If essence of hip escapes you, leave the beret at home

MIKE LITTWIN

January 11, 1993|By MIKE LITTWIN

If you went to college around the time I did -- and maybe it's the same now -- there was always this one kid who was into jazz. He was just a little hipper than everyone else.

The rest of us would have Grace Slick turned all the way up on the hi-fi, with white knights talking backward, and thought we were pretty darn cool. Long hair. Torn jeans. Rock and roll.

But that one kid was different. He was just a little bit off-center -- maybe more than a little bit.

He wore shades. He listened to Bird Parker. And Thelonius Monk (just the name said everything).

At odd moments, he'd even recite poetry.

If nothing else, you've seen this kid as a character in a movie, usually set at some '50s or '60s prep school. He's the one who kills himself, and they always find a copy of "The Catcher in the Rye" on his bedside table. Turns out his dad was a colonel in the Marines, and, well, you know the story.

I got to thinking about this the other day when I heard Dizzy Gillespie had died. The remarkable thing about Dizzy is that he lived to be 75 and was hip every single day of his life.

For those of us who've always wanted nothing more than to be hip, but have never quite made it, that doesn't seem exactly fair.

Dizzy helped define hip. He wore the beret, the dark glasses, the goatee. He talked the talk. He walked the walk.

And his horn, bent toward the heavens, produced music no one had ever heard before.

Jazz is the hippest of all music forms, and be-bop, which Dizzy helped invent, was the hippest jazz. Dizzy had the look and the sound that, at the same time, defied and encouraged imitation.

He did it without drugs. And he did it without more than the usual heartbreak. He just did it with a trumpet and the bullfrog cheeks.

I don't exactly know what it is about jazz that's so different. Louis Armstrong produced the ultimate comment on the subject: "Man, if you gotta ask, you'll never know."

Jazz was the first truly American sound, deeply rooted in the Southern black culture. And in the beginning, for many whites, it was seen as dangerous and not quite accessible. Eventually, of course, jazz became the predominant music of its day.

It takes no genius to see that, in 20th-century America, blacks have defined hipness in our culture. Or maybe you haven't noticed all those upper-middle-class white kids, with the X caps turned backward on their heads, listening to hip hop.

By the time I was a kid, rock had replaced jazz. That was your parents' music. Until you found someone your age who really knew it.

The kid at my school who was into jazz was from North Jersey but always told people he was from New York. Seems there's nothing hip about New Jersey. I don't think his dad was a colonel, but he had long hair before anyone else did. And he definitely wore shades.

What he didn't do was ever actually go to class.

He hung out, mainly in the pool hall, or wherever there was a lot of smoke -- second-hand smoke not yet having been recognized as an official, government-notarized carcinogen.

And he played the sax.

We came to be friends. If I couldn't be that hip, at least I could be friends with someone who was. He had that essence of cool. It was clear he believed he didn't fit into the world as it was presented to him. Not that he was after solutions. He wasn't. Sure, the world might be a horrible place, he'd say, but that's your world, man. And he'd just turn up the music.

As far as I know, nothing tragic happened to him. Whatever you've heard, life doesn't usually imitate art. He did drop out of school, though, after a year. Too square, he said. People actually talked that way then.

I ran into him briefly a few years later in the Village -- yes, that Village -- where he was on his way to a smoke-filled room to listen to smoke-filled jazz. That was the last I saw him. He probably ended up like everyone else. The way life really works is that he's an accountant somewhere now, with kids and a mortgage.

But maybe, like Bill Clinton -- who recently told Arsenio Hall he's afraid that as president it might be undignified to play the sax in public -- every so often he slips on the shades, brings out the horn and wails.

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