[JPL] PRECOCITY DEPT. BIRD by David Owen The New Yorker

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Wed Jul 19 10:04:10 EDT 2006

 The New Yorker

by David Owen
Issue of 2006-07-24

The Creative Jazz Organization, which was founded in the early
nineteen-seventies by music buffs associated with the Rochdale Village
Community Center, i  Queens, holds jam sessions on Wednesday nights at
Manhattan Proper, a bar and restaurant at the corner of Linden Boulevard and
217th Street, in Cambria Heights  The walls in the Proper are painted pink,
and there¹s a glass-enclosed bar up front, where jazz-indifferent customers
can drink beer and watch baseball on TV  Admission is ten dollars. The music
usually starts a little after eight
C.J.O. performers over the years have included Etta Jones, Roy Haynes, and
Walter Perkins. Until he died, earlier this month, at the age of
ninety-four, the oldest regular was Hank Turner, a trumpet player and former
bandleader, who once fired Charlie Parker for habitually arriving late for
rehearsals. The youngest C.J.O. performer, by approximately as wide a margin
as Turner was the oldest, is Elijah Shiffer, whose instrument is the alto
saxophone. Elijah made his first appearance in the summer of 2005, when he
was thirteen. His father, Michael, owns a high-end garage in Mount Vernon,
and his mother, Amy Silberkleit, is an artist. Elijah has an angelic face
and longish wavy brown hair, and he sometimes yawns and looks bored while
waiting for his turn to play. Reuben C. Bankhead, who retired as a New York
City police detective twenty-five years ago and is the C.J.O.¹s president,
said the other night, ³To look at Elijah, you¹d think he should be playing
Nintendo. But then he gets that horn out and blows everybody away.²
Elijah is homeschooled. He writes avidly and well, and he loves playing with
language‹he is fairly certain, for example, that Django Reinhardt is the
only jazz musician whose name contains two silent ³d²s‹but he doesn¹t
converse easily with other people. Children with similar combinations of
talents and apparent emotional distance are often characterized by various
clinical terms, which Elijah¹s parents do not use, feeling that they limit
rather than enlighten.
³His wiring is different,² his father said. ³He loves to play music with
anybody, and I think he¹s interested in other people, but there is a kind of
connection that just isn¹t made. Except for music, he is almost a
hundred-per-cent uninvolved with other kids. We were very worried about him
for a while, and one of the things that I took comfort from was his music,
which shows that he obviously has the full range of emotions, and can
communicate them. Jazz has been a conduit for him.²
Elijah probably came to music by way of his other main passion, which is
ornithology. ³When he was a little kid, he sort of organized his world
around birds,² his father went on. ³He divided everything into those things
which relate to birds and those things which don¹t. He was especially
interested in ducks‹I think his first word was Œduck¹‹and from ducks he
enlarged his horizons somewhat to include the passerines‹the warblers and
the sparrows and the common birds that you see all over the place‹and just
about every other type of bird there is. For four or five years, he would
draw pictures of birds for several hours a day. His drawings tended to be as
accurate as he could make them with regard to field marks and colors, but
the birds would also be in human situations: they would play with tools, and
they had this whole social life going on. Elijah¹s got a pretty good handle
on Latin from learning the Latin names of birds, and he will also make up
Latin names for birds that don¹t exist but should, in his opinion. His ear
for birdsong has always been amazing, and the music thing may be part of
At seven, Elijah began picking out notes on the piano, which his older
sister, Isis, was studying. He taught himself to read music, and soon he was
taking lessons, too. He started playing the saxophone at nine, and he began
jamming with adults when he was ten. The bassist Eric Lemon, who played with
Elijah in an open master class at LaGuardia College, suggested that he join
the sessions at Manhattan Proper.
Improvisational jazz can seem formless and chaotic to non-musicians, but it
has an underlying structure, and one of the many remarkable aspects of
Elijah¹s talent is his fluid, intuitive grasp of its formal organization. He
can play almost anything after hearing it once or twice, and he can
seamlessly trade fours with musicians he¹s never met. His solos are playful
and inventive. He sometimes deconstructs phrases by other players, or quotes
bits from his favorites among the greats, especially Charlie Parker.
Occasionally, he makes private jokes for the benefit of his father, as he
did one night last year when he worked in phrases from the score of an
amateur musical that Michael was directing in the city.
When Elijah plays, he stands straight and still, although his eyes sometimes
turn to the left or to the right, as though he were studying the house.
After a recent performance at Manhattan Proper, he returned to the table
where his father was sitting, and began to put his saxophone back in its
case. He had more than held his own, and he was happy. Barbara Burse, who
lives in Queens and has heard him many times, smiled, and said, ³I feel like
you¹re an old soul.² Reuben Bankhead said, ³If he¹s playing like that now,
wait till he¹s eighteen, twenty, twenty-five. I¹m telling you, when I listen
to Elijah I can see another Charlie Parker.² Another Bird.

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