Editor’s Note: Old Friends

A bruise-colored sun drops into a chilly September night. Inside the 1,000-seat theater, a West Coast quartet conjures balmy surf. For well over an hour, long, languid phrases float past on a swing. Lonely hearts bask in the blue hue. Lovers huddle in the balcony. The ghosts of vaudeville do a soft shoe on the 90-year-old rafters.

A storm starts to rumble in slow as saxophonist Charles Lloyd’s wizened face goes slack, save for the wrinkles around his eyes, shut tight to focus.

Bill Walton-tall and wizard-thin, he rocks in a circle as though his pelvis were greased, a shower of notes singing, burping, hissing, and howling through the bell of his rust-flecked horn. The drummer kicks his kit into another gear, throwing right-hand jabs at an oversized cymbal. The guitarist, crouched tiger-tight on his swivel stool, shakes his head as if he’s just heard something out of the wild, for the very first time. The bassist is reduced to laughter, slapping the strings instead of his knee.

Lloyd ends it on a high-pitched wail. He nods, strolls stage right. The house hits its feet, stomps, screams, and whistles. Palms are crimson from clapping; no one is ready to let the outside world wash away the luster.

The ’60s sensation–a Haight-Ashbury icon, one of the first jazz musicians to go platinum–returns to the spotlight. He’s carrying a photograph, shot a year before at a little-known club in the rear end of a strip mall. In the black-and-white candid, Lloyd has his arm around storied drummer Billy Higgins, among jazz music’s most recorded sidemen. They are backstage moments after a volcanic late-night set, leaning into each other, laughing like teenagers.

Six months after the portrait was taken, Higgins would die of pneumonia while awaiting a liver transplant. He was 64.
Lloyd holds the photo up to the crowd, says it’s beautiful, like his brother, then places his hand over his heart and pats it twice–in gratitude, in peace.

The last time I saw Charles Lloyd make such a gesture, the two of us were back at that strip mall, sitting in a makeshift greenroom, waiting for Higgins, chatting about poetry, Buddhism, and the Grateful Dead. I was thinking about that meeting the other day, after re-reading this month’s roundtable discussion with Eric Utne and author Richard Leider (p. 34) about wisdom and how it passes between generations.

As I scribbled in my reporter’s notebook, Lloyd reminisced about playing jazz standards ‘when giants roamed the earth’ in the early ’60s, being named Down Beat’s ‘Jazzman of the Year’ in 1967, and then, two years later, leaving it all behind–the fame, the drugs, the fatigue–to spend nearly two decades meditating in Malibu and Big Sur, California. ‘I was in deep isolation, exploring my spirituality,’ he explained. ‘I finally came back to the music [full-time in 1986] because it’s the one thing that renews my faith, gives me grace.

‘Playing for me now is a form of service. I just want to pass along the beauty, spread the word.’

Billy Higgins, with whom Lloyd first played in 1956, was his fellow missionary. ‘I’d been working on my spirituality, and he had also. It was like two kids meeting again. He’s an incredible spirit. He brings out the best in those around him.

‘We played a gig in San Francisco not that long ago. It was out of this world, and the next day I was riding high, and Billy said, ”You ain’t the man. It’s not your music. You’re just a vessel. Don’t forget it.’

‘I’m still working on that, still trying to remember that every time I play, it’s a lesson.’

I can imagine Lloyd coming off as an aging hipster, all shallow pose and recycled Beat poetry. In person, though, he has an ethereal, shamanic presence. His free-floating intellect, like his delivery, is measured and kind. I spent only a couple of hours with him, but it’s an interaction I’ll never forget. He had something I wanted–not religion, or God, or an easy cool, but a deep sense of self born out of rigorous honesty. In his presence, listening to his stories, I felt I had grown just a tiny bit wiser.

Our interview finished, we said our goodbyes, and, as I was packing up, Higgins came into the room. A soft-spoken man who made up for words with the mischievous smile of a cartoon Buddha, he greeted his friend and bandmate with a hug.

As the embrace ended, Lloyd stepped back, looked his brother up and down, put his hand over his heart and patted it twice.

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