Tributaries

The jazz industry is enamored with tributes: albums and concerts honoring past masters and mentors are as common an occurrence as a new Wynton Marsalis CD. Perhaps tributes are more common in jazz than in pop because it takes a little work to find out about the music—and once you do, you want to thank the people who turned on that light. In my first JT Notes—and in true jazz scene fashion—it’s only appropriate to pay tribute to the person that flipped the switch for me.

My parents, James and Patricia, always encouraged me to follow my instincts, and it was my aunt, Kathleen Vokes, who inspired the writer in me. But it was my uncle, Stuart Berry, who turned me on to jazz.

My family would go to Uncle Stu and Aunt Betty’s house in Detroit for holidays, where I would steal away to their basement and listen to records. Not jazz LPs, but my cousin’s Pink Floyd and Alice Cooper records. It wasn’t until my teens that I discovered my uncle’s giant jazz collection—despite the fact it took up an entire wall.

A collector since the ’50s, my uncle’s musical interests span the gamut, from the earliest swing to the most recent David S. Ware album (which freaked out his dog). His basement was the place I first heard Cecil Taylor and Paul Desmond, Bobby Hutcherson and John Coltrane. While all these sounds flowed like a river to a lake into my head, I would read back issues of Cadence, The Wire and, yes, JazzTimes.

It seems like everyone has a story about how jazz music came into his or her life. My initial interest in the music came from memorizing Marx Brothers, Laurel & Hardy and Three Stooges flicks featuring music that was, to my young ears, swing. (I also imitated my slapstick heroes, much to my brother’s aching-head chagrin.) I also remember the ’60s Spider-Man cartoons I dug as a kid, where Peter Parker would enter the same coffee bar featuring the same band playing the same song—some sort of soul jazz number.

But it wasn’t until I heard Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five and Hot Seven that I fell in love with the music. My first non-rock LP was Armstrong’s Plays W.C. Handy—given to me by my uncle.

A tribute CD to my uncle is in order for giving me that gift alone.

Originally published in April 2000

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