Did I ever tell you?

“Did I ever tell you the one about Hank Mobley and the baseball?”

The best moments of the workday tend to begin with Don wandering past my desk with a sly smile and a knowing twinkle in his eyes. “Did I ever tell you?” he’ll begin. I lean back in my chair. Don is offering more than a story: it is an invitation to an inner circle, the elite. Well, no — not quite a full invitation. I am only a spectator, allowed to gawk at his collection of jazz folklore but never quite privy to the whole thing. “You have to hear Charli tell it. Walter told it best, but he’s not around.” I’ve been here long enough to know Don means Charli Persip and Walter Davis Jr. If I had to ask him to give me last names, I’d be out immediately. “Come on, Rachel. You know! Persip, Charli Persiphe’s over here all the time,” I can imagine him chiding and shaking his head in disbelief. I’d have given myself up as a tourist and been promptly escorted back to the outside.

Jazz has a rich oral history; that goes without saying. Any historian could easily tell you that. But what that oral history is, exactly, rarely makes it into the books. Even if a historian was allowed access to one of the old cats’s vault of stories, there’d be no way to prove any of it ever actually happened. “History” is really the wrong word for it: jazz history is the stuff in the books, the routine progression of Joplin to Bitches Brew, the rise of swing and the fall of bebop. Everyone knows jazz history.

But only the chosen few are privy to jazz myth. The myths aren’t important because of their accuracy — their truth value is irrelevant and could never be fully determined anyways. Aside from being inherently amusing, the purpose of the jazz myth is to separate the initiates from the hangers-on, the posers, and the wannabes. And within the in-club, myths establish a hierarchy based on proximity to the deities: Bird, Trane, Miles, Monk. If their nicknames obscure their identities from those not in-the-know, even better. Like Greek mythology, there are minor deities, too — gods of particular instruments who don’t command the same universal command as the major four. A first-person story about a jazz god places the speaker in direct proximity to a legend; from this proximity he derives his own mystic powers, his own legitimacy. Knowing a piece of old lore won’t get you as much mileage, but if you tell it right, you can establish your place in the inner circle — the high priests of jazz, if you will. “I read once that Monk…” is the start of a story — a dubious and pretty irrelevant one, at that. “Toot once told me that Monk…” is the start of a top-notch myth. (Toot is T.S. Monk, Thelonious’s son. If you say T.S., you’re out again.) 

I don’t know much mythology yet. I probably never will — as a music publisher and rookie singer (a singer!), I’m still just a tourist with no creds of my own, no powers of authenticity. But I am a lucky one, and in my short career I’ve been in the right places at the right times to begin to parse the robust tapestry of jazz myth. I doubt I’ll ever be one of the true initiates of the jazz elite: I got where I am because I met the right professor at Columbia. There’s nothing less legitimate than an Ivy League kid who sneaks into the inner circle through connections, unless we’re talking Wall Street, in which case that’s all there is. But since jazz is as far away from Wall Street as you could get, I sit on my pot of jazz lore with the knowledge that having it does not elevate me in the hierarchy — I didn’t hear these at the feet of the masters; they were told to me in interviews and workshops. Still, the fact that I can’t claim a jazz lineage doesn’t take away from the fact that they’re great stories. They were shared with me most often interrupted by the storyteller’s own laughter and usually followed with a nostalgic sigh, legends that are well-worn with repeated tellings that are slightly different each time. They’re stories that are meant to be shared, to be passed on and on, losing a bit of their mysticism with each degree of separation but becoming no less enjoyable.

Thelonious Monk reclining with his wife Nellie. From npr.org.
Thelonious Monk reclining with his wife Nellie. From npr.org.

Most of my stories center around Monk:  he once spent a whole visit with Bertha Hope lying in bed with his shoes and hat on and didn’t say a word. They sat in total silence. After a while, Bertha got up to leave. “Nice seeing you,” Monk finally let out. Grachan Moncur told me that Monk would regularly skip out on bar tabs — “They won’t care. They think I’m too crazy to notice, so I get to do whatever I want,” Monk said as he guided Grachan out of the bar. That one is likely my favorite, although it ties with a tale I heard from Kenny Washington about Philly Joe Jones singing on a gig with Jon Hendricks. Yes, Philly Joe was singing. He evidently got up to sing “It Had To Be You,” but never learned the lyrics. So he started, “It had to be you, it had to be you,” and then continued, “It had to be you, it had to be you, it had to be you…It had to be you, it had to be you…” for every line of the song.

As for Hank, he was evidently notoriously unathletic, but was goaded into a game of baseball by Charli and Walter, who were more interested in being boys than practicing all day like Hank. One hit a fly ball in Hank’s direction, so he ran for it and yelled “I got it! I got it!” with his glove above his head. The ball went right by the glove and straight into Hank’s face, giving him a split lip…on the very night that young Hank would be playing his first gig out of New Jersey — his first New York gig, with Max Roach no less. Hank was able to make the gig even with the split lip, but I can’t imagine he played much ball after that.

(Sometimes Don will sprinkle his stories into commentary on our website, jazzleadsheets.com. His brief aside on “Soul Station” is a particularly nice one. Maybe buy a lead sheet while you’re at it. I mean, not like I have any vested interest in it or anything.)


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