Unexpected Encounters: George W. Goodman

Unexpected Encounters: George W. Goodman

Written By:

Dragoș Rusu


March 27, 2015

1. A peculiar context

In the summer of 2014 I worked for a couple of months as a waiter/bartender in a coffee shop / bar / restaurant thing, on an island from Greece, by the name of Kos. During daytime there wasn't much activity around the terrace (that I was supposed to take care of). Very few customers were passing by, asking for all sorts of touristic information and even fewer were stopping on the terrace to have a drink or to grab something to eat, to the dismay of my boss.

Every day was hot like hell. And there were a lot of cats, everywhere. Real cats. During the day there was an online radio station playing all kinds of lounge and smooth jazz. For a while, this seemed nice and relaxing, fitting perfectly with the hot weather and a cold beer or a nice mojito. But after repeatedly listening only to this kind of music, after less than two weeks I already hated it. But there was not really much to hate on that island where ancient physician Hippocrates was born.

The online radio stations aggregator called Tuna Radio was a non-stop solution to almost any kind of music played on that terrace. Search Jazz; search between fusion & world (then search between acid jazz, afro-beat, afro-cuban jazz, fusion, jazz-funk, jazz-rock, latin jazz, smooth jazz, soul-jazz); or search inside the Modern Jazz section (on contemporary jazz, free improv, free jazz, future jazz, modal, post bop, space-age); or finally, search in the Traditional jazz section (on big band, bop, cool jazz, dixieland, easy listening, hard bop, ragtime, swing).

Even if the options of hearing music were enormous, she was permanently playing from easy listening or cool jazz; one could imagine classic stuff from Sinatra, Henry Mancini, Dean Martin, Diana Krall, Nat King Cole, Tony Bennet, Earl Klugh, Paul Mauriat, Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, Oscar Peterson, Houston Person. There was also Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Bill Evans, Dave Brubeck, Quincy Jones. I could rarely find some valuable couple of hours when my boss would go out of the café and I could play some eclectic radio station, or disco, funk, library psych funk or something a little bit more weird. But usually it was all about Martini in the morning, The Jazz Groove, The Lounge Sound and other stations I can’t really remember right now. On the terrace there was an active monitor / speaker, hidden in the branches of a big tree.

And all this led me to an incredible person that I will introduce you to in the following.

I don't know what the fuck music journalism is. I was a reporter and I still am. Reporters in my time wrote about the Bruckner Expressway, the courts, police, and schools. There was no bag other than that of writer/reporter.

2. Where's the music coming from?

I met George W. Goodman only once, by pure accident. It was in one of those terrible days, when no one was passing by, the sun was burning wild, there were no customers - so the business was doing bad (including our tips) and the music was smooth and mellow that I could fall asleep; (I actually did nap a few times). So, one day, while I was watching two local cats involving in a little friendly fight, I could see a tall senior gentleman coming slowly, together with his family and approaching our little terrace. The man seemed intrigued by the music and he was looking for the hidden speakers. ‘’Where... where’s this music coming from?’’ he asked. I showed him the speaker up in the tree; he smiled and slowly nodded his covered head, in content. Afterwards he decided to have a beer, while his family was doing some shopping at the touristic markets and boutiques nearby. They were all coming from the Turkish island Bodrum, which is only 20 minutes away from Kos by ferry.

There was something different about this customer; something special. I could see it right from the start. He was resting on a chair, with a hat on his head (to protect him from the sun) and was sipping from a small draft local beer. Even if he had no intention of posing, one could guess a general attitude toward this man, which you don’t really encounter on too many persons. It was something that intrigued on a deeper level than a generic prosaic human interaction. He didn't have to do anything; just sitting there was enough for me to play bets with my girlfriend that he must be some kind of jazz musician or something like this (or a famous playwright). Eventually, after asking him about another beer and changing the ashtray (even if it was clean already) we got into a conversation.

