I. Til Love and Fame to nothingness do sink
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high piled books, in charact’ry,
Hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain…
If you are a certain age, or a certain type of person (or both) when you first encounter these lines, they lodge themselves somewhere deep and remain there forever. That is the gift the poet gives you; your gift in return is to read and receive the work and by never forgetting it you ensure that the artist never dies.
John Keats will remain immortal as long as humans are capable of reading words. Had he been aware of this while he struggled with the tuberculosis that would take his life at 25, perhaps it might have offered a consolation money, fame and even health could never approximate.
When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance…
This particular work resonates with each successive generation because it grapples with the most profound fear any of us will ever experience: the acknowledgment that we will inexorably perish, not knowing what actually awaits us once we’re gone. That Keats, easily one of the incontestable geniuses of any era, had several decades—at least—of his life stolen by a vulgar disease tends to augment the import of his solemn meditation. There is nothing anyone can say that could possibly begin to explain or rationalize this travesty of karmic justice, this affront to life. It is the intolerable enigmas like these that make certain people hope against hope that there is a bigger purpose and plan, a way to measure or quantify this madness. But in the final, human analysis, whatever we lost can never subdue all that we received.
Does it make a difference if he is no longer around, if he never knew his words would be read, studied and savored centuries after he drew his last breath? Was he hoping he might witness that as he wrote the words; are we hoping we might see it when we read them? The questions are unanswerable, and the only thing we can be certain about is that he did live, he did write, and we do read. That is not nearly enough in terms of consolation for his death, and our loss, but it helps. As always, with art, it helps that we will always have the gifts the artist left behind. It is never enough; it is more than enough.
It is enough to make one consider asking more unanswerable—and unsatisfying—questions, like: “What kind of God would take a poet like Keats from us?”
Asking questions like that can lead one to answers that are at once the easiest and most difficult—to understand or accept: “The same one who gave him to us?”
This, of course, is not enough. It is never enough.
But somehow, it will have to do.
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour!
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love!—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Til Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.
II. Strength and Sanity
Eric Dolphy & Booker Little, “Fire Waltz”:
For many years—all through college and after graduate school—John Keats signified, for me, the ultimate artistic loss of all time. In terms of talent and potential versus time granted to practice and refine his skills, Keats has even the most unbearable cases beat: his good friend and fellow genius Percy Bysshe Shelley (aged 29), their mutual friend Lord Byron (36). Even the great Franz Schubert (31) who, considering his abilities, may have amassed a body of work to be mentioned in the same breath as his fellow Austrian Mozart (himself only 35). Yet, like Mozart, Schubert was so stunningly prolific the collected output somewhat mitigates the loss.
Once I began seriously listening to jazz music, I quickly came to recognize that this art form is littered with premature deaths. We know all about our famous rock stars, many of whom flamed out early in life due to self-destructive habits and hobbies. The typical, if irresponsible (and racist) assumption is that most jazz players were junkies and therefore each casualty must have died with a needle in their arm. In actuality, the number of luminous young men whose deaths were not self-inflicted is unsettling. Of the many worth mentioning, two tend to stand out because of their brilliance, potential and clean and sober lifestyles: Eric Dolphy and Booker Little.
It will be difficult to avoid clichés here. In their defense, clichés originate from an authentic place; they are mostly an attempt, at least initially, to articulate something honest and immutable. And so: Eric Dolphy is among the foremost supernovas in all of jazz (Clifford Brown and Lee Morgan—both trumpeters incidentally—also come quickly to mind): he burned very brightly and very briefly, and then he was gone. Speaking of clichés, not a single one of the artists just mentioned—all of whom left us well before their fortieth birthdays—died from a drug overdose. Dolphy, the grand old man of the bunch, passed away at the age of 36, in Europe. How? After lapsing into a diabetic coma. Why? The doctors on duty presumed the black musician who had collapsed in the street was nodding off on a heroin buzz. To attempt to put the magnitude of this loss in perspective, consider that Charles Mingus, perhaps the most difficult and demanding band leader of them all, declared Dolphy a saint, and regarded his death as one of a handful of setbacks he could never completely get over. Dolphy holds the distinction of quite possibly being the one artist nobody has gone on record to say a single negative thing about. His body of work, the bulk of which was recorded during an almost miraculously productive five-year stretch, is deep, challenging, and utterly enjoyable. Let there be no doubt that Eric Dolphy warrants mention amongst jazz music’s all-time immortals.
And then there is Booker Little. Considered the heir apparent to the effulgent Clifford Brown (himself only 25 when he died, clean and sober, in a car crash), Little did not die so much as have his life defrauded, at age 23, from euremia—an especially brutal, and painful, type of kidney failure. Barely legal drinking age, Little had already led sessions that stand alongside the best post-bop recordings of the era (He neither drank nor took drugs, incidentally).
Little was able to complete two albums in the final year of his life, both considered masterpieces by aficionados, but largely obscure outside of jazz circles. This is ignominious on a number of levels. For one thing, the music contained in these releases captures the ethereal nature of life, the ecstasy of creation and the unique expressions our most gifted artists are capable of conveying. Beyond that, the albums are touchstones; perhaps the most poignant instances from any era of a human being defying death with dignity and joy, even as mortality circled his head like a demented buzzard.
What Keats was able to convey so succinctly, and enduringly, with words, Little achieves without needing a single syllable. His voice, of course, is his instrument, and his trumpet tells the story of his life: not for nothing was his final work entitled Victory and Sorrow. It’s not possible to listen to this music without hearing the history of illness, injustice and ultimately the transcendent human ability to, at least temporarily, overcome anything.
“Strength and Sanity” (from Out Front):
At once somber and serene, the compositions achieve an intense distillation of Beauty: the joy of inspiration leavened with the contemplation of transience. It is all in there, as devastating in its way as the symphonies of Mahler or the extended meditations of Tolstoy. Does the concentrated intensity of this sound derive from the soul of a man who sensed his time was, all of a sudden, just about up? It is almost intolerable to imagine that he was anticipating –and realizing– some of the experiences and emotions of the years he should have had, putting every thought, feeling, regret and ambition into his playing. Was he in fact dealing with significant pain while he composed and played this music? If so, we are getting into deaf Beethoven levels of drama and disbelief.
How did he manage? There is a tune on the album Out Front entitled “Strength and Sanity”, which could be a commentary on what any individual requires in order to survive –much less thrive– in a world where there is a distinct shortage of both. It certainly speaks to ingredients necessary for jazz musicians, incomparably talented men who were still, circa 1961, considered second-rate citizens, not to mention the additional stigma of being jazz musicians. But it is also a statement about what Little had to count on and cultivate just in order to get as far as he did, and deal with the hand he was dealt: performing, composing and playing against the dying of the light.
Perspective. That he was called on so young by the capricious machinery of Fate is enough to humble a hardened heart. That he succeeded in creating, and leaving behind, music that still inspires and consoles is a miracle; a miracle that, in the final analysis, equals or surpasses and possibly even overwhelms the illogical, unfair nature of his passing. That this blissful, restorative sound exists to help any confused, self-pitying individuals left behind, struggling to carry his baggage, makes a compelling case to consider the bigger picture.
“Man of Words” (also from Out Front, I challenge you to close your eyes for five minutes, listen, and not be moved to think about about what he saw and is saying: about his life, and how it causes you to contemplate your own):
*excerpted from my memoir entitled Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone.