Rocket’s Jazz

My friend Tal and I used to crash piano stores for fun. Here in Los Angeles, millionaires cruise around in cutoff jean shorts and Priuses. It was never difficult to convince salespeople that a couple schlubs like us needed a showpiece baby grand for the solarium in our imaginary cliffside haunt in Malibu. Once the ruse was set, we’d head straight for the Bösendorfers and Blüthners, feigning indifference to their half-million-dollar price tags, ogling their European curves, and using our fingertips to coax fluidity out of their nascent, delicate actions.

Tal’s wife is named Alex, and she’s a friend. They’re an easy couple to love: Their official wedding hashtag was #permissiontoboogie, which is mostly meaningless but fun, much like their marriage.

They’re expecting their first child, a boy. I was honored when they requested a playlist, assembled by me, that they could play to Alex’s belly. Their only condition was that it be exclusively jazz, a genre that Tal enjoys, but in which I thrive. I dubbed the playlist “Rocket’s Jazz,” for the placeholder nickname they’re using until birth, and I began immediately.

I saw the project as an investment, my contribution to Rocket’s birthright as a musician. By intent, the playlist is mixed. Big band to hard bop, instrumental to lyrical, standards to fusion. Not an appetizer so much as a tasting menu, allowing Rocket to investigate any number of sub-genres as he gets older, all while making sure Alex can tolerate the three hour-plus runtime. Come to think of it, I never bothered to ask Alex’s tastes. I blame the patriarchy.

The first song is Haitian Fight Song, by Charlie Mingus. I tried to imagine myself, blind and dumb, curled up in my own private uterus. The fluid makes it hard to hear, but that Mingus bassline reverberates through any sac, amniotic or otherwise. Add the erratic, almost spooky percussion, alluring enough for a zygote to raise his yet-unformed brow. Then the groove kicks in, first by bass, then barry sax, tenors, trombones and trumpets. It’s a cacophony that could awaken even a prenatal nap, and truly give it #permissiontoboogie.

This isn’t about that song. It’s about the second song in the playlist, The Nearness of You, an old vocal standard, as performed by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong.

Like Tal and I, my father is a pianist.

Dwight has been a musician for almost seven decades. He was born to second-generation Polish-Americans in Detroit in the 1940s, and he started on accordion around the age most of us start on solid foods. Laugh if you must, but the accordion is an elegant instrument that gave a teenager his first gig, as the youngest member of a semi-pro Dixieland band. Skippy, as he was known then, was only fourteen, but a quick learner. He auditioned for Alvie, the bandleader, who had once played trombone in Tommy Dorsey’s band. The seasoned pro was hesitant about this tall kid with the ‘specs and side part, but ultimately decided to give him a shot.

Toward the end of the first rehearsal, Ralph, my grandfather, showed up. While disassembling their horns, the band asked Skippy why his father was there. “He’s my ride. I don’t have a driver’s license yet,” he responded. They whooped and crowed, but a proper musician has no age. If they can keep a beat, follow the changes, and cover their end, then that’s just a fellow coworker.

Fluency, he had. What he lacked, it turned out, was materials. After rehearsal one day, Alvie pulled Ralph aside: “Your son needs to get himself a bible.”

Ralph chortled. “You’re telling me, Alvie.”

“Not that. I’ve got a friend,” he said, “he’s got a stack of fake books, the musician’s bible. The FBI is onto him, so he’s selling them cheap before they nab him.”

Hold on just a second. This was a nice story about my friend’s baby, and then my dad’s Trombonist mentor. How’d we get to the FBI?

A brief primer: A fake book is a collection of sheet music, almost. Cobbled and hewn expressly for professionals, a fake book is to Chopin’s Complete Nocturnes what Salisbury steak is to filet au poivre. The charts are three to a page, compressed and smudgy, often transcribed from memory, messily collated, and cheaply mass-produced. They give the seasoned player just enough to summon any tune that’s called, or “fake” the ones they can’t. Inauspiciously bound in a plain, 1½ inch three-ring binder, this compendium contains over two thousand tunes going back to the 1910s. It is the definitive working musician’s bible. It’s also used for showing horn players that not everything is written in E-flat and that they should shut up.

Again, I say: why the FBI? The answer is a fascinating and crooked saga, but its cornerstone is an indefatigable truth of American history: wealth lubricates justice. In this case, the recording industry was losing money to copyright violators, so they sicced the FBI on ‘em.

My father’s story is much less dramatic. He and Ralph split the cost of thirty dollars to Alvie’s friend (down from sixty due to the heat), Skippy got his fake book, and J. Edgar Hoover never came knocking. At this point, it’s more antique than contraband anyway, frayed and brown, resembling an actual bible more than ever.

After finding it several years ago, standing upright on the floor next to my father’s piano, it changed the way I learn music. Now, whenever I hear an old-fashioned song that’s unfamiliar—Spotify, Netflix, even an ad—I’ll look up the tune and consult the bible. It’s exciting; I own the cheat codes to the bygone world of The Great American Songbook.

Which brings me to The Nearness of You.

The song itself is clean: Oscar Peterson plays an achingly simple intro on the keys, setting the tone for his easy comping throughout. He’s backed by his regular rhythm section, joined by an uncharacteristically balletic Buddy Rich. Once through with Ella, once with Louis, then Louis’ trumpet doubles up on the head, with Ella picking it up at the bridge and bringing it home. Even the cover to the LP is etched in my mind: Ella’s pearls and Louis’ highwaters. It’s gorgeous, all of it.

I can’t explain why I love this song so much. At the moment, I suspect it’s the fallout from the pandemic, which has diluted intimacy to a six-foot radius. Each of us has blubbered at a Facetime call or yelled at a Zoom screen, facsimile projections of our loved ones which, ironically, lack electricity. For a year, more, we’ve confessed and cried to anodes and diodes. I’m talking to house plants. A bit more of this, and they’ll respond. We’ve maintained our closeness, but nearness is quite literally beyond our reach. We’ve learned that, truly, it’s not the pale moon, nor soft lights, nor sweet conversation/that brings this sensation. It is, ironically, tragically, hopefully, woefully: the nearness of you.

The last time I saw my father, I played him The Nearness of You, hoping that he’d have a take on it. He knew it, and could even see the changes in his head, but couldn’t remember how or why. We consulted the bible, but it wasn’t there.

It wasn’t in the bible. We were flabbergasted.

The changes aren’t that difficult. I’m sure I could figure it out by ear. Yet, I’m reminded of what musicians never tell you, the ironic tragedy of the trade: learning a song can be so gruesome a dissection that the romance is often spoiled. After all, you’re not just memorizing something to recall, the way you would a joke. You’re changing the behavior of your fingers such that the song becomes rote motor function. Only when your hands take over, can your mind stumble upon the place where the music is your own. And the only way I know to do that is through repetition. Practice for a musician—REAL practice—is ugly. You start out loving this song. By the time you take it off the grill, the burger is so well done that it’s like biting into ash.

I wonder now if I’m not meant to learn this one. Tal, Alex, Skippy, Ralph, Alvie; the fates have conspired to keep this song shrouded in mystery, to retain its virtuous allure, permitting me to love it the way a child does. Decades ago, I used to listen to my father play the piano and felt like he was performing magic. It’s a rare sentiment, and one that I now cherish. If The Nearness of You allows me to remember that, if only for a minute, then it should be left where it is.

There’s still one mystery player, the one whose ante we’re all anxiously awaiting: Rocket. Rocket knows. The answer lies with Rocket, I’m sure of it. Perhaps we’ll meet up at a piano store in forty years and he’ll teach me to play it properly.


Adrián Duston-Muñoz’s background is in advertising copy, internet content, and scriptwriting. Rocket’s Jazz is his first prose publication.