Friday, April 02, 2010

Mike Zwerin, 1930-2010

I only knew music journalist Mike Zwerin for about 10 years, but he was an influence on my work for three times that long. Mike never fully recovered from a serious illness he had a few years ago, and he died in his adopted home of Paris early this morning.

A native of New York, he attended an arts high school and was studying at the University of Miami when Miles Davis encountered him at a jam session led by Art Blakey at Minton's Playhouse in Harlem. "In those days," wrote Mike, "I played my horn (trombone) like a kid skiing down a slalom, with more courage than sense.... A lot of young cats considered Minton's too steep a slope, but I never imagined that somebody might not like me because I was white."

As Mike told the story, Davis asked him, "(Do) you have eyes to make a rehearsal tomorrow?" He did, and thus walked in on one of the most memorable bands in history: Davis' so-called Birth of the Cool band, with Gerry Mulligan, Max Roach, John Lewis, Lee Konitz and others. Steep slopes, indeed.

Years later, after he was established as one of the deans of jazz journalism, Mike asked Miles why he had picked him. "I liked your sound," replied the trumpeter; a compliment that Mike considered the greatest of his life. Mike was the kind of guy who also got a kick out of quoting the alternative reason Miles used: "J.J. (Johnson) was busy, so I got this white cat."

That was Mike; one of the funniest and hippest people I ever met.

We only got to hang a couple of times – at International Association of Jazz Education conferences – but Mike began submitting his columns to the Jazz Journalists Association website while I was editor, and so we started corresponding regularly.

He had a fascinating and rich life, which included marriage to Charlotte Zwerin, the renowned filmmaker who is best known for her work with the Maysles brothers (Gimme Shelter, and on the film Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser.

He was slowed at the end by a stroke, but the last time I heard from him he was still swinging. Always swinging.

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