swung it like nobody else; he stood all alone, with that bittersweet tone, owing nobody, only himself
With his furious attack he could take you back to the beauty of Yardbird’s song, but that solemn moan made it all his own, as burning passion flowed Lush from his horn.
Hearing “Love and Hate” made Jazz my fate, joyous anguish dripped blue from his song. He both smiled and cried and dug deep-down inside, until the innocence of my childhood was gone.
He took me to a place that had no face, I was so young when I heard his sweet call, but he parted the fog and in no time at all, a child of bebop sprung fully enthralled.
As I heard this new sound, and embraced the profound, childish eyes now saw as a man;
I stood totally perplexed, but I couldn’t step back, from the hunger of my mind to expand.
I saw Charlie and Lester, and a smiling young Dexter, as I peered into Jackie’s sweet horn;
It was a place that I knew, though I’d never been to, but a place that I now call my home.
Rest well, Jackie.
Eric L. Wattree