I'm Hip: an Autobiographical Account of Some Musical Consumption Experiences


Morris B. Holbrook (1986) ,"I'm Hip: an Autobiographical Account of Some Musical Consumption Experiences", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, eds. Richard J. Lutz, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 614-618.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, 1986      Pages 614-618


Morris B. Holbrook, Columbia University

I present this highly egocentric narrative in the spirit of Beth Hirschman's special ACR session and with the hope that it may encourage other consumer researchers to reflect systematically and deeply on their own consumption experiences. I take Beth's autobiographical account of her WASP roots as an example and proceed in the manner of W T Tucker's Foundations for a Theory of Consumer Behavior (1967), a work that probably deserves more attention than it has received. Anyone needing a rationale for this kind of storytelling should refer to Beth's recent JCR article on styles of consumer research and to Geraldine Fennell's session on phenomenology at last year's ACR conference (especially the paper by Wertz and Greenhut). Others may choose to regard this effort as one more tedious example of Morris being reprehensibly self-indulgent. Between these extremes some may simply view my saga charitably as an attempt to convey something quite subjective about a little-studied consumption phenomenon-namely, the ethos of hipness. I thank Sandy Hay, Kate, and Teenie; Helen and Tommy; Johnny and Steve; Howie Kenny and Stu; Peter and Susie; Sally and Chris; Bob; Paul and Zooey; Lila; and all the others even Valerie Barbara and Dave. They know who they are and what they have meant to me Finally, I gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the Columbia Business School's Faculty Research Fund. I hope they still would have given me the money had they known that I would spend it on jazz records.

A lack of rapport was noted by Down Beat in connection with an attempt by Paul Desmond to buy a dacron blanket.

"I m sorry sir," said the salesgirl, "We seem to be all out of dacron blankets But wouldn't you like to look at this one?"

"No I don t think so. I want dacron."

"But, sir, this one is down. It's real down."

"I'm hip," said Desmond. "But I still want dacron."

--Leonard Feather and Jack Tracy (1963)

Laughter from the Hip, New York

Da Capo Press, pp 152-153

I'm hip; I'm no square;

I'm alert, I'm awake,

I'm aware...

Like dig I'm in step;

When it was hip to be hep, I was hep

--Dave Frishberg and Bob Dorough,

"I'm Hip"

The Dave Frishberg Songbook

Omnisound Jazz

Music's my life,

And ev-'ry day I live it,

Ant it's a good life too

--Billy Preston,

Music's My Life,

Music Is My Life,

A & M Records

For most of my life I have tried very hard to be hip. Growing up, I was never the smartest student at school, the best football player on the team the most popular guy in the class, the most successful in winning student elections nor the biggest hit with the girls at the small female prep school down the street. But I had one consolation. Even if I wasn't better than my classmates at anything important, I was hipper than at least 99 percent of the other students at the Milwaukee Country Day School. I knew that just as surely as I know that vanilla tastes better than tutti-frutti.

Very early, I learned that the rules for being hip are actually quite simple They follow a straightforward four-step procedure

(1) Find out what most people like

(2) Treat that with complete indifference (or, when pressed with scornful contempt)

(3) Ferret out some obscure treasure admired by at most a few cognoscenti (or, if necessary, by some other group of weirdos)

(4) Elevate that piece of obscurity to a lofty status of extravagant admiration and treat anyone who cannot appreciate it with pity (sometimes mixed with disdain)

In Milwaukee Wisconsin--where Lawrence Welk and Liberace were born and raised, where weekday-afternoon radio consisted mostly of polka bands and Hawaiian guitars, and where the Braves were unanimously regarded as the town's greatest cultural achievement--being hip was easy. The four steps come naturally to someone inhabiting a city whose fame depends on the reputation of its leading brand of beer.

