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Cadenza: Re-Experiencing Jaki

In 1978, a large Third Avenue storefront that couldn’t keep tenants for more than a year or two reopened as a restaurant called Blue Hawaii. The place was so spacious that a good night in a normal restaurant meant half capacity at Blue Hawaii-and it was rarely that full. The owner was a nice man who loved jazz and installed a fine grand piano in a corner niche, perfect for listeners while suitably removed from uninterested diners. This short-lived island paradise (the décor included sea-blue paint and fish nets, and the menu offered forgettable dishes that may or may not have involved pineapple) was situated directly across the street from my apartment, and the owner refused money from jazz critics. Better yet, the incomparable Jaki Byard was often in residence, solo.

The audience was usually so, let us say, intimate that the sets were like séances, with much give-and-take between the artist and the house, which on certain nights consisted of, say, two freeloading critics with dates and Jaki’s witty wife, Louise. During one set, Jaki noodled for a moment and then came up with an idea: He would play a medley of Dizzy Gillespie tunes. Well, you can imagine how utterly enthralling that performance was, especially when, toward the end, he moved into a rhapsodic “Con Alma.” Suddenly, he ceased his romantic wizardry, looked at the keyboard, and with one hand or one finger picked out the bare melody of “Con Alma,” just the first few measures. Then he stopped, turned toward us, and asked, “How the hell does he think of things like that?”

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Originally Published

Gary Giddins

Gary Giddins is the author of 12 books, including Rhythm-a-Ning: Jazz Tradition and Innovation (1985), Visions of Jazz: The First Century (1998), Weather Bird (2004), and the three-volume biography Bing Crosby: Swinging on a Star, of which two volumes have been published to date. Between 1974 and 2003, he wrote a regular jazz column for The Village Voice, winning six ASCAP Deems Taylor Awards for excellence in music criticism. From 2002 to 2008, he wrote JazzTimes‘ Cadenza column.