Blues for My Father

An Essay

By Scott L. Allen


1.

My father was a jazzman who was broken only when he came to realize that sometimes, in this fickle world, things fall apart no matter what you do. In the end, fittingly, even his music was gone.

His was an inauspicious death caused by everything. Thwarted ambitions. Bad news from too many women. Simple truths he refused to acknowledge, one of which, sadly, goes like this: a son can never love a father the way a father loves a son.

His deterioration, gradual and irrevocable, spanned nearly a decade. He drank too much, but the real problems were the things that drove him to alcohol, the forces that bent him on his inward movement to death.

He turned old overnight because that was what he wanted. His infirmity and death, a bad one in a hospital, were merely logical extensions of decisions he’d already made. He whispered one tragic sentence toward the end.

“I’m not ready to die yet,” he said, but by then it was too late.

He harbored a dream of perfection for most of his life, and the realization that it was only a dream created in him a great, lingering sadness. It must be sobering to examine your past and concede you’ll never be the man you always hoped to be. After that, he spent his afternoons and evenings sitting quietly in a dark bar because he had nothing else to do.

“How’s it going?” I’d ask over the phone from my dorm room at college.

“I don’t know,” was his usual reply.

My mother was his first wife and the one who saw his dying through. When she phoned late one night to say he’d had a heart attack, the news came as no real surprise. I’d known for years we’d be faced with the final stages of his physical and psychological deterioration sooner or later.

“Come now,” she said. “The doctors don’t know how long he’ll live.”


2.

Psychologists claim our basic personalities are shaped early in life. My father grew up listening to his father’s records, thick 78s that hissed and popped. The music was jazz, and he embraced its ideas.

Trumpet was his first musical instrument. By his late teens, he was playing “screech” horn with a professional Honolulu swing band. Born in Los Angeles and raised in Hawaii, he was also an avid sailor and soon owned part of a 60-foot schooner that took him over much of the world.

Screech trumpet, where musicians play consistently in an ultrahigh range, is physically demanding, and he ruptured a blood vessel in his upper lip one night. He sold the horn and used the money to buy a Gibson guitar and a couple of music books. Six months later was playing guitar professionally with a group in a Honolulu nightclub.

“You do that by cutting wood six or eight hours a day, every day,” he said of the feat.

The first indication something was gaining on him occurred in his late twenties, when he lost his love of the ocean and quit sailing.

“The sea ruins a man,” he once offered, staring at his hands.

One of my earliest memories is of him playing a melancholy piece on the guitar. It upset me, and I was embarrassed as my mother led me out of their room to bed.

Their room was always poorly lit and smoky from the cigarettes that helped ruin his lungs. The room was always quiet, too, even when the music of Joe Pass or Wes Montgomery or Kenny Burrell played through the oversized speaker cabinets he built with plywood and particle board and screws and glue, built because he couldn’t buy the sound he wanted in a store.

There was usually a can of beer resting on his night table. Some evenings, he cradled the guitar in his lap. “That’s not it,” he’d say, repeating a chord sequence, ear cocked toward the guitar. “It’s missing the right change.” And he’d tinker patiently with the progression, searching for the right chord. Sometimes, after hours of fruitless experimentation, he’d improvise, working from string to string to produce the sound that was so crucial to what he wanted to say.

“I’ve never seen a chord like that,” a guitar instructor from Boston’s Berklee College of Music said late one fall afternoon, staring intently at my father’s left hand positioned high up on the instrument’s neck, fingers played at incredible angles.

There was also the vibraphone. He loved the subdued, elegant look of the polished metal bars and the fluid notes they yielded with the motor-driven resonators going. He had a set of vibes when we lived in New England during his second marriage. The bars were wrong, though, so he sent them to a factory in Chicago to be refinished. Then it was the mallets, and he tried making his own.

After much experimentation, he used a slender, tough bamboo from Indochina for the shafts and hard rubber for the cores. He wound yards of brightly colored yarn around the cores, and the finished product was a mallet that produced a tone closer to what he wanted from the vibes. Satisfied, he spent hours standing over the instrument, each fist clutching a couple of mallets, sounding patiently for the chords he imagined.

So the jazz music that captivated him as a child became the one unifying thread in an otherwise disparate life, and a brief look at the history of jazz reveals an unfortunate aspect: too often, the jazz life in the early days was chaotic and tragic.


3.

The word jazz was originally slang for “sex,” then it meant “to dance,” and finally it referred to a type of music. Turn-of-the-century New Orleans was the place where a variety of music, including religious, blues, and ragtime, was blended into the form now called jazz. Blacks originated jazz as a celebration of life, as relief from the tedium of the daily toil.

Jazz steamed up the Mississippi River from New Orleans and docked in Al Capone’s Chicago by the 1920s, where it became part of the broad rebellion in art, morality, and social thought now known as the Jazz Age. From there, the music spread throughout the country, constantly evolving and maturing.