At home, things were different. Some of the earliest sounds that I can remember hearing were the tinkling notes of my father's piano as he played Teddy Wilson and Fats Waller arrangements of songs like China Boy and Just a Girl that Men Forget, transcriptions he had painstakingly read and scrupulously committed to memory when he was probably still himself scarcely more than a young boy. On many evenings, I fell asleep with those sweet sounds ringing gently in my ears. Thus, I learned to love jazz at a very early age I suppose you could say that for a little kid I was pretty hip.

I also remember my grandmother effortlessly sight-reading Chopin with her long delicate fingers skimming across the keys of her beautiful black ebony Steinway. And I recall Teenie, our beautiful black housekeeper, pouring out her soul in melodious spirituals as she glided through her housework. Everywhere I was surrounded by graceful music. Soon I wanted to make some music of my own.

My dad, Sandy, taught me some simple one-finger tunes but realized very soon that, for the sake of my development and his nerves, I needed some more professional instruction. So at the age of six, I started into lessons with Helen, a friend of my parents who came from the old school of piano teaching. Helen awarded a gold star if you practiced faithfully and learned your lesson for that week or a red star if you did not. She lived by the rule that three red stars meant termination. Thanks to gentle but constant prodding from my mother I never received one of those dread stigmata, but even then I was hip enough to know that red stars belonged in Moscow, not Milwaukee. Later, much later I learned the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation and that musical activities properly belong in the latter category where even positive external rewards can exert disincentive effects. Meanwhile Helen taught me to play a few classical pieces, dragging me through such bleak exercises as Mozart's "Piano Sonata in C-Major." After four years, I could stumble through about three pages of its first movement but the main lesson I learned from Helen was an abiding sense of what the experience curve means when it says that you need to double the number of trials in order to attain a 20 percent improvement in performance. This doubling and redoubling of effort grew increasingly tedious. Somewhere between the ten and twenty thousandth repetition my spirit broke. Increasingly, in my frustration I would lean forward and bite our piano. This noble Steinway still bears ancient teeth marks along its front edge. Realizing that this modus operandi was noticeably less than hip--with support from Sandy and May (who had doubtless grown tired of reminding me to practice)--I asked for a new instructor someone a little closer to jazz.

By this route, I came to study with Tommy, Milwaukee's leading Jazz musician and, purely and simply the greatest teacher that I have ever known. Since then, I have attended various schools, studied under innumerable professors, and watched many academic colleagues, but I have never encountered Tommy's equal in communicating his vast knowledge and love of his subject matter. Tommy lived and breathed jazz His students lived and breathed jazz with him.

Tommy started me on boogie-woogie versions of "St. Louis Blues" and "Basin Street," moved me into jazzier swing and show tunes like "Moonglow" and "A Foggy Day," and gradually began showing me chords, harmonic progressions, and the techniques of improvisation. His empathy, patience, and enthusiasm deeply conveyed his passion for music. They instilled in me a lasting faith in his credo: "If it sounds right, it is right." Tommy was the quintessence of hipness the prototype. He approached the Platonic Form for Hip Tommy sounded right. Tommy was right.

So, under Tommy's guidance, I marched to the tune of a different drummer, one with a rhythmically advanced sense of time. While everybody else was listening to Rosemary Clooney's "Come On-A My House," Patti Page's "How Much Is That Doggy In The Window" and Doris Day's "Che Sera Sera," I cultivated a devoted attachment to Sandy's collection of Benny Goodman records--precariously breakable 78's and scratchy old 33's that even he had largely forgotten about. I found exactly two other contemporaries, Johnny and Steve who shared my worshipful fondness for singers like Bing Crosby Ella Fitzgerald, or Louis Armstrong and for musicians like Lionel Hampton, Gene Krupa, or the King of Swing himself. Johnny and I memorized the Bing-and-Gary duets by singing them with each other for hours over the telephone. Steve and I played and replayed Goodman's 1938 Carnegie Hall Concert in amazed admiration for the intricacies of the wonderful trumpet solos by Harry James and Ziggy Elsan. When the film of the Benny Goodman Story appeared, Steve and I were in ecstasy. I tried to learn to play the trumpet, but this task proved impossible for a young main with a horn an entire mouthful of braces, and an orthodontist whose weekly machinations vividly presaged Sir Laurence Olivier's sadistic performance in The Marathon Man. (I still have my shiny Holton trumpet hanging in our bookcase--unused but not forgotten.) For a while, I even persuaded some of my friends to call me Ziggy. They cooperated but probably did not understand that it was my way of retaliating against society's devotion to Eddie Fisher and "Oh, My Papa."

