At 3 AM on a stiflingly hot summer night, in a packed club in the bad part of Chicago, I learned the blues. I learned the blues leaning against a gaudy wall covered with tacky gold wallpaper, in a room filled with stale smoke and the smell of spilled beer. Four of us who didn’t belong in that room, in that town, in that world huddled together for protection against the onslaught of senses, trying to take it in, trying not to be swallowed up by it. And as we leaned against walls, the giants gathered.
They wandered in with tattered cases held together by tape and twine, plastered with “fragile” airline warning tags in every language. They slipped into the easy familiarity that comes from speaking a secret language, and from having mastered a dying craft. They came to pay homage to Von Freeman, whom they called Vonsky, a man whose padded fingers had flattened to match the keys of his tenor sax, whose lip had permanent creases where the corners of the reed bent the soft flesh inward, and who spoke with the gravelly baritone voice of a man who carries his stories with him. If you measure a man by the company he keeps, Vonsky was a king among giants. He was the embodiment of Chicago Blues, and tonight was his birthday. Every living legend of the blues was there that night, the singers and players who carried the craft in gnarled hands and rasping voices. Vonsky was holding court on the beer stained stage of this tiny club, and we had come to learn the blues.
The band played for about an hour before Vonsky lifted his horn out of its case. If this had been a piano recital or a poetry reading, this might have been the moment of pregnant pause, of tense silence before the first note, first word; it held all of the tension of that moment hung in time. But this was a blues club, and this was Chicago, and when the master grabs his horn, the only appropriate way to pay homage is with hoots and whistles, cat-calls, cries of bravado flung from friendly peers and hungry apprentices.
If you give a song a name, it becomes a concrete thing, a packaged experience that can be unwrapped and relived. A song without a name, a song that only coalesces into a structure when the band is half way through the first verse, a song that breathes into life and then back out of existence, that sort of song has no packaging, and you have to breathe it in and then release it when the moment passes. And as the song breathes in, and the solo builds, and the drummer switches to sticks, and the bass player slapps the strings against the board like an tight-skinned Brazilian drum, and as the organ player builds the full crescendo of pulled drawbars and spinning towers of sound, Vonsky taught us all the Blues.
Art is temporal. Performed art is ephemeral. It passes us by so quickly, and presses so deeply on our visceral palate, that we are tempted to think that the moment of performance is the sum total of what it is to be an artist. Any artist will tell you otherwise.
The night that I wandered in to that club, Vonsky walked in with more than a beat-up sax case and a half a pack of smokes. He walked in with padded fingers, pressed flat from hours of running scales and arpeggios, from blowing solos for 60 years, from pressing up against boundaries of technical mastery and breaking them down. He walked in with lips creased from the wood of the reed, from blowing a column of air through the same horn, respeaking the words of the story in hundred tiny clubs and musty back rooms. He walked in with the voices of Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Muddy Waters, and John Coltrane spinning in his head.
I would trade all of the technicians who have ever dabbled in a craft for one artist.