I found out his name was George Goodman and he was coming from New York. At that moment he was ‘trapped’ into a lovely European family trip, which was already lasting a while. His interest in music was obvious; after figuring out the radio station that’s was playing music at that moment, he started telling me all kinds of short tales from his early years in New York, where he worked as a reporter and played saxophone and flute with different legendary jazz musicians.

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3. George W. Goodman the reporter

George Goodman has been a journalist for most of his life, doing reporter jobs and writing for different kind of publications. He started at the Los Angeles black weekly Sentinel. ‘’My uncle was a newspaper publisher and he offered me a job and my mother wrote for the Kansas City Call, a black weekly’’.

Then followed publications such as Crisis, the Countywide New Service (a Los Angeles county wire service), the magazine Ebony, New York based Look Magazine, and lastly, New York Times. He also had a temporary reporter job on the Associated Press, during the Watts riots (which took place in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in August 1965). The six days of racially fueled violence and unrest resulted in 34 deaths, 1,032 injuries, 3,438 arrests, and over $40 million in property damage. Goodman remembers having to negotiate with suspicious white policemen who hadn't realized the Associated Press had temporarily hired black reporters to cover the story. At the same time, he had to moderate African Americans' suspicions that he was not a snitch for the establishment. As a journalist, it was one of the many lessons in walking between two worlds. 'It was a scary time," Mr Goodman recalls.

‘’I didn’t write about music, actually, until I got to The Times’’, says Mr George in a (fragmented) video interview for the Maynard Institute. ‘’Well, I did a story about B. B. King and I traveled with him for two weeks in the South. My first music piece, beyond The Times (I did quite a few actually there - Miles Davis, and many other people…And I did write some about theater, a little bit, but that was before the times when blacks could be critics at The Times.) This is one of the times when they say blacks didn't have credibility in the larger art world, because people thought they would have a totally black perspective, which is maybe true. My first music piece was a piece I pitched to Quest magazine, which was in publishing, and it was a profile of Barney Josephson. And I made several other pieces for Quest. Also, during jazz festivals, The Times would send me overseas, to Europe, to do pieces for them.’’

Once in a while, George Goodman would interrupt his stories to tell me who’s playing the song that we could hear from the hidden speaker. I remember being very frustrated that I didn't have any recorder with me, since Mr Goodman would have been one of the most interesting persons I ever had the chance to interview. But we did get in touch and exchanged several emails afterwards, until this ‘’piece’’ eventually arose.

‘’ I don't know what the fuck music journalism is. I was a reporter and I still am. Reporters in my time wrote about the Bruckner Expressway, the courts, police, and schools. There was no bag other than that of writer/reporter. I am not a critic...turned down the offer at the NYT,’’ Mr George writes me, when I ask him via email about music journalism. And to this extent, he suggests me one of his stories for The Conoisseur, about the French jazz pianist Michel Petrucciani. And even if he never composed it, music has always been around his life. ‘’I grew up in KC where there were many heavies, including Ben Webster (American jazz tenor saxophonist) and Bird and Jay McShann’’. As a child and later youngster, he would listen to ‘’Duke Ellington and all the black radio ‘stars’ of Harlem's Golden Age, from 1920 - through 1965.’’

Besides his surgeon (as George recently had two knees replaced), Sonny Rollins is one of the persons that he admires the most and considers a living hero. Actually, in 1999, The Atlantic magazine published an extended piece about Sonny Rollins, written by George Goodman.

‘’ON a summer day in 1960 I lugged my tenor sax up a flight of wooden stairs in an old building in midtown Manhattan where a stubby little man named Jake Koven rented out practice rooms to musicians (…). I was playing the minor-sixth intervals of Thelonious Monk's "Misterioso," thinking I sounded cool, even a little intimidating, when the first four notes of the 1930s hit "Three Little Words" came through the wall like shots from a nail gun. The saxophonist in the other room began splintering the notes into partials, and then constructed arpeggios that swirled up from the bottom of his horn, spiraling out beyond the legitimate range of the instrument and into the stratosphere of the piccolo. He restated the notes, played them bel canto, made them waltz, turned them upside down and inside out, and ran them up-tempo in 4/4 time, taking outlandish liberties with meter and intonation. It was pure passion, power, and precision. It was pure Sonny Rollins.’’

