Fingers With A Beat—Or, The Eternal X-Ray

No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me.
Marcel Proust, “Remembrance of Things Past”

Supine, I say that this is my favorite music of all I have heard here.  (Hint.)  The technician x-rays my teeth with a nifty new device resembling a thumb drive—it’s a lot better having a thumb in my mouth than that old behemoth, and the result shows on the screen immediately.  Frank Sinatra begins to sing, “The Shadow of Your Smile.”  I point out that the song seems to fit the moment, and she agrees.  And as she polishes and scrapes and I wince and try to keep my clarinetist’s rogue tongue out of her way, Frank coos, “a teardrop kissed your lips.”  Indeed.  Later, when the doctor, the one of the three brother-dentists I see the least frequently, enters, and I wait for him to poke and prod some more, I tell him too that I like today’s music.  (Hint.)

Now I hear an instrumental version of “Laura,” and I tell the dentist: “This is a nice one.  Do you know it?  It was composed by David Raksin.”  He pauses, pick in hand, cocks his head for a few moments, and replies, “Are you sure?  I think it might be Johnny Mercer.”  I say, “Hmm . . . maybe he wrote the lyrics? This is in the film ‘Laura’—have you seen it?  It’s great.  It has that wonderful actress Gene Tierney; she’s female but spells her name the male way.”

I learned this well before I knew of the movie, when once, completing a crossword, I tried to cheat by filling in the name “Gene” for a famous actress, and my mother told me it was indeed correct.  This cannot possibly be true, but it is what I remember.  Anyway, Gene Tierney always brings my mother to mind.

Who Is Laura Tierney

 “I teach this film to my students, so I am sure it is Raksin.  Raksin also tells a story about how his wife left him and he wrote the song at 2 a.m. in despair.”  (I think of the opening titles and the unresolved patch of melody, the way the tune is subjected to variation after variation throughout, asking the question , “Who is Laura?” but only obscuring the possibility of an answer.)  My dentist tells me my teeth are in perfect shape and asks if I have a few minutes for a non-dental question.  I say sure and ask if he is polling his patients on office decor.  (Another hint: the Batman poster is getting faded. [Actually, though the poster really is faded, I asked about decor because I truly did not know what was coming.  I hoped it did not concern politics.  Or Girl Scout cookies.])

He returns with his iPad and looks up “Laura,” then asks, “Laura—Is that directed by Preminger?”  I tell him I think he is right.  We confirm that it is Preminger, Mercer, Raksin, and Tierney.  I exclaim, “Teamwork!”  He then asks to show me a YouTube video of his 15-year-old son playing “All of Me.”  (When he can’t get it to play and keeps pressing “ pause,” I offer to help, and we both man the tablet together, our fingers batting into one another. I don’t think my fingers have ever touched the dentist before, except perhaps for a cursory greeting.)

The video starts.  The kid plays stride!  And he is really good!  When the clip ends, I say as much, and the dentist says, “I think he’s got something.  Do you think he’s good for a 15-year old?”  I give an enthusiastic yes, and when he asks for more, I tell him that the playing is very clean, varied and balanced, so he can play really virtuosically, but he places and shapes his performance well, so the different forms of playing really seem to make sense.  He says,”Yeah, he comes back to the tune.  I tried to get into progressive music, but I really always want them to come back to the tune so I know what they are referring to.” I mention that that sense of form within an improvisation is what I have always loved about Miles Davis.

 I remember my Harvard student, when I was a teaching assistant in only about 1990, who transcribed “Bye Bye Blackbird” and blew my mind with his analysis.  And I later transcribed Miles’s solo from “So What” and wrote a paper on it, for no particular reason or obligation.  This was in the LP era when transcribing was transcribing.  Last week a student of mine  brought the published scores to “Birth of the Cool” to his exam.  I confessed that I’ve always found “Birth of the Cool” a little too—cool.  (I like attack.)  I add, though, that the tune is practically David Lewin-approved. (Does anyone know what that means?)  And when Gerry Mulligan starts his solo, I hear nuance and detail.  (I picture the footage of Gerry Mulligan from 12 or 13 years later, in “Jazz on a Summer’s Day,” where he is so—cool.  [And now I start to think of Anita O’Day’s hat.])

Anita O'Day

I tell my brother-of-a-dentist that I like how his son’s playing is not overly smooth; that it has some bite to it, a percussive quality.    I ask whether the son always plays in older styles, like stride.  “He has a good left hand,” he replies.  “He plays all sorts of things.  He’s really good at classical music; he is learning all the Chopin Etudes.  He’s been invited to do a performance in memory of a woman, very well respected, a Holocaust survivor, who played Chopin—that’s how she survived the camps.“  I say I am not surprised he plays classical music; that was the one thing I wondered about; maybe it is too clean, even.  “Yeah?”  I say, “There was this one spot where he let his syncopation get a little wild; I liked that.   I would love to hear more of that.  Also, he probably knows the the Billie Holiday versions of “All of Me,” but if not . . . those are my favorite, she really composes the tune.  I teach that one too.”  As he gets ready to leave, I say, “Oh!  And one of my very favorite pianists, who he may or may not know, is Lennie Tristano.  I studied with one of his students.”  One of my dentists tells me that Tristano taught a lot, and that he himself wanted to study with another of Tristano’s students, but that the man was on the road too much, so it didn’t work out.  “Ah, my teacher was Harvey Diamond, and he seemed almost like a  hermit.  He was home a lot teaching, and I could only catch him live a couple times a year.”  My dentist and I are both grand-students of Lennie Tristano.

