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Summer 2016

Jazz June

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Clifford Thompson

When I was fourteen and nearing the end of eighth grade I developed my first serious crush. The girl, named June, was in ninth grade and about to graduate from the junior high school we attended. Given where my crush ultimately got me—i.e., nowhere—June’s impending departure, a source of grief for me at the time, was unimportant. June herself, actually, was unimportant. I mean that as a comment not on her worth as a person but on her being the object of my affection, which seems, when I think back on it, almost completely arbitrary. I was of an age and inclination to make one person the center of my can’t-sleep-at-night, can’t-focus-on-my-homework longing; along came June, hardly gorgeous but pretty enough, nice if not preternaturally sweet. She fit the bill. I had all I needed to be miserable, which I quickly became, not admitting to myself, possibly not even understanding, that my crush was its own point.

June played the violin. I never heard any of her performances myself, but I heard a lot about them. My friend Big Darryl Greenfield, also a ninth-grader, said about a musical number June played at their graduation, “I don’t usually like the violin, but she was tearin’ it up.” I borrowed Darryl’s yearbook so that (I didn’t tell him this) I could gaze upon and occasionally kiss June’s picture, which showed her smiling in her graduation cap. June was part of a group of musical friends to which I was connected tangentially. To have a stronger tie to those superior beings, I signed up that spring of 1977 for summer clarinet lessons with the D.C. Youth Orchestra Program—not to be confused with the actual D.C. Youth Orchestra, the program’s elite, of whom June was one. The program had three levels of bands and orchestras, and I got the unspoken message that the orchestras, with their stringed instruments, were considered more important. While I spent that typically sweltering D.C. summer riding two buses to my lessons, squawking and squeaking through quarter- and eighth-notes, June went away to a music camp, adding physical distance to the other forms of distance separating us. And as I waited that summer for the promised postcard from her, which never arrived, June—and, by association, the violin—came to represent for me an unattainable ideal.

June itself, not the girl but the month, has something about it of the unattainable, the unfulfilled promise. That is, paradoxically, because June, at least in the cities where I have spent my life, is the only reliably spring-like month. Spring officially arrives in late March, finding a lot of people still wearing their winter coats; April and even early May sometimes carry a chill. But in June we can venture outside, where green leaves and flowers are, contending neither with the cold nor with the heat of that long march from Independence Day to Labor Day, that season of commuting in sweat-dampened shirt collars over gradually shortening days. June brings freedom and those wonderful extra hours of sunlight, June whispers that anything is possible, and therein lies the ache: as its days fly by—it is, in the end, just another month, and one of the shorter months at that—we may feel a vague regret over what we have yet again failed to achieve, a hint of sadness for what was promised but not delivered.

There is an answer for this, one that has something in common with my long-ago crush on the girl June: a focus on the feeling itself rather than on where it might lead. In my adopted home, New York City, one way that I revel in the feeling of June, of spring, is to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, particularly at night, when the Manhattan skyline is lit, each of the many brightened windows in the silhouettes of those tall, tall buildings suggesting industry, energy, creativity. The sense of possibility this inspires, the belief that we can do, that we can at least try, may lead somewhere; but it is also a wonderful thing all by itself.

Among her many other poems, the African-American writer Gwen-dolyn Brooks wrote the following, perhaps her most famous work:


We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

The poem adopts the viewpoint of marginalized black boys who shoot pool together. Brooks explained about the passage “We / Jazz June” that these boys, effectively locked out of mainstream society, gleefully attack its cherished symbols: to June, that month of wedding announcements in newspapers’ society pages, the boys bring jazz, originally the music of the low-down. (“Jazz” was once a verb, synonymous with “fuck.”)

