16 | LAPHAM’S QUARTERLY
J.S. Bach (Leipzig, page 81) the sound of one’s own life—or suede shoed, panama
hatted, and black to see in the music of Duke Ellington one’s own face in the mirror.
Arriving at Yale College in the autumn of 1952—bourgeois, button-down collared, and white—Bach I knew as a name sometimes mentioned by my churchgoing grandmother; born and raised in California, I wouldn’t have
known where to look for Ellington’s A train. I was familiar with what has come to
be known as the Great American Songbook, the abundance of life-giving melody
(“Over the Rainbow,” “All the Things You Are,” “Night and Day,” “But Not for Me,”
“As Time Goes By,” “Isn’t It Romantic?”) composed during the years 1910– 50 by two
generations of American musical genius (Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hart, Jerome
Kern, Cole Porter, Ira and George Gershwin, Harold Arlen). But as to what was to
be heard beyond the ken of my mother’s Victrola or a debutante-dance orchestra, I
was as deaf, dumb, and blind as the stones on Easter Island.
The pianist Jonathan Biss (New York City, page 178) remembers his first
encounter at the age of thirteen with Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 32 in C Minor
as “the first time I wondered what it might be like to die.” My initial encounters
at the age of seventeen with jazz and the music of the baroque I remember as
the first time I wondered what it might be like to live. Without prior warning or
program note, I was taken hostage by what Biss calls “music’s mysterious capacity
for saying the unsayable,” to give voice to “feelings we don’t know how to express
and sometimes don’t even know we have.” I’d been accustomed to coming across
such feelings in books. No organ or piano in the households in which I’d grown
up, not even a ukulele or harmonica, but books everywhere on tables, shelves,
Circus Sideshow, by Georges Seurat, 1887–88.