Friday, February 1, 2008

Music ∩ Get Happy

When I was a kid in the late 1970s, money was tight, so my dad would play homemade recordings of Dick Buckley’s jazz radio show in lieu of buying albums. It was always on weekends when Dad worked on his model airplanes, Mom was in the kitchen, and my brother and I played in the living room. Mr. Buckley’s deep voice would tell a story before he let the songs fly, their notes jumping around like butterflies. Jazz was making its first foray into my little girl’s heart.

So even now, some 30 years later, when the Chicago Jazz Institute hosted its annual Chicago Jazz Fair the last weekend of January, I made sure to go. By a stroke of luck, my friend Keith and I snagged front row seats at the Chicago Cultural Center as the Chuck Hedges Swingtet launched into their set. We sat practically at their feet as up on stage these five gentlemen in dark suits and ties – all of them in their 60s and 70s – played one jazz standard after another. Their sound was tight – the product of many years performing – and smooth as honey. Chuck Hedges’ clarinet rippled over notes. His guitarist, Dave Sullivan, didn’t miss a beat, even though he had to replace a broken string mid-song. Bassist George Welland kept a low profile, as I think bassists usually do. Drummer Andy LoDuca looked like a bearded banker but produced a rollicking combination of rhythms. Steve Behr, a life-long friend of Chuck's, took charge of the piano. And Bob Maynard anchored the group front and center with his vibes, letting the red-tipped mallets fly.

What struck me most was the sheer happiness that radiated from that stage. Sullivan threw his head back, smiling with his eyes squeezed shut. Behr’s raucous piano playing rose up despite a lack of amplification. And Maynard, looking a little like Mafioso dressed head-to-toe in black, always smiled, whether it was Mona-Lisa slight or bright like sunshine.

In the audience, heads bobbed and dipped. Toes tapped, knees jiggled. Everyone vibrated with subtle movement as they kept the beat. Chuck sensed the energy up on stage.

“It’s nice to play in front of people who love music,” he said just before they launched into “Get Happy.” Later, as Maynard chimed his way through a “Stardust” solo, Chuck perched on a stool alone in the wings, grinning madly. You don’t see such happiness on rock or classical musicians’ faces, no matter how good their music may be.

Toward the end of the set the Swingtet played “Bésame Mucho.” Not my favorite song, partly due to a memory it elicits. By the time I was a sophomore in high school, my dad was dying of cancer. One day, clad in his bathrobe, he made his way up the stairs at home, giddy from morphine. He took each step slowly, my mother gently pushing from behind, her hands on his backside. “Bésame mucho!” he sang hoarsely.

Dad’s jazz tapes were at the bottom of a box by that time. I do not remember how Dick Buckley used to end his shows in those recordings. A jazz legend in his own right who still has a weekly radio show on Chicago's WBEZ, in recent years he has signed off with a single word. It sums up what jazz says to us for a song, a set, a night and a lifetime: Happiness.

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