John Lennon was certainly the first among equals in the Beatles and now I’m learning that John Lewis filled the same role in the Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ). Born in La Grange, Illinois in 1920, he served in the army along with Kenny Clarke and the two of them moved to New York in 1945 and immediately succeeded in tryouts for the Dizzy Gillespie band, where they played until 1948. For the next four years he sessioned independently with various luminaries playing with Charlie Parker, Lester Young and Miles Davis. In 1952 he founded the Modern Jazz Quartet, with Clarke, Ray Brown and Milt Jackson, which is where I had always picked up the thread.
I remember first encountering that band some twenty-one years ago. I’d bought a few jazz cassettes in Kowloon, before heading up to spend a year in Shanghai. The tape I got had material from the early to mid fifties like Django on it. I seem to recall I had to un-listen to it a dozen times or so before I could discern what was going on. Then, eventually, it became the soundtrack for my time there. The movie soundtracks of my mind, for that time are all set to that glistening foursome. Whenever it comes on, wherever I am, I am transported there, with my flying pigeon bicycle, heading out from Huadong Shida’s main gate on to ZhongShan Lu.
Lewis has his own life’s work of material that I began to dig into yesterday, drowning out, as best I could wretched 80’s soundtrack from the Presidente Hotel lobby yesterday. “Grand Encounter” is the first solo date credited to Mr. Lewis. Recorded in 1954, when MJQ must have been in their ascendency has a host of standards like the one I’m listening to now “Almost Like Being in Love.” I can remember reading that Charlie Parker wanted to incorporate the work of Modernist composers like Bartok into his work. Reading about Lewis, it must have been he, perhaps among others who had the requisite training to try to architect such a possibility for Bird.
The Mrs. was set on seeing a shopping center here in the Algarve, as research for her business. We drove about Portamao looking for such a place yesterday afternoon. After driving through the “city center” past a yellow church façade and what must have been the old city square we headed back out the city on the winding roads, shaking our heads spinning through traffic circle after circle looking for a telltale sign. “Jumbo” with an elephant logo, we followed that for a few circles and came upon the familiar carcass of large, overbuilt mall.
We circled the leviathan once and then twice before finding where it might let us in to park. Inside we’re enveloped in the strange familiarity of every mall anywhere in the world. All the stores are either precisely the same branded experiences one finds in New York or Beijing or they are apparently local or regional approximations of precisely the same type of store. A shoe store that may as well be called “Payless” a home goods store that may as well be called “Bed Bath and Beyond.” I’d gotten a text from my sister to buy butter and I went off to Jumbo that could have been Stop and Shop, to find it.
Returning, with what later turned out to be margarine, I took a seat on a bench, outside of the store my wife was shopping around in, next to an enormous, inflatable Sponge Bob, (What? No Patrick?) and read a few more pages of Al Venter’s, Portugal’s Guerrilla Wars in Africa, which is less, I’m learning, a history of the three wars than it is his interesting but informal, embedded reportage of long caravan treks from one burned out Mozambique hamlet to another, on mine infested highways. We’ve still got a way to go, and perhaps he’ll round out some of the framing detail.
Regardless, it is fascinating to consider these contemporaneous conflicts to our Vietnam War, with nationalism and communism similarly smeared into something that is no longer purely either. Rudimentary Chinese land mines made of jungle wood, detected alongside sophisticated Soviet anti tank mines. Portuguese soldiers, ill trained, ill equipped, ten thousand miles from home, policing an area the size of Western Europe, territories they have administered for over five hundred years. Commanders suggesting the revolutions, mid- gestation, were simply local disturbances, terrorist troublemakers, temporal, manageable.
Pausing, staring up from this jungle read of torn up trucks missing limbs, looking at all the Portuguese people some forty years hence, I considered the sergeant in the story and the President of the time, Antonio de Oliveria Salazar who couldn’t imagine ever ceding their colonial possessions. Couldn’t conceive of a Portugal without the trophies that were half a millennium old. How could Portugal be respected and prosperous without an imperial identity? Portugal, as just Portugal could never hold 荣华富贵.
Sitting beneath a towering Sponge Bob, staring out at the mall traffic, and the peace and relative prosperity that EU membership, and NATO security, and post-colonial contentment has engendered, Portugal certainly has some tranquility to reconsider and refashion what Portuguese glory and prosperity might now become.