I can explain to you why Clifton is a magic place inspiring a deep sense of awe, but in order for you to get the full picture we need to go back several years and travel to the basement of the house where my aunt and uncle live in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
One week I slept in that basement while visiting the state where I grew up and where massive tribes of my relatives still live (they’re Catholic, okay?). One night before I went to sleep I drank beer and shot one-man pool on a lopsided table worn down from years of late-night “tournaments” where subtlety and accuracy were prized less than brute force.
Later that night I discovered a black case that, when I opened it, revealed a dusty old saxophone. The brand name—Wulitzer—conjured up images of brightly lit organs played by women with beehive hairdos in rooms with shag carpet and wood-paneling. So was the instrument an alto or a tenor? Neither, actually. What I unearthed was a C melody saxophone, an instrument whose heyday, I came to learn, was between 1918 and 1930. Being in the key of C made it easier to play than other saxophones—it required none of that transposing business that made things tricky for beginners enrolled in Music for Dummies courses—but after production plummeted during the Depression manufacturers forgot that it existed.
That instrument ended up in my possession. When I took it to the repair shop the clerk said it wasn’t worth fixing, but I pumped three hundred bucks into it anyway. I was glad I did, not because I had any illusion of setting the jazz world on fire but because Uncle Jack, before he gave it to me, told me the story behind an instrument that sat in basements in Cedar Rapids for seventy years.
It was purchased by his father, who died when Jack was six months old. Along with being a painter, his father played in a big band that toured the Midwest in the 1920s, which meant this instrument had mojo, so I was determined to learn how to play it. Sax novices often struggle with embouchure, but I quickly produced a tone that was slightly more pleasing than the honking of a goose. And since the fingering was designed to make playing a C scale a snap, I already had the luxury of knowing one key existed in which I could “improvise” at length without playing a wrong note.
There was one problem, however. In my apartment building in the gaslight district of Clifton there were people who would rather sleep on a Sunday night than listen to a novice who was suddenly seized by the impulse to find out what it would sound like if he blew into a saxophone as hard as he could. Where could I go? I didn’t want anyone to hear me, which made nearby Burnet Woods my only hope. Although it closed after ten, I figured I’d rather risk a ticket than an evacuation notice.
I walked through the park until it was just me and the tall trees that, when I looked up, reminded me of the vaulted arches of a gothic church. Then I played, over and over, the eight notes of a C scale. Hoping to shake out the cobwebs of an instrument that had crammed in closets for seventy years, I blew until I was breathless, stopped, and then blew some more. Often I held notes for as long as I could, the whole time assuming that, at some point, I would hear a sound clean and pure and powerful. It never came, but I sure could hear it in my head, and I pursued it so intensely I forgot about all the police that were roaming the park just hoping to ticket a vagabond like me—until I heard what sounded like a wild drum beat from somewhere in the words.
It scared me. After all, I asked myself, what lunatic was walking through Burnet Woods on a Sunday night playing an instrument—and congas, no less! Although I was nervous, I was also intrigued, so I kept playing until I saw, walking toward me, a tall man with stringy hair and a crazed smile. He never stopped playing, and until the concert ended he never spoke a word, but the smile that kept returning to his face as we played said it all. Musically our performance was probably so poor the newly woken animals must have cringed—but on the inspiration meter it ranked up there with Woodstock.
When I ran into the percussionist a month later he nonchalantly shrugged off our experience, which to me was interesting. Maybe for him things like that happen all the time. They don’t for me—and even if they did I’m still positive that neighborhoods where something like that can happen are extremely rare.
And that’s why I love Clifton. Stuff like that never happens in the burbs, and if it did they’d lock you up.
But that’s okay—I’m happy where I am.