Alec Wilder

Letters I Never Mailed: Clues to a Life

University of Rochester Press

 Ah, well, a man's a man for all that--and the letters written by Alec Wilder, though not sent, seem to prove the point. What could be described as a literary device comes off very nicely as Wilder bares his soul to friends (often unblushingly flattering their socks off), and one or two enemies.

One enemy, a wretched taxman who probably hates his life as much as Wilder apparently does, is treated viciously. On the other hand, one can quite imagine Wilder letting off steam fairly safe in the assumption that the whole world hates taxmen and, more to the point, will find the piece amusing.

Yours truly knows that Wilder enjoyed writing these letters. There is the charm of a phrase, which the man turns very well, which also reveals his pleasure in the creative process. The early letters, supposedly written as a child, are appropriately ingenuous in tone and are, in fact, the best and often most hilarious letters of all.

Thereafter Wilder, a confessed coward, proceeds to slalom through life, avoiding as much nastiness as possible until, of course, he succumbs to drink. He then becomes abstinent, possibly wrecking a few relationships around him in the process.

Wilder loved train rides, and why, oh why, didn't he simply book the Trans-Siberian and find the vast emptiness one suspects he sought? There was much sadness in the man. His diffidence seems at times rather unnecessary, but there you have it; we are what we are and radical change is granted only sparingly.

The saving grace, of course, was the man's music. Your correspondent rather regrets being unable to write about Wilder's numerous operatic, concerto, and sonata works. They are beyond my knowledge, which is a pity because they have won wide applause elsewhere.

But Wilder's popular songs are more accessible and have been championed (in my ranks) by Marian McPartland, Frank Sinatra, Keith Jarrett, and I'm sure many more.

"I'll Be Around" tells of a man who is happy to be second best. A guy waiting helplessly on the sidelines for the girl to return to him "...and when things go wrong, perhaps you'll see, you're meant for me." According to the letters, this is pure Wilder. Wilder the loser, the coward who wished he was also capable of fighting with his fists. The lyrics are wonderful, and the melody is as great as anything among the rest of the song books. Sinatra sang the number beautifully on his Wee Small Hours album.

Keith Jarrett's rendering of Wilder's "The Wrong Blues" shows perfectly how good the writer could be. Marian McPartland, a close friend who wrote the forward to this book, has also recorded Wilder's "Moon and Sand," offering a refined intro to Chris Potter's saxophone solo.

There must be many more that I am unaware of, and it is high time I got McPartland's Plays the Music of Alec Wilder. The author of these letters and I have two things in common. We have both raved about the writings of Robert Ardrey, and Wilder hated possessions, and I was once able to lift everything I owned with my little finger (then I got married). The woman (one's wife) just said, in passing "That looks like a nice book." As always, she is right.

 By Lawrence Brazier

Philip Freeman

Running the Voodoo Down: The Electric Music of Miles Davis

Backbeat Books ISBN: 0-87930-828-1

 Here's a man who knows his Miles. At least, the electronic Miles. Mind you, it is pretty certain that Mr. Freeman has been around long enough to have moved right on with his hero after the early days and coolin' it with the man through those pristine middle years of the Davis/Coltrane Quintets when Miles was quoted, thus: "I love those tunes so much, that I am afraid of hurting them." Or words to that effect.

Basically, of course, we all wondered what happened when Miles went electric. We remember "Somethin' Else," with Cannonball Adderley given as the leader and Miles opening with the simplest, straightest, "Autumn Leaves" he ever recorded. The beauty is in the purity. Adderley takes the second chorus and winds things up a little, as far as improvisation goes. Miles then returns, on tip-toe, straying little from the melody.

We hear from that period that Miles liked Cannonball for his bluesy sound, and the alto saxophonist is probably as a good a starting point-albeit at that point still pretty remote-for tracing Miles's turn to gut-funk. Davis, himself, is still holding back, although the man was seldom less than funky (we called it "thumb-poppin' hip") even in those acoustic days.

But that all changed. It would be silly to say that Miles suddenly discovered his blackness, but it is obvious that a gut feeling took hold, and Davis seemed to be seeking something rather more than sheer beauty. The standard book had been well and truly done--could rhythm substitute melody? Could rhythm be melodic? To his great credit Miles was not afraid to turn to the current nonjazz scene!

The snobs among us, of course, sneered. But also to his credit, Miles was often a reticent leader, especially in concert, providing a few stabbing, interjectory blasts here and there throughout a number, prompting the rest of the band to get as funky as they knew how--without clichés.

While Bach or Mozart may raise the hairs on the back of one's neck, Miles apparently wanted to achieve something deeper, perhaps something akin to anger translated into music to bring about a similar, but nonpassive, shock of pleasure.

Anyway, that's what your correspondent thinks, and at my age I am likely to be utterly wrong. For the real stuff from a man who is really into his subject, read the book. Mr. Freeman writes exceedingly well, one even feels at times a certain, um, funkiness, in his style. I liked the chapters sent to me to review; they are authoritative, full of stuff we didn't previously know, and the author takes us through many of the trumpeter's electric albums with astonishing perception.

One can only hope those electric years remain available for future generations and that many young people, who may be wondering where pop music is heading, can get to realize that still to be heard is the music of a man who really had something to offer. And if you don't dig Bitches Brew (for example), you are probably white, under twenty-one, and living in a remote mountain hut with no electric current.

Buy the book, get connected, get into the music.

 By Lawrence Brazier

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