Critical Mass

How New York Inspires David Hajdu

By Jane Ciabattari

The second act in “Urban Mirrors: New York, New York” at the New School on September 23, in which NBCC finalists and award winners talked about how the city inspires them, was David Hajdu. He's music critic for The New Republic, a professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, and author of four books, three of which were finalists for the NBCC award: Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn, Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina and Richard Farina, and Heroes and Villains: Essays on Music, Movies, Comics and Culture. Hadju read a section of Positively 4th Street, and followed up with an excerpt from an autobiographical essay describing his favorite working spot in Manhattan, on Riverside Drive. “His Kind of River,” appeared in the New York Times adn includes this passage (see video of his reading below):

Since college, I have lived mostly on the Upper West Side, and I’ve done a great deal of work in Riverside Park. By work, I mean not just the labor of making sentences; I mean the different sort of effort involved in reading or listening to music that I want to write about. I had the author photos for my first two books (“Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn” and “Positively 4th Street”) taken in Riverside Park, because the books were essentially made there. The park is where I did the musing that can be the most important part of writing….

Riverside Park  was deeply important in the creative lives of two of my idols, a fact that has no doubt informed my own ardor for the park. Billy Strayhorn, the reclusive jazz master who composed “Take the ‘A’ Train” and other music associated with Duke Ellington, lived for many years in what was once the Master Hotel, a lush Art Deco tower on Riverside Drive and West 103rd Street.

He spent most mornings and a great many afternoons reading books and writing music in the park — on benches somewhere around the one I’ve chosen…

Stephane Grappelli, the French jazz violinist, once talked to Strayhorn about what the river meant to him.

“We walked along the Seine,” Mr. Grappelli recalled. “I was telling him how much I loved the river and how I loved to look at it as it ran through the city. Billy said it seemed to him to be, he said, the essence of life. It carried life through the city and beyond it, he said.” After Strayhorn’s death in May 1967, a small group of his friends gathered on a pier at the West 79th Street Boat Basin and emptied an urn of his remains into the Hudson.

Hajdu has written scores of articles, as the regular music critic for The New Republic, for the Atlantic, the New Yorker and other publications. When it comes to books, he has selected the major musicians of the first half of the twentieth century—Duke Ellington and the arranger/composer Billy Strayhorn, in Lush Life–and folk icons of the second half of the twentieth century, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, in Positively 4th Street. How did he choose his subjects?

Hajdu said he was “arrogant” in choosing the subject for his first book, which took him eleven years to write. His research into the little-known Billy Strayhorn included 400 interviews (in one case he tracked down a clarinetist who had played with Strayhorn by going through the Es in the Pittsburgh phone book). And he also went through 5,000 pages of previously untouched Ellingtoniana donated to the Library of Congress. 

Glancing around, Hajdu noted, “Billy Strayhorn performed on this stage, here at the New School, in 1965.” The concert, of Strayhorn’s  work, was the only concert under his own name. He called the band he organized for the occasion the Riverside Drive Five. Two years later he died of cancer at age 51. His friends gathered along the Hudson River to remember him and scatter his ashes.

For Positively 4th Street, Hajdu said, the challenge was to take celebrities like Dylan and Baez and to bring fresh light to the material. For instance, Hajdu interviewed eyewitnesses to Dylan’s legendary 1965 “going electric” moment backed by Paul Butterfield Blues Band guitarist Mike Bloomfield, from the Newport Folk Festival; they said that performance did not bring out a round of boos from the crowd, as had long been rumored.  Hajdu also set up a counterpoint to Dylan and Baez by exploring the lesser known Mimi Baez Farina and Richard Farina.  (Among his interviews: Farina’s friend Thomas Pynchon.) In the book he describes Dylan and Baez’s first performance together: “Their voices were odd together, a mismatch—salt pork and meringue—but the tension between their styles made their presence together all the more compelling.”

Hajdu plays piano and a bit of guitar himself (see him onstage with his wife Karen Oberlin, a fine singer and actor, and the author/critic/editor James Marcus). How does it affect his work to be married to a musician?

“She is so good…she's a remarkable singer,” he said, as the house lights went up so we could all see Karen Oberlin in the audience. Her expertise left him so daunted he rarely played, he added, becaue he didn't feel he could begin to measure up.

