The Magazine

Horn of Plenty

Prez, Trane, Sonny--and Alan Greenspan?

Jun 29, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 39 • By JOE QUEENAN
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History is filled with many exciting "What ifs?"

Upon graduation from military school in 1785, Napoleon Bonaparte applied for a post in the British Navy. He was rejected. As a young man, Josef Stalin actively laid the groundwork for becoming a priest. Things did not work out the way he had hoped. Che Guevara and Fidel Castro both started out as medical students; Adolf Hitler dreamed of becoming an architect.

How different history might have been had any of these individuals achieved his youthful aspirations!

One of the great what-ifs in recent history involves Alan Greenspan. Complicit in one of the greatest economic collapses ever, Greenspan has now been exposed as utterly bereft of the skills needed to helm the Federal Reserve. He was too indulgent, took too many risks, suffered from too much self-confidence and perhaps even hubris. Yet few Americans are aware that a career forecasting GDP and setting interest rates and tamping down the nation's money supply was not Greenspan's dream as a child. Rather, he dreamed of growing up to be a jazz musician.

Had those dreams borne fruit, the global financial system might never have been brought to its knees.

Here are the known facts. Midway through World War II Greenspan enrolled at Juilliard but soon dropped out and took a job with a roving dance band. His instrument of choice was the tenor saxophone. At this point, the story becomes murky, as the Maestro himself has divulged few details about this period. The official version is that, after playing alongside the immortal Stan Getz, young Greenspan decided that he did not have what it took to excel as a jazz musician and chose to direct his talents elsewhere.

Shortly after packing it in, he launched his second career as an economist. From that point onward, Alan Greenspan rarely mentioned his original vocation.

Recently, new light on Greenspan's jazz years has emerged. The data suggest that, far from being a mediocrity who had no chance of ever making it big, Greenspan was a supple and dexterous improviser on the tenor sax who possessed a silky tone reminiscent of Lester Young. Those who heard him play insist that he could easily have made his mark had he soldiered on.

In his kiss-and-tell autobiography--Ridin' Raunchy on the Chitlin Circuit--the legendary sideman Snooky Parnell remembers the young Greenspan as an extraordinarily imaginative soloist with a lustrous vibrato who introduced the concept of the inverted nonchromatic arpeggio to jazz music.

"The Green Man [his nickname at the time] always played his arpeggios back to front, and in the subtonic key, which forced the listener to rethink his assumptions about where a solo should go," recalls Parnell, who played bass with Miles Davis, Art Tatum, and Thelonious Monk.

Greenie played sax the way Piccaso painted, like he was some sort of Cubist or something, breaking up everything into its distinct parts. The dude had chops. Yeah, people thought it was funny that this stringbean Jewish kid would be the one to bust jazz out of its straitjacket, but that's the way it is. Pretty soon, Ben Webster started imitating him, Sonny Stitt started imitating him, Hank Mobley started imitating him. Greenie literally turned the jazz arpeggio on its head. He also turned Getz on to the bossa nova. No lie.

Parnell is not the only jazz legend to pay tribute to Greenspan's long overlooked skills. In the recent PBS documentary Cut That Rug, Jitterbug! Carmine Napolitano, owner of San Francisco's legendary Café Tropicana, recalls with amazement a 22-verse solo Greenspan once took on "Someday My Prince Will Come" while he was filling in with Charlie Mingus's octet.

"Mingus's regular sax player came down with the flu this one particular evening, and Greenie was across town playing in Maynard Ferguson's big band," recalls Napolitano.

Maynard was okay with cutting him loose for the night, thinking he would only be subbing in for that one gig. But Greenie went in there and blew the roof off the room. He's a big guy--massive chest--with an unusually large diaphragm, so he could really cook. The crowd loved it, and even Mingus, who was notoriously hard to please, ate it up. Greenspan toured Europe with Mingus for the next two years. Maynard never forgave Charlie.

Why, then, did Greenspan abandon a career that had started with such tremendous promise?