4. 'Too much power in the hands of JAMFs'

While I was cleaning other ashtrays from the tables, George Goodman was telling me about the Village Vanguard in New York (a famous jazz club located at Seventh Avenue South in Greenwich Village, New York City, opened in February 1935 by Max Gordon). At first, this place featured many forms of music, such as folk music and beat poetry, but it switched to an all-jazz format in 1957. This is the place were all the jazz big heads played and did recordings. Think about Coltrane, Miles, Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, George Adams, Larry Coryell, Gerry Mulligan, Kenny Burrell, Joe Lovano, Shirley Horn and many more.

‘’Village Vanguard was a cool spot’’, Mr George writes me. ‘’Max cashed my paychecks when I was a bar-hopping jazz writer for the New York Times. All the New York cognoscenti were coming to the Village Vanguard. No Facebook bullshit. Private and discreet was hip. Hence the shades on Sonny, when he made Night at the Vanguard.’’

During years, George Goodman played with American jazz trumpeter Freddie Hubbard (known for his contribution on the bebop, hard bop and post-bop styles), jazz alto saxophonist and flautist Jimmy Spaulding (who played for a few years in the Sun RA Arkestra, making several recordings and remaining through 1959) and one of the leading bassists in free jazz, Henry Grimes (Grimes completely disappeared from the music scene by 1970, and while he was often presumed dead, he was rediscovered in 2002 and returned to performing.) “In regards to Freddie Hubbard, we played at the Purple Manor on weeknights (on the north-side of 125th street, near Madison Ave.). The famous Tiny Grimes had the house band and Dexter Gordon would crash through the big swinging kitchen doors like a hurricane, routing the chop-less (me) like so much cut grass. Jimmy Spaulding was a gifted presence as were Grachan Moncur and Henry Grimes (circa 1958-61). And of course Freddy sparkled.”

Mr Goodman studied with Steve Lacy (a jazz saxophonist and composer recognized as one of the important players of soprano saxophone), saxophonist Bill Green and musician John Handy. ‘’I played a Smalls Paradise (Harlem 1980) with Big Jay McShann" -a jump blues, mainstream jazz and swing bandleader, pianist and singer). "I never played with Miles or Trane, but knew and wrote about both in New York Times and Ebony’’.

I remember he was telling me that jazz ‘’is a macho thing’’, while sipping from the cold beer. ‘’I don’t know about this generation; I have so many legendary jazz records at home and it’s weird that my daughter also enjoys Kanye West. Don’t know about them, but I do know what’s the good shiet for me’’, he smiles. At that moment he was a living treasure keeper for me, as this was not only the event of the day, but one of the highlights of all the time spent on that island.

Lately, when I asked George about his greatest regret, he replies - ‘’too much power in the hands of the JAMFS!’’

If we think of jazz innovations in music, then American jazz musician, composer, big band leader and electric bass player Jaco Pastorius is one of the artists that George follows. During our emails exchange, he also recommended me to listen to Nat Adderly (the brother of saxophonist Julian "Cannonball" Adderley), Charles Mingus and Lionel Hampton, Xavier Montsalvage on BBC with orchestra, McCoy Tyner (a jazz pianist from Pennsylvania, known for his work with the John Coltrane Quartet and a long solo career. ‘’Listen to Gil Scott Herron and to Cannonball Adderly with Yousef Lateef and brother Nat! And don’t forget Joe Henderson - everything)’’.

Wishing Mr George Goodman a good recovery, I don’t really know how to conclude this pseudo portrait of such a big man that I know so little about. Instead, I just try to stick on these - somehow - ironic circumstances, which can be pondered as great opportunities to meet extraordinary people. Everything is out there, somewhere; all you need to do is stay open.

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