Thursday, November 26, 2020

'A Totally Different Human Being'

“[T]here has been an evolution of circumstances, and now it becomes necessary to talk about what, by one of those bits of mental prestidigitation with which we protect our sanity, we had succeeded in not even thinking about. We pushed it into some closet in a back room of the mind, and shut the door.”

Even the most fortunate among us – good, careful, inoffensive people – may be tempted to lock away the unthinkable and seal the door with bricks and mortar. Our species is capable of extraordinary acts of courage and selflessness, and of motiveless depravity. We flatter ourselves, but no one is immune. Solzhenitsyn puts it like this in Part I, Chapter 4, “The Bluecaps,” in The Gulag Archipelago:


“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”


Boris Dralyuk and I were exchanging thoughts about West Coast jazz, specifically about Shorty Rogers, who played trumpet and flugelhorn, and the trombonist Frank Rosolino, one of the masters of his still under-appreciated instrument. Only later did I realize that today, November 26, is the forty-second anniversary of his death. The passage quoted at the top is from an essay the late Gene Lees published in Jazzletter in 1983. He later collected “Why?” in his Meet Me at Jim & Andy's: Jazz Musicians and Their World (Oxford University Press, 1988). Here is Lees on Rosolino the man and musician:


“Frank Rosolino was among the best-loved men in jazz. One of the finest trombone players in the history of the instrument, he had a superb tone, total facility, a deep Italianate lyricism, and rich invention. Frank was, very simply, a sensational player. . . . He was one of the funniest men in the world, with a wit that literally wouldn’t quit. Frank bubbled.”


Early on the morning of November 26, 1978, in his home in Van Nuys, Calif., Rosolino shot and killed his nine-year-old son Justin, shot and severely wounded his other son, seven-year-old Jason, then took his own life. Jason was left blinded but, at age fifty, is still alive and nearly the age of his father at the time of his death. Lees’ account of the murder-suicide and subsequent events is one of the most painful and powerful pieces of writing I know. It has haunted me for more than thirty years. Boris says of Lees, “what a smart, no-nonsense writer.” Consider that Lees was writing about a friend and a musician he admired enormously, who had committed unfathomably evil acts. He gives Rosolino his due but isn’t afraid to call him what he was: in his words, an asshole. As Solzhenitsyn writes in his subsequent paragraph:


“During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place; sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish. One and the same human being is, at various ages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being. At times he is close to being a devil, at times to sainthood.”

No comments: