By NICK CHILES
Recently I had the precious opportunity to pay tribute to two old black men, both fabulous in their own special ways. I’m talking about the legendary saxophonist, Sonny Rollins, and my dad, Walter Chiles. On the spur of the moment and at my wife’s urging, I decided to treat my 77-year-old dad to a trip to New York City to catch Sonny’s concert at the Beacon Theater, where he was joined by a host of famous jazzmen to celebrate his 80th birthday. Dad and I were both geeked about this rare opportunity to catch a legend, perhaps one of the last times this famously solitary figure might be playing on an American stage. I was also giddy about the chance to take a rare road trip with my dad. It’s weird how we find ourselves at this place—I go off to college, start a family, fill up my life and days with grown-man responsibilities, and then look up and realize three decades have passed and we’ve never really taken a trip together. Now I’m middle-aged, Dad is old, and we’re both thrilled about something that, on its surface, seems so mundane: a road trip.
As the plane approached the New York City skyline for its landing at LaGuardia, I was so grateful for this time together that I almost wanted to pinch myself.
We enjoyed a nice meal at a comfortable Mediterranean restaurant, the kind of solid reliable joint you find on practically every other block in Manhattan. Then we made our way over to the Beacon. We were a bit disappointed that, among the several thousand people cramming into this Upper West Side landmark, we could probably count the number of African Americans on our four hands. It’s a sad statement about how the stature of jazz has plummeted in the black community. Indeed, the fact that I was able to secure very good seats (through Ticketmaster, no less!) to this monumental event just 10 days before the concert spoke volumes about the lowly place jazz now occupies in the American consciousness.
But the house was full and Sonny did not disappoint. A bit hunched over, moving across the stage a little more slowly—the New York Times said “he called to mind an Old Testament prophet”—Sonny played for two hours without stopping. He still had his chops, sliding easily through some of the more challenging and pleasurable pieces in his long, impressive songbook. One by one, he brought out some of the most talented jazz musicians in the business to join him on stage, players like the sweet-toned trumpeter Roy Hargrove, the funky bassist Christian McBride, the nimble guitarist Jim Hall, 79, and the legendary Ornette Coleman, 80. A rotating dream team, one would leave and another would come on.
Sonny is the last of our iconic jazz greats, a monumental figure in the history of this sensational American music form.
He was right there during the creation and burnishing of bebop, the audacious style that gave jazz its swagger, and he’s still going strong, producing fabulous music across an unbelievable eight decades, starting in the 1940s. The rest of the bebop pantheon has passed on—Bird, Coltrane, Monk, Miles, Dizzy, Roach—leaving Sonny all alone, a solitary man with the magical tenor sax. (One of Sonny’s most famous recordings was a session he did with Coltrane called Tenor Madness.) I felt privileged to be a witness at the Beacon, a part of American history just by my membership in the audience. It’s perhaps what it would have been like to sit there at one of Mozart’s last piano recitals, or one of Louie Armstrong’s final trumpet solos. I’m not predicting that Sonny is going anywhere anytime soon, but he plays so seldom in the jazz-indifferent U.S. these days that there’s no telling when he might be back. Audiences in Europe and Japan have a much better chance of seeing him.
During the concert, when Sonny brought out the great drummer, Roy Haynes, who is amazingly 85 but looks 50, my dad leaned over and said, “He played with my trio in the Sixties.”
|My dad, Walter Chiles, keyboardist|
And that’s another reason why this trip was so special to me. While Walter Chiles never achieved the fame and stature of Sonny Rollins or Roy Haynes, he had quite a fabulous music career himself. He’s now content to be the minister of music at his Atlanta church, writing original pieces for the gospel choirs that he smoothly takes through their paces on Sundays. But if you sit him down and get him going, Dad will spin amazing tales that will have your bottom jaw bouncing on the floor.
Dad’s first bit of notoriety came with the trio known as Chiles & Pettiford. They were keyboards (Chiles), bass (Pettiford) and drums. They played and they sang, their unusual interweaving two-part harmonies drawing rave reviews, particularly after they recorded an album on the Blue Note label called “Live at Jilly’s,” Jilly’s being the nightclub owned by Jilly Rizzo, Frank Sinatra’s bodyguard. It came out the year I was born, 45 years ago. At Jilly’s, Dad played with artists like Sarah Vaughan, Charlie Mingus, Roy Haynes and even Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon (Johnny fancied himself a drummer, while Ed thought he could sing the blues). These artists would sit in with the Chiles & Pettiford trio on a whim—entertaining a crowd that sometimes included heavyweights like Miles Davis and Sinatra. Once, when Sinatra was preparing for a big concert date, he asked my dad to help him practice. Every day for a week, Dad would take the elevator up to Sinatra’s vast penthouse apartment overlooking Central Park and they would practice for hours at a time, with few breaks. Frank was all business.
|Me and my dad, the coolest cat on the planet|
The Sonny Rollins concert was fitting for me and my dad, kind of closing a circle. One of my most vivid memories from my late teenage years was when Dad and I traveled over to Manhattan from our New Jersey home in 1985 to catch Sonny’s free solo concert in the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art. The line was so long that we couldn’t get in, but we joined about 40 other people who listened to Sonny from the sidewalk outside the garden, our faces pressed against the iron fence to catch glimpses of him as he roamed the grounds, sending wonderfully sweet notes out into the hot New York summer night. (His album from that night can still be purchased.) This is when my love of jazz was permanently stamped on my DNA, a gift from Dad.
So here we were, exactly 25 years later, back in the city to see Sonny. I caught a glimpse of Dad’s face as Sonny played. He was transfixed and happy. So was I.