It’s the day after Thanksgiving. And if, like me, you hosted yesterday’s ritual food orgy, you’re waking up to a one-third filled sink, a two-thirds reassembled kitchen, and a three-thirds over-extended duodenum.
The remains of your turkey carcass probably looks like a giant aluminum foil ball, jammed into the fridge and balancing on top of yogurts, barbecue sauce and crumpled plastic lettuce containers. It’s keeping company with the shrink-wrapped remains of half-eaten pies, puddings, stuffings, and—we actually had these—“sausage poppers,” which I kept popping until a small bulge of exactly the same diameter visibly popped out from beneath the flapping tent-edge of my untucked shirt.
At first I thought it may have been an inguinal hernia, but after kneading it gently, it subsided, dissolving into the acidic mud pot of my gut..
Likewise, your blue plastic recycling bin is probably also brimming with empty bottles and cans, each a sticky testament to your night of gross under-moderation, which is a nicer way of saying over-indulgence, and describing how you force-fed and drank yourself waaaay beyond the point of salvation by a humble Tagamet.
That Thanksgiving is now an exercise in superabundance—and superconsumption—is so obvious, unremarkable, and even trite that it seems a little pointless just pointing it out.
And yet, it wasn’t always so. We weren’t always a collective human fois-gras farm.
Last weekend, the Wall Street Journal published a bracing mini-history of the Pilgrims and their first Thanksgiving in New Plymouth, Massachusetts (if you didn’t catch it, it’s well worth reading).
It was written by Malcolm Gaskill, a Professor of early modern history at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, U.K., whose Englishness (not to mention his academic pedigree) gives him a unique perspective on our otherwise mythologized American tradition, unobscured by gauzy sentimentality.
Dr. Gaskill places the first Thanksgiving within its actual context: a time of incredible privation and almost unknowable hardship in the earliest days of our American experiment:
“Unable to grow enough food, the colonists faced starvation by the winter of 1609. They ate vermin and leather—even the starch from their collars. “Nothing was spared to maintain life,” recalled George Percy, “and to do those things which seem incredible, as to dig up dead corpses out of graves and to eat them.” Nine out of 10 died, and the survivors and their often clueless replacements still had to find exports like timber, furs and pitch to pay their way….”
He then fast-forwards twelve years, and to proto-Massachusetts:
“Here we might return to Plymouth in 1621 and to the true story of the first Thanksgiving, which is richer and more edifying than the familiar holiday version. When the Pilgrim William Bradford said, “They began now to gather in the small harvest they had…being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty,” he was bearing witness to the fact that, in their first crucial year, they had barely survived.”
For many—I’ll even hazard to say, most—Americans, securing basic food, clothing, warmth and shelter isn’t anywhere near the existential ordeal that it was for our 17th century forbears, although this is probably more a testament to modernity than Americanness.
It’s also probably fair to say that life has become more about levels and degrees of consumption (and the security or tenuousness that comes with it) than anything else. Most people in America today (present company included, and acutely aware of it) have been blessed to live during a time when we’re beyond the sphere of genuine Malthusian need—raw, survivalist need—and into the domain of want.
Which brings us to Act Two of our National Day of Thanks, a day that has come to be known as Black Friday, and which could easily be subcharacterized as our National Day of Wants. This was demonstrated in our own home by the fact that two out of my three teenaged kids got up, got dressed, and bolted out of the house this morning with a missionary consumer zeal that’s never apparent before school, soccer, or practically anything else.
To be fair, Black Friday is as much about wanting to score deals and save money as it is about wanting the actual stuff people line up to buy in the first place. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that.
But still, it’s the second course in what’s become a national two-day feast of consumption. And it’s grown to such an extent that the Black Friday ads don’t just overwhelm your browser, email, television, and (if you’re still a luddite like me), your newspaper.
Black Friday’s shadow has now become so long that it extends backwards over the Thanksgiving holiday, re-casting the main attraction as “Gray Thursday,” with retailers (other than Stop & Shop) remaining open to spur (and capture) ever more shoppers, even while the rest of us are at home making sausage poppers and licking apple-pie filling off of our spatulas.
