genius, teacher, good man
John at Crooks and Liars just made my day, by linking to this CNN story - John Coltrane has two of this week's three top jazz albums, 38 years after he passed away. I took lessons from his bass player, Jimmy Garrison, many years ago. It was an honor and privilege I didn't fully grasp at the time.
At every stage in my life there have been musicians or songs that triggered a near-mystical response in me: the first one I remember is "Stranger on the Shore" by Mr. Acker Bilk (I must have been four, maybe?), then Buddy Holly and the Chiffons at around the same time, Otis Redding at 12 -- for a while in my teens Trane was the guy elected to send me into an altered state.
When I started taking lessons from Jimmy I was the least schooled and proficient of his students, but he said he liked my attitude and "philosophy" toward music. (We would have very theoretical conversations ...) When I ran out of money, he offered to keep teaching me for free.
I took him up on his offer for a while, but the fact is I didn't have the self-control to woodshed as much as would be appropriate and respectful to him as my teacher. I was seventeen years old and not at my best. I couldn't keep up with his lessons and pursue my bad habits, too. I was ashamed to tell him that, so I lied and said I couldn't make the bus fare to his apartment either. When he offered to give free lessons and pay my way, I just disappeared.
When he died I regretted having ended our relationship on a falsehood. He was a beautiful cat - and unusually tolerant of the fact that I sang in a country/western band on weekends. I even wrote country songs in the three- and four-chord structure Jimmy considered imprisoning and unimaginative, but elitism was not his thing. Today I can admit to him - and to you - that I've never been very disciplined, and that chops aren't my strong suit on guitar either.
Hanging out at Jimmy's apartment was a thrill all its own. You never knew which legend would stop by. A fellow student and I once went through the black book by his telephone while we were waiting for him, just to see the names of the greats ...
His family now maintains a website in his memory. I'm glad. "Genius" is an overused word, but he was one. He was also kind, sensitive, warm, and generous. I wish I could talk to him. I'm not greedy - one time would be enough. I'd like to say "thank you" once more, with feeling.