Jazz Institute of Chicago

A Story for Wilbur

A Story for Wilbur
by Deborah L. Gillaspie

It was After-Fest at the Jazz Showcase, and the house trio was on the stand. Not even 10pm yet the hang was just starting, with the Chicago Jazz Festival wrapped up a scant half-hour earlier. The trio had gotten better and hotter every night since the Festival’s annual Club Tour on Wednesday. The pianist threw out the most amazing chords: 11ths, 13ths, incredibly sophisticated stuff that eventually came right back home to the Blues. The bassist’s solos shimmered as his fingers danced over the strings, with speeds and harmonies beyond belief. And the drummer—the drummer was incredible.

He was right there, always in the pocket, effortlessly defining the time. He seemed to read minds, how else did he know where people were going, when the decisions were being made from moment to moment? In the language of pure bop he forged them into a braid of molten silver that flowed through the hearts and bones of every person in the room.

Then the horn player showed up. First of those who would sit in that night, he strode onstage with his ax and preened in the light. He called a tune; the quartet launched itself. The braid flowed on, the horn player struggled outside. Angry and frustrated, he glared at the drummer; during the brush work that accompanied a bass solo, he sidled up to the kit and made comments audible to the spectators on the stage, asking for minute adjustments to the sound of the hi-hats, suggesting the drummer ride on a crash cymbal, accusing the drummer of rushing. The drummer said nothing. Stone faced, dignified Chief and Elder that he was, the drummer never missed a beat. The braid flowed on, tune after tune, inviting the horn player to join and again he failed. After a few more people arrived and achieved what eluded him, he left the stage.

During the break between sets, I found the drummer outside having a smoke. He was always good to us younger drummers, always willing to share what he knew about drums and music and the magic of the molten braid. “What do you do in a case like that?” I asked. “What do you do, when a horn player tries to tell you what cymbals to use? What do you do, when someone sits in and blames you when he can’t find a way into the music?”

He was quiet for a moment, and took a drag on his cigarette, staring off in the distance. Then he looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and said, “Just play through ‘em.”

Thanks for the memories, dear friend.

copyright 2000 Deborah L. Gillaspie
Deborah L. Gillaspie is the curator of the Chicago Jazz Archive and the Acting Bibliographer for Music at the University of Chicago.

Copyright ©2003. All rights reserved.

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