Real Time Short Stories

Posts Tagged ‘massimo troisi

The title of this post is a line spoken by an unwritten character in an unwritten story which as yet lacks a premise, plot and the basis for any sentences other than the one you can see. However, the subject of the line, the “guy”, has a definite identity. The line characterises the lyrical texture and – to exhaust my ability to get technical about saxophone playing – reed control in the solos of the post-war jazz alto saxophonist, Sonny Criss. I’ve reflected on, and indulged in a number of examples of, the music of Sonny Criss in a twin post over on The ‘Spill blog, where I hang out with music lovers of all denominations so that’s where to go for the sounds, but here in the word zone, I’d like to think about the call-and-response between music and writing, and what might inflect my relationship with a musician like Sonny Criss.

The lives of musicians lend themselves to storytelling and the stories of their lives can often form a path to their music. In recent years, reading about Judee Sill, hearing about Jackson C. Frank and being tipped off about Charles Bradley have led me to investigate their music and, in each case, become a fan. With Criss, the music came first, after buying an album of his through a process that was as near to random as makes no difference. I was reliant just on the story told in the sleevenotes; back in 1988, you wouldn’t hop straight to Google to learn more, and the history was fleshed out only by purchasing more albums and absorbing more sleevenotes.

There was a tragedy at the heart of this story – more than one, in fact – starting with the lack of appreciation and absence of decent gigs he experienced as a Los Angeles-based jazz musician, through the years (late 40s and through the 50s) when bebop was tearing up New York City and the East Coast. Criss would find solace and the joy of being treated as an artist during stays in Paris but, at home, he was reduced to studio session work at best and playing in the house band at strip joints – “sobbing yet another sinewy alto solo while a ropy stripper in the spotlight sobs her kit off,” as I wrote it in The Frank Sinatra Joke, published in 2004 but written six years earlier. In 1979, after a flurry of recognition and awards in the late 60s hadn’t consolidated his status in a changing jazz scene, he took his own life. The nature of his death satisfied the equation within the narrative, and the music also conformed. Like when Billie Holiday or Karen Carpenter sang, every phrase played by Criss – even in upbeat, ostensibly ‘happy’ numbers, felt as though it had been wrung out from the tears shed beforehand. When he played a forlorn blues, the sorrow was exquisitely unbearable.

More recently, I’ve discovered that Criss was suffering in the late 70s from stomach cancer, that his suicide was most likely a form of auto-euthanasia and by no means necessarily a thirty-year blue note of despair at his experiences in the music industry. There is, in this, of course a commentary to be made about the sensational perceptions that industry, media and fans trade when it comes to all creative artists, and to musicians, to notionally self-destructive jazzers and to Black Americans, shackled by prejudice even when not by actual shackles. We could debate whether the racism was part of what conspired to drain him of hope during the course of his career – a distended manslaughter-by-exclusion – or if, before his mother revealed the medical background, the way his death was written up, as stemming from the same predilection for anguish that coloured the music, was itself a symptom of a lazy and somewhat racist willingness to caricature brilliant Black artistry as a primal scream from a wrecked psyche.

Having acknowledged that, a further question takes shape: to what extent did the music write the narrative? A parallel might be provided by Michael Radford’s 1994 film, Il Postino. The tragic narrative here was well-known at the time: Massimo Troisi, the star, having collapsed on the first day of shooting, postponed surgery in order to complete the film and deteriorated throughout its making, dying from a heart attack hours after the final shoot was completed. Knowing of this when watching the film intensifies what is already a moving experience. I remember seeing Philippe Noiret, as Pablo Neruda, embrace Troisi as their characters said goodbye in the film and it was impossible not to imagine this having been Noiret’s last moment with his friend, regardless of the sequence of filming in relation to the chronology of the plot, regardless of contact that is bound to have taken place off-camera.

Yet such is the poignancy in the story and performance, we are prepared to believe that the artists’ emotions precisely mirrored our interpretation of their art. If Troisi had been working on a frothy comedy or big dumb action thriller, we might not experience the same blurring of sympathies; he himself might not have been so committed to making this one final artistic statement. So it may be with Criss. Had he not poured such humanity and passion into his phrasing, or rendered the lyrical with such delicacy and seeming vulnerability, or flowed with such a thrilling highwire trajectory, I might have been less suggestive to connections between the man and the music.

This reasoning, though, remains too binary. The sound of Sonny Criss and whatever facts we know about his life are available for anyone but the individual listener must get in the way of any objective judgement. So I am a factor in this discussion and, as far as Sonny Criss is concerned, so is my writing. I self-medicate with music. Its absence, in stressful situations, has the capacity to make me more stressed. Its presence, in neutral moments, invariably lead to the sense of having acquired a soundtrack which in turn starts to suggest a narrative. I’m highly conscious of this as an evolution of the way music used to influence my writing. Sonny Criss played his part in this. On one set of sleevenotes, I read a quote of his – “I am a jazz soloist, which is a full-time creative job” – and adapted it as an important watchword in my life. “I am a jazz writer, which is a full-time creative job” was a mantra that held back the politics of despair and strengthened the resolve to define myself when I might just have been labelled a “dole-ite” but it also galvanised a writing approach. I aimed to do with my writing what jazz soloists did with their instruments and this would shape my beginnings as a performance poet, channelling the Last Poets and constructing lyrical runs as giddy as those of Criss’s alto.

Over time, I have come to recognise that the aspiration to connect with a reader in the way Sonny Criss connects with me is not about the way you sound but about the emotional truth sought by and expressed through your work. Criss remains my favourite voice in jazz for no reason other than that his voice is mine. The appreciation of it, my relationship with it, belongs to me; it speaks to my sense of who I am; and, when I write, I can detect ways in which his music has sculpted my language. Could there be a better aspiration for art than that it feels bespoke to the person who reads, sees or hears it? I’ll commend you to the music over on this post’s twin playlist and turn my final question out to anyone who’d like to contribute: when was the last time you read something that felt as if it was written especially for you?

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