FAKEBOOK: Improvisations on a Journey back to Jazz
By Richard Terrill
Limelight Editions, 255 pages (paper), $15
Reviewed by Don Rose
Never having heard Richard Terrill play tenor saxophone, I have no idea how good a jazzman he is or ever was. I get the sense he's not sure either. Having read this somewhat disjointed autobiographical disquisition, however, I do know he's a damn fine writer and a serious teacher. At the heart of this mini-picaresque, wherein he wends his way from the upper Midwest to Asia and back, giving up the music for the better part of a decade then picking it up again, lies perhaps the best description of the actual process of making jazz music that I have ever read.
Almost as importantly, the book dramatizes, through its specific example, the existence of that vast multitude of part-time jazzmen (and women) all around the country who live their lives as teachers, students, bar-tenders, sales clerks, commercial artists and business executives. People who have families and friends, lovers and poker companions, leading ordinary or exotic lives but who are unable or unwilling to risk all on a full-time career in music. They gig around, earning relative peanuts, at celebrations or in clubs, all for the chance to spend a few hours making the sounds of their hearts we call jazz.
The full-time players? They are, unfortunately, only a tiny, fortunate minority of jazz musicians, including Terrill's one-time band-mate Lyle Mays, keyboard artist with the Pat Metheny Group.
Terrill, a poet and essayist now in his late forties, teaches creative writing at Minnesota State University as his day gig. He has published two other nonfiction books, gathered in a host of literary awards and published in numerous small literary magazines; most of the chapters of this book originally appeared in such publications. Its seven autobiographical segments are interleaved with pieces called "improvisations," giving his take on the artists who influenced him: Bill Evans, Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter and Tony Bennett. Those refreshing little interludes are highly personal little essays telling the way he relates to and learns from their music, rather than profiling the musicians themselves.
We open on Terrill in Seoul, Korea, where he is on a teaching assignment, awkwardly and self-consciously playing a tune at a formal wedding. He is the exotic American trophy among his friends in the Far East. He is far less exotic later on, gigging in his native Wisconsin with the local pick-up band of Myron Floren--the musical alter-ego of Lawrence Welk. There's a funny and sad section on Terrill's efforts to job around with an "authentic" blues band. Much earlier, while in his late teens, he and Mays have a brief fling co-leading an avant garde quartet; Mays goes on to become an intrinsic part of a nationally known group, but Terrill stays home to go to college and pursue an academic career.
When he picks up his horn to try to play again after seven years, he is more self-conscious than ever—a wonderful thing, because he continually narrates what goes on in his head as he practices and plays. These are some of the most poignant parts of the book, detailing, as they do, the conscious and conscientious part of jazz improvising.
Here, for instance, he sits in for the first time with a new band, having practiced "Stella by Starlight" for a week before:
There are sweat and nerves. But I cut the changes on 'Stella by Starlight' fine. I play the head and then a couple of choruses without any serious gaffs. I'm surprised at how small my tone sounds compared to the way it bounced off the walls of my empty basement laundry room....the rhythm section plays louder and fuller than the imaginary one I had behind me in my head the last few weeks at home.
Nevertheless I can feel the drummer slightly behind the beat, the bass player slightly ahead, as if musically at the edge of his seat. The piano player fills in sparingly around my playing. I don't leave a lot of room for filling in; nerves often appear as too many notes, afraid to leave space against which mistakes can be identified.
I play two choruses of the up-tempo 'Stella.' F-sharp minor seventh flat five goes to B seventh just the way it did in the 1980s. Then there is that surprising D minor seventh in bar three. Just the way I remember it.
Another section, called "How to Listen/How to Play" is a perfect little gem, dealing in simple, lay terms with playing on chord changes, swinging, melodic improvising, scales and patterns. It's such an essential discussion it ought to be appended to every jazz history that comes out—though it is at the same time as highly personal as the author's later episodes dealing with his relationship to his wife and child. Fine writing of a caliber rarely seen in jazz criticism or music instruction.
Best of all we get throughout a magnificent sense of the stunning grip, the obsessive quality that music and its making have on so many of us—the reason why there are so many among us who continue to play, part time, spare time, though it is not and will never become their primary way of earning a living.
In his interlude on Coltrane he gives a compelling response:
Why play? Which is to ask, why live? More and more, player or writer, I want to find meaning away from 'work,' that very American obsession. By that I mean not that the activities of work are meaningless, but that their meaning resides in them apart from the fact that they're mandatory, compensated, part of a routine or longer term commitment. If work is meaningful it is so in spite of the fact that we have to do it in order to eat. I would like to find meaning in a secondary realm of things that I do: reading, thinking, maybe playing music.
"Fakebook"—which draws its title, of course, from the books of themes and chords musicians refer to so often—helps give more meaning to it all.