I grew up watching a lot of animated shorts from the 1950’s (Looney Tunes, Woody Woodpecker, etc.), and caricatures of beatniks and other jazz fanatics were common in many of them. As ridiculous as they were made to seem, there was always something about them that appealed to me on a deep level. In my teenage years, I joined a jazz vocal ensemble, which increased my interest in the form to the extent that I began to seek it out on my own on our local public radio station. It wasn’t until my early twenties though, that I really got into jazz.
I was slumming it a bit—no college, night job at a bar, living in a renovated pool house that couldn’t possibly be up to code—and it just so happened that a record store in my neighborhood decided to clear out much of their jazz section, to my benefit. One of the albums that I gleaned from their discount bin was a John Coltrane compilation titled The Gentle Side of John Coltrane (the word “gentle” being employed somewhat liberally in this case) that was mostly selected tracks from the Coltrane Quartet recordings, but also included a couple cuts from the album that Coltrane made with vocalist Johnny Hartman.
Their rendition of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life”—the soundtrack to slumming—was the song that really hit me like a ton of bricks. It was the perfect combination of composition, execution and ennui, with Hartman’s smoky baritone giving succinct expression to Strayhorn’s lyrics, and Coltrane’s horn providing the perfect context for both. When I listened with my eyes closed, it transported me to some smoky, half-empty club. I could see the small combo through the wafting haze, and I very much enjoyed picturing myself in that room, sitting alone at a table; a glass of whiskey in hand. From that point on, I felt like a member of the club.
Decades on now, I’ve invested a great deal of time into exploring the incredibly broad range of expression that jazz has to offer. My tastes are pretty broad, and I’ve gone through the phases: bop, hard bop, swing, traditional, west coast, electric, free jazz, post bop…Sun Ra searching for expression from another plane? I’m in. Even after all my peregrinations, the Coltrane/Hartman rendition of “Lush Life” still hits me, with an added bit a wistfulness for its ability to recall so vividly a time that I love, that passed before I was born.
This is part of a series about how our music hosts fell in love with the artform of jazz.
We're inviting you to share your story of how you came to love jazz, in 200 words or less. Email your essay to [email protected] before February 14. We’ll read the top submissions on air and award several prizes.