Friday, April 24, 2009

Autumn Leaves

The pilgrimage to New York to hear Miles Davis in person was probably conceived 4 years earlier when my father went to Chicago and came back with two 10” Miles Davis LPs. I was just starting to play the trumpet – an instrument my father had played in Montreal dance bands and “pit” orchestras in the early 40s. He just handed the albums to me and said, “Listen to these”.

One was a 1954 recording with Art Blakey (drums), Percy Heath (bass) and Horace Silver (piano). The other was a 1952 Miles Davis Sextet album with Gil Coggins on piano. I mention Gillie as he was to be (several years later) one third of the best rhythm section I ever played with. These two albums set off a decade long idolatry of one of the greatest Jazz trumpet players.

Anyway, I borrowed my father’s car for the week-end and drove overnight to NYC with all the anticipation and exhilaration that could be crammed into a 19 year old mind and body. After checking into a hotel, I went to Macy’s dept. store, bought a sport jacket and trousers that the clerk and I deemed appropriate for a night at the Café Bohemia in Greenwich Village to hear the Miles Davis sextet with Bill Evans (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), “Philly Joe” Jones (drums), John Coltrane (tenor sax) and “Cannonball” Adderly (alto sax). I left the store wearing my new “vines”.

I walked out into a beautiful autumn afternoon in New York - the kind of day that is venerated in song - and strolled along the avenues like so many tourists before. It was also a beautiful evening for a walk in Greenwich Village, as I honed in on my destination. Finally, after walking around in circles, I asked directions to the club and got there near the end of the first set.

The club was filled to capacity and an empty seat was found for me. It was the continuation of what seemed to be part of a day- long dream. It took a few minutes to fully realize where I was and who was playing. I was surprised to discover that Bill Evans had replaced Red Garland with the band, and that “Philly Joe” was subbing that night for Jimmy Cobb. By the time I had accepted the keyboard change and understood the new musical dimensions Bill Evans brought to showcase the work of the others in the group it was time for an intermission. 

Standing alone at one side of the club was “Cannonball”, a tall, heavy set man. I introduced myself, and told him I had come from Montreal. We had a really nice conversation. He explained that he left his job as a high school teacher in Florida to live out his dream of playing with Miles and that he enjoyed meeting me as I reminded him of his students. He really missed them.

He wanted to know what I was doing and I told him that the only jazz I was playing was in jam sessions, often with B.T Lundy and Walter Bacon, two Brooklyn musicians who had moved to Montreal in the late 40s. He brought me to a table reserved for the band and introduced me to Miles saying, “This is Guy from Montreal. He’s a friend of B.T. Lundy and Walter Bacon.”

Miles looked at me and said in a hoarse whisper, ”Hey man, how are you doing?” Paul Chambers came up to him and they left. The last set was about to start and “Cannonball” left me at the table to absorb the greatest music I have ever heard. 

The last set was a framework for a long, beautiful rendition of Autumn Leaves that featured each member of the band in extended solos, pushed ahead by a superb rhythm section laying down interesting chords and counterpoint to the soloists’ musical creativity.

The last soloist before Miles was John Coltrane, pushing the limits of his instrument with cascading walls of sound - scales and deep wells of inspiration each building on the last in a crescendo of motion and emotion and followed by a short lead-in to Miles offstage.

From the wings came one note on muted trumpet that seemed to convey the essence of the music that preceded him. An audible gasp from one table led to stillness from the crowd as we listened to Miles’ solo and his last note.

I don’t remember getting to the hotel, but was awakened from my reverie when confronted by four locks and latches on the door of the hotel room – a stark reminder that there was another side to the city that displayed all its autumn beauty and the creativity of its musicians in one perfect day.