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It’s the thick of a northern California spring and I’m twisting south down the eight-foot-wide stretch of Highway 1 that snakes from Stinson and Muir beaches through stands of eucalyptus and other green things back down to level ground, to roads of average width, to shops and houses. The windows are fully down, but it’s not to allow in the eucalyptus. She—the she, the only she—found a dead thing to roll in between the water and the beach grasses. Possibly a Brandt’s cormorant. This is not the first time.
I toss a hiss over my right shoulder when the road straightens: “This is why we can’t have nice things.” I catch a flash of contrition on her face and have to laugh. The contrition of a wolf is no contrition at all. It’s more an “I own you, you know it, and you like it fine.” Simmering in her cloak of decaying bird flesh and death-sticky feather clumps, she is right, of course.
I first became seriously hooked on Wagner when I was 12 or 13. Everything I’d been listening to up to that point—Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Brahms—seemed to be little more than building blocks culminating in his final opera, Parsifal, and all the music that came afterward was a falling away. It wasn’t until a few years later that I began hearing about Wagner’s personal views and accidental associations, and you know what? It just didn’t matter. To this day nothing has changed. From all I’ve learned and read about him (including his massive autobiography), Wagner the Man was an insufferable blowhard and a jerk, someone I likely wouldn’t care to spend too much time around. But his monumental, glorious music remains central to me, and always will.
Today marks the 200th anniversary of Wagner’s birth, but you can’t hear anything about it without also hearing that Wagner was an anti-Semite and a friend of Nietzsche’s and a Nazi.
Yes well. OK, those three things seem to be far more important to most people than, say, The Ring Cycle, so let’s take care of these one by one.
Jazz is a music of swagger. A genre based around solos, virtuosity, and technical prowess, its descent (or ascent, if you prefer) into avant-garde hermeticism was, if not inevitable, then at least not all that surprising either. Bird, Dizzy, Coltrane, Miles, Mingus—one-name giants of cool and geniuses of the new.
Not all jazz is new, though. There's a jazz traditionalism as well, though its profile is considerably lower. Trombonist Bill Harris, for example, definitely needs both his names. Even with those, it's likely that few non-aficionados have heard of him, or of his great, blandly titled 1957 album, Bill Harris and Friends.
The risk of going to a public place to be alone is that sometimes people mistake my book for a prop and my lack of companion for a desire for companionship. To be fair, a stranger can’t know that in my hands, no book, above all a 1974 copy of Rex Stout’s The Red Box, is ever a prop. But I still cut short my time on my second-favorite bar stool last night. First, my neighbor, having heard me yammering with the French barman, asked me to spell out some French for a text message. Next, she asked me to describe my experience of the oysters. In the matter of the French query, I acquiesced; in the matter of the oysters, I did not. Oysters are my Tardis. I put them in my mouth when I need a shortcut to certain beaches in the Bay Area or in Rhode Island. And, via airplane or bivalve mollusc, I go to those places alone.
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