Friday, October 2, 2015

What Can I Help You With?

    Scholarship, it may be said, has never been a defining characteristic of the males in our line. Primarily concerned with the making and spending of fortunes, at least during the century, more or less, when such fortunes were still available to them, these gentlemen were perhaps more enthusiastic about buying leather-bound, gilt-edged tomes by the pound to decorate the shelves of their smoking parlors than actually sitting down to read any of them. For my own part, few subjects took sufficient hold of my imagination in elementary school to prompt the sort of immersion that might lead toward scholarship and, in any case, the furrow leading from interest to expertise proved almost invariably too long a row to hoe. 

   Thus it became my great good fortune in college to wind up sharing a loft above the porno store on Snow street with a young painter who had already consumed so many of the world's great works that he fairly exuded scholarship from the noodle atop his jaunty beret to the tip of his long, rabbinical barb. Under his tutelage I soon found myself toting around tattered copies of Panofsky's seminal spellbinder, Meaning in the Visual Arts or Gandhi's epic page-turner The Story of My Experiments With Truth, blowing the guys who still thought it was cool to be seen with The Fountainhead or Turtle Island right out of the water. In the evenings we'd sit across the table from one another trading belly laughs over citations from Nijinsky's Diaries, Dead Souls or Canetti's, The Comedy of Vanity. As with most of the knowledge I acquired in college, literature came to me more through peer-to-peer osmosis than any syllabus or requirement of the school itself. As it turned out, I liked to read but wasn't particularly interested in the scholarship of literature; I liked to paint but was bored by the clinical scholarship of painting. Around this time I developed interests in fishing, malted beverages and Jazz. Although these subjects may appear more recreational than academic, authorities from Izaak Walton to Leonard Feather have produced enough Moroccan-bound compendiums on their every minutia to satisfy even the decorating requirements of my forefathers.

   I spent the Eighties kneeling on a brown shag rug in Brooklyn, finger poised above the pause button of the Teac, waiting for Phil Schaap to stop talking and drop the needle on Billie Holiday or Coltrane or Mingus or Bird. Schaap was a DJ on New York's preeminent Jazz station and I became a devotee from the moment I discovered him launching into an endless soliloquy on what Charlie Parker may have had for breakfast the day he joined Jay McShann in Kansas City. A decade later I 'd amassed, through relentless taping and oblique osmosis, a nearly encyclopedic education in the form, the closest thing to scholarship I may have ever attained. In those days I could tell you who was who and who wasn't, what the tune was and what tune that riff was based on. Most of this knowledge has faded away in the absence of Jazz radio and the distance I've put between myself and the bright lights and Big City; I can still name the major players, most of the time, but I find myself often stumped by what might once have seemed obvious and unforgettable.

   The other day we were working down the road and listening to Body and Soul on Pandora via Malcolm's laptop. I was thinking maybe Ben Webster..... but not quite. Certainly not the classic, not Hawk, but close. This should be an easy one, I thought, putting down the paint roller, leaning into my ladder and letting the saxophone envelop me. “Hey,” Malcolm called from the next room, breaking the spell. “Come watch this; this is unbelievable!” He was holding his new iphone 6, the laptop on the table between us, the rich, mellifluous Body and Soul filling the room. “Siri!” He said into the phone, “What tune is this?” I started to say something about how almost anybody could name that tune when Siri cut me off. “Let me listen for a moment...” she said, “Ok, I think I've got it. That's Body and Soul by Andy Sheppard!” 

   And Siri was right, of course. I've never even heard of Andy Sheppard. If Siri can do that with an obscure tenor man, she can presumably do it with a painting, a line of verse or nearly anything else we might imagine. Can there really be any future for scholarship?

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