I have a theory, or at least a hunch.
I don’t think I’m the only photographer who is haunted by the one that got away, the fleeting, searing image that came into my field of view when no camera was at hand. I suspect it’s a universal experience for shooters.
For me, it came about 40 years ago when I had the opportunity to photograph the Dave Brubeck Quartet during a couple of stops on what was their 25th reunion tour, and the last tour for the great saxophonist Paul Desmond. What was left unsaid at the time was that Desmond, whose “Take Five” was a signature song for the quartet and remains an enduring jazz classic, already was battling the cancer that killed him the following year.
That’s not something I knew, however, when I pulled up to Boston Symphony Hall to catch Brubeck in rehearsal, several hours before the concert they would play that night. What I did know was that the man leaving the building through the stage door and walking slowly along the length of the drab, almost industrial looking wall that backs up the splendor the audience sees was weary, older perhaps than his chronological age of not much more than 50, and — slumping a bit and entirely alone on the street with just his horn case for company–one of the leading jazz musicians of his era.
And I knew that my cameras were still stashed in the trunk of my ’74 Subaru.
In my mind anyway, it was an image as evocative as an Alfred Stieglitz view of the Flatiron Building, with the industrial dwarfing the human.
That’s not to say any photo I might have taken might have gone mano a mano with Stieglitz’s famed photo. But the image did, and does, endure in my mind.
That, I suppose, is why it finally emerged as a poem, written decades later (and anthologized in a wonderful collection of poems about the dual subjects of nature and music called Reeds and Rushes, edited by Kathleen Burgess and published by Pudding House).
Here’s what I saw that afternoon, and still see:
Paul Desmond’s Last Date
at Symphony Hall, Boston
So many have walked this wall
in just this way that their footfalls, too,
are beaten in sambas and rondos
into the hidden tempo of the street;
yours come down at stage door
in five-four paces,
encircling ghostly wisps of breath,
gathering again in a new confusion
of entrances and exits reedy melodies
drawn from a muscle memory of riffs
that how often have skitted
through those horns
in cool approximations of redemption.