Song For My Father
A Jazz Memoir By Al Perlman
Jazz was always in my life. It was my father’s great love. I grew up in a tiny first-floor garden apartment in Bayside, Queens, five of us with one bathroom, a small kitchen, two bedrooms, two closets, a living room and another family living in equally cramped quarters directly above us. There wasn’t much space and my mother made it even smaller by banning us from the living room. This was our “show” room to be kept in pristine condition and used only when we had guests: We weren’t permitted to sit in it or talk in it or eat in it or do anything in it. My mother kept plastic on the furniture and took it off only when there was company. The one exception was when my father was home and wanted to listen to jazz. That’s where he had his great big Fisher console with the hi-fi and radio.
Dad wasn’t home that much. He sold cars for a living and it was all commission and if he wasn’t at the showroom he couldn’t make money. He usually worked six days a week, didn’t get home till 9:30 or 10 at night and by then was too miserable and exhausted for anything other than a quick dinner and TV. Boy he hated selling cars. Sunday was his escape. This was the ‘60s and there were blue laws in New York, which meant most businesses were closed on Sundays. Sunday mornings, especially in winter, by 10 a.m. our tiny garden apartment on Springfield Boulevard would be filled with the sounds of Horace Silver and Art Blakey and Cannonball Adderley and Lee Morgan and Bill Evans and Dizzy Gillespie and dozens and dozens more. I’d wake up bleary eyed and there would be my dad, in his pajamas, in the living room with a Bloody Mary, The New York Times, a cigarette and a swinging, driving record on the Fisher turntable. The Times would be on the floor and he’d be listening, enraptured, off in a world where there were no Ranger Ramblers to sell, with his toes tapping and his head bobbing, his body transformed. Sometimes, when he’d have on a favorite like “Sister Sadie” by Horace Silver or “Moanin’” by Art Blakey, he’d call me in and try to get me to share the wonder of it.
“Alan, Alan, come here and listen to this,” he’d shout while Joe Henderson would be wailing on “Song For My Father.” I’d come and listen, politely, but I’d never hear what he heard. I’d smile and go back to my room and put on the Beatles or Supremes or Zombies on my little Victrola. As much as my dad loved his music, that’s how I loved mine: Like father like son, a chip off the old block, I guess, except Dad didn’t see it that way: He saw it that I liked crappy music and he liked great music. It led to some ugly fights. I remember him laughing at me and calling me an idiot and a moron because I preferred my version of Paul Butterfield doing “Got My Mojo Working” versus his version of Jimmy Smith doing the same song. By the late ‘60s this was how the generation gap played out between Dad and me. It was about long hair and politics and smoking pot and Vietnam played to the tunes of Horace Silver, Jimmy Smith and Art Blakey on the one side and The Doors, Cream, Jimi Hendrix and Ten Years After on the other. Music, which we both loved with such intense passion, would become a competitive battleground that would last for years.
Things didn’t get better even when I fell in love with jazz. It was in the summer of 1970. I was 17, just out of high school and getting ready to start Queens College in the fall. I began the summer with the family in Blue Point, Long Island, where my parents rented a small house with a private beach on the Great South Bay. It was only 50 miles to the south and east, but it felt a world away from Queens. I loved our summers at Blue Point, away from the city and the nosy neighbors and even my buddies back home playing stickball and ring-a-levio. I fished and clammed and read and sat on the beach and discovered how comfortable I could be just being alone. But the summer of 1970 was different. My first major girlfriend, Andrea, was home and my libido was pulling me hard back to Bayside. Right after July 4th I announced to the family that I was going home to look for a job and would only be back to visit on weekends. Being in Bayside I could see Andrea every night and, even better, we could have free reign of the house to fool around without having to worry about parents or siblings or anyone else.
