Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Blue

It is late August and millions of North Americans and Europeans continue to mass on beaches from Cape Code to the Costa del Sol, the mood of carefree seaside relaxation on the latter shores occasionally troubled by the arrival of a rubber boat of desperate immigrants.

Meanwhile, in Trump’s Homeland the roadways have for at least a week now been funneling college kids back to their schools.  I ferried one such student back to Oberlin College yesterday, the drive due west from Ithaca, New York taking between five and six hours hour.

The town and college of Oberlin were founded together in 1833 by a pair of Protestant clergymen from nearby Elyria, Ohio. The Reverends John J. Shipherd and Philo Stewart set out into the hardwood forest hoping to establish a bastion of Christian morality on the sinful frontier.  They made it eight miles from home.

Less than a century on, the great Ohioan excavator of desire and repression, Sherwood Anderson also settled in these flat lands, by then mostly cleared of trees, if not religion. Anderson’s celebrated collection of interrelated stories, Winesburg, Ohio published in 1919, is based at least partly on the author’s boyhood experiences in the town of Clyde less than an hour’s drive to the west of Oberlin. As an adult Anderson lived in nearby Cleveland and, even nearer, in Elyria, where, in the first decade of the twentieth century, he set up a successful mail-order business that sold a roofing compound. It was here that he was also plagued by nervous anxiety and suffered breakdowns that landed him in Cleveland’s mental hospital.

Headed to the heart of Anderson country, we chose to listen to his short stories in the car for yesterday’s road trip through the lush forests and fields of western New York and onto the Interstate 90 thundering along the shores of Lake Erie—a grim corridor that for long stretches makes all too real the visions of mechanized Mammon foretold in Winesburg, Ohio. Anderson conjures the present nightmares most vividly through the Christian fervor and acquisitive obsessions of Jesse Bentley, scion of a family at the center of a clutch of four stories. A prophet of bigger-is-better American agriculture, Bentley buys up all the farms around him, and seeks—indeed demands—God’s blessings for his greedy plans. But Bentley is never content with his ever-expanding Promised Land, since he covets the still-greater riches offered by incipient industrialization.  Like a New World Abraham offering up Isaac, Bentley nearly sacrifices his own grandson to his pious lusts.

What struck me powerfully listening to Winesburg, Ohio after having read the book thirty years ago was the persistent presence of hands. The second story (or perhaps the first, if you consider the opening chapter, “The Book of the Grotesque,” to be a kind of preface), has the title “Hands:  concerning Wing Biddlebaum.” Falsely accused of molesting boys as a young schoolteacher in Pennsylvania, the title character barely escapes being lynched. He flees to Winesburg and assumes a new identity. In Pennsylvania Biddlebaum’s beautiful, expressive hands had often encouraged his students by caressing their shoulders and tousling their hair.  This eventually led to vicious accusations from a disgruntled pupil.  In Winesburg, Biddlebaum tries as best he can to keep his hands quiet and hidden deep in his pockets. But even in the new town his hands attract not only attention, but also pride, inspiring the character’s poetic nickname: Wing. On a single occasion Biddlebaum’s only friend, George Willard, almost asks why these hands are so frightened of showing themselves.

The collection’s next story—like so many to follow in the volume—also describes hands, these belonging to a lonely doctor, who uses them to write down random thoughts on scraps of paper, which he then rolls up into tiny balls and deposits in his pockets: “When the hands were closed they looked liked clusters of painted wooden balls as large as walnuts fastened together by steel rods.” These hands are constructs—an amalgam of the natural and the industrial.

Anderson is fascinated by hands: they are often sources of shame, springing into action like machines, groping towards gratification, and even, rarely, risking intimacy.

All of these uncomfortable, inscrutable Andersonian lessons seem to me useful, even necessary, for college life in Ohio or anywhere else.

For the same-day return trip to New York, I let a pair of unseen hands free in all their limitless glory. These belonged to the under-appreciated Jamaican-born pianist Wynton Kelly, best known now as a member of Miles Davis’ band in the late fifties and early sixties.  Kelly’s buoyant, incisive pianism is known to millions through “Freddie the Freeloader”—the single track he contributed to Davis’s Kind of Blue of 1959, an album often claimed to be the best selling jazz record of all time.  With its coy harmonic feint at the end of each twelve-bar cycle, the tune is indeed a “kind of blues”’; Davis tacitly recognized Kelly’s unsurpassable bluesiness by giving the pianist the first solo on that track. The result is a masterpiece of groovy arabesques, ingenious silence, and poised rhythmic energy.

