Happy Birthday, Happy Birthday, Happy Birthday
Steve Cannon is an ambassador and guardian for Jazz. Late at night in his apartment on East 6th st, in between thinking about the cosmos and the next chapter of his memoirs, he bangs on the piano. But mostly Steve keeps jazz alive by running his damn mouth. How many times have I heard the tale of him bumpin into Miles at the Village Vanguard, and bein Mr. Enthusiasm, going right up to Miles to ask if he'd played Kinda Blue yet, and Miles coming back with a minor note- “I played it. Didn’t you hear it?”. Steve also tunes lay people into jazz who otherwise would remain outside the fold. Like me. And then there’s his championship of the up and coming musicians in the jazz world. Like the Helen Sung quartet- led by bas ass, or just plain old bad as Steve would say, pianist Helen Sung, who this past Sunday electrified Dizzy’s Club atop Columbus Circle. It was there that Mary Chen and I, two of Steve’s “girlfriends” in rotation, celebrated with Mr. Cool on his 83rd birthday on the planet earth, boppin' our fool heads off to the quartet’s tribute to Bebop jazz legend Thelonius Monk.
Steve leapt out of his chair right as the final note of “In walked Bud” rang out. “Steve where you running off to!?” I laughed. But after eight years of many such nights on the town with him, I knew what Mr. Enthusiasm’s m.o. was. He wanted to meet the musicians. The drummer, Donald Edwards, hailing from Steve’s own New Orleans, was making a b line to the green room. I barely recognized him off the stage and out of the lights. He was human size, and shy. But I grabbed him with a “wow, great job man” and then made the introduction “Steve this is the drummer!” Steve swings his arm around Donald’s back, unreservedly giving his new friend most of his weight. I believe Steve feels he and Donald are already connected by the music and the history, and the love of jazz. Steve wastes no time whipping out his own jazz “credentials”, beginning with his relationship to the late jazz pianist Cecil Taylor followed by his lifelong friendship with Wynton Marsalis. Donald nearly blushes under his driving cap and says such mentions of greatness might scare him off playing the second set. Steve’s smile is unending. If you were observing the conversation, you might notice that Steve’s whole way of talking and gesturing and communicating is inspired by jazz improvisation and by the style he loosely calls “being cool”. No one is more hopped up on the music than Steve. The musicians need Steve. They need his excitement to keep going.
When Donald is released from Steve’s blessing we score an audience with Helen Sung herself. Helen’s smile matches Steve’s. I am struck by how she lavishes her precious time in between sets to spend with us yokels, after having just banged on those piano keys with the force of life for an hour. She is easy and looks us in the eyes. She recalls in an instant her previous meeting with Steve and Mary when they saw her perform at Smoke a month back. Helen eagerly gives Mary, herself a pianist, tips on proper support, “from the back”, while playing. Steve interjects that my brother Oliver lives in Helen’s hometown of Houston and that he is a ballet dancer. Steve never stops making connections. Seeking out new harmonies.
Steve and his two chicks leave Dizzy’s and snap a Columbus circle selfie before the trio disbands and we hop a cap for the lower east side. Steve playfully barks “Driver, go east. Take the drive! Take the drive!”, meaning the FDR, and then “Thank you sir! Thank you sir!”. The cab ride back to E. 6th is our time to relive the music and compare experiences. We agreed on the drummer Donald bein’ the baddest of the bunch. In Steve’s words, “Man he was on Helen’s shit! She’d go “bloo” he'd go “bloo blah!” She went “ Do de do” and he came right back in with “Do de do de do day de da!” I tell Steve I was fascinated seeing the music move through Donald’s body, watching how playful and easy he was. Then I give Steve visual descriptions and brief character studies of the sax, trumpet, and bass player. We concluded that the quartet played a set that was something like friends shootin’ the breeze.
Back at E 6th st I drop Steve on the couch. With a sigh of contentment he says “Well dearest one, that show gave me something to chew on for the whole next month!” And as I leave him there in the dark, exiting with our back and forth “Au revois!, mercies!, and adioses!”, I wonder if Steve’s about to get into his spaceship, launch into the infinity of his mind, and travel through the lingering phrases of Monk and Helen Sung, experiencing them as colors and feelings, or as the Northern Lights, or maybe as the blazing image of Miles, smoking at the bar.