The arrival of Elvis Presley gave me something new and much more formidable to detest. At this critical moment, Johnny left town to attend Deerfield. Steve--my confrere in vintage-1938 tastes--deserted me, bought a black leather jacket, grew ducktails and practiced wildly gyrating dances on the tiptoes of his white sweat socks. Things got lonely. I was the only one in my eighth grade class who thought--no knew!--that Elvis was terrible. Cherishing my adolescent musical iconoclasm like a rare diamond I searched for a way to remain hip.

Two things saved me. The first involved my discovery of the cool school of West Coast jazz. Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker Paul Desmond, Stan Getz, and their cohorts brought me into an ethereal world of restrained, cerebral progressive music that none of the other eighth graders knew, cared about or could understand--even if they had been willing to listen to it, which they weren't. I was in orbit. I had found something wonderful that no one else liked. In fact I had found something supremely beautiful that everyone else hated. I had reached the outer sphere of hipness where few ever tread

My second salvation came from forming a band or what in those days we called a "combo." This combo consisted of Howie on guitar, Kenny on bass, Stu on drums and me on piano. We learned tunes like "How High the Moon," "Pick Yourself Up," and "Jumpin With Symphony Sid." In other words, we shunned anything remotely popular. Sometimes we played for parties or for dances but mostly the combo just practiced by ourselves on Sunday afternoons that were long and arduous for us as we fumbled and argued our way through incorrect chord changes and botched melody lines, and no doubt even longer and still more arduous for our bewildered parents. The other guys in the combo came from public school. I only saw them on weekends. The rest of the time surrounded by preppy little eighth graders who showed aa ironic fondness for Elvis and other hip-swinging hillbillies I pursued my own splendid musical isolation. My classmates thought that "hip(s)" was a (plural) noun. I knew that, for me, it was a (singular) adjective. Sometimes, I felt a little outcast in my wayward tastes. But, if you let that sort of thing bother you, then you re not really very hip.

Then in the first year of high school Peter arrived. Pete came from across town where he had pursued a roughly parallel development of musical sensibilities. The major difference was that Pete had listened to a wider array of the new jazz than I had heard. Peter exposed me to Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, and Horace Silver. I had to scramble to compete. I dug back into the recent past and came up with Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk, and Dizzy Gillespie. Pete reciprocated with Art Pepper Lee Ronitz Jimmy Giuffre, and Zoot Sims. I countered with Clifford Brown, Milt Jackson Hampton Hawes, and the Modern Jazz Quartet. These were days of great growth in our evolving musical tastes. Even someone who is very hip needs a kindred spirit. Peter and I spurred each other on.

Once a week or whenever we could pry some allowance money from one of our parents, Pete and I traveled downtown to Radio Doctor's--our mecca--Milwaukee's best record dealer and the finest jazz outlet I would see until I reached New York and found places like Sam Goody's and King Karol or, later, J & R and Tower Records. These weekly pilgrimages to Radio Doctor's invariably produced some great discovery. After hours of sampling every new release in sight and driving the store's otherwise amiable owner nearly crazy, we would triumphantly make our purchase, climb back on the bus, and head for the turntable at my house. (Those recordings usually cost $4.98 Today the same items, in reissues faithful to the originals, typically cost $4.99. I can think of no other consumer product with as low a rate of inflation.) I began to think of record stores as my homes away from home. Years later on the traumatic afternoon when John F Kennedy was shot, I went straight to the nearest music shop and stood there for three hours, with my ears buried in headphones listening to all the new jazz releases. Once again, the owner thought that I was very strange, but it made me feel better like a visit home.

