Monday, April 07, 2014

`The Hard, Distillative Act of Writing'

Advice from a seasoned pro, heartfelt and succinct, has a poetry of its own: 

“Don’t play with your whole arm, it looks cool
but it isn’t. He lit a Winston. Don’t be like a bass player,
use deodorant. Never let a wimp carry your gear.
Listen carefully to the songs you hate the most.”

That’s the drum instructor Frank McCabe educating the young Ron Slate, author of “Stop-Time,” his latest posted poem. We’ve already met Ron’s father, owner of two liquor stores, in “Four Roses.” Both poems are short stories, thickly detailed and colloquially, not “poetically,” recounted: 

“Late afternoon lessons in his cellar, first the basics
rapped out on rubber pads, then rolls, drags, flams, paradiddles and ratamacues.

Moving on to a real kit and the flair of fills, underbelly routines
of the bass and flights between cymbals, crash and sizzle.”

Ron has a taste for argot, the lingo of a trade, and drumming’s is irresistible. I congratulated him on the poem and learned, via email, of his love for jazz, his training as a drummer and hero-worship of Buddy Rich, whom I once interviewed and Ron saw perform. Ron also spoke highly of Straight Life: The Story of Art Pepper (Schirmer Books, 1979), the tape-recorded autobiography of the great alto player and junkie. It’s among the best jazz memoirs and a landmark in American literature. After likening Pepper’s book to Henry Mayhew’s irresistibly readable London Labour and London Poor (1851), Whitney Balliett writes in his New Yorker review: 

“He is a drug addict, and seven years ago, after he had finished three years in Synanon, he began talking his life into a tape recorder as an act of catharsis and stabilization, and this letting loose continued for several years. There is a plethora of tape-recorded books – books set down in a false prose, whose authors have sidestepped the hard, distillative act of writing. But `Straight Life’ demonstrates again and again that Pepper has the ear and memory and interpretative lyricism of a first-rate novelist.” 

Thanks to Ron for his poems and for sending me back to Pepper (here’s “'Round Midnight” from Art Pepper + Eleven, 1959) and Balliett. In Straight Life, Pepper describes his first rehearsal with Buddy Rich’s big band in 1968, at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas: 

“I looked up, and Buddy Rich had come in. He had somebody else who was going to play for him; he was just going to watch the rehearsal. Buddy’s a little guy about fifty years old, one of the greatest drummers that ever lived, a monster on the drums, and a real arrogant little guy. Everybody’s scared of him. I sat down. Don Menza [saxophonist, composer, arranger] was rehearsing the band. He called out a number. I looked at the music and it looked like Japanese. I told myself, `Am I kidding? I’ve spent five years with Stan Kenton. I’ve played the studios. I’ve been with all kinds of groups and done all kinds of things. Why can’t I calm down?’ The tune was beat off, and we started. 

“I guess it was just starting to play, getting into that familiar setting with the sound happening all around me. I began to lose my fear. I read through the thing without any mistakes, and I sounded good. Don gave me a little nod and a little smile. The guy playing third alto, Carlisle Owens, the only black cat in the band, he smiled at me, and the baritone player really liked me, I could tell.”

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