Unlike most other kinds of music, jazz is characterized by improvisation, so it’s both spontaneous and immediate. The truly great player never plays the same piece the same way twice. The thrill for players and listeners lies in the fact that no one knows what’s going to happen next.

Jazz grew up overnight, with its own set of rules. Many leading jazzmen lived the kinds of manic, tragic lives one might expect, given the often quixotic nature of genius and the explosive growth of the music. “Maybe I do everything for music,” pianist Bill Evans once said. “I live my life for music in a way.”

The Charlie Christian story was one of my father’s favorites. Christian, a guitarist, developed tuberculosis while playing with the Benny Goodman band and jamming nightly after hours at a Harlem club called Minton’s Playhouse, where a new jazz hybrid, to be called bop, was being incubated by musicians like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk. Instead of getting the medical treatment he needed, Christian continued with his obsession, playing jazz. He died at age 23.

Benny Winestone, a saxophonist who was with the Goodman band and knew Christian, said, “You know, junk and booze killed a lot of musicians. But that wasn’t the case with Charlie Christian. When he found he was sick, he kept playing, playing all through the night, night after night.

“And that’s how he died. He played himself to death.”

Although Christian, with his revolutionary approach to the guitar, is largely responsible for the way the instrument is played in pop, rock, and jazz today, he never got his own recording date. The only playing of Christian’s that remains lists him as a sideman on other people’s records.

My father also liked to talk about what he felt was a logical extension of Christian’s music, the development of bop. In many ways, my father’s life was not unlike bop, characterized as it is by complex rhythms and dissonant harmonies.

Bop was perfected by a handful of innovators in the 1940s and 1950s. Many critics now contend bop represented the most sweeping change in American music since the advent of jazz itself.

Visually, bop would resemble Jackson Pollock painting away, energetically splashing buckets of boldly colored pigments onto a huge canvas. And like Pollock’s work, bop was initially appreciated by few, condemned by many.

“When the line is laid down right, bop is pure magic,” my father once said, nodding his head in time to a Cannonball Adderly recording. “Listen to Monk sometime, to the notes he plays, to his phrasing.” He paused and began a familiar jazz soliloquy.

“Dizzy Gillespie was the most innovative trumpet player that ever lived,” he said. “Charlie Parker was the greatest bopper of them all. When he was laying it down, there was such a public outcry against the music that he had a nervous breakdown. Did you know ‘Bird’ died at age thirty-four in the room of a baroness?

“Oscar Peterson was playing boogie-woogie up in Canada and missed bop,” he continued. “He has the strongest left hand I’ve ever heard. In my book, he owes Art Tatum, in the same way George Benson owes Wes Montgomery.

“You want to hear a pianists bare his soul, listen to Bill Evans. As for a bass man, Ray Brown gets my all-time vote.” And he talked on about the musicians he’d known and the music he’d embraced, because in the course of 40 years of listening and playing jazz, the music had become the center of his life.


4.


When I was nine, a recent college graduate named Mary Lou drove from the East Coast with two friends to visit the San Francisco Bay Area. My mother had babysat Mary Lou as a child and remained close with her family, so it made sense for them to stay at our house.

The young women were fantastic things, all lipstick and curves and perfume, and I was infatuated with and overwhelmed by them. You can well imagine how their presence worked on my father.

They laughed all the time. He barbequed or they dined in local restaurants. They drove the coast road to San Simeon, toured the wine country and ate in Sausalito, visited jazz clubs in San Francisco. After those late nights going to work — he spent 16 years as a civil engineer with the State of California’s Highways Division helping to build the freeways in the Bay Area — must have been a tough prospect indeed.

The predictable occurred. My father fell in love with Mary Lou and filed for divorce. When my mother finally realized that her childhood charge and her husband had been carrying on under her nose and quite possibly under her roof for most of the summer, she cracked and spent the next few months in a hospital.

He consulted me late one summer afternoon. Soft light streamed through partially opened shutters and patterned the room in muted stripes. Tall and lean, and tanned from working outdoors, he stood over me and asked what I thought of Mary Lou and him getting married.

“Don’t do it,” I answered quickly, meeting his gaze.

The ill-fated marriage produced one son and stretched for six mostly torturous years, both in California and Massachusetts, before they dissolved it.

His third desperate attempt at making a marriage work was so obviously doomed to fail that when he and his prospective spouse asked for my opinion — I was 17 this time — I smiled and offered my best wishes; a kiss for her, a handshake for him.

They were divorced six months later, which was time enough for her to have a hysterectomy, an uninsured automobile accident, and a nervous breakdown. She entered his life with Bad Luck stamped on her like a warning on a cigarette package, and he was the only one who didn’t see it.

With great reluctance he gave up on the concept that for each of us there is but one other person. After three failed marriages, he resigned himself to the fact that he’d never find his perfect woman and stopped trying. Also, after three divorce settlements, his savings and assets, never substantial but once healthy, were reduced to practically nothing. Money problems were ever-present during his decline.