Hajdu also revealed that he had published two novels under a pseudonym before beginning his first book. But he refused to divulge the name of the novels or the pseudonym. Why did he do it? “To learn how to write a book,” he said. He was raised in a mill town, the first in his family to go to college, and he was accustomed to learning by doing.

“In nearly every piece I write,” Hajdu said, “I try to include a section, often at the beginning, in which I cover all the themes of the piece.” The lyrical opening section of his “Wynton's Blues” gives a sense of how he does that, and also how he weaves atmospheric passages about New York City into his work.

Manhattan is empty during the last week of August, and the kind of emptiness it achieves is like that of the mind during meditation — a temporary, unnatural purity. On a Tuesday evening in late August of 2001 I was wandering around Greenwich Village and ended up at the Village Vanguard. After sixty-some years of business the illustrious little jazz haunt hasn't changed; it remains one of the inexplicable constants of the Manhattan landscape. Its midtown cousin, Birdland (named for the bebop saxophonist Charlie “Yardbird” Parker), closed down decades ago and was replaced by a strip joint, Flash Dancers, which has been in business longer than Birdland was; a theme nightclub near Times Square now uses the Birdland name. ….

 A small combo was running through the bebop classic “Blue 'n' Boogie” at a duly vertiginous speed. There was no mistaking the bandleader: Charles McPherson, an alto saxophonist who was a protege of the late bassist and composer Charles Mingus. McPherson is a venturesome musician who upends the jazz repertoire on the bandstand, and he composes pieces built on surprise, as Mingus did. Although he is a superior talent, he's not a top jazz attraction, which is why he was scheduled for the last week in August. For his second tune after my arrival McPherson, in homage to his mentor, played Mingus's homage to Lester Young, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” The performance was languid, and my eyes drifted, settling eventually on the trumpet player, because he was turned away from the audience and even from the rest of the band, staring at the floor. Although I couldn't place him, he looked vaguely familiar, like an older version of Wynton Marsalis.

During the third song, Charlie Parker's “Chasin' the Bird,” the trumpeter stepped to the center of the bandstand to take a solo. “Excuse me,” I whispered to the fellow next to me (a jazz guitarist, I later learned). “Is that Wynton Marsalis?”

“I very seriously doubt that” he snapped back, as if I had asked if it was Parker himself.

Stylishly dressed in an Italian-cut gray suit, a dark-blue shirt, and a muted blue tie, the soloist had the burnished elegance that Wynton Marsalis and his musician brothers have been bringing to jazz for two decades. If this man was not Wynton, he looked like what “Marsalis” means — but older and heavier, and not just in appearance. There was a weight upon him; he didn't smile, and his eyes were small and affectless. I could barely reconcile the sight before me with the image of youthful elan that Wynton Marsalis has always called to mind.

The fourth song was a solo showcase for the trumpeter, who, I could now see, was indeed Marsalis, but who no more sounded than looked like what I expected. He played a ballad, “I Don't Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You,” unaccompanied. Written by Victor Young, a film-score composer, for a 1930s romance, the piece can bring out the sadness in any scene, and Marsalis appeared deeply attuned to its melancholy. He performed the song in murmurs and sighs, at points nearly talking the words in notes. It was a wrenching act of creative expression. When he reached the climax, Marsalis played the final phrase, the title statement, in declarative tones, allowing each successive note to linger in the air a bit longer. “I don't stand… a ghost… of… a… chance….” The room was silent until, at the most dramatic point, someone's cell phone went off, blaring a rapid sing — song melody in electronic bleeps. People started giggling and picking up their drinks. The moment — the whole performance — unraveled….

What was Wynton Marsalis, perhaps the most famous jazz musician alive, doing as a sideman in a band led by a little-known saxophonist in the slowest week of the year? Where were the scores of fans who used to line up on the sidewalk whenever Marsalis played, regardless of whether he was billed and promoted? Why did he look so downtrodden, so leaden … so different that he was scarcely recognizable? How could his playing have been so perfunctory (as it was for most of that evening) and yet so transcendent on one bittersweet song about loss and self-doubt? What happened to Wynton Marsalis?

That may be like asking What happened to jazz?


David Hajdu reads from “His Kind of River,” which describes where he works along the Hudson: