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Don Budge:
A Jazz Love Set

By Mike Zwerin

PARIS, 17 February 2000- Don Budge, the legenday tennis-man who died recently at the age of 84, built his style on a combination of Ellsworth Vines's power and taking the ball early while it was still rising, like Fred Perry. Budge spent an entire winter working on it; "It seemed so innovative at the time. I knew I was on to something. Come to think of it," he paused and continued with a wide smile: "I guess Charlie Parker played like he was hitting a rising ball. A lot of guys must have spent a lot of time trying to figure that one out."

It was Paris, 1989, the smart person's guitar hero Jim Hall had called from New York to suggest I interview the legendary tennis-man Budge while he was here for the French Open. He had won it exactly 50 years earlier, along with all three other grand slams - the first person to do that. "You'll never meet a more enthusiastic jazz fan," Hall said.

In 1939, Tommy Dorsey promised Budge he could play drums with his band if he defeated Ellsworth Vines in Madison Square Garden. It was his first match as a professional. "My band is your band," Dorsey said when winner Budge entered the New Yorker Hotel ballroom that evening. The leader motioned the drummer Dave Tough away and Budge sat in his place. When a dancer requested "Marie," Dorsey replied: "You'll have to talk to the drummer. It's his band."

Once upon a time, during a short spell as a Monday night racket hacker in a redecorated warehouse in the New York borough of Queens, I considered tennis one of life's hardest-hitting metaphors. Which is one reason the spell was short. When I lost, and I lost often, I was a loser in life. Everything was lost, as it were. When I lost I would be so upset that I would sulk with the kids when I got home. When I won I could race through "Little Willie Leaps" without a clam on my trombone. I did not win often enough.

Playing tennis is, oddly enough, not unlike playing jazz. When you lose the forward motion in the middle of a set on the bandstand, it takes the same sort of endurance, courage and confidence to turn it around in your favor as it does when you are down 1-4 during a set on the court. There are "sets" in both and like jazz, tennis is not work, you "play" it. They are both played in public in real time. There are no second takes, no triple faults.

Budge looked puzzled when I asked him what he thought about all that. Drawing such a parallel apparently had not occurred to him. But if an activity can be judged by the nature of the people attracted to it, Don Budge is a credit to jazz. He was so far from the cliché inside-information hipster image of the jazz fan, and yet his love for it was so hot. Or rather so cool. He was a member of another, sports world, élite. And yet he was, you know - "Hip." You come away realizing that jazz has a wider appeal than you had thought.

This was no up-tight retirement-age country club dixieland moldy fig. He related to the music with sophistication and stylistic taste was surprisingly wide for his age (he was 74 at the time). Passionate about the best in jazz, he was also tolerant of its flaws. His instincts were excellent. He did not automatically dislike players who did not touch him personally. In other words, he knew how to differentiate between taste and quality. He asked for explanations - about Miles playing rock, for example - and he listened hard to the response. Speaking of musicians he had met, he sounded honored to have met them.

Artie Shaw took him to hear "two guys who are going to set the world on fire" - Lester Young and Jo Jones, before they were well known. "It's what Jo doesn't play that's the most interesting," Shaw explained to him. And now Budge remarked: "When you listen to what the good players have to say, you can learn a lot."

"I have to tell you a Lester Young story," he continued. "He was playing in a club in Cleveland while I was playing in a tournament there and I went to hear him. I applauded after he played the melody of ‘Body and Soul' - before he started to improvise. The melody had never sounded so beautiful. Later, Lester came over to me and said, ‘Nobody ever did that before. Thank you very much.' He was very pleased."

Budge seemed delighted to be able to tell his jazz stories. After listening to an up-tempo recording by his friend Benny Goodman, he went out and played a match with the music still in his head. It gave him energy and helped him win. The stories came tumbling out, a succession of names, often without transitions or context. Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown, Bob Dorough, Phil Woods, Shelly Manne...just pronouncing them gave him pleasure. One emerged above all - "my pin-up," the late pianist Bill Evans.

Evans introduced himself to him one evening after a set in the Village Vanguard. "Mr Budge," he said. "I heard you were a jazz fan and I've been watching you. You sure know how to listen to music." Another night in the same club, Evans asked to borrow $20. "Sure," an embarrassed Budge replied. "Is that enough?" Evans said that would do it.

"It's so sad." Budge said, puzzled: "What was he on? Heroin? Never having taken drugs, I don't understand it. What a waste. I wanted to cry when he died. Do you know his rendition of ‘A Child Is Born?' It's so moving. To think there will be no more Bill Evans records..."

Ah. At last. The hoped-for connection between the sport and the art: "I think John McEnroe is the tennis player who is most like a jazz musician. He has that instinct you cannot learn. He is not a great disciplinarian, he doesn't sweat practicing and working out like Borg or Lendl. It is as though he plays with a wand rather than a racket. Like Bill Evans - he had that wand."




Mike Zwerin has been jazz and rock critic for the International Herald Tribune for the last twenty years. He was also the European correspondent for The Village Voice. Mike Zwerin is the author of several books on jazz and the jazz editor of Culturekiosque.com.


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