Far Cry

a column by
Brian Morton

We parted company last week, after more than twenty years. She was beautiful to the last, but beauty always has a flaw. Who’s not met some pre-Raphaelite girl in a bar who turns out to have a voice like a nail on a slate? She was like that: elegant in a high-maintenance way, but reduced to squeaks and squawks when called on to speak. ‘Parted company’ is a miserable lie, for in the end, no gentleman, I sold her.

If the best definition of a gentleman is a chap who owns several saxophones but no longer plays them, I’m almost through that stage as well. Poverty dictates, but there is still a powerful signification in putting a saxophone on the cyber-equivalent of a dusty shop with three brass balls. I never quite had the balls to do it before, but there’s a recession on, and the words “Gordon Brown” and “optimistic” somehow don’t belong in the same sentence.

So, she’s gone. In eBay-speak, a “classic” 1950s Grafton acrylic alto saxophone, Hector Sommaruga’s “iconic” design, a “tone poem in ivory and gold” (ha!), with intact transparent key-guards, and the “usual” crack around the strap-ring. There hadn’t been active relations for some time. In fact, it was pretty much a mariage blanc, since she was never really up to being handled. She “played through,” if you’ll pardon the expression, with a little encouragement, but the results were never commensurate with the effort. The ‘ivory’ was, of course, injection-molded acrylic, though for some reason I always referred to her as “Bakelite.” a word that conjures up old valve radio sets and chunky British phones with a proper bell sound.

I enjoyed having her and I made a profit. She turned up in an Edinburgh junkshop, and I paid £20 to a supercilious guy who told me it was “just a toy.” What? Ornette! Parker!! Massey!!! I managed to disguise all this as a fit of sneezing – it was a very sneezy kind of shop – and got away without seeing the price hiked in front of me. I might have added: Dankworth! Everyone forgets that Johnny Dankworth used to endorse Graftons and apparently played one on the new South Bank during the Festival of Britain, when everything here was hip but cheap, post-austerity but still watching the pennies. Just like now, except for the hip bit.

The strange thing about the Grafton is that it was never intended to be much more than a practice or beginner instrument, and always a “pig” (I quote an expert) to repair. There is even video footage on the internet of someone trying to do just that. It seems more complicated than transecting a cornea. I once mentioned to Evan Parker that my Grafton had a crack. He commiserated and in that way that middle-aged golfers have of mentioning a really good “back man,” he told me there was someone in Berlin who for a mere few thousand Euros would put it right. Needless to say, it never happened and was sold “as seen.” I hope they’re happy together.

What is has done is made me think again not so much about design icons, though it is one, as about how much we – or certainly I – fetishize personal association. Lifting the lid on that case all those years ago, I did wonder whether this was the very horn Charlie Parker had played, or maybe Ornette on one of his British visits, or even whether it was one of Dankworth’s. He met Cleo in Edinburgh, after all, though she denied this, an argument that played out for ten entertaining minutes on my BBC Scotland radio program, leaving the presenter to ponder the advice always given to young policemen about interfering in a ‘domestic’. Needless to say, my Grafton had no such aura of specialness. Like certain once-despised marques of car, the make has simply acquired a reputation far above its calling.

The reason I’ve been thinking about personal associations and artistic relics is perhaps also because the remains of St Thérèse of Lisieux are currently touring the UK, and unexpectedly drawing crowds more redolent of a pop-diva tour. Inevitably, she has also attracted a strong measure of suspicion from middle-class Anglicans who have been heard muttering about bringing back Henry VIII and “what’s the point of having a Reformation in the first place when you get this?” There has been more reasoned discussion in the Catholic press – for which I write – but divided between those who regard sacred relics as a true expression of faith and devotion and those who regard them as a pre-literate distraction from the real business of belief.

I have to declare myself intellectually inclined to the latter (which is the failed Protestant in me, rising up for one last toot) but a devotee of relics in every shape and form, particularly when they have literary or musical associations. I still firmly believe in that superstitious old nonsense about ‘breathing the same air’ or holding the very pen that wrote the sonnet. I claimed to understand Sibelius’s music better after a trip to Järvenpää (how great to live somewhere so exotic it needed three umlauts!), and I never quite understood something about Wuthering Heights until I saw a nightdress worn by Emily Bronté  (just one dieresis, but same point applies!) in the parsonage at Haworth. So small! Did a woman who could only have come up to my prominent saxophone-player’s diaphragm really have written a book as turbulent as that?

Musicians are a superstitious lot and instruments are prized for their associations, as if some of the personality of great players is left in the wood or brass I found myself hitting stop and rewind over and over again the other day, as Dan Morgenstern gave a You Tube tour of the Rutgers archive, pausing in front of Benny Carter’s C-melody horn. It both fits and doesn’t fit some image of Benny that he should have ever played something as dankly industrial and not-quite-clubbable as that grey thing in the display case. I was also reminded that our friend Gavin Bryars was staying with us when he learned that Scott LaFaro’s bass, presumed to have been destroyed in the tragic accident that ended Scotty’s life, was still in existence, repaired and viable. I remember a strange look on Gavin’s face: nothing acquisitive or greedy, but suggestive of belief in some unsuspected connection to those solos and countermelodies on Sunday at the Village Vanguard. I felt something of it myself when some years ago Paul Gonsalves’s son showed me his father’s mouthpiece, which looked as if it had been bitten almost all the way through: is that how that sound was produced? All those choruses on “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” on this? The other (non-jazz) example I always think of composer Ronald Stevenson, a champion of Busoni’s music, who has the great man’s piano stool. Sitting buttock-to-buttock with the composer of Fantasia Contrappuntistica is a curious feeling, let me tell you.

There are museums all over Europe, and doubtless the US as well, where one can gaze over velvet ropes at tiny spinets of dubious provenance, quill pens and inkstands that may – but probably didn’t – play a part in the shaping of great masterpieces. Jazz is a more ephemeral art, and its creators often led such a marginal existence, that far fewer plausible relics remain. And yet often the ones that do – a “Mingus bass,” one of Wes’s old guitars – seem to carry some freight of magic. Places certainly do. A friend who recently played the legendary Pit Inn said that it filled his lungs with something . . . different, and he played like a man inspired. I once helped a distinguished singer up a step ladder – inadvertently putting my hand on her well-toned butt – so that she could touch the ‘Bing Crosby plaque’ at the BBC’s Maida Vale studio. It actually seemed to matter to her.

I didn’t queue in London or York to view the knuckles and patella of Thérèse – for whom I have a sincere regard and devotion – but I continue to visit literary and musical shrines and continue to believe that there is some atomic shift in an instrument that has channeled greatness. There’s a business stake here, as well as a superstitious one. One of the remaining saxophones, a sour old tenor of mongrel descent, was once used in London by the late Teddy Edwards, who was waiting for an urgent repair on his own horn. I can’t say I ever got any more out of it after that – but it will, surely? – improve its visibility on eBay.

Brian Morton©2009

Michael Wilderman Jazz Visions Photography

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