Of course Peter and I alienated all of our classmates-after all, as I've said, that is part of the point of being hip. While everyone else in our high school was enjoying Harry Belafonte and the Kingston Trio, I entertained myself by writing editorials for the school newspaper, pointing out the inanity of lyrics such as "Banua Banua,/Banua, Oh-Oh;/Banua, Banua,/Baby I don t know During our last year at Country Day Peter and I brought some 45 r.p.m. jazz records to school and played them incessantly on the little phonograph in the senior room to the exasperated distraction of our fellow students. One day while we were gone Dave (captain of the football, hockey, and baseball teams) used our entire collection of cherished 45's as frisbees and sailed them one by one, out the senior room window into the cool spring daylight. These gems, including one or two rare items like Oscar Peterson's unavailable recording of "The Golden Striker," were never recovered nor replaced. Dave's crime will forever live in infamy and serve as my touchstone for the apotheosis of Anti-Hip.

At graduation, partly because Pete wrote the descriptions, my school yearbook confirmed that I had achieved the status of "the class' leading nonconformist." But clouds had begun to form on the horizons of my hipness. First I had spent part of the previous summer at the Lenox School of Jazz where some of my greatest idols (John Lewis, J J Johnson, George Russell, Gunther Schuller, and Milt Jackson, to name a few) had made it very clear to me that they did not exactly consider me ready for the Jazz Big Time. Needless to say, they were right. Most of those distinguished leaders in the field could not even find enough work to keep their own bands together. And they were musical geniuses! Certainly, that bitter economic reality did not augur well for me. I realized that eventually I would need some other profession.

Second, Ornette Coleman had burst onto the jazz scene with his little white plastic alto sax, playing music that was too far advanced even for our studiously abstruse tastes. Listening to Ornette's honks and squeaks Peter and I began to wonder if we would be hip to the jazz wave of the future

Third my self-proclaimed hipness had earned me acceptance at Harvard College. I have already confessed that I was not the most intelligent popular, or athletic student at Country Day. But these were not the criteria of major importance to Harvard's admissions office. Harvard was looking for people who were hip. I was hip, so they took me. The only trouble was that they also admitted about 1 246 other freshmen, every one of whom was at least as hip as I was... or hipper. This staggering competition doubtless accounts for the miserably stressful pressure that I encountered in college. In the land of the blind the man with one eye is king. In Milwaukee, the person who dug Charlie Parker was hip. I had spent my first eighteen years achieving a blissful degree of utter hipness in my own narrow little world. But, suddenly, I found myself in the midst of hipsters in every domain-music, art literature, films--claiming interests so esoteric that they tapped levels of nonconformity whose existence I had scarcely suspected. Suddenly surrounded by the Harvard intelligentsia, I felt positively square by comparison.

Surviving this threat to my unconventionality with my hipness intact proved difficult, but I did it. My deus ex machina was the Beatles. Everybody--the Yale men the Princeton boys and even the Harvard students--everybody loved the Beatles. It was impossible to dislike their insouciant blend of good spirits and hard-driving rock. Impossible, that is, for everyone but me. With total dedication and fierce perseverance I managed to accomplish this unexampled feat. I practiced by playing myself Bill Evans and Jim Hall records through earphones while everyone else in the dormitory was blasting "I Want to Hold Your Hand" or "I Saw Her Standing There" at peak volumes on their portable stereos. I had triumphed. At last everyone at Harvard enjoyed something immensely popular that I could detest with self-righteous scorn.

