August 31, 2009

Magic Words


Duke Ellington's piano

I read that Ray Nance died one Tuesday and nearly wrote a small obituary, before learning that the great musician had died in 1978, and the present death was of the last surviving "Bedford Boy," a group of survivors from a town that lost more sons in WW II than any other.

The Ray Nance I mistook him for was Duke Ellington's sideman, violinist-trumpeter-singer, during the Duke's heyday of the 40's and 50's. Of course I've always loved Ellington's music, and am awestruck by his legend, but Nance held a special place in my heart, because I picked him up in my cab in Manhattan once in the seventies, and never forgot a moment of the ride.

I've wondered often why some things stick in my mind even though they were common and innocuous at the time. I think the reason the Nance ride stayed there was the way it ended.

I picked him and two other men up at the corner of Ninth Avenue and 46th Street about 2 a.m. of a weekday sometime in 1973. I drove them to the Village Gate on Bleeker Street. Nance was carrying a violin case, and put it on the back shelf of the Checker cab we all drove then. I could see it in the rearview mirror.

As we began the ride I asked if they had been playing on 46th Street, and someone said yes. Then he said, indicating the small man in the middle, "This here is Ray Nance." Ray said quietly, "No, man, he doesn't know anything about that..."

I said, "Oh yeah, Ray Nance. You play the violin and trumpet," I said. And you sing too. I love that kind of music you played with Duke Ellington. I've heard you sing and play on some of his records."

"There you go!" the first man laughed appreciatively. I was about 32 then. Dylan's music was my obsession, but jazz was my first love.


Ray & Duke


At the corner of 40th and Ninth just after Port Authority, a black cat dashed in front of my speeding taxi, and someone said, "Watch out for the cat!" But I didn't even have to touch the brake.

"A cat is fast," said Ray.

We talked a bit about music, and I asked if they knew Miles Davis. I was always asking musicians that because Miles' music was my favorite after Dylan's. Someone said he knew him, but I don't remember if it was Nance.

I let them out at the Gate, and someone paid the fare and tipped me. We said goodnight, and I drove to LaGuardia Place and turned right toward Houston. Looking in the rearview mirror I spotted the violin. Oh man, I thought, I bet he is freaking out. So I drove to Sixth Avenue, waited for the light, turned right and waited for the light at Bleeker, turned back onto Bleeker and drove to the Gate, about a five-minute round-trip.

Ray Nance was leaning against a pole waiting for me. He broke into a broad smile when I drove up.

"I knew you'd be back," he said.

He opened the door and retrieved the violin. Then he reached to the front and shook my hand.

"Thank you. This is a Stradivarius violin. I knew you'd come back."

It still makes me feel good to know he knew that. That's why it stuck in my mind all these years. I think Ray Nance probably spent most of his 94 years making people feel good. He's been dead 30 years, and what he said still makes me feel good.

This is why I love words. Put them together right, and their power remains constant whenever recalled. And imagination alone limits what we do with them. He made me feel good forever with those few words. Words are magical. I can use them to create a perfectly fine person in every way; give him a virtue or a fault, a bald woman, the best children in town, the support of his community, a noble purpose, and a historic place in the betterment of mankind, and then I can kill him with a runaway bus. I can make him win the Nobel Prize, or have all his hair fall out.

Magic words.

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