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MIT student blogger Ahmed H. '12

The Hawk Flies High by Ahmed H. '12

Spontaneous jazz improv at 77 Massachusetts Avenue.

One clear Thursday night long ago I was playing ultimate frisbee on the Kresge Oval with some friends. As we ran around, we could hear music over our footsteps and shouting in an otherwise silent and uneventful night. At first I attributed it to the loudspeakers that blast rock and roll across Massachusetts Avenue from Bexley, but these notes were the unmistakable weavings of a live saxophone. When the game disbanded I followed the sound. At the bottom of the steps of 77 Mass Ave was a lone saxophonist, young 20s, blowing into his alto, horn case closed.

I climbed up the steps and perched myself behind and above him, watching him play. Leaned back and looked at the stars, listening to the cars hiss by underneath his tones. I was in New York, 1940. 52nd Street. I took a gulp of my cola and he must have heard me.

“Didn’t see you there!”

“Heh, yeah, I’ve been sitting here a while. I love it–really. Was that an original composition?”

“If you want to call it that, man, I’m just blowing!”

When he finished the next piece he held his arms wide, as if he were going to bear-hug the black Packards and Caddy Series 61s that had stopped at the 77 crosswalk. “I call that one…YAAAAAAARGH!”

That was my cue. Had to figure out who this guy is. As he sat down to expertly roll a loose-leaf cigarette, we struck up a conversation. He’s a recent graduate of another Boston university, the Berklee College of Music, plays tenor and soprano saxophones also, but alto is his favorite. His idols: Joe Henderson, John Coltrane, and Dexter Gordon. Odd, I thought. All were mostly tenor players, and the most famous alto soloist, Charlie Parker, wasn’t on the list. I was actually able to put my 21M.026 knowledge to use. Jeremy’s a huge fan of the controversial innovator Gunther Schuller, who added classical music elements to jazz–or vice versa, depending on your point of view. I told him I didn’t care what he played if it wasn’t Kenny G elevator music, which he promptly began to imitate until he himself couldn’t stomach it anymore.

Then he asked what I dig. “Blues,” I said, “born in New Orleans, man.” Without saying anything else he got in there with another improvisation, this time framed around the classic Mannish Boy vamp. That two minute alto shrill was enough to make any blueshound’s week.

We spouted some more, life stories, all that. Meanwhile the unhep squares kept walking by, while Jeremy kept playing past midnight, never stopping. And he didn’t care. He was just venting, he said, blowing off steam by blowing on the reed. It made sense, the way he’d been sending those soulful lines all night. He was all over the register, connecting the dots of the stars with his lines, mostly slowly, sometimes picking up momentum to make a point. I couldn’t place his style, really. Bebop erraticism to be sure, but without the blistering pace and dissonance.

Then I realized: I was in the presence of a true artist. He wasn’t there to busk or beg, or even promote his name or find a gig. His case was closed–not out to collect spare change. He was just playing, and it was pure chance that our paths crossed. Hopefully they will again. But as he disappeared, case over his shoulder, emotions all expressed, I began to doubt I’d ever relive the exact feeling his music gave me. Maybe some warm summer night, you’ll hear him too. And then stop to listen.

23 responses to “The Hawk Flies High”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Ahmed, you are quite the poet, aren’t you?

    Quite lovely.

  2. Labib (?14) says:

    Amazing. I’m not much of a blues fan so I don’t get a lot of the references. But an extremely touching piece of work nonetheless.

  3. sae '13 says:

    I love this post!

  4. Vinay says:

    Wow. Even if this post weren’t real, it was good writing. I, personally, believe you cross path with a select few people for a reason; even if you do not know what it is yet.

  5. Vinay says:

    HA! For clarification, I meant: “Even if this post were a piece of fiction,”.

  6. ahmed says:

    It’s a real relief you guys liked this one. I was unsure about it. Vinay, I assure you this post exists and that everything in it actually happened, except for the Packards and 61s. Those were for the Swing Street setting and mood, I guess?

  7. navdeep says:

    great piece of work Ahmed..really touching
    your best post

  8. '13 says:

    The style of this post is beautiful; I love the wording and flow. Nice work.

  9. Piper '12 says:

    Moments like that are truly special.

  10. k4rl05 says:

    nicely written! for a second i thought i was reading something by f. scott fitzgerald or ernest hemingway.

  11. Bolstein says:

    Aww I’m so jealous man; I love Mannish Boy, Muddy Waters is king!

  12. Anonymous says:

    Wish I’d been there

  13. Anonymous says:

    great post! wish i could be there instead of you

  14. varla says:

    as reverend mclean said to paul on the last fishing trip, “you are a fine fisherman”.

  15. anonymous says:

    very fun to read
    i’m reading it for the second time

  16. Divyansh says:

    must say a very well written post Ahmed

  17. mayur says:

    awesome post

  18. Harish says:

    This reminds me an awful lot about the book “A Certain Ambiguity.” Mostly because I’m reading it right now…

    There’s a large focus on jazz throughout the novel in a more mathematically spirited context than your usual jazzy novel.

  19. @k4rl05

    Hemingway? Psh. This beats Hemingway’s dull, redundant style any day for me. :-D I agree that it has the same slice-of-life feel, though.


    What an incredibly special post, Ahmed. I really felt and believed every word of this. These kinds of experiences are truly transcendent, and they only come around a few times a year at most. Thanks so much for sharing this with us! grin

  20. docphil says:

    Nice post! Yea I heard that the Berkley students are extremely talented.

  21. Chris says:

    You have an amazing ability to tell stories.

  22. Mehmet says:

    Nice post!
    I felt similar feelings in New Orleans while listening to talented street musicians. They did not have the education but they had the soul.

  23. Sandra '12 says:

    wow… very impressive writting ahmed and muddy waters is awesome!