This ploy sustained me through my difficult college years and brought me into the late 1960's to face the new traumas of Columbia University's MBA program, the rigors of life in New York City, the Vietnam War, and a draft board who simply did not understand that I was much too hip to serve in the Army. Through this pain I was sustained by Sally, my wonderful new bride, who served not only as a great comfort and shelter against world chaos but also as a constantly reassuring model of pristine squareness. She hated jazz and loved the Beatles. I loathed the Beatles and adored Paul Desmond. We preserved this delicately balanced symbiosis throughout the terrifying years of the Johnson Administration. I sympathized with those involved in the Columbia sit-ins and riots. I admired the guts of the student protestors, even the ones who disrupted my academic training. They worked for peace. But except for attending a few peace marches and demonstrations in Central Park I remained aloof. After all, Mark Rudd and the other student protestors were merely yippies and hippies. By contrast, I myself was hip.

Then something terrible happened. Jazz died--or at least it went into deep hibernation for a while. Peter who had come to New York to earn his MA in English at Columbia and had then returned to Milwaukee to marry my next door neighbor Susie and to teach at Country Day, now moved with Susie to Dublin to write his Ph.D. dissertation on Wilkie Collins. Meanwhile, all our favorite jazz musicians entered semiretirement (Paul Desmond, Gerry Mulligan); went to jail (Art Pepper Chet Baker); or moved to Europe (Art Farmer, Dexter Gordon). I was left with nothing to listen to nobody to listen to it with, and a baby on the way.

The sudden total eclipse of jazz in my life, the consciousness raised by impending fatherhood, the agony of the Vietnam Era, and deep doubts about whether it was hip to pursue an MBA career produced two momentous consequences--first, a decision to enter Columbia's Ph.D. program in marketing and second, an embarrassing regression in my musical tastes. I clung to what little security I could find, sought safety in numbers and began listening to the Stones, the Who, Traffic, Cream, Simon and Garfunkel, Jefferson Airplane and--yes--even the Beatles. Just before the Beatles broke up, I fell in love with Abbey Road and started working ny way backwards through their oevre buying all their recordings in the retrograde order and finishing with Meet the Beatles the album that features "I Want to Hold Your Hand." When the rumor started that Paul was dead, I was as concerned as their most loyal fan. Soon the group itself had perished and I had to look elsewhere for musical sustenance. Thus does hipness founder when it crashes against the rocky shores of the Principle of Irony.

Christopher, weighing eight pounds and thirteen ounces and replete with adorable charm from the moment he was born, arrived to fill the breach. His delivery was three weeks later but we finally induced labor by taking him in utero to a Procol Harum concert at the Filmore East and letting the ear-shattering, belly-thumping sounds of "Salty Dog" and "Whiter Shade of Pale" disturb his peaceful slumber in the womb. Suddenly my world was filled with new life in the form of Christopher and countless rock groups and artists that were springing up like wildflowers: the Band, Joe Cocker, Cat Stevens Blind Faith James Taylor, Blood-Sweat-and-Tears, Van Morrison, Jackson Browne, and so on Bob, an old classmate from Country Day moved to New York entered a partnership with Albert Grossman and began managing rock stars like Dylan, the Band Janis Joplin Seatrain, Blood-Sweat-and-Tears and Procol Harum Sally and I were flooded with free lp's and concert tickets. Whenever we could find and afford baby-sitters we went down to the Filmore. We heard everybody. Maybe it wasn't very hip but at least it was fun.

I even learned to play a sort of watered-down version of rock on the piano. My fumbling efforts in this direction led to constant feuds with our downstairs neighbors, Valerie and Barbara, who were themselves struggling young musicians and who did not appreciate my musical assault on their folky sensibilities. On the very afternoon that my new baby grand arrived, Valerie paid me a nasty visit within ten minutes after I started practicing. We endured many such unpleasant scenes letters to the landlord from both sides poundings on their ceiling (our floor), and (once) the arrival of the police (whom I called in a brilliant stroke of oneupmanship). But in spite of this harassment I finally learned to play songs like "Ruby Tuesday," "Both Sides Now," and "Bridge Over Troubled Water" in a kind of compromise jazz-rock style.

