Sascha Feinstein: Blues for Zoot
The Swiss artist Judith Trepp recently shared some recollections with me of Provincetown in the 50s and 60s, where she and her parents, who were part of the arts community there, would summer each year. I knew about the visual arts and literature scene of P-town in the early days — Hoffman, Kline, Bultman, O'Neill, Williams, and on and on — but didn't realize until Judith mentioned it that many of the great jazz figures of the time would come through P-town every season and perform at the Atlantic House bar. How could I not know this! She mentioned Zoot Sims in particular, which sent me a-Googlin', which is how I landed on this great poem by Sascha Feinstein (from his book Misterioso). First a word about Zoot. He plays in the classic mid-century "swing-to-bop" mode. Often he sounds a bit like Coleman Hawkins. In this clip, where he is absolutely cooking, I hear a little Paul Gonzalves and Ben Webster. But no matter. Zoot is one of those players I can always identify within a chorus or two, the mark of a true jazz giant. A word about the poem. It's a mash up of memories of his father and Zoot mixed with meditations on the noble futility of hero worship and nostalgia. The last line is a killer. Oh, and Judith mentioned the softball games, too.
Blues for Zoot
They had crew cuts then, puffed cheeks like kids
spitting water: Al Cohn and Zoot Sims spouting tenor saxes
on the cover of You 'N Me, my dad's original pressing;
I hoped they'd sign it. Zoot clouded the room,
smoke fading his face, milky freckles. In five years
he'd die of cancer, and maybe he knew, maybe I knew,
because instead of looking into his eyes, I stared
at his shoes, then thought of the Kenton band, Zoot forgetting
to wear socks on night, how Stan said he'd have to leave
if he couldn't dress right. Next gig: still no socks,
and Zoot — he rubbed shoe polish on his ankles. backstage,
when I met him, his pant legs hung too high, and I could see
blue socks, even a hole, his striped pants thin and washed-
out. Al put his horn down, scribbled his name, walked a way.
But Zoot checked out the tunes and brushed his fingers
across the photograph. He said, Man this is old,
and I thought he meant, Where'd you get this, kid? I told him
my father's name, Provincetown summers, the fifties,
how they'd play softball. Zoot closed his eyes, hard
to think back so many years, until, looking up somewhere
in the room, he said, Oh yeah. I'm not sure what I wanted
to hear, perhaps just my father's one-liner, Good-tempered
stuff, and lousy playing. He'd talk about artists, sculptors.
When Mulligan and Sims played at the A House,
Dad would say, they'd hit with us, and I'd always ask for
the Zoot story. Herman Cherry pitched that day, he'd begin,
Franz Kline at first, Sims led off. From the bench,
Mulligan yelled, "Give 'em Hell!" so Zoot smiled, and Herman
picked up a softball. He'd pause as though he needed to,
ask if I wanted to hear it all again. We had painted
this grapefruit with white acrylic, black scratches
for stitching. Herman lobbed it slow, a moonball,
and you could see Zoot's eyes get big. Then he really
connected — THWACK! We'd laugh, his hands rapping
the table. There's this burst of fruit and juice,
little pieces of white paint sailing down the third-base line!
Zoot just dropped his bat and said, "Shit" — he rubs
his hands and laughs, glances at the liver spots
on his knuckles, and says, You should have seen his face.
When I met Zoot Sims twenty-six years later, I wanted to ask
if he remembered the sound from that day at the plate.
Or how it felt to be one of the Four Brothers. Instead,
I watched his pen sign the photograph, his fingers holding
the jacket for a last look. Here, he said, collector's item,
and before he turned, reached out for his yellow horn,
I shook his hand. Christ. What else was there to do?