Very early in this peculiar childhood, before age five, two memorable black men got into my life and they’ve never left my head. One was a man named Cyril, probably around age thirty, who attended Party meetings and more or less lived with a white woman so ugly she shattered my mind every time she insisted on kissing me. Cyril was kind to her, and probably to everyone, a handsome, gentle man, and thoughtful. What I remember about him is that while the others were having fierce verbal events and organizing whatever they organized, Cyril had time for a child. He was graceful and they were awkward, his voice not made for proclamations, and he smiled easily.
I don’t know the name of the other early and formative black man in my life. I remember only that he played the saxophone at a level I’d never imagined possible, and was briefly a guest at Camp Nitketaiget, where the New York Left summered in those days. Long story short, he appeared one night on the bandstand in my stepfather’s little band and blew the house down. I had sneaked out of our cabin and made my way to the casino, which was also the dining room, meeting room, and theater (where Waiting For Lefty was performed). Roulette wheels and card tables were set up on this night, and the space was full of rank and file lefties – teachers and civil servants mainly. They were card players and talkers, not listeners, and the band was white as the driven snow. This black man (Negro at the time), was built like an interior lineman, and he took band and audience by the lapels and shook hard enough to shut down the shuck and jive. This took some doing, the listeners all being extremely verbal, well-informed, and not shy. It was my first experience in the power of the tenor saxophone as used in the casting of spells, and the spell was like a benefic drug.
Those were the major black figures of early childhood, but there was ongoing support in my stepfather’s old 78s, played with cactus needles to preserve them. My stepfather ascribed to the latest white swing thing, and he derided Armstrong’s uneducated (as he saw it) trumpet style. But he could not resist his singing, so my early childhood was filled with Satchmo’s incomparable music. There was an evil hiatus when my mother put our enormous and ancient Victrola out on the street because it took up too much space. It probably weighed as much as she did, but she was a determined woman. The records it housed went, too. But after a while we got another, smaller music-machine, and Louis reappeared, along with Duke, Dizzy, and whomever else my stepfather brought home from his record store. (He’d moved to the center and did all right there.)
Jump cut past my uninterested attempt at the clarinet to my first saxophone, Bird, and my escape from Connecticut to New York, spending every night in a club if I could manage it, or outside in a good listening zone with friends. And from this, a miracle, friendly contact with serious black musicians. My early playing had been with white musicians of no creative significance, but who were professionals; I was not, a fact they found many ways to remind me of. And here is the big fact. Those for-real New York black jazz players were tolerant of me, willing to play with me, usually in barren, rickety lofts, and they helped me to the extent it was possible. In this world, every once in a while something inside would release, and I’d really play – play the way I wanted to. It was the sixties and seventies, and we were often obscured by a smoke screen, sometimes topped up with chemicals of the day.
For years I led a kind of double life, sports-writing, ghosting and driving a cab to keep a roof over my head. All the while I maintained a strong conviction that in some really basic way, people with African roots were more humane, more secure in something basic that I valued, than those from my western European gene pool. Those were happy, wild and crazy years, during which I made no money, treated everyone in my life (except musician friends) badly, and generally raised hell. I thought it was the only way anyone with jazz aspirations would want to live. Then, somehow, I ended up with a rich white woman, published a couple of books, and spent a lot of time alone at a typewriter. It didn’t compare to hanging out in lofts and playing out of key with those tolerant black players who had to be amused, but never held it against me.
What I got from this was relief from strident scientific suicidal white tech-culture, and a sense that human beings are not necessarily condemned to competitive consuming, corporations, banks, faux education, etc. Later I spent ten years in a corporation, which nearly broke me, and when I’d saved some money I decided that fiction and black humor could cure me of the godawful existential hangover brought on by the crap I’d been paid to write. I’d been reading genre fiction all my life, and didn’t see any reason I shouldn’t give it a shot and say what I had to say between the lines. Put a little English on the ball and it could be a novel.