COLUMN EIGHTY-SIX, MARCH 1, 2003
(Copyright © 2003 The Blacklisted Journalist)
NOBODY CAME TO BE UGLY
B. B. KING
like to tell you how nice it was in Yankee Stadium on a certain night more than
30 years ago.
the air was damp and warm and loaded with the summer magic of a holiday place.
How you could stretch out in your chair and pass smokes around or else amble up
to the concession stand for a hot dog and beer, bumping into friends you hadn't
seen for years or into people you'd been seeing all week. With conversations
that flashed in bright colors like the glowing balls from Roman candles bouncing
on the concrete floor, while the whole time the sweet music booming up from the
amplifiers surrounded you and carried you into a dimension of beauty and
exaltation you can only find where there is an audience igniting the soul of a
performer, who, in turn, ignites the audience.
was the last night of the New York Jazz Festival and we were sitting way out in
left field. The stage was on second base and we were long past the point where
the stage had become a blur of colored spotlights. But the distance didn't
matter. We were still under the influence of the performers on the stage and
they were still under ours.
is a mystique to being in a ball park that has nothing to do with what's
happening out on the field, just the same as hanging out in your favorite gin
mill often has no relationship to the fact that they serve liquor there. You can
bring your own lunch to a ballpark and if the game is dull, at the very least
you've had a picnic. This was one
of the nicest nights of the Jazz Festival, but then every night of the festival
was nice in its own special way.
I was there with Jerry Wexler, the two of us winding up our week as jazz buffs together, and he had ordered out his limousine for this trip. On the way up, his driver, Jimmy, had asked if we should take the East Side Drive or go through
with Jerry Wexler
30 years ago
Harlem and Jerry had answered "Harlem," remembering
the days be had roamed alone Uptown through all the jazz joints, an odyssey that
quite accidentally had put him on the road to becoming the millionaire that he
became---one of the most successful producers in the recording industry.
"With the vibrations that are coming out of this
cars I don't think we'll upset anybody," he said. Jimmy grinned. I guess we
all wanted to show off a little bit.
Jerry and I had known each other for nearly 15 years,
but I don't think we'd ever been closer than we'd been during this Jazz
festival. But isn't that one of the basic functions of music, bringing people
together, dispensing an energy that is a call to greater spiritual arms,
sparking an inspiration to help man build higher towers of goodness? I don't
mean to cornball you with high- falutin? rhetoric. Music also has to do with
sweaty bodies making it on drenched bed sheets, but in my frame of reference
there are plenty of accommodations in the towers of goodness for that, too.
has to do not only with bringing people together but also with bringing the
spirit and the flesh together. Way out in left field of Yankee Stadium, I
watched Jerry hunched forward in his seat, his elbows on his knees and his
white-flecked beard resting in the palms of both hands, staring in a deep
reverie at the center field bleachers where he used to sit and watch Babe Ruth
and Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio when he was a kid growing up on 181st Street in
Washington Heights, a stick ball champion and pool hall freak, walking down to
the ballgame to spend magic afternoons. Looking at the bleachers at the jazz
festival, he saw his past as a movie, Babe Ruth in right field, Lou Gehrig on
first and Bill Dickey catching---when all of a sudden, the stage materialized on
the infield with B.B. King on it!
always wondered how it would be if somebody could have heard the music of today
in a prior era," Jerry said when he realized we'd nailed him, that we?d
guessed what he was thinking when he was staring out at those center field
bleachers. There was me and Stanley Booth and Emmett Grogan and Emmett's new
wife, Louise, a French-Canadian actress. This was shortly after their wedding
and Emmett seemed very cooled out. His book,, Ringolevio, was headed for
the best-seller lists, but he was still having trouble getting credit references to buy a
house in Brooklyn. They'd read his book and it scared them.
Jerry laughed like a man caught playing with a teddy
bear that he had kept from his childhood. He'd been loose t like that all
week, singing along to the tunes the bands were playing, chattering out loud
with running commentaries on the players and the music until, on one occasion,
some tight-assed English snot leaned over and told us to shut up. At Yankee
Stadium, Jerry didn't mind the fact that it was probably the most impractical
arena in the city for music.
"You can have your perfect, day-glo sponge
cakes," he said, talking about the newer ballparks. 'the asymmetry of
this place is beautiful."
There were 12,000 In the stadium that night. The sound
system---this time by Bill Hanley---was better than It had been In Radio City
Music Hall. B.B. King put us away,
especially with The Thrill Is Gone, taking solos he never could have fit
into his recording of the song. Dave Brubeck, Gerry Mulligan and Paul Desmond
made us tap our feet and beat out rhythms on our knees. Then promoter George
Wein came out and announced that Nina Simone wouldn't show because she was
It started to rain at the intermission and we went
backstage to say hello to Ray Charles. Ray had become a star while recording for
Jerry and Atlantic Records and they talked about the old days. Then Wein came in
and Ray asked him how come it was raining.
"Did you miss a phone call or something?"
Ray said. Wein blushed and asked
Ray to finish before 11 or it would cost a fortune in overtime. Ray danced
around and said he would.
show didn't end until after 11 anyway. You could see George holding his head
in his hands. There were some interruptions because of power failures and the
whole stadium heard when Ray asked Wein over the p.a. if he had paid the
electric bill. But neither the
interruptions nor the rain could dampen this night. Ray, sweet and soaring, tried to oblige George with his
finale: an abbreviated version of What'd I Say?
we finally left, the Grand Concourse was alive, bright and beautiful. And maybe
what impressed me most that night is what Jerry said afterwards:
"You know, there's one thing about this festival. Nobody came to be ugly. There's some deep cultural significance in that." ##
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