It was an ideal situation, except for one small problem: In my hormonal haste to head home I had left my records and record player back in Blue Point. The only music in the house was dad’s jazz collection, maybe 300 records tucked away in a pair of black cabinets in the closet of my parents’ bedroom. One night when Andrea was babysitting and I couldn’t see her, I got bored and decided to try out some of dad’s music on the Fisher hi-fi. What the hell: Mom was away, if I cleaned up and put the plastic back on the sofa maybe she’d never suspect I violated the sanctity of her sanctuary. I remember the very first record I put on: The Cannonball Adderley Quintet At The Lighthouse. Side one: “Sack O’ Woe.” It was one of dad’s favorites.
It was a casual thing: Sit in the living room like dad, pour a glass of wine, maybe take a couple of hits off a joint and listen to some jazz. No big deal. I certainly never expected to be blown away. But I was. Somewhere along the way, from the opening notes – dah, dah, doobee, dah, dah, doobee, dah dah, doobie, dah, dah – to Cannonball’s soulful sax solo to Vic Feldman’s incredibly intricate piano solo, somewhere, I don’t know exactly where or when, somewhere the music struck a nerve in my body and I felt it, felt the music as I had never felt it before. I could sense the music penetrating my body and heart and mind and it was euphoric.
The music, this music, this jazz, all of a sudden made perfect sense to me. I could understand what the musicians were doing: I could relate to the level of skill and talent and craft and art that went into it; I could feel how joyful they were in the act of creating, how powerfully they were expressing their feelings through their instruments. More than anything, I could feel the music talking to me and, for the first time, I could hear what it was saying. And it was so powerful: My God, my legs were bopping up and down, my head was shaking, my hands and arms were drumming
This thing that had started so casually was now becoming something incredibly important and profound. I took off “Sack o’ Woe” and went back to the cabinets in my father’s bedroom to find another, to see if it would hit the same nerve the same way. I took out one of his favorites, one he had tried many times to get me to listen to: Horace Silver’s Blowin’ The Blues Away. Side two, track one: “Sister Sadie.” Oh, man: And I had thought “Sack o Woe” was hot: This one swung even more. It became a night of one revelation after another: “Moanin’” by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers; “Take Five” by the Dave Brubeck Quartet; “The Sidewinder” by Lee Morgan; “Cristo Redentor” by Donald Byrd. I found myself gravitating toward the soulful, swinging records: I guess these were closest in sound and spirit to the rock music I liked at the time, only I found the jazz records to be more interesting and complex, their sounds and emotions and ideas much richer, just as my dad had been telling me all those years.
From there, I was hooked forever. It was like walking through an enchanted forest, with one dazzling discovery after another: Moving from Blakey and Silver and Adderley to Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington and Count Basie and Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins and on and on and on and on till the path led to Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins and by then I felt as if I’d returned home and I knew there would be no other music that would touch my soul so profoundly. Jazz became much more than music to me: It became a part of who I was, how I identified myself. I reveled in being known as a jazz aficionado, a collector, an expert. When I started my career in journalism, my very first articles were reviews of jazz concerts and records. By the age of 21, I had interviewed Chick Corea and Charles Mingus and Count Basie. By the time I was 30, I had amassed a world-class collection of more than 5,000 jazz albums
I wish I could say that my father was overjoyed that we shared the same passion. He wasn’t. Life between my father and me was always something of a competitive battleground and music was often the weaponry of choice. Every time we would try to sit down and listen to music together it became a fight. I’d put on a favorite Sonny Rollins record and he would put it down and tell me Coltrane was better: If I liked Bill Evans, he would purposefully take a contrary view and argue that Art Tatum or Oscar Peterson was better, even though I knew in my heart that he, like me, preferred Evans. Every tune on the turntable became a battle of who knew more, who had better taste, who was the greater expert.
It bothered me that he could take no joy in this wonderful jazz collection I had accumulated. It was filled with music that he loved, but, because it was mine, he took no pleasure in it: Instead, he would find reasons to belittle it and, of course, it felt like he was belittling me. It got to the point where I would dread his visits from Florida and, when he did come to my house, I would not sit in the same room with him if there was jazz on the turntable. It lasted like this for years. Our conversations about music got smaller and smaller and smaller, until we stopped talking about music entirely. It became emblematic of our conversations and relationship in general: I worked at the same publishing company for 15 years, became a high-level executive, a vice-president, and for most of that time my father couldn’t remember the name of my company, couldn’t say what my job was about. We never talked about my work and he certainly never wanted to hear about any of my successes.