Grey Thursday/Black Friday represents a sort of doubling-down on consumption, an assertion that, in order to really feel the gratitude, it’s inadequate to merely clean out supermarket shelves of “all things in good plenty” (to borrow Pilgrim Bradford’s phrase), and eat like it’s the last supper. We somehow also have to make pilgrimages to Best Buy, establish colonies around Target, or fight off natives around Urban Outfitters trying to score some pre-Christmas/Hanukkah swag.
Lest I come across as being somehow above this all, I’m not. I’ve been checking out the Black Friday emails from Twisted Throttle for deals on “adventure” tchotchkes for my motorbike. And this afternoon, I’m going to SAVE15 (coupon code!) at Crate & Barrel, where I plan on replenishing the flatware that seems to disappear as mysteriously as the Jamestown colonists. (This tends to concentrate around Thanksgiving, I think, when buzzed guests inadvertently slide their spoons or forks into the trash along with half-eaten second-helpings).
So I’m not a Black Friday hater, per se. But I do have a modest proposal for re-imagining the day after Thanksgiving in a way that’s patriotic, enriching, and meaningful. And would give us all a chance to both consume and give thanks for something that’s deeply, uniquely American, and worthy of our love and reverence.
I’d like us to reconsider Black Friday as Blue Friday, and dedicate the entire day towards sitting at home in our pajama bottoms, eating leftovers, and listening to classic American Jazz.
By classic, I specifically mean the work of jazz titans like Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk. John Coltrane. and Billie Holliday, among others. Giants whose contributions to the American musical canon—and historical music achievement—is as monumental as it is depressingly under-appreciated today.
And I propose calling this day Blue Friday in honor of Blue Note Records, the label of the legendary John Coltrane and his 1957 semi-eponymous super-classic, Blue Train, even though many of the other greats recorded on Verve. “Verve Friday” just didn’t have the same ring to it.
The irony is that, in the grand scheme of things, I’m hardly what you’d call a true Jazz buff like my friend Eric B (no, not of Eric B & Rakim). I mostly subsist on a diet of Guided by Voices, Pavement, and other more fungible alt-rock ear candy (although I did see Roy Haynes once in Boston, and McCoy Tyner at the Village Vanguard).
But I’ve owned—and have steadily listened to—a few dozen classic jazz LPs for decades, and they never—NEVER—tire or wear thin. On the contrary, listening to them over and over again simply reasserts their timeless beauty and essential musical genius. As I’ve grow older, the performances on these records have taken on different, ever more beautiful or bittersweet hues, from Coltrane’s A Love Supreme to Monk’s Memories of You to Sonny Rollins’ Misterioso.
Jazz of this caliber is arguably not only America’s singular and greatest contribution to the history of the arts; it’s also arguably the singular and greatest contribution of African-American artists to American culture. And as such, it should be worthy of a day of national reverence and gratitude, at least as much as we reserve for musket-toting, buckle-shoed Puritans.
So on this, my first Blue Friday, the day after Thanksgiving in the two-thousand and fourteenth year of your or my lord (take your pick, it’s all the same and he or she couldn’t care less), I’d like to offer my thankfulness and respect for the following artists, who’ve given us—and me—songs that make life not just worth living, but listening to, over and over again.
Here are ten of my favorite classics, in no particular order, which I’m spinning this Blue Friday via Sonos:
1) John Coltrane, Blue Train
The title track is a jam for the ages, with Coltrane bopping and flowing over Philly Joe Jones’ swinging groove. And the standard “I’m Old Fashioned” shows how a tenor saxophone can be even more tender and expressive than the human voice. Five songs, and just over forty minutes of perfection. It’s hard to even write more about it. Listen to it. Honor it.
2) Sonny Rollins, Vol. 2
Besides having possibly the best album cover in jazz history (reprised in a graphic homage by Joe Jackson), this album contains the Thelonius Monk composition Misterioso, which starts out almost like a child’s slappy, two-finger piano primer, then devolves into a call-and-response with Rollins’ sax, and finally slips into a soaring, head-shaking bop groove. Monk and Horace Silver trade off on piano, with parts that are equally stunning. Why Don’t I listen to this with the same frequency that I idly shop online? Every listening makes your soul richer. Buy it.
