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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"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.