 I remember Harvey’s intense-but-gentle manner and how his daughter Hanna Rose used to intrude on our lessons.  She was maybe 3 or 4, and he would lovingly tell her to go play or seek out her mother.  But she never did, and every time, he eventually gave up and she hung out with us. Wow, it’s been a while.  I wonder what Hannah Rose is up to now.  Ah, this.

 One time, Tristano-drunk, I played a low-register improvisation in a lesson, and Harvey said, in his laconic way, “Barbara . . . you’re really . . . playing . . . the piano.  Yeah.”  Those of us who clustered around Harvey believed that this statement, uttered only at special moments, was a compliment, that the goal was to . . . play . . . the . . . piano.  And I think we heard him right.  The first thing he had me do, though, was to sing solos, both vocal and instrumental—without transcribing them.  I chose Billie Holiday, from “Lady in Satin,” and sang “You Don’t Know What Love Is.”  He told me, “Well, those recordings with the strings . . . um, check out her early stuff.”  “You Don’t Know What Love Is” was also one of Lennie’s tunes; I loved the way the tune begins on an F minor seventh chord with a G in the tune.  I could not get enough of that dash of 2 (or what sound to me like the deceptive resolutions to D-flat, or the subtonic in the tune that comes later, in the bridge).  And once I heard someone play it at one of Harvey’s house concerts, where he featured his students and colleagues, and the guy made it friggin’ Phrygian.  Friggin’ fabulous.

 It’s easy to find lead sheets these days.  Back then I had to go into the Store 24 across Mass. Ave from Berklee—as we said, Berk-lee-ee—and whisper a request for the “Real Book.”  Upright to a fault, I experienced more tremble than frisson.  I still haven’t had enough of that second scale degree, and the rest.  I used to rehearse there with Linda Chase’s Chamber Jazz.  Which was so enjoyable.  And Beth was there with her soulful jazz violin; she arranged some Mahler for us.  And Dianne.

I didn’t play jazz for too much longer after that, but I gave a concert in North House, thanks to Jeff Nichols, including Edison Denisov’s clarinet sonata and some tunes alongside what I liked to call, with a nod to Gerry Mulligan, “my pianoless trio.”  Somehow I invited Doug, who was also a lutenist.  (Doug, thanks to this data point, I was able to retrieve your last name online just now.  But how could I forget that you are Doug Friendly?)  Once, after a rehearsal for Marcela’s “A Harlequin at the Edge of My Desk,” Doug and I stopped at Pizzerio Uno, on that corner in Allston where I totaled my car about 15 years later, and Doug told me that he could have coffee after dinner because it actually made him calmer.  I also remember him picking up Kentucky Friend Chicken for visiting family even though he didn’t eat meat himself.  (Is that right?)  And Marcela matched me up, sound unheard, with Mark Burdon, a percussionist she had not heard, but who was in her tai chi class.  I hoped he could play quietly.  He could.  He contributed a piece evoking certain birds of Brazil.  And there was that one we cooked up together, where I played microtonally with what I always felt a little odd describing—but he did so, so what the hell—as his Thai nipple gongs.  I am almost certain this is the current Mark

Both of my parents especially liked my, and our, version of “In My Solitude.”  I can still feel that bend up from E to F in my third finger, and I still do it as often as I can.  But thinking not so much of the Duke as of my friend’s photograph,though I cannot remember the title. . . .  Oh, wait; found it: Visitación.  Marcela introduced me to him too; what was his name?

Jara Visitacion

 I did ask Geoff for a couple of jazz lessons, maybe eight or ten years ago, so I could better demonstrate “You Don’t Know What Love Is” and “All of Me” to my class.  Geoff and I met, maybe, in our early twenties, when I gave him a copy of my first—actually, second—piano piece, and then we got to know one another when he played my Lennie Tristano homage in 2001.  And a bunch of times since.  When I played my root-position, fully voiced chords, with lots of 9ths, Geoff, I think, suppressed a smile.  I didn’t mind.  These days I call in visitors, like Sean and Konrad.

The technician and the striding son’s dental dad show my films on the screen.  I can see all the way through my head and compare this year’s images to last year’s.

That was quite an x-ray; the new technology seems to have penetrated fully.  Is there something about putting things in the mouth that inspires reverie?  I have yet to read Proust, so I hope my epigraph is accurate.  Last fall, one of my freshmen told me he’s read the whole thing.  And many other things I have not gotten to yet.  (I’m not sure I will, but I learned at last that at least I am ahead of him on Virginia Woolf.)  And I owe him an email.

Back then, a cookie was a cookie, wasn’t it?  


It is hard to find a picture of a solo madeleine on the Internet, but there are many still lifes with multiples assembled in formation.  Do we really need them all?  It seems a bit extravagant.

I have never been able to keep the three brother-dentists’ first names straight, and they have always seemed like mythic archetypes anyway.  There is the athlete, an affable and imposing man who tells me about his trips to Gold’s Gym, and his brother, the unassuming nerd.  I used to call today’s brother, who is the mellowest of the crew, “the burnout,” but only in my head, for the term does not exactly seem complimentary—even though I myself meant to judgment one way or another.  But still, it never seems quite right to refer to a doctor who tends one’s oral health in a way that recalls the kids hanging outside C wing during fourth period.  All the more so, now that I have actually seen and heard him, not just felt his fingers in my mouth and heard him say “looks great” behind my head as he dashes out the door.  Plus, we’re second-cousins-in-Tristano, or something.

Now I know: Doctor Number Three, the student of a student of Lennie Tristano, shall be anointed “The Beatnik.”

—Posted by Barbara A. White