for charles “doc” austin(1930 --
what turned u around, doc? thirteen is much too young to
die. what about-faced u? snatched u from that blissful peace,
from free floating out of yr body, looking down on
it from above & peristaltically moving
thru’ that surreal tunnel heading inevitably
to the brightest of lights? perhaps it was the music.
those buzzing, ringing near death tonalities that
were surely soundsign auguries pronouncing yr life
course meet & yr destiny in accord with divine
sanction. yr uncle’s second sight informed him, but his
physician’s skill convinced him, & he told yr loved ones
u had turned around, had broken death’s tenacious grip.
resolute, for better or worse, u were coming back.
although the magic city birthed u, fey destiny,
masquerading as the low down dirty blues drove u
from miami, dropped u in memphis in the loving
care of a fairy tale uncle who clothed u, fed u,
kept a roof over yr head, nursed u back from the edge
of pneumonitic death, bought u yr first saxophone,
a shiny soprano to help you strengthen yr lungs.
u poured into that conical tube of thin nickel
plated metal all the rage rending anguish of a
father’s abandonment, all the profound sorrow of
having to leave one’s mother, all the existential
terror of wrestling with death that a thirteen year old
could hold, contain; & u learned to really play that horn!
played so well that u picked up five dollar gigs on beale
street with b.b. king, in the house band at the mitchell
hotel. played the summer “carni” circuit when school let
out, flexing yr big fifteen year old chops from the big
easy to atlanta & points north – coming of age,
meeting diz who nudged u thru’ liminality to
rites of entry – & u won a talent show at the
handy theater & a music scholarship to
philander smith college; transferred to tennessee state
just to attend the school that topped the best jazz band polls.
played at clubs in nashville, for the great glee clubs
at t.s.u. & fisk, learned theory from quentin banks
who taught u how to write & play music differently.
left college for the navy, joined a vice admiral’s
flagship jazz band, even played the ed sullivan show.
did some woodshedding, studied theory with dave brubeck’s
brother. kept up with what diz was doing & listening
to & returned to tennessee state to finish yr
degrees. came home to miami-dade, reunited
with yr mother. married, had children, taught school during
the day, starred in the jazz band at the hampton house at
night, where mlk & malcolm x stayed when in the
magic city, where everyone who was anyone in jazz came
to play. u were the first black jazz man to integrate
miami beach, the eden roc & the fountainbleau
hotels – a living miami legend in yr time.
dizzy told u that when he first heard the music of
the pygmies, with their dense contrapuntal communal
improvisations & complex polyphony, he
thought he was hearing music that he had written. for
u, it was the mystical & distinctive sound of
the japanese five toned scales, the tonal images
that reconstructed stravinski’s fleeting vision of
a pagan ritual where a young girl danced herself
to death, those asymmetrical rhythms, percussive
dissonance, polyrhythms, polytonality;
the layering of persistently repeating themes
& melodic fragments that reeked of west africa;
that sent u creatively spinning, zoning, fuguing!
seek & ye shall find & u found all of those sounds &
blends & complements in the moog synthesizer. when
wendy carlos was switching on bach, u switched on
joe galivan & the two of u realized a
mutualistic symbiosis between woodwind, reed
& moog. galivan’s digital rhythm section freed
up yr restless saxophones, yr flutes, yr english horn
& oboe; freed u up to go where too few save trane,
pharoah, shepp & ayler dared to go. u gave him real
percussive freedom – to play melodies, chordal bass
lines, let him erase the boundaries of rhythm &
beat – freed him from just keeping time! the music took the
two of you to europe – communist romania.
under nixon’s cold war policy u won a state
department grant & were selected to play at the
opening of the new american library
in august ’69 in a pre-war mansion near
the heart of bucharest. booked with no less than the great
american composer, george crumb, & the winners
of the tchaikovsky piano competition. u
& galivan fired those romanians up with yr
music, had them screaming for more! a foreshadowing
of the university college london’s yearly
saxophone festival in the early seventies
where u were the only american saxophone
player invited back for ten consecutive years!
u have had a fully elaborated life, doc,
& at every stage a peak experience. u have
known & played with some of the great musicians of our
time, have won acclaim as a player, conductor &
creator. u have followed yr muse, explored the edgy, outer
limits of yr creativity, but found the time to
provide for & raise yr own children, eschewing the
lucrative & salacious enticements of the road.
u always came home, spared them the angst of abandonment
that u knew all too well & they grew to make u proud.
& those other children, the very ones u taught, trained
& mentored? that u touched their lives with music is worth
more than any honor or award bestowed on u.
© Joseph McNair;2010