For a while, I took this reawakened interest in performing into All Angels, the Episcopal church near where we lived. Paul and I showed up there at about the same time, filled with an urge to play some jazz-tinged rock or rock-tinged jazz and convinced that religious services provided an appropriate milieu for that activity. The easiest thing to find was piano players; so I learned to play the Fender bass and let Zooey handle the piano chores. Mac a marketing professor at Columbia played electronic keyboards in the band. I wrote countless jazz-rock arrangements of old Episcopal hymns like "Holy, Holy Holy," "Praise to the Lord" and "Children of the Heavenly King." Moreover I adopted the philosophy which I still hold that any music is suitable for church as long as it is played with the right religious feeling (a subtle variation on Tommy's old doctrine that if it sounds right, it is right). This credo worked well for tunes like "Let It Be" and "Morning Has Broken" (popularized by Cat Stevens and subsequently incorporated into the new Episcopal Hymnal), but it broke down when, on one inspired Sunday morning, I played "Ben" (Michael Jackson's theme music for the movie about a large rat) during Holy Communion. This song deals with the themes of friendship and loyalty and sounded right to me at the time. However besides establishing my credentials as one of the first Michael Jackson fans this experience (and many others like it) prompted increasing attempts by the clergy to control my selection of material. Angered, however unreasonably, I rationalized that I was too hip for organized religion.

I turned instead to psychotherapy. In five years of Freudian analysis (four times a week on the couch) Lila listened in about equal proportions to stories about (1) my musical adventures (2) my trials in the Ph D program and tribulations in beginning my first teaching job at Columbia, and (3) the rest of my many problems and interests. Needless to say thanks to the first of these content areas, Lila has become the hippest psychoanalyst in New York. She has witnessed endless attempts to unravel the mystery of the tingle that starts at the base of my spine and charges upward into goosebumps on the back of my neck. For example I spent months on the couch trying to figure out why Ray Charles moves me so deeply, deciding that it has something to do with Teenie and those spirituals I heard as a child, but concluding that these revelations only begin to scratch the surface. Similar still-unresolved questions surround my responses to Paul Desmond Art Pepper, Bill Evans, and Hampton Hawes. The closest I ever came to understanding my rapturous reactions to Milt Jackson was the analogy that for me, he does on the vibraphone what Earl Monroe did on the basketball court. As they used to say, Earl the Pearl was a magician--so loose and free, yet deadly accurate. Finally after such speculations had run rampant for two or three years Lila pointed out to me that, if I ever wanted to finish psychotherapy, I had better move on to other matters

Though Lila (like a true Freudian) seldom spoke, a few of her rare and incredibly perceptive comments changed my life forever. One day, after listening to about forty minutes of diatribe on my agonies concerning a particularly difficult and unrewarding piece of marketing research, she innocently asked why I did not do more work like the project for a jazz radio station (WRVR) that I was enjoying so much. I decided that she was right and extrapolated her comment to cover most of my research activities As my guiding principle, I adopted the goal of getting the names of my favorite singers and musicians into the major journals. Thus did Roberta Flack and Ray Charles soon find their ways respectively, into the Journal of Consumer Research (1977) and the Journal of Applied Psychology (1978). Encouraged by this initial success, I have continued to seek homes for my musical heroes in the various publications related to the field of consumer research.

