FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Riding the Rails with King Curtis

One of the best sections of the New York City public transit system is that stretch of the “A” train that passes between 125th street in Harlem and 59th street. When the A Train is running express it means 64 blocks of uninterrupted movement. Sure, the ride is nice for napping or catching up on some reading, but what’s really great about this leg of the Blue Line is that it gives the subway performers a much longer span of time to perform. Acrobatic dance groups can stretch their routines another five minutes, street preachers can add a little extra depth to their sermons and the musicians are free to blow those extra 16 bars that the conductor and the sliding doors would otherwise have censored.

It’s probably unrealistic, but whenever I see a tenor sax player riding the rails I think of King Curtis coming to New York in the early fifties and doing the same thing. Before he tore through that famous “Yakety Yak” solo, and much before “Soul Twist” bounced and prodded its way to the top of the R&B charts, I picture him as an eighteen year old kid from Mansfield, Texas with a beat up horn and a soulful, syncopated sound, riding back and forth between Columbus Circle and 125th street. You can almost see him in a wide lapel with his meticulously maintained hair tightly slicked back. His church shoes, bright with the glare from the fluorescent subway lights, stand out against the dirty floor as he shares the sounds that would decorate records by everyone from Aretha Franklin to Buddy Holly. A train ride like that would be worth any MTA fare increase.

Unfortunately we can’t catch him entertaining strap-hangers anymore. All we have to go on are those divine records that he released. Classic instrumental cuts like his version of “Tennesse Waltz” or his take on “Ain’t That Good News” are enough to make even the most cynical wallflower tap their foot, while slow dance tunes like “Bill Bailey” croon and plead with the utmost confidence. More than his chops or his tone, what’s really unique about King Curtis is his restraint, as in “Tanya”, a mid-tempo feel-good groove originally penned by Joe Liggins. The song’s just slow enough that most horn players wouldn’t be able to resist plugging every phrase with their favorite fills, but Curtis lets the silence become a band member, comping him and providing a muted answer to his melodies.

Unlike most of the other great sax players of fifties and sixties, Curtis was playing to the mainstream. Charlie Parker and John Coltrane were breaking down boundaries and creating new harmonic ideas in their own fields, but their sounds never had the layman appeal that seemed so natural to King Curtis. Maybe that’s why I don’t picture Coltrane on the A train, blowing “A Love Supreme,” or Bird running up and down his Be Bop scales. Instead I see Curtis in his church shoes, playing for a car full of smiling faces.

LORENZO WOLFF is a musician living in New York. He can be reached at: lorenzowolff@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More articles by:

LORENZO WOLFF is a musician living in New York. He can be reached at: lorenzowolff@gmail.com

April 24, 2018
Carl Boggs
Russia and the War Party
William A. Cohn
Carnage Unleashed: the Pentagon and the AUMF
Nathan Kalman-Lamb
The Racist Culture of Canadian Hockey
María Julia Bertomeu
On Angers, Disgusts and Nauseas
Nick Pemberton
How To Buy A Seat In Congress 101
Ron Jacobs
Resisting the Military-Now More Than Ever
Sonali Kolhatkar
The Left, Syria and Fake News
Manuel E. Yepe
The Confirmation of Democracy in Cuba
Peter Montgomery
Christian Nationalism: Good for Politicians, Bad for America and the World
Ted Rall
Bad Drones
Jill Richardson
The Latest Attack on Food Stamps
Andrew Stewart
What Kind of Unionism is This?
Ellen Brown
Fox in the Hen House: Why Interest Rates Are Rising
April 23, 2018
Patrick Cockburn
In Middle East Wars It Pays to be Skeptical
Thomas Knapp
Just When You Thought “Russiagate” Couldn’t Get Any Sillier …
Gregory Barrett
The Moral Mask
Robert Hunziker
Chemical Madness!
David Swanson
Senator Tim Kaine’s Brief Run-In With the Law
Dave Lindorff
Starbucks Has a Racism Problem
Uri Avnery
The Great Day
Nyla Ali Khan
Girls Reduced to Being Repositories of Communal and Religious Identities in Kashmir
Ted Rall
Stop Letting Trump Distract You From Your Wants and Needs
Steve Klinger
The Cautionary Tale of Donald J. Trump
Kevin Zeese - Margaret Flowers
Conflict Over the Future of the Planet
Cesar Chelala
Gideon Levy: A Voice of Sanity from Israel
Weekend Edition
April 20, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Ruling Class Operatives Say the Darndest Things: On Devils Known and Not
Conn Hallinan
The Great Game Comes to Syria
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Mother of War
Andrew Levine
“How Come?” Questions
Doug Noble
A Tale of Two Atrocities: Douma and Gaza
Kenneth Surin
The Blight of Ukania
Howard Lisnoff
How James Comey Became the Strange New Hero of the Liberals
William Blum
Anti-Empire Report: Unseen Persons
Lawrence Davidson
Missiles Over Damascus
Patrick Cockburn
The Plight of the Yazidi of Afrin
Pete Dolack
Fooled Again? Trump Trade Policy Elevates Corporate Power
Stan Cox
For Climate Mobilization, Look to 1960s Vietnam Before Turning to 1940s America
William Hawes
Global Weirding
Dan Glazebrook
World War is Still in the Cards
Nick Pemberton
In Defense of Cardi B: Beyond Bourgeois PC Culture
Ishmael Reed
Hollywood’s Last Days?
Peter Certo
There Was Nothing Humanitarian About Our Strikes on Syria
Dean Baker
China’s “Currency Devaluation Game”
Ann Garrison
Why Don’t We All Vote to Commit International Crimes?
LEJ Rachell
The Baddest Black Power Artist You Never Heard Of
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail