(Alden Van Buskirk) –Van — was hands-down the best jazz pianist I ever played with, always exciting, always unpredictable– I never was sure he was going, though once we got ‘there’ it was invariably right. Not unlike Monk, of whom he was a big fan, though Van did not copycat. ‘The sound of surprise,’ as somebody once called it.
It pissed him off that jazz critics had declared Monk to be a primitive with little command of the keyboard. Van would take to the keyboard to show what he mean. He’d play Well You Needn’t, first mimicking John Lewis, then Monk. ‘Watch my hands,’ he’d say, using ‘proper’ hand position for Lewis, then switching to Monk’s unorthodox flat-handed, extended fingers approach. His Lewis was precise, crystalline, springy. His Monk percussive, punching, elliptical. ‘Monk’s technique is perfect,’ he’d proclaim, ‘for what he plays. It’s a new way of playing the piano. The jazz writers are fulla shit.’ (I think this wd have been 1958-9.)
Van was at his best when he’d stretch out for multiple choruses. Great storyteller, great narrative, everything added up as if composed, and yet, as I said above, we never knew where he was/we were going until we got there. Sometimes he’d toss in mini-tutorials along the way, knocking out a half-chorus of Fats Waller/Basie stride, then Bud Powell, then Monk, then all over the place, flying off in all directions, anticipating Cecil Taylor, Ornette, free jazz in general. This against hard bop bass/ drum support from Jim and me.
I’m a real fan of Van’s poetry, bought Lami on publication, have turned dozens of people on to his writing. I remain an even bigger fan of Van the pianist, who might have been a major contributor to our ‘native art form’ if he’d wanted to. And had he lived long enough.
Final chorus. Van had returned to San Francisco the final year of his life for treatment of that awful blood disease. I’d been out of touch for a few years, but Reinhardt (by then a Berkeley grad student) had remained close. Jim, Van and I jammed a couple of times that year, and it didn’t go well.
I was still playing a sort of simplified Blakey/Klook ‘pocket’ groove. They weren’t. Van had become a lot more aggressive, a lot less laid back, less puckish, more declarative more abstracted. Not exactly like Herbie Nichols or Cecil Taylor, but in that general direction. To me, both Jim and Van seemed to be playing way ahead of the beat; to them I was lagging. Didn’t mesh and finally Van had no patience or interest in continuing.
It was confounding to me and somewhat painful. Couldn’t really figure it out, b/c my playing was right in synch with the guys in my regular group. My guys LIKED my time. Fifty years later, having learned about Van’s rages during that final year–fueled by his awareness that his life was slipping away–it makes sense to me, and soothes any hurt feelings I may have possessed back when.
Today I realize how fortunate I was to have orbited in Van’s genius.
I see, you (are) a Dartmouth guy, sort of like me. Sort of, because I hated it there, stopped going to class, eventually wound up at SF State where I belonged– hipster heaven.
Big change from Dartmouth, where, before attending a single class us frosh were outfitted with beanies, herded into a convocation and told we were the Leaders of Tomorrow, The Hope of Mankind, which was why we had a special responsibility to rully rully Apply Ourselves. This, before The College had any idea who we really were. Shortly thereafter, I made acquaintance with legions of self-important preppies who actually subscribed to that bullshit. Too ridiculous for me. In my heart I dropped out upon arrival. Stuck around to play jazz, learn to drink, make time with the ladies, AND because my parents didn’t want to hear anything about transferring.
In retrospect, I hold no grudge against Dartmouth, but sure am glad I connected with SFSU, where I returned after a career in journalism (Newsweek, Rolling Stone, etc.) to chair the journalism dept. Hungry students, no beanies.
Every time I listen to the Massey Hall recording I’m astonished that Bird could wail like that on an almost- toy instrument(a “Plastic Alto”). Full clarion burning tone, blazing articulation. Speaking of genius!
andand: at our “LAMI @ 50” event, in December, 2011, which was pegged to the 50th anniversary of the work, with subheads like “October, 1961” and not his demise per se, Lauren Van Buskirk the poet and pianist’s sister said she had a recording and I believe followed up with Garrett Caples of City Lights, whose article in Poetry Flash linked to a performance, which is also now on the leading portal:
I have to admit my ear is not good enough to sort the Monkisms from Errol Garner, which is why I appreciate Burks’ riff here.