Thanks to Lila, jazz reentered my life in a big way. Along with other aspects of my youth, I began reexamining my musical roots and learned that they were stronger than my branches into church music and rock 'n' roll. Moreover, many of my long-lost jazz idols had awakened from their slumbers and were returning to the recording studios. Recordings by Desmond, Evans, Hawes, Mulligan, Baker, Farmer, Pepper, Sims, and others--sometimes with the masters playing rock tunes as in Desmond's Bridge Over Troubled Water or Baker's Blood, Chet, and Tears--flooded onto the market. I began writing guest reviews for a short-lived jazz publication called Different Drummer. These reviews paid a mere $4.00 apiece, barely enough to cover the purchase price of the recording, but somehow their appearance in print always cheered me up as a token of my reemerging jazz consciousness. A typical example was my review of Oscar Peterson's Great Connection (MPS MC 21281):

Most of Oscar Peterson's more successful albums recently have been collaborations with other gifted and forceful soloists such as Herb Ellis (MPS), Milt Jackson (MPS), or Joe Pass (Pablo). Somehow, when Oscar sinks comfortably into the cozy familiarity of the conventional piano-bass-drums trio, he seems to lose the urge to experiment with new ideas and begins to wallow in predictability. Indeed, there is a joke circulating that, on such occasions, you can recognize Peterson's virtuosity chiefly by the way he plays the same cliches over and over without making a mistake. The present disc documents this less interesting facet of Peterson's pianistic personality. We are offered routine run-throughs of old chestnuts like "Younger Than Springtime," "Soft Winds," "Just Squeeze Me," and "On the Trail."

Aside from bassist Pedersen's heroic comping and finger-bruising solos, the most captivating moments on the disc occur in Peterson's intriguingly lugubrious reading of "Smile." Elsewhere, Oscar simply reaffirms his supreme technical command over the keyboard. And that's not exactlY faint praise.

Meanwhile, my old friend Peter had abandoned Wilkie Collins, moved to London, written Ghost Story, and earned so much money that the British tax system compelled his return to the U.S. He arrived in New York full of ideas about new people worth hearing (Scott Hamilton, Warren Vache) and old people worth rehearing (Billie Holiday, Lester Young). As always, his instincts were infallibly right. I spent days pawing through second-hand record bins in search of Holiday and Young recordings I had been too ignorant to buy when I was a child and they had been easy to find. Tantalized and encouraged by these events, I entered a new period of hipness from which I hope never to recover, as hipness ripens into eccentricity.

But another force had also emerged on my musical scene: Christopher. Somehow, amidst all these other happenings, Chris has reached the age of 16 years, has learned to play Mozart and Bach like an angel, has stubbornly repudiated jazz, and has built a passionate devotion to rock. Moreover, he has developed the strong conviction that he is a lot hipper than his old man. Can I passively withstand this new questioning of my hipness? Of course not.

So I have tried to catch up by listening to Christopher's favorite recordings of U2, The Smiths, the Minutemen, Talking Heads, and Killing Joke. What generally greets my ears when I play the albums Chris lends me is somewhere between a wailing screech and a screeching wail. Synthesizers appear to have banished real musical instruments, and vocal noises seem to have replaced language. I hate this music instinctively. Listening to it is nearly torture. But I must force myself to do it. I must keep up with the times. After all, I'm hip, and I need a constantly replenished supply of popular music that I can hate.

Occasionally, however, Chris finds something about which we can enjoy a meeting of the minds. The recent videotape of "We Are the World" (reputed to be the largest-selling single recording of all time) served as a spectacular case in point. Chris can justifiably proclaim the virtues of heartfelt performances by Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen. We can both agree on the merits of Stevie Wonder's impassioned outpouring and Cyndi Lauper's two seconds of pure brilliance. And I can have the satisfaction of insisting that the whole production should be interpreted not only in light of its worthwhile social cause, but also as a crowning tribute to the work and spirit of Ray Charles. The entire piece builds ineluctably toward his style and reaches its culmination in his melismatic embellishments of the refrain.

