By Paul Jablow
I don't recall whether I told my friend Ted about the Hank Jones concert in New York or whether he told me. (Such lapses occur more and more these days.) But I do recall what I said next: "I have to go. I think it's going to be my last chance to see him."
The two of us went, and it was wonderful. That was about three years ago. Not long afterward, Jones stopped playing because of poor health. This month, he died at the age of 91.
Jones was a marvelous pianist, and one of the last of the jazzmen - and jazzwomen - who have enriched my life over the decades.
For me, the cultural equivalent of the Big Bang was a 1958 concert at Carnegie Hall featuring Billie Holiday, Sonny Rollins, Gerry Mulligan, and Chet Baker. This was during one of the great periods of jazz, with all-star shows and thriving clubs where you could nurse a beer at the bar all night instead of blowing your weekly entertainment budget on one set.
Then, slowly, the musicians - Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, the entire Modern Jazz Quartet - disappeared, along with many of the clubs.
It's sometimes said that we start to sense our mortality with the deaths of our parents - the last generational barrier between us and whatever comes next. Actually, though, I think the last barrier may be the musicians, artists, and writers who helped get us out of ourselves and into a larger world.
The loss of those who were older than my parents - Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie - was the easiest to take. So, too, in a way, were the deaths of those who may have hastened their own ends - Bill Evans with drugs, John Coltrane with booze.
The ones who were born after my parents but before me were harder. And Charles Mingus was the hardest of all.
Mingus was a wondrous bass player, composer, and bandleader - and the first person to have been moved by something I wrote. Two years after the Carnegie Hall concert, when I was in college, a review in Downbeat magazine essentially trashed Mingus' entire career. I wrote a letter to the editor in protest, and Mingus liked it so much that he looked me up in the New York phone book (I believe that's how one found people in those days) and invited me to have a drink with him at Birdland, where he was playing.
Fortunately, the legal drinking age in New York was 18 at the time. But I still remember the stares as the notoriously unapproachable Mingus enveloped a white kid half his size in a bear hug, bought me a beer, and took me to a booth near the bar for his entire between-sets break.
Mingus died in 1979 of Lou Gehrig's disease. His wife, Sue, started a repertory band, and since I was now writing more than letters to the editor, I interviewed her about it in the sunny New York apartment where Mingus spent some of his last days on the balcony, looking out at the Hudson River. Sue and the Mingus Big Band are still around, but most of the musicians who actually played with him are gone - along with so many others.
Art Blakey died in 1990. An incredible drummer, Blakey said he stayed youthful by rotating a line of splendid young players through his Jazz Messengers band, including Wynton Marsalis.
Miles Davis went a year later, but his music had lost its appeal to me years earlier - the fragile, porcelain tone disappearing into an electronic jungle populated largely by men half his age.
One of the few still playing in his old style is Sonny Rollins, the tenor saxophonist. He was 41 when I first saw him at Carnegie Hall, and he will turn 80 in September. He has been appearing about once a year in Philadelphia for some time, stooped over now like a bent tree, but still capable of long, intricate solos that would exhaust much younger men.
Ted called me last time Rollins came through, offering an extra ticket to the concert at the Kimmel Center. I had another commitment I couldn't break, but a few days later, I asked him about the show. It hadn't been up to Rollins' usual standard, he said. Something was missing.
I hope it was just an off night. And I hope Sonny Rollins will make it back to Philadelphia. But after what Ted told me, I'm not sure I'll go.