At least once a week, I come close to understanding what it might be like to play in a classic jazz quintet like Miles’ second iteration (the late 1960s edition) featuring him on trumpet, Herbie Hancock on piano, Wayne Shorter on sax, Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams keeping time on the drums. Working within a free jazz framework, this group was a five-man unit unencumbered by the need to be saddled with the notion of having a “leader” and a collection of “sidemen” — they listened to each other and contributed what was needed within each moment.
Jazz, as every layman knows, is about improvising on a standard. The familiar melody grounds the players, sets the framework for a series of movements in tone and tempo, color and phrasing, the reconfiguring and remixing of beats and rhyme schemes.
When I step on the basketball court at the Mount Washington Recreation Center for our spirited run of pick-up games, I find myself working in concert with a revolving combination of players, most of whom respect and appreciate the transformative power of swing, the telepathic mind-meld that can occur when five bodies are attuned to the nuances of the game and their individual skill sets.
Games aren’t always won by the most talented, the high-flying slam-dunking, ankle-breaking, one-on-one sensations with all the speed, power and hops of the greatest phenoms with the multi-million dollar free agent deals and the LeBronald Palmer specialty shoe deals. No, sometimes, more often than you might think, the difference maker is one of the old-heads coming off a perfectly timed screen heading along the baseline just as the pass arrives to meet him at the three-point line as he steps back and fires quickly, instinctively, because he just knows every beat in this measure; he just knows there’s enough space between the release of his shot and the outstretched hand of the defender and the arc of the ball is just so right as it rises and falls and whispers through the twine, and he’s bouncing lightly on the balls of his feet as he heads back to start the next verse.
Closing in on 43, I know my days on the court are numbered. I feel the step I’ve lost, especially when I’m chasing down some young kid with furiously pumping beats driving his heart, pounding the court and my older, smaller frame into meat for the grill. It’s funny to me when I think that my 42-year-old body — my grown man’s frame that is no longer lean from long-distance running — is as large as its ever been, but that’s not nearly enough next to these kids who are head and shoulders, pound for pound about to set new standards by changing the shape and texture, the sound and fury of the game.
But I can’t leave yet. I still hear the beat and feel the swing in these old bones. I see my man down in the post, another old-school player like me, working, counting out the time on his internal bass, never getting caught off beat, and then I watch him, slow and steady take that younger, faster, stronger player to the hole. He’s up and over or slipping right under him and scoring and smiling to himself as he sprints back. Take your time, he says with those fundamental moves from deep in the pocket, keep your own time.
And after the games, when we meet, the core of the quintet, either for drinks or days later with wives and families or girlfriends and whatnot, we talk, and every word, phrase, idea continues to be a riff on what we are, what we do on the court. Jazz and basketball is life. I wonder sometimes if those kids, this new generation of players on the verge of pushing us off the court, realize that.
Every once in a while, one of them will slide next to me on the bench in between games — they call me everything from “Moneybags” because I’ll pull the trigger on the three or “Safe House” because the gray in my ’fro and my goatee is starting to look a little Denzelish — and tell me they hope they’re still on the court when they’re my age. I love hearing that. It holds the years at bay just a bit and even gifts me a step or two back, for a play or maybe even a game where I’m scoring with one of the top dogs of the next generation.
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