Before concluding, I feel I should recount what has happened to the characters in my egocentric little saga. My grandmother has passed away; her magnificent ebony Steinway now sits unused and gathers dust. Teenie has moved back home to Tuskeegee, Alabama. I still sometimes hear Sandy play the old Wilson and Waller arrangements that May and I will always cherish. Helen has mercifully given up teaching by the star system, and Tommy has retired and moved to the Wisconsin Dells, where he remains prototypically hip. Johnny has returned to Milwaukee and lived for a while in my grandfather's old house; but he doesn't listen much to Bing Crosby any more. Steve teaches aviation at the University of Illinois; I doubt What he remembers Ziggy's solo on "And the Angels Sing." Kenny the bassist went into medicine, I believe, and Stu the drummer wound up in LA with no forwarding address. Howie the guitarist came to New York, changed his name to Hod, worked as a musician, and even made some recordings with his own groups, but died tragically in an automobile accident after moving out to California. By a strange turn of coincidence, Hod's younger brother, Michael, now serves on the policy board for the Journal of Consumer Research. Peter's novels, always cluttered with the names of jazz musicians, have reached fabulous success. In Shadowland, he provided the ultimate description of life at Country Day circa 1960 and even included a flattering but fictional account of my own struggling efforts as a jazz pianist:

Morris, standing on the side of the room with the other members of his trio, looked crippled with stage fright.... The three of them filed up the stairs to the stage. Brown picked up his bass, Morris said, "One...one...one...one," and they began playing "Somebody Loves Me." It sounded like sunlight and gold and fast mountain springs, and I switched off everything else and just listened to the music.... During Morris' last number I heard...him insert a quote from "Hail, Hail, the Gang's All Here" into his solo.... Re was having, under trying circumstances, the best time he could, which is one definition of heroism (pp. 115-116).

Peter and Susie have moved back to New York permanently and, to my joy, have once again become our near neighbors. They now number many great jazz musicians among their friends and lend these artists their unstinting support. Dave reappeared as my classmate in Columbia's MBA program and has since moved to Connecticut where he now works for a headhunting agency. Ornette, who still specializes in honks and squeaks, showed up in my office one day wanting to know how to reach a wider audience. I told him I didn't think someone as hip as he could do that. The Modern Jazz quartet--perhaps after being as mean to each other as they had been to me--broke up but have since regrouped and play as miraculously as ever. Harvard still stands on the banks of the Charles, and a recent directory of my classmates confirms their continued hipness; almost all of them are teachers. Sally, still very precious to me after 20 Years, continues to hate jazz; we have finally reached a compromise in our mutual fondness for Bach and black gospel music played at peak volume on the car stereo. Bob left rock management and went into investing in other types of commercial properties; he also manages Peter. Valerie and Barbara still live in the same building and probably still infuriate their new neighbors in our old apartment. Paul and Zooey remain active in church music; both have learned to fit themselves into the liturgy better than I ever could; Mac has become a dean. Lila still practices psychoanalysis in New York and, in fact, now sees one of the other characters in my story; I remain grateful to her insights and for the suggestion that resulted in my populating some of the journals with the names of my favorite singers and musicians. Christopher continues as a source of joy in our lives; I marvel at his ability to absorb Bach and Mozart while simultaneously admiring U2 and The Smiths.

For the past few years, Chris and I have made Christmas tapes containing some samples of our playing and distributed to a few long-suffering friends. Typically, Chris plays some of his classical repertoire. I rattle through a few dimly remembered jazz pieces and end with a reworking of some old Episcopal hymn. The words to one of these hymns remind me of the place for music in my life. Literally, they refer to the eternality and everlasting nature of God Himself. But, for me, they also convey something of the power of music to last forever. Like other artistic forms, music in general and jazz in particular are ultimate consumer durables. They endure from year to year and from generation to generation. They are spiritual and nearly godlike in their permanence:

Abide with me: fast falls the eventide; The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide: When other helpers fail and comforts flee, O thou who changest not. abide with me.

--William H. Monk (1861),

"Abide With Me,"

Hymn Number 467,

1940 Hymnal



Morris B. Holbrook, Columbia University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13 | 1986

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