“When I was about twelve, I heard boogie-woogie for the first time and fell in love with it.
“I started working strip joints on Clark Street—all the grownups were in the Army.
We played the one independent, non-Mob-owned joint.
Normal people made rules—we’ll crap over here, worship over here, have sex like so—which a few deviants in every society couldn’t keep. Becker’s work set out to show that out-groups weren’t made up of people who couldn’t keep the rules; they were made up of people who kept other kinds of rules.
Marijuana smoking, too, was a set of crips, a learned activity and a social game.
Basically, Becker believes that Yogi Berra was right: you really can observe the most by watching.
Heather Love, a professor of English at Penn who specializes in gender and sexuality studies, points out that it shares “many of the same concerns, about institutions, power, the dynamics of social relations” as contemporary post-structuralist research, “but all in this kind of homegrown, ordinary language, a ‘just the facts, ma’am’ style that has the appeal of American noir and hardboiled fiction.”Not long ago, in an apartment that he and his wife, Dianne Hagaman, had taken for the fall in the Fifth Arrondissement—the neighborhood of Paris that clusters around the old Sorbonne—he sat and talked about his life’s work and its apotheosis in Paris, almost as a spectator of his own surprising career.
The kids who were at the black dances, if you didn’t play those pieces exactly the way they were on the record, you were in trouble. When I met him, he was in his late twenties and had already stopped playing in public—he wouldn’t put up with anything other than perfect playing conditions, with the result that he almost never played.”Tristano, who was a saxophonist as well as a pianist, was the Glenn Gould of bebop: difficult, hypersensitive, reclusive, and hugely gifted.
“Instead of teaching ‘freedom,’ or creativity, Tristano taught me a set of practices that create the feeling of what an improvisation ought to sound like,” Becker says.
Jazz solos, he learned from his models, were concocted almost entirely “from a small collection of ‘crips,’ short phrases that can be combined in a million ways, subjected to all possible variations.” The lesson that social performance, even of the highest kind, was more a string of crips than an outpouring of confessions remained at the root of Becker’s understanding of the way the world works.
Knowing that his father, a first-generation Jewish immigrant, would “have a kitten” at the thought of his son spending his life playing piano in saloons, Becker enrolled in the University of Chicago—then at the height of its Robert Hutchins-era reputation as a citadel of great books and no sports—so that he could be seen to study all day in order to be free to play jazz all night.