The Velvet Lounge: On Late Chicago Jazz

by Gerald Majer
Columbia University Press

By Ken Waxman

A non-faction memoir of tales that may or not have happened, this volume is, to overstate the case a bit, sort of an American À la recherche du temps perdu. Gerald Majer, an English professor at Villa Julie College in Baltimore, utilizes his listening experiences involving major Chicago jazz musicians, as an entrée to his ruminations and meditations on growing up in that Midwestern city.

Don’t be fooled by the photograph of tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson on the cover or the two-page discography at the end of the volume however. Although Majer deals, in greater or lesser degrees, with the sounds of, among others, tenor saxophonist Gene Ammons, Anderson, bandleader Sun Ra, multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Art Ensemble of Chicago members Roscoe Mitchell and Malachi Favors, this is no music encyclopedia or a collection of album and CD reviews.

Instead, like Proust in recherche du temps perdu, who evolved his pioneering modern novel from the sensations and memories unleashed when he tasted a madeleine cake dipped in linden tea, similar to those he was given as a child, Majer’s tastes of modern and so-called avant-garde jazz prompt similar autobiographical and poetic musings.

Here’s his introduction to an apocryphal retelling of the circumstances surrounding Ammons’ 1962 heroin bust that can serve as an explanation of how many of the experiences outlined in the book should be taken:

“My account will only be a partial one – the version of story I heard and have remembered and imagined for many years, the story that called me to attempt to speak of another’s life...”

Link that statement to another he expresses later while detailing a 1973 Auditorium Theater performance by Sun Ra and his Arkestra:

“Behind the curtain of memory, I see that night though there were others over the years and inevitably the memories drift and fuse and overlap.”

In other words these non-faction incidents are his usually successful attempts to capture the feeling of jazz through his own emotional response to certain situations.

Thus, for example, a section involved with recalling the power of Elvin Jones’ drums he felt during a matinee show at the Jazz Showcase when he was a teenager, leads to a recollection of how he first noted Jones’ name while listening to John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things LP, the title of which he relates to the poet Arthur Rimbaud’s system of vowels. Simultaneously, Jones’ real-time exertions remind him of the dangers and excitement of playing games in a vacant lot near his childhood home, one of which was a test of kids’ endurance they called “the punching game”.

Or read how he spins his reminiscence of pianist Andrew Hill and tenor saxophonist’s John Gilmore’s work on “Le Serpent Qui Danse” on a late 1960s Hill LP into a meditation on South Side Chicago blues, Hill’s compositional links to Thelonious Monk, and – with Gilmore – to Sun Ra; as well as the composition’s link to the myth of Apollo and Python, elaborated by the metaphors of Charles Baudelaire’s poem of the same name. Finally, he uses these combined sentiments to arrive at the emotions he and his then-girlfriend experienced at a Sunday afternoon Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) big band gig in 1976.

Stylistically, many of Proust’s sentences in recherche du temps perdu extend several pages in length. Thankfully, Majer’s don’t. But his all-embracing metaphors and similes do, descriptively uncoiling a meditation, activity or idea through a few paragraphs, pages or entire chapters, only abandoning the concept when every last implication and inference has been drained from it – not unlike the way Coltrane, or come to think of it, Kirk or Sonny Stitt – both celebrated in the book – would play a solo.

Along the way, The Velvet Lounge: On Late Chicago Jazz does double duty as a celebration of the Windy city, and what Majer calls “the trite and secret motto of Chicago: to live is to work, to work is to live”. As an academic, Majer is an anomaly in his tales populated by working class muscle and fortitude, whether it’s expressed in the assembly line work of his North end Polish-American family and friends, or in the prodigious efforts of Black musicians from the South Side to band together into the AACM – and he proudly ticks off the collection of blue-collar jobs he had as well.

Majer doesn’t just poetically rhapsodize about the street and trees and buildings of Chicago, but celebrates its street markets, book stores and libraries plus its roads and highways, ground level transit and elevated and underground trains. These modes of transportation and services available to all were also inspirations to composers like Ra, who created compositions like “Magic City” and “El, the Sound of Joy” from those experiences.

Although Majer touches on similar live shows elsewhere, a performance at Anderson’s Velvet Lounge justly deserves its place of prominence. That’s because the author’s 18-page portrayal of an evening he and his wife spent listening to tenor saxophonist Ari Brown’s trio – and a sitter-in – at that down-at the-heels music shrine – interrupted, as expected, with numerous conceptual memory excursions – is probably the single most arresting recounting of the improvisational experience you’ll ever read in print.

Mixing in a tribute to a late rock musician friend who was buoyed by how the Lounge was a space “to keep the music alive, uncompromising and uncompromised”, Majer sketches the circumstances of how a routine Wednesday night gig at the Lounge in the middle of August – cover charge five dollars – changed in an instant to “music that doesn’t level off … but instead exposes its instant of creation”.

The dramatis personae, besides Brown on sax and electric keyboards are bassist Favors, drummer Avreeayl Ra, and a sitter-in on tenor saxophone named only Paul. A Lounge regular, who at one point worked for the Chicago Transit Authority, Paul’s command of saxophone improvisation is perhaps made more mythically transcendental by the author’s prose. Using this figurative language allows Majer to imaginatively capture the sensation of exhilaration and release that top-flight improvisation involves.

For instance, after he suddenly grasps that he’s been unconsciously mesmerized by the music for an extended period, Majer writes:

“I want everyone to be there, the living and the dead, I want to record this moment for posterity though its power must be precisely in its coming and its passing without any possibility of saving it … I let out a shout. I can’t help it …”

And later on, writing in the third person about audience reaction in general:

“A sound leaped out of you that was all yours and that wasn’t yours at all. You yelled for joy.”

It’s this sort of writing which is the volume’s strength, but which makes it so difficult to slot into any category. The author is a sophisticated enough writer so that even when he goes on metaphoric flights, his descriptions actually make you want to hear again – or listen to for the first time – the music described. Still, the elegiac first-person details of his upbringing and coming of age may not strike a resonating chord in every reader, unless he or she revels in quirky details about the United States’ Second City and its local characters.

In short, like improvised music itself, the audience for this book may be small, but fervent. As Majer writes about jazz, but perhaps describing his books as well: “following its track might mean not so much loving jazz but loving the interval that it opens…”

In reality no more challenging a read than “late Chicago jazz” is a listen, The Velvet Lounge: On Late Chicago Jazz deserves to achieve eventual reception and respect not too dissimilar from what the music itself has earned.