April 29, 2020

Remembering Lee Konitz and April on Duke Ellington’s Birthday

By Stuart Mitchner

We’ll sigh goodbye to all we ever had
Alone where we have walked together…

—from “I’ll Remember April”

If I’ve been compulsively whistling, humming, thinking “I’ll Remember April” lately, it’s not because my mother and my son were born April 20 and 28, or because my father died April 14, or because Duke Ellington was born on April 29, in 1899, or because jazz great Lee Konitz died of the coronavirus on April 15, or even because Shakespeare arrived and departed on April 23. Any month with so Shakespearean a claim to fame is surely worth whistling about.

Kerouac and Konitz

My recent fixation on this great American standard — I mean the music, not the labored lyric — began on the night at Birdland in early October 1951 when Jack Kerouac watched “in amazement” as Lee Konitz took “complete command” of the song Kerouac instinctively puts in the present tense as “I Remember April.” First noted in his journal six years before the publication of On the Road, it’s a characteristic, blissfully contradictory free-association streaming of his Manhattan-based jazz consciousness reimagined in narrative form in Visions of Cody when he follows “the famous alto jazzman down the street” after spotting him in “that bar on the northeast corner of 49th and Sixth Avenue which is in a real old building that nobody ever notices because it forms the pebble at the hem of the shoe of the immense tall man which is the RCA building.”

Following Kerouac through a wildly free-form meditation on Konitz’s solo in the journal, you go from the player standing “with the alto on his gut, leaning to it slightly like Charlie Parker the Master but more tense and his ideas more white” to “a 12th-century monk, some Buxtehudian scholar of the dank gloomy cathedrals practicing and practicing endlessly in the bosom of the great formal school in which he is not only an apprentice but a startling innovator in the first flush of his wild, undisciplined, crazily creative artistic youth (with admiring old organ monks watching from the background).” After blowing a series of “beautiful, sad, long phrases, in fact long sentences that leave you hanging in wonder,” Konitz “suddenly reveals the solution,” a weirdly dazzling combination of musicianly foresight and hindsight “that at last gives you the complete university education” in the structure of the song, “a beautiful and American structure” that leads inevitably to Kerouac’s realization (as if you didn’t already know) that Konitz “is doing exactly what I’m doing … and here I’ve been worried all along that people wouldn’t understand this new work of mine.” He means of course the work in progress that became On the Road.

The Summer of ’41

My search for the roots of “I’ll Remember April” took me on a long strange trip from October 1951 back to the summer of 1941. I’d assumed that a “a beautiful and American” standard covered by so many great players and singers had to be the work of some big name composer in the Great American Songbook. But the lyric is another story. This is not “How High the Moon,” where words and music commingle like drunken lovers. Or “Autumn in New York.” Or “Stardust.” The best compliment you can pay Patricia Johnston and Don Raye’s lyric is that it makes some kind of accidentally-on-purpose metaphysical sense within the compelling flow of Gene DePaul’s music. Anyway what were Johnston, Raye, and DePaul to do when tasked with composing a romantic ballad for an Abbott and Costello dude ranch western comedy musical called Ride ‘Em Cowboy, to be sung on horseback under a starry sky by a dude ranch cowboy to his cowgirl lover as endless herds of Hollywood cattle stream noiselessly over hill and dale in the moonlit background?

Ponder the words. This is the summer before Pearl Harbor. You’re already alone where you’ve walked together, you’ve lost everything you ever had, you don’t say goodbye you sigh it, but you can still remember April and be glad? And where else does a lovely day lengthen into evening but in America half a year before December 7, 1941? What a mix — warm lips, autumn and her sorrow, fire and glowing ashes, flames that live such a little while, but you won’t be lonely, you’ll remember April and smile. The melodic line blows right by that awkward end-stop smile, as if to say there’s nothing past or future or conditional about what’s all happening now in the player’s present.

