My mother took me on a wild, unforgettable ride the morning she died. Drugged and nearly comatose for about twenty-four hours, she suddenly started breathing heavily, opened her dull, mucus-covered eyes, and began writhing her shoulders off the bed. I was holding her hand, and she gripped me so hard that her bones stabbed painfully into my palm. This intense, disquieting resistance lasted between five and ten minutes, and then Jeanne Northridge Robson was dead from cancer at age fifty-nine.
Nearly twenty years later, I can say it was the last of many incredible gifts she bestowed upon me. I’d anticipated a subdued, imperceptible death; the nurse would come in and check for a pulse, whisper the news, and then pull the sheet up over the body. I’d coated my thoughts with that scenario the way one applies sunscreen on the way to the beach. But my mother burned through the balm and peeled away some mystery for me. She showed me how you can be alive one minute and dead, tangibly dead, the next. Ever since that morning, I have urged friends to be present, if at all possible, when someone they love dies. My younger sister, the only other person in the room at the time, changed her career to hospice work.
Among all of the claptrap surrounding death in our culture, only some of it involves our fears and ignorance of the dying process. Much of it is more ignoble, tied up in melodrama and titillation. “Gawker slowdown” describes a certain type of traffic jam, but that term also factors into the way we patronize artists, being drawn magnetically to those who die tragically and early. Every generation has a few potently dead icons (James Dean, Jack Kerouac, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, et al.) whose live-fast, die-young biographies are seductive to fledgling artists at least in part because of the promise of self-destruction as a lazy shortcut to celebrity.
Among jazz artists, the most insidious icon of this type was Charlie Parker. Heralding the revolution of bebop, he had the perfect sobriquet—Bird—because his alto saxophone solos could levitate and veer and soar like none before him. But Bird was flighty in other ways, too; he was a man of great appetites and impulses, and died of drug addiction in 1955 at the age of thirty-four. Dozens of talented musicians emulated his heroin use in the mistaken belief that it might unlock some of the secrets of his artistry.
Whether he fell prey to Parker’s mystique in particular or the ravages of the jazz life in general, John Coltrane was among those addicted to heroin and alcohol in the 1950s. After celebrating his sobriety with the classic A Love Supreme in 1964, Coltrane became more overtly spiritual; Ascension in particular is unremitting in its intensity and became a hallmark of late ’60s avant-garde for its “sheets of sound” saxophone wail. In 1967, in the midst of this obsessive and uncommonly beautiful spiritual journey, Coltrane’s death at age 40 from a liver ailment put an immediate and lasting luster on his legacy. It is no coincidence that Ken Burns’s PBS series on jazz—probably the closest thing we have to a historical overview of the music for the masses—states that “John Coltrane was, after Charlie Parker, the most widely imitated saxophonist in jazz.”
One wonders if Burns would still be making that claim had ’Trane lived to a ripe old age, and another saxophonist of that era—say, Sonny Rollins or Wayne Shorter—had died young instead, in the midst of one of his own high-profile, quickening phases. In the wake of Parker’s death, Rollins (born just four years after Coltrane) was generally regarded as the new saxophone king. Academics transcribed his thrilling improvisations and revealed them to be geometrically pristine, compositions of integrity conjured on the fly. Today, at seventy-seven, Rollins continues to top critics’ polls and is generally regarded as the most compelling soloist in jazz. Meanwhile, Shorter, due to both his brilliance as a composer and his acute intuition as a player, has dramatically raised the caliber of any ensemble he joins. It happened to Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in the ’50s, the Miles Davis quintet in the ’60s, and Weather Report in the ’70s. Today, at seventy-four, his Wayne Shorter Quartet is probably the most intellectually rigorous and rewarding ensemble in jazz.
These comparisons certainly aren’t meant to denigrate Parker or Coltrane. But how clearly would we peg their influence if, instead of dying at thirty-four and forty, they’d each lived another forty years? What if they’d gone on to respond to the music’s artistic ferment on a day-to-day and year-to-year basis, if they’d had to face challenges from younger generations—even as they struggled to remain vibrant and innovative through the watershed perspective of middle age and beyond? The point is, the persevering excellence of Rollins and Shorter is equally heroic, and should be equally emblematic of jazz sainthood.
Which is why, while it’s an admittedly macabre notion, I hope that Rollins and/or Shorter have the foreknowledge and facility to deliver artistic works influenced by their impending mortality. Put bluntly, I want them to make music that shows an awareness that they are dying. It doesn’t have to be soon—may they both live to one hundred. But it seems only just that death should come forth in art that reflects the tangible reality of old age and disease as well as the romantic titillation of youthful tragedy.
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