I put on a Mingus record, Blues
and Roots, after my grandfather died,
and rummaged through an old wine box
that held family photos. In my favorite,
Granddad is on all fours, playing the pony.
I’ve fallen off his back, into the tall grass
of a Maryland yard, and sit cross-legged
near him. My memories of this, the jazz
swept into them—I began to think what I like
about the best of Mingus: that the players,
confined by music, keep probing,
trying to puncture form and song,
the way a wire hanger in a garbage bag
stretches and tears at the black plastic.
The musicians run their fingers and tongues
along the bars that separate sanity and chaos, meaning
and unmeaning. On that album, Jackie McLean
led the charge. To me, he was mostly ink in liner notes,
the man jazz cats called Jackie Mac. I knew only
that he shared my grandfather’s name, that his sax—
I loved it, threatening to surge beyond the orbit
of Mingus’s bass—and that his playing narrated
my sadness. But Jackie’s alto wasn’t all mourning—
deep in his tone, a joyful second line: in the photo,
Granddad’s face was broad and fixed with laughter.
Original appearance in Agni.