I may have read that explanation in a textbook, but it’s possible—and this is the version of events I prefer—that I heard it from Brooks’s own lips, on the one, cringe-worthy occasion when I met her. This was in New York in 1991. I was a freelance (read: an unemployed) writer of twenty-eight, scrounging for a living, and I had signed on to write a young-adult biography of Brooks. In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, such books are cobbled together with information from secondary sources, but I saw in the newspaper that Brooks was giving a reading in Manhattan, and so I went, hoping to infuse my project with insights that only the poet herself could provide. To my delight, one of the poems she read that night was “We Real Cool.” After the reading, while Brooks greeted friends and signed books, I lurked late, waiting for my chance to speak to her. Finally, noticing this silent young stranger, she turned to me, curious. I explained what I was doing, and she asked what she could do for me. And then, God help me, I said to this Pulitzer Prize–winning septuagenarian, “I was hoping I could buy you a cup of something.”

I should say here, to portray Brooks in an appropriately positive light and make myself look like less of a fool, that she later personally mailed me materials she thought would help my project. (One of them is the book, signed by Brooks, from which I just copied her poem.) In that moment, though, maybe misinterpreting my offer—or, possibly worse, understanding it perfectly—she bent double with laughter, long, loud laughter of embarrassment for me, for us. It’s probably superfluous to report that I bought the poet no cups of anything that night, or ever. As she laughed I felt sorry I had said what I did, sorry I’d come at all to see this woman, who seemed to have about as much use for me as did my old schoolmate June.

We / Jazz June. I have another way of observing and celebrating June: I listen to the late Jaki Byard’s solo piano jazz record Blues for Smoke, recorded in 1960. Whatever the reason, and it may well be purely subjective, the tunes on Blues for Smoke, none more so than “Spanish Tinge No. 1,” make me think of soft June nights, of walking slowly, perhaps aimlessly, through dark streets lined with trees that are thick with leaves, the yellow glow of the occasional street lamp illuminating just enough green foliage to hint at its black depths.

There is also the six-minute title track of Sonny Rollins’s album The Bridge, from 1962. Prior to making that album, Rollins, a young turk of the tenor saxophone, had found himself being praised by jazz critics even as he sometimes failed to play as well as he wanted. To bring himself closer to what he felt he could do, to pursue what he hoped was possible, Rollins stopped performing and recording for a time and took to practicing his horn on the Brooklyn Bridge. “The Bridge,” a nod to those days and nights of dogged self-improvement, features contrasts. Rollins plays in a rapid tempo that occasionally slows, possibly reflecting the ebb and flow of traffic on the bridge; and while he often races up and down chords, seemingly playing every note in existence, he sometimes plays impressionistically, blowing isolated two- or four-note phrases, dabs of sound, bringing to mind the pinpoints of light from office windows of the Manhattan skyline. Rollins’s practice sessions were not recorded. Still, sometimes during those June walks over the Brooklyn Bridge, I think of those no doubt beautiful sounds, those expressions of feeling, played not long before my birth and heard mainly by Rollins himself. I am happy to be where that music was made, even if it can’t be heard, even if, in the traditional sense, it got nowhere.

I own a clarinet. It was given to me years ago by a friend who found it in the apartment she had just moved into and remembered that I had once played. I don’t play anymore. Truth is, I was never very good. There are a number of possible explanations for that—an obvious one, which I don’t discount, is simple lack of talent—but an important one may be that I didn’t have a model. At age fourteen I didn’t know from jazz and wouldn’t for years, and so I was without a sense of what was possible on the instrument.

That is not a real regret. I am more than content, today, to be a fan, and to subject my wife and daughters to my fandom. They are good-natured about it. On a recent, chilly autumn day I pulled out one of my oldest jazz CDs, a compilation of the work of the alto saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, and played it for my teenaged younger daughter. I have long maintained that the late Cannonball possessed the sweetest sound in all of jazz; I drew my daughter’s attention in particular to a ballad called “Spring Is Here,” a work my wife once pronounced to be “too beautiful.” As we listened to that indeed almost inexpressibly lovely tune, I realized something that I hadn’t during the innumerable times I had played this record before, and I said to my daughter about Cannonball’s delicate, quivering tone, “He made his horn sound like a violin.” And even as, outside, the fall wind stirred brown leaves and deposited them in piles on the wide sidewalks of our Brooklyn neighborhood, I thought for just a moment, hearing that sweet jazz, of June.

Clifford Thompson is the author of Love for Sale and Other Essays and Twin of Blackness: A Memoir.

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