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?

"What you have to understand about the Green Man is that he is very competitive," says Snooky Parnell, "the type of guy who couldn't stand the thought that anyone was better than him. It's easy to tighten up on M1 or M2; that's kid's stuff. But tenor sax--well, he had Rollins, Stitt, Getz, Dexter Gordon, and of course ole Trane himself lined up in front of him. And it just drove Greenie crazy to think that he was never going to be Numero Uno."

Napolitano was in the room the night Greenspan's supernova career fizzled out. It was September 14, 1949, and Greenspan found himself in the same Greenwich Village club as John Coltrane. Coltrane, a convivial sort, went out of his way to be friendly to the youngster, but Greenspan was having none of it. Sax at the ready, he challenged Coltrane to an onstage showdown. It was a mistake he would regret for the rest of his life.

"Trane smoked his ass," Parnell remembers. "Greenie foolishly tore into 'Cherokee,' Charlie Barnet's old standby, but Trane knew that tune inside out from his days in Kansas City. Greenie tried to keep up, but no chance. Trane didn't rile easily, but something about the way Greenie carried himself didn't suit John. Trane took him apart."

Stung by the humiliation, Greenspan began playing his horn every night on the Williamsburg Bridge. One night, Sonny Rollins, arriving from his own thrashing at Coltrane's hands, turned up on the bridge and told Greenspan to shove off. The two got into a shoving match that ended only when a young Russian immigrant separated them. Gently consoling the irate youngster, she invited him out for blinis at the Russian Tea Room.

The young woman was Ayn Rand, whose rough-and-tumble vision of capitalism is delineated in such classics as Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Intoxicated by the quirky Russian's paeans to the virtues of rough individualism and unfettered markets, Greenspan accompanied the young woman back to her apartment where he pulled out his sax and began to play "In a Sentimental Mood."

Rand listened patiently, and then told him: "I don't know much about jazz, but you're awfully reedy at the top of the register. Have you ever thought of trying something else? Economics, perhaps?"

The rest, as they say, is history--and today we are all paying for it. Snooky Parnell, now destitute at 89, lives in an East St. Louis nursing home after his 401(k) got wiped out. The irony is not lost on him.

"If Trane would have just laid off Greenie that night," he says, "I wouldn't be stuck in this mess. I know it's not right to speak ill of the dead, but I curse the day John Coltrane was born."

Joe Queenan is the author, most recently, of Closing Time: A Memoir.