Saturday, February 06, 2010

`Foxlike, Killing Time'

Whitney Balliett died three years ago this week, on Feb. 1, 2007. A year before his death the longtime jazz writer for The New Yorker published his final book, New York Voices: Fourteen Portraits (University of Mississippi Press). Among the profiles included is one of Daphne Hellman, a socialite-harpist. Balliett foregoes his customary role as critic and doesn’t evaluate Hellman’s performance on her unlikely instrument. He leaves that to others, including Julius Monk, a pianist and impresario profiled by Balliett in the same book. Monk says of a group he had with Hellman:

“After the war, we played at the Bœuf sur le toit, in Paris. We did Jerome Kern, and to keep her out of trouble we glissed a great deal.”

“Glissed” needs a gloss (as Joyce writes in a Finnegans Wake footnote: “Wipe your glosses with what you know”). It’s shortened from glissando (plural: glissandi), meaning to play the notes of a chord in a rapid sweep rather than consecutively, producing a harp-like sound. The word sounds like what it means – glissed, with echoes of “bliss,” "glass," “glisten” and its French root, glissade (“to slide”). Monk was implying that by glissing on the piano he was helping to disguise Hellman’s limitations (“trouble”) as a performer in a jazz or art song setting.

I bring this up because I enjoy the sound of the word and the wit of jazz musicians, and because I’ve been glissing for the last seven school days. My job was to shadow a student on in-school suspension. I followed him from class to class, sitting at the back of the room, exchanging no more than 20 words with him throughout my assignment. If he was the harp, I was the glissing piano. The kid is utterly passive, a little boy looking for Mommy, and accomplishes nothing at school but collecting hugs and squeezes from credulous females. The school nurse told me he suffers from “little-man syndrome.” I got a lot of reading done, and even got paid for it.

One of the books I reread was The Stories of J.F. Powers. No writer is funnier than Powers when it comes to stylistic concision. His ear was perfect. In “A Losing Game,” Father Fabre wants a desk for his typewriter in the rectory. The pastor is pathologically laconic. They search the furniture-choked basement, when the pastor says the room is infested with rats. He picks up a .22 and gives Father Fabre an air rifle. Fabre says:

“`What’s wrong with trapping ’em?’”

“`Too smart.’”

“`How about poison?’”

“`Die in the walls.’”

Anyway, the rectory employs a janitor, John, who has established goldbricking sanctuaries around the building – under the stairs, in the furnace room, in the choir loft behind the organ, in “the visiting priest’s confessional.” The narrator, deadpan, says:

“John moved around a lot, foxlike, killing time.”

That sounds like the kid I’ve been working with, glissing.

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