Every once in awhile, I pull out a Joe Williams CD and try again.
When I was a teenager and being honest for the first time with myself through confession to someone else, I gave up my false self-image as one of the intelligentsia and admitted that I really didn't like jazz. (It was a realization that went along with those like the fact that I didn't actually like reading poetry or the classics for entertainment. It took me years to realize that I didn't have to forgo them entirely; I could still appreciate their artistry without being entertained. Another big breakthrough.) I didn't like jazz - or the blues, for that matter - because I couldn't process it. There was no depth in it for me. I couldn't tell one style from another, good from bad. Without the ability to discern, which would create different experiences each time I listened, it was much like football: a seemingly endless repetition of the same random pattern of movement. I knew that to some people that random patterns had meaning (touchdown, righteous sax solo, etc.) but to me it was just background noise. Dennis, my ex-husband, being a great big jazz geek, latched onto this statement and - rightfully - proclaimed that I just hadn't heard the right jazz yet.
So, through a variety of impassioned lectures and voiceovers of album after album, a flicker of preference began to well up within me. I came out of my noise-induced stupor and asked, "Who is that singing?" I would bet it is a similar experience to listening to the babble of a foreign language week after week of moving to a new country without understanding it until finally someone says, "Cheese or sausage?" and since you realize that you are being asked what you want on your pizza, you ask, "What?" so that you can repeat the novel experience of understanding rather than asking the question because you need clarification.
The answer to my question was Joe Williams. Although I didn't know it at the time, he was singing with the Count Basie Orchestra, the second incarnation. At the time, though, I was attracted to the sly smile I could hear in his voice. I called him the happiest voice ever recorded. I later learned that his slick sound is very much a Chicago characteristic and that Kurt Elling, who I had seen in concert and disliked for his slickness, was simply following in this tradition of smooth, patent-leather vocal personae.
So, I listened to a lot of Joe Williams. Dennis began putting him on my mix tapes. He was my gateway drug. All of a sudden, Duke Ellington began to develop definition. Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington and Billie Holliday didn't sound so much like each other any more. From the vocalists, I began to hear the difference between Count Basie, Myles Davis and Glen Miller. Those of you that love jazz will be reading this with horror that I ever thought those folks sounded the same, but I feel the same way every time I have to explain to a group of freshmen that the Nazis were not Communists. Don't mock enlightenment just because it arrives slowly and at different times for different folks. Calm down. It'll be OK. I promise.
So, when Dennis left - while the guilt was still fresh and before he turned mean - he let me copy all of the CDs that I wanted to. So, in addition to the Allman Brothers Band, I created my own mini jazz collection by copying an array of these CDs that were my personal preferences. And I have gotten to the point that I can listen to them without thinking of Dennis much at all. I didn't take any Dinah Washington, since she was our singer but I can enjoy Ray Charles and Etta James with abandon. I delight in Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone.
But Joe Williams has been hard. I'll put the CD in the car and get to about the second song and just get bored with it. I think it's definitely a deep-seated aversion to elicit not sadness but apathy. So, I put it away and mourn the loss of "Smack Dab in the Middle" and "The Comeback." Then, I take it out again a few months later and try it all again with the same results.
I'm dating a new man now that I've become fairly smitten with. He was in the background during the whole Motorcycle Boy episode. As I look back, I realize that I was really starting to like him and that is another reason why I pushed the issue with Motorcycle Boy. I wanted to make sure I wouldn't regret not pursuing the opportunity to date a rock star who drove a motorcycle if things advanced with Matt. Yes, that's right folks; I was dating two guys at the same time. How's that for cool?
So, Matt has lots and lots of good qualities that I will not bore you with here. Take me out for coffee and I'll talk your ear off if you're interested but I think that kind of stuff is just gossip when simply listed on the internet. Despite his good qualities, though, he has one downfall. He listens to terrible music. Bands that sound like Enya knock-offs and things with synthesizers and terrible frat-boy jam bands. Music with no black people involved. When I try to explain my love of black people in music, he pretends like he knows what I'm talking about because he thinks I'm cute but there is no real comprehension in his eyes. Conspicuously absent from the conversations are any offerings of examples of possible black people in music that he knows of to find common ground. For example, he never says, "Like James Brown? Yeah, I know him." So, I'm smitten with him to the point that I want to make him mix tapes. Since we're not at a stage in which I can make sappy, love song mixes without scaring him off and freaking myself out, I determined that I'll disguise this romantic impulse in a tutorial CD full of music that involves black people. I'm working it out now. It will be superfunkyjazzy, with at least one Prince/James Brown/Stevie Wonder combo. But in all my plans for Sam Cooke and The Staples Singers, I couldn't figure out a Joe Williams song that would fit.
But I want Joe Williams back and I'm going to try one more time to fit him into this mix. As an exercise, I've had my Best Of CD in while writing this entry. No turning it off after 1.5 songs is the rule.
And I can think I can do this.
Why the change?
I sat with my friend Lorinda at Millennium Park tonight as the Chicago Jazz Orchestra "dueled" the current Count Basie Orchestra in the tradition of Duke Ellington vs. Count Basie. The orchestras alternated songs without a designated set list. About 2/3 of the way through the concert, the Chicago Jazz Orchestra let loose with the distinctive opening horns of Count Basie's arrangement of "Every Day I Have the Blues." I laughed and leaned over to ask Lorinda if that was allowed when facing off against the Count Basie Orchestra. She responded something, but I realized that she probably didn't get the reference. She didn't recognize the wit of that musical selection. I had a realization that Dennis made me into a jazz geek, just a little bit. So, as I was thinking about this, I was also trying to figure out if they would play the whole song without Joe Williams. Just as I leaned over to ask Lorinda this question, they brought out an older saccharine-voiced black gentleman, whose vocalizations hit me right in the sternum. This was the moment that I wanted Joe Williams back.
Because it's not so hard anymore to admit that I like the person that Dennis made me into. I had lots of input, so I've only ended up with the good bits. I don't have to avoid Joe Williams because of the reminders it brings about a time when my jazz innocence was lost to a man who no longer loves me. I can hand that apple to someone new and, in turn, regain that sweet taste for myself. So, after Marvin Gaye's, "Can I Get A Witness," I'll add Joe Williams singing with the Count Basie Orchestra: "All Right, OK, You Win."
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