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The kids who were at the black dances, if you didn’t play those pieces exactly the way they were on the record, you were in trouble. When I met him, he was in his late twenties and had already stopped playing in public—he wouldn’t put up with anything other than perfect playing conditions, with the result that he almost never played.”Tristano, who was a saxophonist as well as a pianist, was the Glenn Gould of bebop: difficult, hypersensitive, reclusive, and hugely gifted.“Instead of teaching ‘freedom,’ or creativity, Tristano taught me a set of practices that create the feeling of what an improvisation ought to sound like,” Becker says.Guys would come in from the hybrid-seed-corn convention and spend three or four thousand dollars buying drinks for the girls.
have often had strange and serendipitous careers in Paris, from Thomas Evans, the Philadelphia dentist who cured Emperor Louis-Napoleon of a toothache and became an indispensable ornament of the Imperial court, to those African-American jazzmen, like the great soprano-sax player Sidney Bechet, whose careers were revived, and reputations nurtured, in France in ways they never could have been in America.
But few have known an odder trajectory than Howie—“Only my mother ever called me Howard”—Becker. Becker, to give him his full, honorary-degree name—he has six—has been a major figure in American sociology for more than sixty years.
“I started working strip joints on Clark Street—all the grownups were in the Army.
We played the one independent, non-Mob-owned joint.
As long-faced and dry-eyed as a stoical silent comedian, Becker is game to talk about anything.
A conversation with him becomes an inimitable spool of bebop piano tips, Chicago history, sociological minutiae, and meditations on French intellectual life, with helpful detours into strip-club culture in the forties and the reasons that French professors think of themselves as civil servants while American ones imagine themselves as entrepreneurs.“I always really wanted to be a piano player,” he begins.Basically, Becker believes that Yogi Berra was right: you really can observe the most by watching.Heather Love, a professor of English at Penn who specializes in gender and sexuality studies, points out that it shares “many of the same concerns, about institutions, power, the dynamics of social relations” as contemporary post-structuralist research, “but all in this kind of homegrown, ordinary language, a ‘just the facts, ma’am’ style that has the appeal of American noir and hardboiled fiction.”Not long ago, in an apartment that he and his wife, Dianne Hagaman, had taken for the fall in the Fifth Arrondissement—the neighborhood of Paris that clusters around the old Sorbonne—he sat and talked about his life’s work and its apotheosis in Paris, almost as a spectator of his own surprising career.“When I was about twelve, I heard boogie-woogie for the first time and fell in love with it.My folks had bought a piano for show, and I bought a book of boogie-woogie and taught myself to play it, more or less.His work is required reading in many French universities, even though it seems to be a model of American pragmatism, preferring narrow-seeming “How? ) The book is both a jocular personal testament of faith and a window into Becker’s beliefs.His accomplishment is hard to summarize in a sentence or catchphrase, since he’s resolutely anti-theoretical and suspicious of “models” that are too neat.Among sociologists, he’s most famous for having made sociology’s previous theories of “deviance” look deviant: studying obscure or out groups, he has shown that the way their members act together follows the same kinds of rules that everyone else follows.Some people may march to a different drummer—but, when they do, they’re usually all marching in rhythm, too.One of his informants (a fellow band member) reported, “I walked around the room, walking around the room trying to get off, you know; it just scared me at first, you know.I wasn’t used to that kind of feeling.” Another musician explained, “You have to just talk them out of being afraid.