Brow Beat

Oblique Motion: My Two-Year Quest to Identify the Song That Made Me Love Jazz

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I said. “What song is that?”

Photo by Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

More than two years ago, as summer changed to fall, I was walking to the gym when I heard, wafting out of the window of a restaurant, a snatch of a jazz song. It was a minor third, descending to the root, first on a trumpet, then on a saxophone, repeated several times over shifting chords. That’s it. Just a wisp of a song, really, barely a few bars, not much more than a fragment.

Yet this fragment lodged in me, the minor third recalling itself. At some earlier time in my life, perhaps during the brief period in high school when I studied jazz, I had heard that interval over those shifting chords. After a few days of having these four bars of music teasing me maddeningly in my head, I called my childhood best friend. I had only seriously listened to jazz in high school because of him, because I wanted to emulate him, his energy and boundless talent.

I sang the fragment to him over the phone.

No dice. He didn’t recognize it.

Thus the quest began. I started buying canonical jazz albums. I had begun working with the composer Darcy James Argue on a live jazz and multimedia piece about conspiracy theories called Real Enemies, which will premiere in November at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. So, that minor third echoing every day, any time Darcy mentioned a jazz artist, I’d buy an album. I began in the most clichéd place (Kind of Blue, of course) and moved on from there, taking in Horace Silver, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman. Trane and Bird and Monk. Brubeck. The Modern Jazz Quartet. Mulatu Astatke. Ahmad Jamal. Ellington. Basie. Jelly Roll Morton. Louis Armstrong.

I failed to find the song. But as I came to grips with the notion that I might never find it, my quest became an education, and my education became a passion. In searching for that song, I had fallen in love with an endless universe of great music, one of America’s great gifts to the world—a canon in which both the individual artist and the ensemble, the improvised and the written, the live and the static, coexist.

Earlier this week, exhausted and distracted, I saw a teenager playing the tenor saxophone outside a Barnes and Noble. He performed “Freddie Freeloader,” one of the first songs I discovered on the quest. I tipped him and went inside the store.

As I exited a few minutes later, he was playing a different song. A song whose main gesture was a minor third, descending to the root, repeated a few times. It was the interval I had searched for over these last two years. The shifting chords were absent, but I’d recognize that interval anywhere.

In my excitement, I lost all sense of propriety, and interrupted his playing. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I said. “What song is that?”

The young man stiffened up, like I was giving him a pop quiz, and, looking straight ahead, rather than at me. “‘Stolen Moments,’” he said.

“Can you keep playing?” I asked.

He put mouth to reed. The interval danced out of his saxophone.

I tipped him as generously as I could and ran home. I knew the song’s face, and its name. “Stolen Moments”!

I texted Darcy immediately to tell him the whole story. He told me he considers the album it appears on (Oliver Nelson’s The Blues and the Abstract Truth) one of the 10 best jazz albums of all time, and that the song is a regular feature at jam sessions. “Stolen Moments” is, to him, the best example of the power of repeating a static melody over shifting chords, a technique called oblique motion. I went home and listened to the song on a loop for hours, the oblique motion of the interval and the shifting chords making me tear up every time I heard it.

When the fragment of Stolen Moments first lodged in me two years ago, I was hungry to find it mostly because of the memories it brought to mind. But if I’d found it immediately, would I have learned to love the music that I love so much now? It was only through the quest to find the song, the song’s and my oblique motion towards each other, that I’ve become able, truly, to hear it.