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.