The first thing—always—was the smile. Immediate-upon-recognition, and wholly spontaneous. Bona fide. Beatific. And big? I’m talking little-kid-on-Christmas joyful, light-up-the-world big. Generous, in a way that would always be entirely beyond your deserving. The glittering, shining, profoundly happy eyes as they dug you—dug the literal sight of you. Somehow, miraculously, these same eyes beamed directly into those of Art Tatum, King Pleasure, Louis Jordan … and Louis Armstrong. And now you could feel the zest and energy of those exchanges flashing your way. Incredible.
Then the gesture would come: the arms thrown wide open to welcome you home. It was an indication that revealed an invitation—to embrace, and to admire. Because, head to toe, he would be clean in a way he’d been practicing since well before you were ever born. Here, my friends, was a self-made man. Here was a man who started out just another kid among 15 in one family. Except he wasn’t “just” anything. He was the seventh son. As such, he would choose his own fate, standing out for the rest of his life.
As a boy he sang for nickels and dimes in the bars: “Hey, mister, don’t waste that nickel on the jukebox! Give me that nickel and I’ll sing you any song that’s there. I know ’em all!” As an adult he sang, by invitation, for the crowned heads of Europe. What’s more, he would write his own songs and lyrics—lyrics like none that had ever been heard before. This was a man whose ingenuity and artistry propelled him to combine Shakespearean-level lyrics with mother wit and acrobatic, atomic, urbane 20th-century swing and bop.
At age 7, on a curiosity walk, he and a little friend were picked up by the police outside of a fancy clapboard house in the rich, “white” part of Toledo, made to feel like criminals and delivered by the cops back to their own “black” neighborhood. As an adult he remembered that clapboard house, returning to buy and live in it with his family—and parking his fat, shiny-white Lincoln Continental in the driveway for all to see.
This man advised American presidents from Carter to Obama, sitting on the board of the Kennedy Center Honors. This man lectured at the Sorbonne and was presented the Légion d’honneur by the president of France. This man.
So: handmade English shoes. Tailored suits of merino wool and cashmere, gabardine or impeccable linen (if it was hot out). Italian silk handkerchief like an exotic blossom in the breast pocket of his jacket, juxtaposing itself with an equally chic necktie. (Picture paisley pansies bursting.)
And don’t forget the hat; he never did. Depending on the season and the occasion, it could be a bowler, a tweed Irish pub-style or, often, a dress-white captain’s hat. (I wouldn’t have been surprised to see him sporting a shiny black top hat and cane like Fred Astaire on his way to a wedding. It would have suited him.)
Next would come the embrace itself, inevitably complete, warm and full. This was a family man, and he knew how to hug. Fatherly, but immoderate to some folks. I don’t think we ever hugged for less than 20 seconds at a time—rocking and singing, almost dancing to keep from falling over.
And then the laughter would commence. His laughter was both a song and a geyser of noisy mirth. Exclamatory in delight, it carried the raspy, gravelly sound that changed the whole singing world. It was the sound of at least six masterpiece recordings (where he is at least co-leader), dozens more as a guest soloist and hundreds of prized bootlegs and board tapes. This voice sang out in rooms where Monk himself sat and collaboratively listened. This voice played live trios with Bird and Diz and duets with Cannon. This voice joined Duke Ellington’s in prayerful exuberance. This voice voiced the entirety of the Count Basie band and the Gil Evans Orchestra.
But only then—once you’d seen the smile and the eyes, the silks and the hat; after you’d extended the hand, received and returned the embrace and echoed his laughter with your own—would you hear the song you’d been hoping to hear all along: “Aww, I love you, babe.” I loved you too, Pops. I loved you too.