Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Majer’s Velvet Lounge

The Velvet Lounge: On Late Chicago Jazz
By Gerald Majer
Columbia University Press

Often in films jazz as used a signifier of a character’s sensitive outsider status. The audience knows Tom Hanks character in The Terminal and virtual every character played by Woody Allen stand apart from the crowd, because they play or listen to jazz. In those films, the jazz characters are usually sufficiently interesting to hold viewers attention. While Gerald Majer’s autobiographical essays in The Velvet Lounge use jazz in a similar fashion, the incidents from his life are often pedestrian and told in an over-wrought style, likely to frustrate most readers.

Each essay collected in Lounge begins as a meditation on a musician, but morphs into an episode from Majer’s life. Majer can turn some nice phrases, but he brings little insight to the music in general. There are some nice descriptions of attending Sun Ra concerts in “Proxima Ra,” showing Majer’s tendency to veer into prose poem terrain with passages like:

“And as the show ended and the Arkestra wound through the audience still playing—it was never over, they kept circling again though you thought they were done, and even when they’d left you could still hear the horns and the voices going on somewhere offstage, outside on the stairs, out ahead of you a minute on Rush Street, mixing with the crowd and the taxis and the noise of cruising late-night traffic—a touch, there on my shoulder. Ra’s hand.” (p. 58)

Yet, most of “Proxima Ra” is dedicated to Majer’s ruminations on his trips to the public library to research a school science project, the Wilson Cloud Chamber. It is these interludes that show Majer’s weakness for overblown cosmological ponderings like:

“Cosmic rays: I leaned over the photograph protectively as if guarding a portrait of a face—maybe a face that I feared, maybe a face that I loved, maybe my own face. I stared and stared, feeling again after a while a mixing of perception, the eye giving up its straining after image, the mind startled and then drifting, the skin as though listening, the body becoming a whorled and hollowed space like an ear.” (p. 52)

After all that, Majer leaves us hanging, never telling us how the Wilson Cloud Chamber panned out. Oddly enough, it is the Sun Ra shows that seem more grounded in reality.

To his credit, Majer is open to adventurous forms of jazz. The book takes it title from the name of the club run by tenor sax player and Chicago free jazz stalwart Fred Anderson. Since the book was written, Anderson’s club has closed, but he reportedly intends to reopen in another location. Indeed, the essay for which Anderson is the touchstone musician is probably the most successful. As it has far too often been the case, Anderson’s first club was the victim of local government regulation. As Majer relates:

“The Bird House lasted less than a year. Legally, it was a matter of zoning, a rule about off-street parking for businesses providing live entertainment. It was a transparently biased decision on the city’s part.” (p. 119)

Majer should get credit for writing with tremendous honesty about his life, but his overblown descriptions of mundane events undermine their appeal. For a jazz themed coming of age memoir, I would recommend Thomas Sancton’s Song for My Fathers instead.