Saturday, December 17, 2016

And Even Now There Is That Last Gig via Patrick Kurp

“The wit of Shakespeare is like the flourishing of a man’s stick, when he is walking, in the full flow of animal spirits: it is a sort of overflow of hilarity which disburdens, and seems like a conductor, to distribute a portion of our joy to the surrounding air by carrying it away from us.”

Since having surgery on my right knee three weeks ago, I’ve been hobbling and limping and generally bumping along with even less than customary grace. We fancy ourselves gliding across a room like Cary Grant, when Walter Brennan is closer to reality. Friends have suggested I use a cane, but unsuspected reserves of vanity say no. Instead, I’ve carried my umbrella, a cane-in-disguise, even when the sun shines. It works, keeping me upright and ambulatory, until the rain starts falling, when the faux-cane turns again into an umbrella. What I really covet is a sword cane like the one G.K. Chesterton carried, or “Ham” Brooks in the old Doc Savage pulps. When I was twelve, that seemed like the ultimate in lethal suavity.

The passage at the top is drawn from “On Shakespeare’s Wit” in Coleridge: Lectures on Shakespeare (1811-1819) (ed. Adam Roberts, Edinburgh University Press, 2016). Coleridge is so often an overinflated gas bag, the very model of a contemporary “public intellectual.” And then he redeems himself with a beautiful metaphor like this, one that grows more complex the longer you ponder it. It starts realistically. When carrying a cane (or umbrella), it’s difficult to do anything other than flourish it. Then Coleridge’s cane becomes a sort of lightning rod for the poet’s “animal spirits.” In Shakespeare, his words are charged with the electricity of meaning and music, an “overflow of hilarity.” Here, Coleridge is at his best: “to distribute a portion of our joy to the surrounding air by carrying it away from us.”

`That Was His Last Gig'

Even a dutiful biography can preserve memorable moments from the life of its subject. No one will mistake Vladimir Simosko for a prose stylist. His Serge Chaloff: A Musical Biography and Discography (Scarecrow Press, 1998) is a plodding recitation of recording dates and sidemen that gives little sense of Chaloff’s brilliance as a baritone saxophonist. Chaloff (1923-1957) joined the Four Brothers saxophone section in Woody Herman’s Second Herd in 1947, along with Herbie Steward, Stan Getz and Zoot Sims – the lineup on Jimmy Giuffre’s “Four Brothers.”

Chaloff was the sort of heroin addict who proselytized for his drug of choice. He kicked his habit in 1954 and was diagnosed with cancer of the spine. Simosko reports Chaloff was seated in a wheelchair during his final gigs and recording sessions, and he recounts an interview with the musician’s brother, Richard Chaloff:

“Serge had a lot of support during his illness from Mother and his wife, Susie. Mother bought him a kinkajou monkey to keep him company when he was bedridden, and kept encouraging him to fight the disease.”

In May 1957, Chaloff and a pickup rhythm section performed at The Stable, a club in Boston. Simosko quotes Charlie “The Whale” Johnson, a musician’s manager:

“I remember pushing Serge’s wheelchair into The Stable for his last appearances there. He was in bad shape but could still really play, standing leaning against a pillar. However, he didn’t have much stamina. He couldn’t actually finish the gig. I also had to get pot and booze for him. He was imbibing these steadily, even in the hospital at the end.”

On July 15, 1957, Chaloff was transported to Massachusetts General Hospital. His brother 

“He still had the kinkajou monkey Mother got him to keep him company. And he had his horn. I was told they wheeled him into a vacant operating room so he could practice, and that was his last gig, his last public performance, solo baritone sax alone in an operating theater. Nurses, doctors, and even patients were standing outside and listening.”

Such a grotesque yet moving scene – the dying Chaloff, his monkey (not on his back) and his horn. He died the following day, July 16, four months short of his thirty-fourth birthday.

[Listen to Chaloff’s performances of “What’s New?” and Jerome Kern’s “All the Things You Are.”]

`In the Main,You Spoke to Me Wisely'

“My book should be something like what past ages used to call an enchiridion—a little dagger that might help him to cut his way among the enemies and perplexities of his life. I mean no formidable treatise, for which I felt no competence. What I had in mind was a little book to which he could turn in doubt or trouble, when he could no longer come to me . . .”

The reader is excused for mistaking “enchiridion” for an edged weapon, a switchblade or trench knife, rather than a mere book. The author of the passage above, Whittaker Chambers (1901-1961), had reason to worry about his safety and the safety of his family. The former Soviet agent defected from the true faith of Communism, testified against another Soviet spy and former State Department official, Alger Hiss, and lived the final decade of his life in fear and ill health. The passage is quoted in the introduction to Chambers’ posthumously published Cold Friday (Random House, 1964), a collection of previously unpublished work edited by Duncan Norton-Taylor. Chambers, writing in 1955, is referring to a book he would never finish. Three years earlier, he brought out Witness, one of the last century’s essential books.

Norton-Taylor tells us Chambers wrote the note on the day his son, John, left their farm in Maryland to register for the draft. Stalin is dead, the war in Korea is over and the one in Vietnam just smoldering. Communism remains in its ascendancy. Perilous times for an American father with a draft-age son. Chambers’ fears are justified, given his experience of Communism and knowledge of history. He continues in the 1955 fragment:

“. . . and catch again his father’s voice saying: `This is how it happened to me, these are the conclusions I drew from past experience. This is how experience seemed to teach me that a man should act, this is what a man is and should be against the scale of reality.’ My reward, never known by men, could be that he might one day say, `In the main, you spoke to me wisely.’”

As to enchiridion: it dates from two decades before Shakespeare’s birth and is rooted in the Greek for “that which is held in the hand.” In other words, a “handbook,” a small, portable volume. One thinks of a missal or compact New Testament. As to the contents Chambers describes – “a little dagger that might help him to cut his way among the enemies and perplexities of his life” – Montaigne comes to mind. So too, Pascal, Spinoza or Johnson. Of late, for my sixteen-year-old, it’s Marcus Aurelius. Of course, as parents, we may be the only books, or the only significant books, our children ever read.