5.

I realized during my sophomore year at college that the home I’d known all my life no longer existed. I worked construction jobs summers and could nearly stretch my savings for the school year if I was frugal and took a part-time job. I’d run into a couple of stumbling blocks though, and didn’t have the rent money.

“I don’t have it either,” my father said abruptly one wet, early spring afternoon in a nearly deserted parking lot. He turned away and walked slowly back in to his beer at the bar.

Tears stung my eyes, and it was only later that I considered the defeat inherent in spending hollow afternoons and evenings in a neighborhood bar full of once-good men. I also decided it’s a sure sign of trouble when someone stops doing the best he can.

I devoted much thought to his problems during the years when he slowly withdrew from life. There was no visible, clearly defined event that broke him, that doomed him to failure and death. It would have been better for all of us had that been the case, just as a sudden passing can be easier on a family than a protracted struggle. Watching him shed the dignity and self-respect he’d spent a lifetime acquiring was often frustrating and painful.

I find myself wondering, perhaps sentimentally, if it was his inability to play the perfect chord, to produce the perfect sound, that doomed him. If he had found just one bursting, loaded chord, maybe he could have set down the guitar, and jazz, forever. But apparently for him, that one big, redeeming sound wasn’t out there, just as he never realized his pipe dream of the perfect relationship.

I also think about my part in his demise, about the fact that I was unable to intervene in any significant way for him. If it is a generational thing, with fathers sacrificing for sons over and over again, then I’ll be a better father. I wasn’t the best of sons.


6.

The doctors stabilized him after his heart attack. From that point on, his dying was the result of a gradual, persistent deterioration. The medical people who tried to help, who hooked him up to a dialysis machine three times a week for his last year and a half of life, finally conceded they simply didn’t know where to begin.

“If it was only the heart,” a doctor said one scorching September day, “I think we could win. But his brain is swollen and isn’t getting the oxygen it needs. And recent tests indicate his liver is barely functioning, which explains why he’s so disoriented so much. We still don’t know if his kidneys will ever come back.”

On the days when he was lucid, his eyes were often abrim with tears of frustration over the fact that he’d never again be what he once was, that his time was coming to a close. Toward the end, he lost his grip on the music that had nurtured and sustained him, just as he’d once lost his love of the ocean.

We were faced with a difficult decision on a drizzly, windswept November afternoon.

“If he’d come to us in this condition,” the doctor said, “we’d never have started him on dialysis. There just isn’t a chance for any sort of recovery. All we can to now, by continuing dialysis, is to prolong his agony.

“Uremic poisoning is fast, and we’d sedate him heavily. He won’t suffer.”

My father’s younger brother, a graying, gaunt man, stared at the floor. “There’s no quality of life,” he said, voice breaking. “He can’t read or even watch television. There’s nothing left for him.”

My mother sat in stunned silence, as if she couldn’t believe we were ready to give up on the man she’d emotionally catered to for the past 18 months to the exclusion of all else, including her own health.

Each of us came to realize the doctor was right though, and came to understand that the only loving thing to do was to let him go.


7.

He was lucid as we gathered around his hospital bed for the last time. No one said anything, but he intuited that the decision had been made. He kissed my mother, shook hands with my brother and uncle, and then we were alone, silently regarding one another.

“Give ‘em hell, kid,” he said, tears coursing down his cheeks, lower lip trembling. I nodded, took his hand, and wanted desperately to say something comforting and meaningful. I kissed him, straightened up, and brushed the tears from my face.

“Goodbye, Dad,” I said numbly. “Take care.”

There should have been music then, intricate and sure and strong. In many ways, the best of the man was like the chords he loved, complicated yet balanced, both evocative and complete.

For it was the music, finally, that defined him. That he loved jazz, that confluence of seemingly contradictory and often dissonant elements all too often played best by lost souls, was entirely appropriate.

I feel a curious sadness now when I remember his smoky, poorly lit room. “Listen to that!” he’d marvel, sitting on his bed in his underwear and sipping a beer or dragging on a cigarette as Charlie Byrd or Herb Ellis or Joe Beck realized a nearly perfect progression on a recording.

Or he’d be thoughtfully cradling his guitar, and the silence would be broken now and again as he searched for the right chord, the right sequence, the right statement. That he never found what he was looking for seems somehow bedside the point now.

I have his record collection and sometimes listen to the music, appreciating the changes and progressions, the intricacy and balance of it all. I also have the Gibson guitar he bought many years ago in the Honolulu pawnshop, and I sometimes strum the chords he showed me on it.

I’m careful though, because as sons often do, I see more and more of him in me as the years go by, and I don’t want to end the way he did, confused and misunderstood. There was a melody to his life, low and sad and sweet, but it was a quiet thing, and easy to miss.

On a blustery fall day, with the waves beating a cadence against the rocks and gulls crying in the distance, I put the ashes of the Jazzman into the Pacific Ocean. That was the right place for them. That’s where he belongs.


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