All That Jazz

The lunchtime talk was titled “Jazz with Lewis Turlish.” But it was more like “Lewis Turlish with Jazz” — scenes from a life, with a soundtrack by Mingus and Bird.

This English professor, who retires next year, billed his presentation in a Pettigrew seminar room as “an old man looking back at his younger self.” Eight of us — including just one student — looked back with him to the Philadelphia of the 1950s, the Beat writers, and the golden days of jazz.

It was an evocative hour. A peripatetic narrator, Turlish started with high school — where he knew a girl who dated Fabian, and told all to a teen magazine — and described how he followed the full-tilt, free-flow prose of writers like Kerouac to that literature’s musical analog, jazz.

Curling up like cigarette smoke through the throb of music, Turlish’s recollections wandered from the city he calls “The Big Scrapple” through artist anecdotes, his LP collection (which he is gradually donating to the Ladd Library), jazz-charged films like Sweet Smell of Success, and the crudeness of early TV hosts like gossip columnist Earl Wilson. “He looked like a transom-peeper,” Turlish said.

When Turlish played a song, the other jazz fans present would sing the solos: “bah dadada bah bah BAH.” And while Turlish had plenty to say about the jazz soundtrack of his youth, explaining the essential attraction eluded even this man who makes his living with words.

Later, Turlish allowed that the late critic Whitney Balliett explained jazz best: “It’s the sound of surprise.”