For the road back to Ithaca I hadn’t brought along, Odysseus-like, wax earplugs for my crew to help it resist the Sirens of Lake Erie, or, farther on, Chautauqua. I no longer had a crew: she was now at college.

Nor did I bring along Kind of Blue, a recording that has been a frequent companion of mine over thousands of road miles. Riding shotgun instead was a new release from the vital label, Resonance Records.  This non-profit’s catalog has resurrected a host of live recordings that can now be recognized and enjoyed as historic in both senses of the word—not only of the past, but also uniquely important artistic achievements that resound in the present.

In May Resonance released a sumptuous album of music made by the Wynton Kelly trio—Smokin’ in Seattle: Live at the Penthouse.

To be heard here are two half-hour sets that aired on Seattle’s local radio station KING FM in 1966.  These were broadcast from the Penthouse club in an old hotel building on First Avenue in Seattle’s Pioneer Square. Also site of the famed John Coltrane concert of 1965 captured on the saxophonist’s Live in Seattle, the building was razed a few years later to make way for a multi-story parking garage.

Luckily, more musical sounds from the club have now been reanimated thanks to Smokin’ in Seattle. Joining Kelly is the ever-sharp Jimmy Cobb, also the drummer on Kind of Blue. In Seattle Cobb is in outstanding form, a seemingly impossible, paradoxical embodiment of urgency and nonchalance. The then-young bassist Ron McClure more than holds his own underpinning the trio. McClure also contributes one of the several informative essays to be found in the beautifully produced booklet. McClure describes how he was drafted into the group from a club audience in Atlantic City because the great Paul Chambers hadn’t arrived for the date. Chamber’s health quickly faltering, McClure got the gig for good soon after being summoned to the bandstand by Kelly and Cobb.

It is not only exciting to recall through this record a time when live jazz came over the Seattle airwaves of a Saturday evening, but also when musicians had the nerve for such a take-no-prisoner’s approach to performance. Allotted a curt thirty minutes of airtime, the trio comes out with guns blazing: on the opening tunes of each half-hour set, Kelly unabashedly slices off nearly ten minutes.

First comes the standard “There is not Greater Love,” which, already with Kelly’s delivery of the melody, is brimming with blues and can barely contain its own ecstasy: there is no greater, groovier groove. The second set launches with the saucy blues line, “Sir John.” Whereas Miles gave Kelly four choruses to start off “Freddie the Freeloader,” the pianist takes a ripping twenty rounds on “Sir John,” then, after a mere four from the soloing McClure, saunters through a half dozen more before closing out the opening number. It is thrilling to hear Kelly released from the cool cage of Kind of Blue.

There is also a Latin excursion, a blues waltz, and magnificent ballads that spring forward into double time before relaxing back into reverie. Inexhaustible (at least over a five-hour drive) are the myriad details and sublime detours to be discovered in the course of this dense-pack hour. Verbal encouragements of band mates and audience members picked up by the microphones only add fuel to the glorious flames.

Enter West Montgomery for a bulging ten minutes and some at the end of each set. His solos are joyful juggernauts, rollicking with unstoppable momentum, the harmonic turns spurred on by Kelly, the rhythmic bombs and bursts matched with uncanny anticipation by Cobb.

Sadly, the radio hour chimes and time runs out on the two closing tunes just when the Montgomery locomotive is gathering jubilantly dangerous speed. The guitarist is six ecstatic choruses into “Blues in F” and the tempo has already been pushed forward several notches, as the radio engineer fades out the first set. This rude reminder of music’s almost universal ephemerality (at least in the less obsessively archival age before the birth of the iPhone), leaves one thirsting for more, shocked that the continuation of these feats are lost to time, but thankful nonetheless that so much was captured, held impossibly in those all-too-few, yet still-abundant minutes.

Unshackled and unashamed, these Smokin’ in Seattle hands offer the swingingest soundtrack with which to exit any Swing State.

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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