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1. New York

I’m sitting here listening to my favorite Monk LP, Alone in San Francisco, while I write this, rejoicing in the fact that the revelatory and possibly most important and moving jazz chronicle, Three Wishes: An Intimate Look at Jazz Greats, by the Baroness Pannonica De Koenigswarter, an abstract painter and authentic Rothschild, has finally made it to where it belongs: America, and more specifically the New York/New Jersey area, where most of its story takes place.

It was a long journey. First published in 2006 in a very pricey French edition, the book was translated into French and then appeared soon after in German. I was in Paris when it appeared, and saw it promptly win the Prix de l’Academie du Jazz and just as quickly sell out its first run of four thousand. I spoke with Nadine De Koenigswater—the Baroness’s granddaughter, a close friend, and a painter as well, who wrote the intro and is responsible for the book’s release—many times about the project. It seems she became responsible for a trunk of her grandmother’s that contained not only the photos and texts but also a mockup of what “Nica” wanted the book to look like. Sadly, during her lifetime Nica found no takers, and the book was not published until almost twenty years after her death. When Nadine first discovered this wealth she also encountered an old gent in his eighties who had known the Baroness and who helped identify a majority of the photos and then, like a phantom, promptly passed away. After that came the task of getting it published, and like many other great American legacies the Europeans embraced it first. But now we too have this treasure, published this year by Abrams Image at an astounding retail price of $19.95 for 317 pages, with a new cover and added preface by Gary Giddins.

Upon the death of his friend Charlie Parker, the great poet Ted Joans wrote “Bird Lives” all over the walls of New York City. Some consider this to be the early beginnings of graffiti. I bring this up because when “Bird” died he did so in the Baroness’s Manhattan apartment watching TV. Some twenty-seven years later, after years of self-imposed reclusion, Monk died in her Jersey house. This may give you a hint as to who she was: patron and lover of these men and women (though we’ll never truly know to what extent either physically, spiritually, or chemically) and their music. They all flocked to her pad, dubbed “the Cathouse” because of her huge collection of cats. And she in turn took care of them, accompanied them, hung with them, and listened to their music in all the local jazz haunts. At least twenty tunes were written for her by the likes of Monk, Gigi Gryce, and Horace Silver.

So what makes this book unique? It’s filled with candid shots, many of which are deteriorated Polaroids that the baroness took of myriad musicians in her home and in performance. Then she asked each what they would ask for if they had three wishes, and typed the answers on index cards. In total, the book includes some three hundred wishes by as many musicians, with answers like Horace Silver’s: “immortality” and “riches.” Or Ornette’s: “eternal life.” Or Trane’s: “immunity from sickness,” “sexual power,” and “inexhaustible freshness” in his music. Or Sun Ra’s: “a flexible instrument which could reflect every mood of any being, even a cat’s or a bird’s.” Or Miles’s, which was simply, “to be white.” Many wishes were for artistic recognition, good pianos, money, drugs, world peace, and the hope that one day the music they helped to create known as jazz would be embraced and heralded as a true art form. The photos range from bop to post-bop folks of the ’50s and ’60s, including a large variety of Nica’s favorite cat, Thelonious. Where else can you see shots of Monk bare-chested playing ping-pong? Or Miles sitting in a chair with his crotch spread wide and his shirt open? Or Charlie Rouse in a fur coat? Or Philly Joe half-naked in what looks like a towel?

These loving, intimate snapshots, by a woman who helped defend and support these artists, are a feast for the eyes—appetizer and main course all in one. No intellectual prattle, no posed, artsy profiles—just simple straightforward feelings. And while you’re consuming this meal don’t forget to listen to Freddie Redd and Sonny Redd and Sonny Clark and Sonny Rollins and George Coleman and Ornette Coleman and Charlie Byrd and Donald Byrd and Benny Carter and Betty Carter, and Thad, Elvin, and Hank Jones, and all the other figures both obscure and famous who fill this amazing, one-of-a-kind personal journey. There’s a lot more her-story to tell, so either read the book’s intro or the recent New York Times feature to find out. My take is to just savor this all-too-human slice of a great, wild, and weird lady’s life. I hope you’re not allergic to cats, as in jazz cats. Viva Pannonica. A+++

2. Paris

And speaking of happening things, recognition, and exile, I just got back from a trip to Paris where I’ve been working on a new book with French photographer Jacques Bisceglia. It’ll be chock-full of poems and photographs of/about great musicians. Not exactly Three Wishes but more a personal chronicle of our dealing with over forty years of listening, the principal ingredient being that wherever we could bring musicians together we would. The result will be another three-hundred-pager when finished.

While in Paris I encountered much music and many musicians, quite a few of whom are now expats. It was weird being away from America on such momentous occasions as Halloween and Election Day. Obama fever was all over Paris. I attended a massive Obama victory party with more Americans in one room than I’ve ever encountered outside New York. And almost immediately after his victory undocumented workers took to the streets in joy. That was a bit spooky, since they acted like he could save them, as does much of the French left. But we shall see. All I can say, and with guarded optimism, is that he’s the far better choice but he’s still a politician.

Now on to the music. On election night I caught a set by Evan Parker, John Edwards, and Chris Corsano at the Cite de la Musique, where they are having an amazing Serge Gainsbourg retrospective that is supposed to eventually hit New York. (I also met an American gal who lives in England and works for the BBC, and is making a documentary on Serge—but don’t tell anybody, as it’s still under wraps.) Evan’s gig was a bit disappointing: They played along with the great Rosellini film Germany Year Zero, but the sound was left on so we could hardly hear the musicians when they played. An almost-waste of great music and great film. Then I metro-ed over to Montparnasse just in time to catch a short second set by Sonny Simmons that, like a set I experienced three days later of Simmons with other expats Bobby Few and Sonny Murray, was completely lackluster. The later gig was actually comically tragic in a Beckettian sort of way. Other expats I saw in action were the trumpeter Rasul Sadik (I actually did a set with him, Few, John Betsch, and leader and dear friend Sabir Mateen, who was there on tour) and Shim, a saw player who did a great duo with Few. I got to meet and converse with such luminaries as Charlemagne Palestine and Rhys Chatham. Hung out with Phill Niblock. Saw a great solo set by Joelle Leandre in a church. Discovered at a wonderful Jacques Prevert exhibit that it was he who wrote “Autumn Leaves.” And found out just before I left that the Louvre was hosting a Boulez retrospective. I got to do a gig with my French drummer-friend Didier Lasserre and an avant accordionist named Claude. And on my very first night caught a great set by Andrea Parkins with a couple of fine French electronic musicians.

One final note for any of you visiting Paris who want to buy some great sounds. There’s a new record shop close to Pere Lachaise that’s very similar to New York’s own Downtown Music Gallery and Other Music called Souffle Continu, and I strongly suggest you check it out. So while you’re preparing for the holidays and waiting for the change of guard to become official, remember that it’s a free country, so YES WE CAN LISTEN to anything we want to.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 08-JAN 09

All Issues