Free Jazz

by P. Scott Cunningham

It was a Friday at the beginning of the millennium, and I had nothing to do besides drive eighteen hours to a free jazz concert. I had no friends. The mountains surrounded me. The animals hid when they heard me coming. For most of the drive I listened to more free jazz, the country all around me like a flower I knew only by its scent. I couldn’t make it all the way in one shot, so I stayed in a motel on the Illinois border. My room had a TV with every sports channel and a giant curtain that closed from both sides and blocked out the sun. I remember the sun in particular because later that morning it glimmered onto the nail that punctured my tire as I was staring up at the skyscrapers in downtown Chicago, forcing me to pull over onto the side of the highway and wait for help, and that was a kind of jazz. It was a kind of jazz how I rolled into the campus at Northwestern looking very much like a student and paid five dollars for eight hours of music and sat by myself in the tiny auditorium. It was a kind of jazz how, in between sets, I stared at the bulletin board in the hallway and convinced myself that a face in a poster was someone I’d once been in love with, and then took a walk along the edge of Lake Michigan, half expecting to run into her, and half expecting a wolf to leap out of the water and drag me under. The thing about free jazz that appealed to me back then was that no one was expecting you to like it. The musicians don’t even look at you while they’re playing, so wrapped up as they are in each other. That day I spent eight hours watching a group of friends ignore me, and I never wanted it to end. I wanted them to play forever, but they didn’t, and then the bandleader, Fred Anderson, died before I could go see him again. After the concert, I didn’t eat. I just got back into my car and merged onto the freeway, retracing my route, and without even trying, I spent the night in the exact same motel, possibly in the very same room. Maybe they knew I’d be back and didn’t even change the sheets.

Published on September 22, 2022

First published in Harvard Review 59.