Passing the Torch


A while back I went to San Francisco to see a young jazz singer of my acquaintance, Miss Emily Anne. She’s short and cute and I like her voice. Who knows, you might too. (If you are interested, and have speakers, click here.) She certainly has her following.

Emily Anne and I go back a ways. I met her twenty-four years ago, on the labor deck of Bethesda Naval Hospital. She weighed seven and a half pounds. I didn’t think it was a condition that would last. My wife and I had learned from our first daughter that, if you feed them, they get bigger. In fact, they do all sorts of things. It’s a design feature.

It is one thing to know something intellectually, another to see it happen. A kid starts out with a certain reliability. You put her somewhere and, half an hour later, she’s still there. You accept this as the order of things. You expect it to continue. It doesn’t. I figure it’s a sort of bait-and-switch game. Time rushes by in its accustomed fashion. One day you think, “Emily’s a jazz singer in San Francisco. How the hell did that happen?”

I have always liked San Francisco. Along with Chicago and New York it is to me one of the few North American agglomerations that qualify as real cities, New Orleans having degenerated into a tee-shirt emporium. I associate it with the Beats, with Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg and Kerouac, who seem such innocents today.

Then there were the glorious diseased freak years when I passed through the city occasionally. The world was new then, and so were we. San Fran was the Big Time. The Golden Gate, in fact red, stretched forever over the bay and fogs rolled in to swallow the blue of the water and it was kind of magic. I suppose we all have a few years when the world is magic.

San Francisco is a city where jazz can feel at home, where it actually belongs. You can find good musicians in Washington, where I spent too many years, But Washington is a city with the soul of a filing cabinet and, though the audiences are sophisticated, there is an artificiality to the music scene. It is as if a social director had decided that one week we will have a Jazz Experience, and next week it will be Mexican Night and we will make piñatas. San Fran is a grown-up city, and to me its sound is jazz. In Washington it’s the hum of a paper shredder destroying evidence.

Em showed up at my hotel, bubbling and happy. We get along well, and hadn’t seen each other for a while. Hey, dad, how you, what you want to do, are you hungry? Let’s get sushi, I know a good place. The energy would power a small city.

I had flown in late and rushed off to Le Colonial, a classy French-Vietnamese restaurant where she has a regular engagement, but a podiatrist’s association or some such horror had rented the place for the evening, so I had run back to the hotel to meet her. We grabbed a cab and set out through night and neon. She has the easy familiarity with the city that Congress has with larceny, and knows the clubs and the bars because she gigs in them. I thought, how is this possible? She weighs seven and a half pounds. I can document it.

At the Sushi Boat, if that’s what it was called, steam rose from the trays, and gyoza and sashimi rolled past us as we sat at the counter and grabbed things and things smelled good and the couple next to us chatted in pretty Beijing mandarin. I like diversity if it isn’t armed. Then we made the rounds to listen to her friends play, which they seemed to be doing just about everywhere.

San Francisco is a tough city for musicians. There is a lot of talent. In Washington you have to look for it. In San Fran, you trip over it. It gums up the wheels of bicycles. We went to one joint after another and the musicians would be wailing or picking or sawing or plonking, depending, and you could tell the audience was into it and they didn’t look like accountants in disguise. The musicians would holler, Hey Emily Anne, wanna sit in? And she did. She’s got a world going, I thought, and not a bad one.

I are not a musician, but to my unstudied mind the clubs are where the music is. There and, during the day, driving taxi cabs. Few musicians can make a living playing. It’s a sorry commentary on whatever it’s a sorry commentary on, but it’s how things are.

People often think that signing with a major label is the end all for a singer, or a band, and then you are going to be rich and have a private jet and lascivious groupies. Thing is, there are lots more good players than the majors have slots for. Unless you want to spend a wretched life on the road, rushing from Dallas to Houston to San Antonio to set up, play a gig, and head for the next city and another lousy hotel, it’s better to have a day job and gig at night. That’s what musicians do.

Anyway, next night we went to wherever it was that she was going to sing. I’m not sure. The world is full of places. I can’t keep track of them. Her band showed up, drums, trombone, keyboard, standup bass, guitar, suchlike. The joint wasn’t much but the crowd was.

My father, a mathematician, once described himself as “a vulgarian by choice.” Me, too. I love good rock and Texas two-step dens and dirt bars, but there is an unselfconscious urbanity to a jazz crowd in San Fran that appeals to me. It was very different from DC. San Francisco isn’t trying to be something. It is something, and anyway isn’t interested in the question.

The band got it on, numbers from the Thirties and Forties and some of Emily Anne’s originals. I think she was thirteen when she discovered Billie and Ella and announced that she was going to be a singer. Yeah, kid, sure. Odd choice of music for suburban Washington, too, but it was her choice. I liked the band. She had assembled it over several years and held it together, which isn’t easy with musicians, who are deeply anarchistic and sometimes have egos.

Not too bad for a kid of twenty-three, says me. Glasses clinked and the bassist thumm-thumm-thummed and the horn yowled like a lost cat and I thought, I’ve had a pretty good run. Now it’s her turn.

Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well and the just-published A Brass Pole in Bangkok: A Thing I Aspire to Be. Visit his blog.

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