My mother was listening to jazz when she thought of my name. She was living in Oakland during the first months of her pregnancy. Before being born, I had already experienced a lot of the Bay Area. There was my mother’s commute from the Temescal district to San Francisco State University. There were long walks around Lake Merritt. There was a screening of “The English Patient” at Grand Lake Theatre. There was visiting my father at work at a mountain hardware construction site.
I bring up these details because I want you to imagine where my mother was in her life when she started to call me “Blue.”
Consider the winter rainstorms that hit the East Bay for months on end. Consider my mother, heavily pregnant, taking a class in human sexuality to finish her psychology degree. Consider the way Telegraph Avenue looks in the pale morning sunlight as opposed to the gold-throttled evening. Consider the rundown Victorian houses, the overgrown yards and all the other details from the Bay Area as I know it that I export back to my mother’s version of the past.
I am making a concerted effort to place my mother because there is a random variable in all of this that has never been explained to me. The story goes that my mother was listening to jazz when she gave me my name. Not just any jazz — Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue.
One late afternoon around this time last year, I walked to a record store on Telegraph Avenue in a fit of restlessness and bought that same Miles Davis album on vinyl. There was a short piece of prose on the back of the record sleeve called “Improvisation in Jazz” by someone named Bill Evans, a pianist now buried in Baton Rouge.
In this piece of prose, Evans compares musical improvisation with a Japanese visual art which he describes as painting “on a thin stretched parchment with a special brush and black water paint in such a way that an unnatural or interrupted stroke will destroy the line and break through the parchment.”
This analogy continues throughout the remaining paragraphs, eventually suggesting that jazz musicians use a framework of time in the same way that artists use parchment.
I am fond of analogies but listening to the album itself, I struggled to locate the parchment in the timing, the brush stroke in the melody. The first few bars feels like walking around in the dark in the house I grew up in. Everything is familiar until you stub your toe on a piece of furniture. Then the horns come in like a signifier of dawn, like a scrub jay in the kitchen window or the garbage truck. They are warm and measured against a more agile, manipulative bass line.
And then I get lost. Not lost in the music but in a question. What did my mother hear in Miles Davis that moved her to start calling me Blue?
I have been listening to Kind of Blue for most of my life but I still cannot place the emotions behind the album. As far as I can tell, Miles Davis is not particularly interested in happy songs or sad songs.
Usually, when I listen to music and close my eyes, a visual image comes to mind. When I listen to Moses Sumney, for example, I see Julia Morgan churches, the Oakland Hills during a blackout, taking Muni into the Sunset District. When I listen to Billie Holiday, I see crushed gardenias, women styled in victory rolls and long coats, strolling in public parks after a windstorm. When I listen to Amy Winehouse, I see hotel rooms from the 1950s, broken acrylic nails, certain art deco tunnels through certain hills in LA proper.
When I listen to Miles Davis, I see piano keys, the place where the trumpet player’s mouth meets the trumpet, the drummer tapping his foot to keep time, the way the brass catches the light. Perhaps this seems literal, reasonable, but what it actually suggests is an evasion of emotional tonality.
Like musicians working with the timing or artists trying not to break through their own parchment, it feels true to form that there are times when my name feels improvised. But perhaps it’s ok for some things to improvised, to be emotionally illegible, to hover in the ether like a blue night sky. I may not be able to discern a grand design behind Kind of Blue or my mother’s choice to call me Blue, or even the color blue itself, but perhaps that’s because one simply doesn’t exist. Perhaps the truth is, that for once in my life, there isn’t any chaos lurking behind the projector — it’s just me making shadow puppets with my hands.
Blue Fay writes the Monday arts & entertainment column on the relationship between art and chaos. Contact him at [email protected].