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Passion for the Climb
My Boogie Stop Shuffle
By Michael Coyle, Professor of English
“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture” — Google this quotation and you’ll find it attributed to any of a dozen people ranging from Thelonious Monk to Lou Reed, from Martin Mull to Elvis Costello to Frank Zappa. Doubtless there’s a story to be told about how this quip turned into the stuff of urban legend. But most everyone who has ever thrilled to a favorite song knows the force of it. I sure do. I’ve been writing about — or trying to write about — music since I was in college, driven by the sheer futility of it, but also by that deeply human need to communicate what is beyond words.
(photo by Andrew Daddio)
Hegel believed that music is the art of arts precisely because it is beyond language, and any number of philosophers and aestheticians after him have tried to explain its power with arguments about how music bypasses the rational mind and works directly on the soul. I don’t know. I can only say that anytime I’m moved by music, I feel in the presence of something much bigger than me. There are analogous moments in the other arts, including the one I’m trained to teach, but nowhere else do attempts to express what I’m feeling more seem only inadequate translations.
In high school, I did what music-besotted teenagers usually do — played in garage bands. Needless to say, those efforts also felt like translations (though they were better than the poems I was writing). Eventually I made my way into college radio, and discovered in its mix of discussion and transmission new possibilities of community. To “translate” means to convey; radio affords one opportunity to do that. It’s not just the occasional call from a listener who likes something I’m spinning — it has also been the company of other DJs.
Every semester I meet new WRCU DJs whose passion for music rivals my own. I’m lucky. But getting involved at first took a little pressure from Professor of English Emeritus Bob Blackmore, who, with the glittering eye of some Ancient Mariner, called me to task. It was Bob who negotiated my first being asked by the WRCU board to serve as station adviser, and I’ll always be grateful for that. For about 15 years, about once a week, I was a regular visitor in Bob’s den, enjoying late-into-the-night conversations over growing stacks of LPs. He himself was still doing shows back then, and in retrospect, I realize that the ongoing contests we’d get into (I’d play something on my show, to which he’d respond the next night on his, challenging me to “top that”) amounted to a sustained graduate seminar, conducted with the deftest of touches. Bob, too, was always looking for connections with the music.
I called my first WRCU show R&Be-bop. I was then, as now, seeking music that busted genres as well as expectations. My theme song was Big Joe Turner’s 1959 “Switchin’ in the Kitchen,” and I’d play things like Jimmy’s Liggins’s 1947 jump blues cover of Charlie Parker’s be-bop masterpiece, “Now’s the Time.” But after Bob’s passing, it was time to pick up the torch. I couldn’t replace Bob, but I could carry on in my own way. So I conceived a new show, calling it after (and choosing as my new theme song) the Mills Blue Rhythm Band’s 1933 swingfest, “A Jazz Martini.” As a good cocktail mixes and balances ingredients and spirits, so this show drew on everything from 1920s Hot Jazz to the contemporary avant-garde.
Two years ago, however, my life changed completely: the legendary (at least to jazz record geeks like me) “Slim,” of Cadence Records, left her job to start a new life with me here in Hamilton. Let me make it fast with one more thing and say that she is still working with Cadence; I wouldn’t sabotage my favorite record label! With Slim in town, I quickly found myself in new weekly radio contests — with her throwing down challenges every bit as hard as Blackmore’s. This situation lasted three semesters before it dawned on us that we’d have more fun doing one show together. And so, the name of my show changed once again, becoming Slim and Him, with a new theme song: Mingus’s 1959 recording, “Boogie Stop Shuffle.” Now there’s a dance!
Radio remains my regular, but not sole, means of trying to share the joy: music is important to my course, “The Jazz Age”; I write academic articles about jazz and pop history; I’m developing a book about cover songs; I offer jazz lectures for Core 152; and I continue to review jazz books and records for Cadence magazine. Sometimes I think I come close to producing language that’s just about adequate, but most of the time, I finish a piece simply resolving to do better next time. I’ve learned that that’s the whole Faustian point. As F. Scott wrote: it eluded me then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow I’ll run faster, stretch out my arms farther… And one fine morning —
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