3) Billie Holiday, Lady in Autumn
Okay, okay. It’s not an original LP, but a “best of” from her Verve years. I have the two-CD version. But it’s a compilation of 35 timeless standards and classics sung by the most distinctive female vocalist of the 20th century. All the Way…Come Rain or Shine…Body and Soul…Autumn in New York…and a haunting live rendition of Strange Fruit, a mournful, crushing song written by Abel Meeropol (a white, Jewish high school teacher from the Bronx—thank you, Wikipedia) about the horror of lynchings. Even though David Sedaris does a pretty damn good interpretation of “Lady Day,”she’s ultimately inimitable.
4) Joe Henderson, Four
This was probably among my first actual jazz record purchases. I must have heard it on some public radio show. I’m a sucker for hard bop, and Mr. Henderson sucker punches you hard all the way from the opening track, Autumn Leaves through On the Trail, Swinging, bopping, weaving,with a great hard groove.
5) Charlie Parker, Jazz ‘Round Midnight
For years, I was a habitual listener of Phil Schaap’s Bird Flight on WKCR. I was probably too young or distracted to internalize his incredible knowledge of—and stories about—the history of Jazz, from Lester Young all the way up through Parker’s recording career. But I learned to love Bird, and how he makes melodies literally take flight. This is also a compilation record, and several of the arrangements are a little schmaltzy for my taste (I could lose the orchestra on If I Could Lose You). But Star Eyes? Laura? I’m in the Mood for Love? Soaring.
6) Thelonius Monk, Standards
I think I grasped the concept of a “blue note” by listening to this album, and hearing how two or more keys struck in near sequence could almost bend a note, and produce sounds that were “in between” keys. You hear it from the start on Memories of You. the lilting Just You, Just Me (with Charlie Rouse tearing it up on sax), and throughout Tea For Two, which showcases Monk’s brilliant, slightly twisted, but heartbreakingly beautiful style of play.
7) Roy Eldridge, Little Jazz
Swing-era grooves like Bugle Call Rag and Sweet Georgia Brown, and Elldridge’s pre-Dizzy sound make this 19-track record the jazz jewel that it is. It’s like a Thanksgiving platter fllled with American joy and optimism.
8) Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers with Thelonius Monk
I don’t think there’s a people on this earth that has a rhythm quite equal to Americans’, and you’d be hard-pressed to find an American who created more compelling, unshakeable rhythms than Mr. Blakey (no, relation to my friend, Nick Blaikie) here leading a band of other jazz greats. If Evidence doesn’t get you swining, you might want to check your pulse.
9) Rahsaan Roland Kirk, We Free Kings
For a while back in the nineties, I went on a major Roland Kirk jag, fascinated by his squeaky tenor sax, and his super-human habit of playing several horns—in total harmony—at once, like this take of Three for the Festival. Kirk is like a one man Jazz army, jamming on flute as hard as he charges with his neckful of horns.
My other loves from this record are the title track, a riff on We Three Kings, and Kirk’s interpretation of Charlie Parker’s Blues for Alice, the sonic definition of the word “ebullient.” Kirk is underappreciated. This Blue Friday, he’s loved.
10) John Coltrane, Giant Steps
And here we conclude where we started, with our own American Beethoven. But this time, Coltrane is more self-aware of the steps he’s taken to move jazz forward; they haven’t been small ones. He plays such mind-bending riffs with such grace and authority that it’s hard to believe they could ever be reduplicated, never mind committed to paper as notes. You can hear and feel it in the title track Giant Steps…Countdown…Syeeda’s Song…Naima…every track asserts Coltrane’s genius, and how far he advanced this American art form.
As Lindsay Planer wrote in his review for allmusic.com, “Line upon line of highly cerebral improvisation snake between the melody and solos, practically fusing the two. The resolute intensity of “Countdown” does more to modernize jazz in 141 seconds than many artists do in their entire careers”
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And that concludes more than 12 hours of lounging, listening, learning and writing.
I had a very Blue Friday today, and you know what?
I couldn’t be happier—or more grateful—for it. Can’t wait to skip the sales and honor our Jazz Fathers again next year.