Monday, January 22, 2001

Salt Peanuts and Spunky Puckett

I knew there might be something a tad askew my senior year of college when I began seeing fishies swimming in my dorm room air accompanied by the awful looks on the faces of concerned/terrified friends who didn't quite know what to do or say. In the warm spring air I remember a friendship blossoming with one Johnny Baynes, an odd looking now losing his red hair and bouncing bellied gent who carried his stuff in a St. Paul Pioneer Press paperboy's bag and wore a bright red baseball cap with a big "N" on its front. Turned out the "N" stood for his hometown New Richland, Minnesota where Johnny, a soon to be Cheapo employee, was the starting second baseman for the town's American Legion team.

Johnny and I worked together in the front office/lobby of the Macalester College Music Department on work study assignments. It was there we began conversing and discovered a mutual love for baseball, writing, broken hearts, and music (not necessarily I that order). Prior to meeting Johnny my exposure to jazz music mostly consisted of being the star of the Parkview Junior High Jazz Band- circa 1977-1979 (somewhere out there lie recordings of my unintentionally avant garde solos) and owning a few Chuck Mangione LPs, a Billie Holiday LP, and the wonderfully spirited duet between Frank Sinatra and Count Basie (Frank and Splank!) It Might as Well Be Swing!

Johnny was the kind soul who introduced me to Jazz by playing me John Coltrane's Giant Steps and My Favorite Things. I appreciated those efforts enough to later purchase copies for myself along with Charles Mingus' classic Town Hall Concert, Eric Dolphy's Conversations (probably the coolest Jazz LP I've ever heard), Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz, and Johnny's all-time favorite Jazz LP- Charlie Parker's secretary, Sheila Jordan's inspired The Crossing, that got me thinking/feeling in a whole other manner. I also read Miles Davis' and Charles Mingus' hip autobiographies that gave me an idea or two about writing (and life) and made me realize there was a whole world out there that I knew precious little about.

When I first started at Cheapo I tried to play as my in store picks as much jazz as I could to counter balance everyone else's rock/pop picks. It was there I discovered one of my favorite LPs in any musical category - Coleman Hawkins' Hawk Flies High. I played that baby so much that our famous Cheapo alum- Tina Schielske bought her very own copy and thanked me for playing it so often.

All this said I'm far from being a Jazz fan let alone an expert of the genre in any substantial way. Therefore I was greatly looking forward to Ken Burns' latest documentary effort Jazz. I liked what I saw of Burns' definitive Civil War series but thought his Baseball documentary was a tad bit pretentious- though I still appreciated the effort. What has been the most educational lesson learned from Burns' trilogy of documentaries thus far are common themes of racial acceptance coming from unexpected sources. Perhaps it was because those sources were unexpected that no one took them seriously as agents of political change and thus the change was allowed to occur. Baseball was just ahead of the societal curve when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier and the innovators'/perpetuators' of Jazz too helped in a small way to blur the lines of the rainbow.

The documentary is a reminder that the most remarkable thing about good Jazz music is its timeless quality. More than any other genre of music Jazz is of the moment and structured meters don't matter so much. Improvisation leads to inspiration. And like the music it pays homage to, Burns' series couldn't have come at a better time especially for those of us who live in the frozen tundra.

As anyone who has been my friend (especially those with vowels in their names) can probably tell you, I'm not one who deals with disappointment very well. For this reason and this reason alone I was personally rooting against the Vikings to lose for the past month and a half. To me it was readily apparent the defense was not Super Bowl quality and to have them somehow stumble their way into the championship game only to lose another "big one" was intolerable. Better have them eliminated early than having to suffer the heartbreak of another Super Bowl loss. So as to the events of last week's game, good going guys. You took care of my concerns with the utmost urgency.

Still there was a tinge of lingering sadness leftover from the whumping. It would have been nice avoiding becoming the butt of David Letterman's monologue jokes. Those feelings quickly were dissipated however with the wonderful news of Kirby Puckett's induction into the baseball Hall of Fame during his first year of eligibility. It was somehow gratifying that days after the football team let this unfortunate football town down the Twins' most beloved player reminded us how blessed we were to have been privileged to watch him play.

Puckett played baseball like a great Jazz musician. His style was never the pretty by the book standard technique but something entirely unique. The distinctive sound of the ball coming off his bat was like no other. He chugged around the field with a relentlessly aggressive but fluid style. The first time he came into my consciousness was my sophomore year of college. I was in the Macalester library (as my sister liked to point out- not to study like the other students but to read the newspapers) when I checked out the late box score to a Twins game on the West Coast. It was Puckett's debut as the team's center fielder and he got five hits. These were dark days for the team and I had heard about the rising star, Puckett, a former first round draft pick that tore up the Class AA league playing for Visalia. I for whatever reason assumed Kirby Puckett was a big strapping white California kid. Reading accounts of his debut game in the big leagues I was surprised to find the writers (and Reggie Jackson) comparing his build with Jimmy Wynn a.k.a. the Toy Gun. They said Puckett was stocky with a big powerful rear end. From the beginning it was clear the Twins had a star in the making.

Though he led the team to its two world championships (why exactly does this town love the Vikings more than the Twins?) Kirby played on some awfully bad teams. Yet he was always worth the price of a ticket and he gave the team an identity that stood out from the rest. And it wasn't just his play on the field that made him so endearing and special. The Minnesota sports scene has missed his voice- those wonderful playful raps, spoken in the Kirby riff that chided his teammates and himself yet somehow were at times profound. With his charisma Kirby attracted fans to baseball that otherwise would not have paid attention. Hopefully the same will ultimately be said of the Jazz series.

I have spent the past few weeks rediscovering my Jazz collection. My favorite at the moment is Sonny Rollins' stupendous Freedom Suite. Writing about a specific piece of music is akin to trying to say Puckett didn't deserve a place in the Hall because he didn't have 3,000 hits, or didn't play long enough to establish excellence over a lengthy period of time- there's just something intangible beyond words. So I can't say why Rollins' CD has really gotten under my skin. To me his saxophone sound isn't as distinctive as say Dolphy, Coltrane, David Murray or even Charlie Parker.

The suite consists of six songs (one, "Till There Was You," didn't appear on the original LP but is included on the CD). The heart and soul is undoubtedly the title track, a nineteen minute piece that explores the many feelings "freedom" conjures up inside. There's pure joy and urgent expectancy as Rollins first establishes the melody and then dances around it as the song progresses. Accompanied by Oscar Pettiford on bass and Max Roach on drums, the trio quickly hits a groove and perhaps the most impressive thing of all is that despite its length the song never becomes repetitive. Like the concept it offers deference to, the song is full of liberty and independence and the skillful mixing of sound gives structure to the abstract.

The performance is quintessentially the genre at its best but I have a feeling that if I were to play it to a room full of people whose opinions I treasure most, I'd get a room full of people further shaking their heads at me. I've gotten that reaction a lot lately as I have given my highest recommendation to Burns' documentary, imploring people to watch and listen (so far few takers) and to my gleeful confession that I broke out in tears upon hearing Kirby's news. Almost makes me wanna ring up Johnny Baynes one more time.

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