Ella on the Bus

This is what I find online after searching for the source of music I’ve been incessantly whistling in the dark of late April 2020 with the coronavirus death toll on the way to surpassing Vietnam. Even as I begin to wonder about the jazz association, my YouTube journey, which began with a video clip of a ride on the A Train on Duke Ellington’s birthday, leads to a dude-ranch bus ride with Ella Fitzgerald sashaying down the aisle singing “A Tisket a Tasket” with a chorus of scatting slaphappy white passengers while Bud and Lou are hanging for dear life to the backside of the bus, and when Ella calls for other colors for her little yellow basket, Lou the lovable goof sticks his head through the rear window and inexplicably yells “Cerise!”

America! Hollywood! Bud and Lou and Ella (and uncredited Dorothy Dandridge in a dance sequence), passengers on the same bus. The two white stars not only riding in the back of the bus, but hanging on outside it. In Brendan Behan’s New York (1964), he quotes the journalist Dorothy Thompson’s response when she was asked what she thought of the American people: “It depends on whether you mean Franklin D. Roosevelt or Al Capone.” Or, say, Abbott and Costello. For today’s version, just fill in the blanks.

All Too Resonant

On the same sheltering-at-home night I rode the A Train from Harlem to La La Land, I was reading Ben Hecht’s all too resonant introduction to 1001 Afternoons in New York, dated July 1941, suggesting that “the prospects for the reappearance in the world of any charm or amiable sanity are still remote. In fact, it is certain that before this volume is printed the human sky will have turned blacker than it is today. Hunger, death and danger are daily enlarging their domain and daily our country approaches gingerly its desperate but illumined destiny.” As for democracy, its “very goofiness, unfairness, and above all its dangerousness have served to strengthen our sense of freedom.” And in spite of the “many virulent diseases … like the present day Nazis … that have raged from time to time in the human spirit,” the “patient as always recovered rather suddenly, tossed his tombstone out the window, and capered happily off.”

Hecht ends the introduction by “looking ahead to the time when the world is restored to sanity,” well aware that “whatever the greeds and cruelties and imperfections of that world we will win back, as long as it subscribes to ideas better than its deeds, to dreams finer than its realities, it will be good enough to live in again. It will suffer as it always has from cold, hunger, and injustice. And it will be full of hypocrites and hysterics. But compare it to the morass in which we exist today, to the swamp of intolerance and ant-like power … and you will get a blinding view of its glories.”

Hecht’s final paragraph celebrates “the addle-pated city of New York — the teeming and invincible citadel of ball games, slum dramas, night life, soap-box revolutions, and all the other jackstraw items of democracy” whose “famed lights will never dim to a conqueror, nor will its hundred different languages ever stop clacking their varied and Humpty-Dumpty version of freedom.”

Back to the Future

Time to come clean. I was a teenage Lee Konitz. In spite of being a high school sophomore who couldn’t play an instrument (ah but I could whistle), I qualified for the role as the only member of the Bloomington University High jazz club who wore glasses; as much as I admired Konitz’s playing (now more than ever, thanks to an infusion of foresight and hindsight), my hero was Chet Baker, and if my English professor father had listened to my pleas I might have taken trumpet lessons. As it happened, the son of the English department chairman was a dead ringer for Chet Baker; not only did he have the hair and the cheekbones and the debauched good looks, he could actually play an instrument; the only catch was that he was a trad jazz purist who played lights-out Meade Lux Lewis-style piano and hated Chet Baker. The teenage Gerry Mulligan and presumptive leader was a redhaired beanpole who eventually graduated from Princeton and whose father chaired the Department of Journalism. The most talented and imaginative musician among us (the role playing was his idea) and the only non-faculty brat (his father was an amusement machine tycoon) doubled for guitarist Barney Kessel.

Too Marvelous

Turning to YouTube for one of my favorite long-gone albums from those years, Lee Konitz Plays with the Gerry Mulligan Quartet, I began with (what else) “I’ll Remember April,” and was thrilled to hear the unique sound that opened the door to jazz for me. The real revelation, however, was the way the simultaneously fiery and fluent playing of my bespectacled teen-age alter ego soared over the fugue-like interplay of the baritone and trumpet. Lee’s searing solo on “Too Marvelous for Words” sounded a long A Train ride away from Kerouac’s “Buxtehudian scholar of the dank gloomy cathedrals.”

If someone asked me what I think of the American people on April 29, 2020, I’d say “It depends on whether you mean Duke Ellington or —”  fill in the blank.