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country music, and especially to The Carter Family's licks and spins, the white soul of the mountains. Emily Dickinson's poems, in their surreal simplicity and ache, are without question the artistic high ground, the city of light, in this uniquely American landscape. But I like to think A. P. Carter's songs from his side of the river did not fall on deaf ears when he, too, was called back to join the writer of this hymn: Just lost, when I was saved! Just felt the world go by! Just girt me for the onset with Eternity, When breath blew back, And on the other side I heard recede the disappointed tide! Therefore, as One returned, I feel Odd secrets of the line to tell! Some Sailor, skirting foreign shores— Some pale Reporter, from the awful doors Before the Seal! Next time, to stay! Next time, the things to see By Ear unheard, Unscrutinized by Eye— Next time, to tarry, While the Ages steal— Slow tramp the Centuries And the Cycles wheel! BEN WEBSTER / Ira Sadoff HE'S ALMOST AS WIDE as he is tall. His forehead is broad as an anvil. His eyes are red, alcohol red, and he glides onto the stage absentmindedly, as if he were on the way to somewhere else. He wears a worn-to-shine brown double-breasted suit and a porkpie hat. He doesn't know we're out there, any of the ten of us, in a small Amsterdam cafe in 1973. He may not know blacks and whites can use the same bathroom everywhere now, that the Vietnam War is 168 · The Missouri Review winding down, that people may want to hear his music again. He was chased here a decade ago, by racial prejudice, by the lack of work, by television and rock and roll, by free jazz. He's archaic as Keats; he's a relic of jazz history. He snaps his finger and nods to the white Dutch rhythm section. They're out of tune, they don't play together, they play figures and chord changes from the fifties (they learned everything they know from old Charlie Parker records), they're a little too loud, and worst of all, they're bored. He's done these same tunes night after night and they want to play something more modern, more dissonant. He growls at them and keeps snapping his fingers until they pick up the beat. Then he lifts up the saxophone, opens his eyes as if for the first time, and moves to the edge of the stage, where a Dutch girl is drinking coffee and talking with her boyfriend. He moves the sax in her direction; he serenades her. He plays "Prelude to a Kiss," a ballad he learned with the Ellington band forty years before. It makes you want to wince, until he's eight notes into the melody. Then you find you're hypnotized by the pure beauty of his instrument, by the remarkable voice, by the wordless story the melody tells. By the unrelenting melancholy, the history of the familiar tune played as if you've never heard it before. This is Ben Webster, two months before he dies, on September 9, 1973. He's the musician who can always move you, who's a relentless bastard, who beats up on his piano player, who drinks himself sick. Who knows the secret of melody. Who, like many of our artists, like most of our black artists, dies alone and impoverished and completely unappreciated. Jazz is an expression of the history of a people, because every musician must understand its history before being able to play. No one can come to "Confirmation" without bowing to Charlie Parker; no one can play "Well, You Needn't," without absorbing the irony of Thelonious Monk. But rather than exalting the individual imagination, rather than exalting the perverse notion that complexity and eccentricity are themselves a virtue, that design and pure intellect prove the greatness of the art, jazz depends upon improvisation and community. A familiar tune, a tribal tune, really, is given an interpretation. The individual experience of the artist intersects with the community. Call...


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pp. 168-172
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