THE FREEBIE this month was suggested to me while I worked on my memoir of my life with Art -- Due out in April or May of this year.
The background: In 1977 Art recorded for three nights at the Village Vanguard with George Cables, George Mraz, and Elvin Jones. This tune was released on the very first album from that session, Thursday Night at the Village Vanguard, though it was recorded on Saturday, the final night. And it was edited a bit for that release by John Koenig who thought the ending "lugubrious." I always regretted that edit and was given a chance to restore the original just as Art played it when I worked with Fantasy Records to release a complete boxed set of the session. Unfortunately none of the Vanguard material is currently available from the label.
Here's the bit from my memoir that made me long to hear this tune again.
They recorded for three nights. What you can hear now in those recordings of Art’s voice on the last night was not a drug-induced stupor. It was a stupor induced by a lack of drugs: His nose had finally swollen shut. He hadn’t really slept for about a week, hadn’t been persuaded to eat much more than an occasional candy bar for longer than that. He could hardly stand. That evening he had passed out in the hotel room, his face on a glass-topped bed-table which held his last few lines of coke. I roused him and brought him to the gig. John's [John Snyder's] assistant helped me get him there.
|Photo by Mitchell Seidel|
The table’s edge had left a deep crease in Art’s cheek, like a thick scar, and he was dead-eyed, yellowish, and emaciated inside these stiff, slightly iridescent clothes he’d bought earlier on the tour at some pimp shoppe he’d found in Dayton (of all places). In the kitchen of the Vanguard, waiting to perform, he passed out again. Then it was time to go on. "He stumbled to the stage, stood in front of the mike with his horn, and faced the audience," I wrote in the liner note for the release of the whole set years later: "and suddenly he was alive. Alive! And yes, he was a monster. Listen to him play 'Cherokee,' of all things, the tune he always said separated the real jazz players from the play ones. Listen to him fly." The album was released by John Koenig after Les died the following year. The reviews were rhapsodic and it was a hit––in the small, international way great jazz albums sometimes are.
If there is any track on any album that sums up the beauty and power of Art’s triumphant artist’s soul, his gift, it’s the heartbreaking “Goodbye” he played that night and dedicated to his old friend, Hampton Hawes, "Who’s holding a place up above for all of us cats here on the stage.” For me it’s the strongest and most passionate performance he ever gave. I’ve heard Art tell an audience that playing jazz was like an exorcism. He summoned up his demons to demolish them. He mined his pain, confusion, desperation, anger, grief (also his passion, tenderness, and joy), to triumph in his music. He used his emotional past, hectic present, and his terrible fears and wild hopes about the future to connect with his listeners. He gave form to their feeling. He was an artist, and he won the battle every time. He won it at the Vanguard.