Jazz, which we both loved with such joy, had helped to wedge a distance between us, had created a chill in our relationship that not even the warmth of a Louis Armstrong or Ella Fitzgerald could melt. It wasn’t something we talked about. Neither of us was much to talk about feelings. The distance was there and that was that: That was our relationship and there wasn’t anything anyone could do about it. I assumed it would be like that forever.
I can pinpoint the exact moment it changed. It was in the mid-1980s and my parents were up in New York from Florida to celebrate the 50th wedding anniversary of my grandparents, my father’s mother and stepfather. A group of us, including my sister, my wife, my grandparents, parents and a great aunt and uncle, went to a Roumanian restaurant on the lower East Side. My grandfather’s family had owned a similar restaurant when he was growing up, so it was like taking a trip to his past, for all of us. It was wonderful. We were giddy after the meal and decided to head up to Greenwich Village to get a drink or just walk around and enjoy the evening. We parked in a lot on West 3rd Street, right across from The Blue Note. My dad and I strolled across the street to see who was playing. It was Billy Eckstine. Dad had grown up on Billy Eckstine, had seen him on 52nd Street, had even seen the great band he had with Bird and Dizzy and Dexter and Sarah in the ‘40s. I had never seen him and, since Eckstine was in his 70s at the time, there probably wouldn’t be many more chances. I looked at my dad and he looked at me.
“We gotta do this,” I said.
He wanted to do it as much as me. He looked back at the rest of the family.
“Do you think they’ll mind?” he said.
“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “We gotta do this.”
And we did.
We got a table in the back, ordered a couple of drinks, lit up a couple of cigarettes and waited for the great Mr. B. It was magical. Eckstine sounded like he did in his 20s or 30s, his great distinctive baritone filling the club with all the glorious traditions of the music he had been singing his whole life. Eckstine was in his 70s, dad was in his 60s, I was in my 30s, but suddenly we were all young again, untouched by time, joined together as contemporaries, as equals, as brothers. We were jazz people, all of us, bonded together by our love and appreciation for this music, this jazz, which was chiseled deep within the essence of our beings like a mark on our DNA.
As my father and I sat there, smiling, bopping to the music, thoroughly enjoying ourselves, I could feel years of tension melt away. It felt like we were no longer enemies, no longer competitors, no longer a father and son feuding over petty jealousies and slights and misunderstandings and years and years of poor communication. We were just a couple of guys who loved jazz and all of a sudden that felt like enough. I looked at him and he was so happy, so overjoyed, just like those times in the living room of our garden apartment on Sunday mornings listening to Horace Silver and Art Blakey and Lee Morgan. Perhaps for the first time I saw him as a man, a guy, and not as my father. And I felt like maybe I understood him a little better and why it was so hard for him to share his love of jazz with me.
My dad had a tough life, much tougher than mine. His father was abusive and his parents divorced when he was young. There was a stigma attached to divorce in the 1930s and it was a source of great shame both for him and his mother. He was separated from his father’s family and eventually, when his mother remarried, also separated from the extended family on his mother’s side. All of his life he felt overlooked and unappreciated and unimportant. He was constantly crying out for attention, for recognition. Jazz gave that to him. He became the expert, the aficionado, the collector. Jazz was part of who he was, how he identified himself. Nobody knew more about jazz than my dad. He could stump the experts, recognize any musician after just a few notes. Dad hated his job, hated his work, but in his love of music he achieved pride and recognition and found something that made him special.
Then I came along and took it away and made it mine. I became a bigger expert, a bigger collector, a greater aficionado. Like my father, I am a man of great passion and when I go after something, I go after it in a big way. My record collection made my father’s seem like a pittance. I was writing about jazz, playing jazz, learning about the history and traditions of jazz with a fervor against which my father could not compete. It was the one area where he felt important and special and now, even here, he once again felt small and unimportant and overlooked. And it was because of me.
