Mythic jam

They didn’t plaster “James Carter Cavalcade of Legends and Moment in Jazz History” on the Baker’s marquee last weekend, but they could have. We came away from the live recording session abuzz with music, sights, echoes of conversations, churning emotions — uncertain about how to get it down in words.

So many telling moments. There was James’ proud mother, Thelma Haight, opening night, exclaiming not because her son was a star, but because he was pointing the spotlight back home. There was club founder Clarence Baker relaxed and radiating pride in his 62-year reign. Meanwhile current co-owner John Colter paced the small club, handling the headaches as head-setted techies buzzed around mics and checked cables

By the main room’s entrance, Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun jotted notes, while supervising the goings on. He smiled at mention of the word Grammy. “It’s as if John Coltrane had recorded with Chu Berry, Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young,” he said. (Later on, his courtiers would include Kid Rock, Pamela Anderson and Anita Baker.)

There was pianist Kenn Cox telling saxophonist Johnny Griffin that he’d worn the grooves from three copies of the Griffin-Thelonious Monk recording. There was saxophonist Franz Jackson’s quipping that “living” was the best kind of legend to be.

We weren’t around for Aretha Franklin on Friday, but word was that she electrified the room with “Everyday I Have the Blues,” “My Funny Valentine,” “Cherokee” and “How High the Moon.” With the air-conditioning off (can’t let the queen’s vocal cords dry out), waitresses were sweating into drinks, or so we heard. But we didn’t hear a soul complain that risking heat stroke was a bum deal.

There was Carter himself, revving up the crowd, asking for a little mo’ noise. But he silenced everything to dedicate opening night to two mentors: the late saxophonist Beans Bowles and pianist Harold McKinney, who was to have been on the gig; Carter told the crowd that McKinney had fallen ill (a stroke) and was in a coma.

Then the celebration resumed. Tune after tune subsumed the saxophonic history of jazz. Swing-era vet Jackson brought a loamy tone and impetuous voice; Griffin and Larry Smith, the acrobatic grammar of bop; David Murray, the fiery tones and vocabulary of the avant-garde — yet, to suggest that any of them was neatly circumscribed by his roots was to miss the point. At the heart was Carter who combines, among other things, the punctiliousness of the young lions of the ’80s with a catholic appreciation for the jazz past (including the sometimes-disparaged avant-garde). He has an amazing palette of tones and timbres and an uncanny, crowd-stirring knack at corralling them into whiz-bang riffs. He has all that plus a cocky, irrepressible sense that this is nth-degree fun. For all the complexity he navigates, he can worry and worry a single note to provoke several waves of “Oh, my God” applause before bringing down the house with the note’s end — but not the solo’s end. Then he’s off again, crowd in tow.

We could go on. But suffice to say that walking to the parking lot, we looked with envy at the long line of final-show ticket-holders. ….

Which seemed a decent ending until the next day when we heard the news that McKinney was showing no sign of reviving. We thought a lot about the fragility of life and art. And on Monday, as we went to press, his family was planning for the end.

MT managing editor W. Kim Heron contributed to The Hot & the Bothered, which is edited by MT arts editor George Tysh

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