Tonight, I’m with a friend at a performance venue in Highland Park, and we’re here to see the saxophonist, Gary Bartz. I’d never heard of him before, but he has the endorsement of many respected musicians. In fact, Ali Shaheed Muhammad from A Tribe Called Quest and Verdine White, the legendary bassist from Earth, Wind, and Fire, are both here.
It’s a diverse crowd with ages ranging from high schoolers as young as 15, to veterans well into their 70s, and us in between. The gentle hum of idle conversation hangs overhead as we wait. I have the impression that most people here tonight are like me-- we have some inkling of what is possible, and so we came in case something did.
With the pacing of a person who moves exclusively at the speed of his own choosing, Gary Bartz-- dressed in a white collared shirt under a black corduroy blazer, and donning a wide-brimmed bowler hat-- smiled as he sauntered his way to the mic. He adjusted his saxophone and bantered playfully with us, saying that he had to take the stage this early (11pm), because we were so young we probably still had curfews. As we laughed, he said that since he’s started to look old (though he doesn’t feel old) he feels the need to remind us “young people” that even now, after more than 60 years of performing, he “don’t know what we gon’ do, or how we gon’ do it. But I hope you enjoy it.”
With that, he put his lips to the mouthpiece and produced a noise that sounded like a screaming elephant with bronchitis. And then, he just matter-of-factly carried on from there; making his horn screech and scratch, then squeal and wail: Forcefully, confidently, and without apology. This was not easy listening.
The band joined in and soon the sounds flowed together like a field of multicolored wildflowers swaying in the desert breeze: individually remarkable, spiritual in unison, and organized in a such way that seemed like it could have only been envisioned by Mother Nature herself. While I’d never heard anything like it before, even an unsophisticated ear like mine could tell it was something special.