Of course, I didn’t mean for it to be that way. I pursued jazz the only way I knew how, with great passion and intensity, because that’s how I pursue life. I didn’t fall in love with jazz to please my father or to hurt my father: I fell in love with jazz because the music touched something deep inside of me and, like my father, I was given a gift of understanding and appreciation. I never meant to steal a piece of my father’s identity, I never meant for jazz to be a symbol of my success or his failure. I only wanted to love the music. Just like my dad.
That night at the Blue Note something happened. For me, seeing my dad like that, I was able to appreciate him for his love of the music and his enthusiasm and passion. More than that, I could see myself in him like a reflection off a window pane. I was looking at him and seeing myself. It was very freeing. Finally, after years of anger and resentment and strife and turmoil, I was ready to give it up and let my dad just be himself. If it made him feel good to argue about John Coltrane versus Sonny Rollins or Art Tatum versus Bill Evans, then that was okay. He could be the bigger expert, the greater aficionado. No problem. I didn’t need it and didn’t need his approval.
As for my dad, I don’t know what changed in him, if anything. I don’t know if he was able to let go of any anger or resentment or even if he had any specific anger or resentment to let go of. Maybe he never changed at all and the relationship changed because I changed. Or maybe my dad looked at me off the same window pane and saw the same reflection, father in son, son in father. In the end, I don’t know what happened, I just know that things changed and we never talked about why or how or what. But after that night, our relationship was never the same.
We became just a couple of guys who loved jazz. We could sit and listen together, talk about the music and challenge one another on our knowledge, not as rivals, but as respectful colleagues. Every couple of weeks I’d get a call from Florida: My father had been to a record store and had bought some great items and could he read me the titles over the phone. I would congratulate him and share in the excitement of the hunt. Once, he bought a collection of about 50 rare guitar records. It was a real score, worth a lot of money. On his next visit to New York he packed them in his luggage and brought them to me as a gift, a surprise. “These will be great in your collection,” he said. He was proud of my collection and proud of my success at work. These were feelings he had never felt, never expressed. Finally, after all those years, we were at peace with one another. Jazz had pulled us apart and, in the end, it had put us back together.
The last time I saw my father we didn’t listen to jazz. I needed to be in Florida on business and came down a day early to see my parents. We went to the racetrack then back to my hotel to have dinner and watch the Super Bowl. It was fun and comfortable and warm and there was no rancor or jealousy or envy. Three months later he was dead after botched heart surgery. He was 73 years old. My sister and I went to Florida to help my mother with his stuff. The jazz records were my inheritance. There were about 1,000 in all. They are now embedded in my collection, just as my father’s love of jazz is embedded in me. On the flight home, listening to jazz through my headsets, I wrote a little remembrance of my father. This is what I wrote:
There will be moments
In the sound of a saxophone or trumpet
In the tinkling of a solo piano
In the swing of a jazz combo
Or the voice of Billie or Ella
In the quip or joke
Or the gentle banter of everyday life
When you’ll stop and think
And you’ll smile and think of me
And keep a little piece of me alive
In your heart.
I gave a copy to my mother and she sent it out on cards to all my father’s friends. In writing this memoir, I searched my house for a copy, but there was none: I didn’t keep it. Reading it now, I know why. I thought at the time that it was kind of trite and I felt he deserved a better tribute.
But, as with many things trite there is also some truth. There are moments – songs, albums – that I can never listen to without thinking of my father. When I pull certain records off the shelf – Song For My Father, Blowin’ The Blues Away, The Sidewinder, The Cannonball Adderley Quintet At The Lighthouse and many, many others – I can’t help but remember by dad, in the living room, bopping and listening and enjoying life so thoroughly. No matter what else was going on in his life, jazz was always a source of unconditional joy. For me too. And now, whenever anybody asks me where I got my love of jazz, I always say the same thing: “From my father.”