For my vacation reading I picked two new jazz memoirs: Henry Threadgill’s Easily Slip Into Another World: A Life in Music and Brad Mehldau’s Formation: Building a Personal Canon, Part One. Aesthetically worlds apart, both beautifully done. Mehldau’s book resonates on a far more personal level, and once I started reading I couldn’t put it down.
I attended The New School’s Jazz and Contemporary Music BFA program with Brad in the late ’80s, when it was still brand new. Like Peter Bernstein and Larry Goldings (who graduated with me in 1990), I was two years older than Brad, who entered the program in 1988. I entered in the fall of ’87, after completing my freshman year at Berklee.
All of these people were way ahead of me as jazz players, and to say that our paths diverged after school would be quite the understatement; they rose to become some of the most renowned and influential musicians of our time. While Brad and I were not super-close, he was incredibly kind and supportive toward me, and he rooted for my success. Looking back, he was a stronger advocate for me than I was for myself. And the memory of that moves me deeply, now that I’ve read about the appalling unkindness, abuse and trauma that Brad suffered as an adolescent.
Brad and I both came to jazz as huge prog-rock nerds, and I was thrilled to see him wave that flag so proudly on his 2022 release Jacob’s Ladder. I hung with him and several others one night at his apartment on St. Mark’s, the one he describes in the book, listening to Joe Henderson’s Inner Urge and other amazing stuff. My old high school friend, the brilliant tenor saxophonist Tim Hegarty, was there; at some point he had enrolled at the New School as well.
One night a few of us were at a diner on University Place. When “I Can’t Tell You Why” by the Eagles came on, Brad went on a thing about the guitar solo and how good it was. I distinctly remember the two of us walking up West 12th Street toward 5th Avenue and talking about Public Enemy, and our mutual regard for hip-hop. Brad and I were also part of a small group that attended a performance of the Alban Berg opera Wozzeck at the Met — an evening field trip for one of Henry Martin’s harmony courses. (Ever literarily obsessed, Brad mistakenly refers to Henry as Henry Miller in his book, which made me chuckle.)
I can’t remember if I ever played with Brad at Augie’s, the uptown haunt and jazz proving ground where Smoke now sits. But I do remember him praising me after I called “Half Nelson” with Larry Goldings and managed to play halfway decently. (When Larry started soloing, I was so dumbstruck that I stopped comping [accompanying] for him, figuring it was the right move — until he shouted “COMP!!” at me. One of those things that was horrifying in the moment, now hilarious. It’s cool, Larry, I needed that!)
And then there was the day that Brad, pianist Geoff Loomis and I cut class. I can’t remember whose class or why, but after reading Brad’s book I can safely assume he was the instigator. We decided to hang out in the empty New School auditorium. Brad sat down at the grand piano and improvised some whole crazy thing, probably five minutes or so, not really from any harmonic or stylistic vocabulary I could pinpoint. I remember big bright chords and lots of two-handed parallel motion. When he stopped, Geoff was more or less agape and said, “That was incredible.” And I thought so too, although I was so deep in the bebop/postbop mindset back then that I couldn’t quite process what I’d heard. It wasn’t until Brad’s solo piano debut Elegiac Cycle in 1999 that a light bulb went off, and I looked back on that day very differently.
In 1996, I was working as an editor on West 20th Street. I saw in the back of the Voice that Brad was playing the Vanguard a few blocks south. I’d heard him on Josh Redman’s MoodSwing and knew he was blowing up, but I’d been out of the scene for a while. I was hesitant but knew I really had to see this. I walked down after work at a leisurely pace and got a seat at the bar right next to Fred Hersch (who I’d come to know personally about 10 years later). Brad played a great set, drawing me in — quite a thing to encounter him now, playing the hippest club in the world, sounding so beautiful and mature.
So I stayed for the second set, moving up to the very front. Near me was Michael Kanan, another super-supportive pianist I’d get to meet and even play with years later as well. The first set had been a measured intro, a warmup, but the second set floored me utterly and completely, much like Kurt Rosenwinkel and Mark Turner did in the same spot three years later. Brad didn’t simply play amazingly well; his trio with Grenadier and Rossy seemed to announce that a new era was afoot. And this, in part, was what drew me back to jazz in a serious way in those years. About 12 years later, I had the thrill of seeing Brad live with my hero, the great Pat Metheny, during the tour of their second album together.
Here’s the thing with jazz: you can’t stop and start, like I did. You either play it, with all your heart and discipline and intellect, or you don’t. And solitary practice will not get you there. You have to play with people, numerous times a week for years, people better than you, like at Augie’s. I wanted this prize, but ultimately with half a heart. And my personal jazz renaissance of the late ’90s and early ’00s also turned out not to last. I don’t regret trying, though, not at all. I grew a lot as a player, met many other fine players, and became a much more diligent student of the Great American Songbook and music in general. The work I put in has served me every single day since.
Brad, Pete, Larry and others arrived at the New School with significant professional experience in their high school years. My direction was less clear, and it took me a much longer time — like, decades — to find my true musical voice. That voice, it turned out, was not a jazz voice, at least not in the way I’d dreamed of.
On some level I was probably afraid of my own success as a jazz player. I remember a guitar workshop that my teacher Vic Juris was leading, some kind of one-off situation where I got to play Charlie Parker’s “Anthropology” as a duo with Pete in front of a small group of classmates. Who knows what I did but I played something good, and everyone in the room reacted. Vic blurted out, “DAVID YOU’RE KILLING THE GUITAR!” It was a huge moment. But after huge moments you face a question: Are you going to follow through, take it to the next level? Do you even understand the commitment and sacrifice that requires?
There’s a quote from Virgil Thomson, one that I read in another great memoir, by the late Queens College éminence gris Maurice Peress, and I always come back to it: “Never look back on roads not taken. The roads you did take, they are the story of your life.” Thomson said that marking the occasion of his 90th birthday. I’m lifted along by the sentiment at 55, and God willing for many years to come.