Letter from Katie: He’s Funny That Way

The life, times, and pickled garlic of Alan Kiger.

Illustration by Kailey Whitman

It has been a slow, stormy spring, one where the trees shake and shimmy and their branches touch the earth. Thunder rumbles more than it has in years. Back in 1989, in just this kind of sultry weather, my roommate was killed, hit by one of the lightning bolts which struck every few seconds on that wild day.

I couldn’t afford to live alone, so I got someone to share my apartment right away. A middle-aged trumpet player named Alan Kiger had just moved to Cincinnati from Muncie, Indiana, and was looking for digs close to the club scene. When I met Kiger for the first time at the old Blue Wisp in O’Bryonville, I had no premonition that we would become friends. He was in his 50s, a prime age for an artist of any kind. He had a broad, open face and abundant salt and pepper hair and beard. His eyes were the color of river water. Everybody called him “Kiger,” and I did, too.

The other players looked up to him; I could tell by how many of them wanted to sit with him at intermission. He was a jazz man all the way, sometimes dressed up in a worn but fancy tuxedo, other times clad in corduroy pants, dirty Rockport walking shoes, and a worn tweed jacket. He had come to town to play with Dee Felice’s band, and to write arrangements for, and sometimes play with, the Blue Wisp Big Band.

I was “gigging around”—singing at Arnold’s two nights a week, doing private parties, even touring. With the extra room in my downtown apartment, the musicians thought I was an answered prayer. Kiger was reluctant, but everybody told him to give it a try, so he moved in, carrying a couple of flimsy cardboard boxes, his record player, and the large jar of garlic he took with him everywhere. It looked like one of those glass containers you’d see by the cash register at a tavern, only instead of boiled eggs, it was full of garlic bulbs.

He wore reading glasses down on his nose and had a way of shaking his head when he laughed. (“What do you want for Christmas?” I asked him once. “A Mr. Potato Head and a reason for living,” he replied, stroking his beard with his fingers.) He had a deep well of words, each one perfectly picked to suit the occasion, dropped neatly into place like grace notes. He struck fast with his zingers. My friend, Barbara, said of Kiger, “He was lightning in a bottle.”

Weeknights, if we weren’t working, we’d eat supper together, whatever we could dig up. I was hopeless at cooking, and so was Kiger, so we’d bring home food from the restaurants where we played and split it up. It wasn’t bad liberally doctored with spices, but, boy, I really hated that jar of garlic. When Kiger finally left my apartment, he forgot his precious garlic, and I made him come back and get it. Then, as luck would have it, the rental manager of his new “pad” wouldn’t allow the jar of garlic either. None of us could figure out how to dispose of it, so Kiger buried it in a saxophone player’s backyard. We all pretended to see the earth bubbling and smoking, as if we had buried nuclear waste.

Life with Kiger settled into a routine: A light supper together if we felt like it, then if we were both at loose ends by 9 p.m., he would get out his jazz records, and we would settle into the dining room for a couple hours of intense listening. We sat facing each other at the small dining room table. Mostly we looked out the window at the brick-paved lane that ran past my apartment. There was a lilac bush flat against the wall, and an ugly green garden hose hanging in a round coil beside it. Kiger had an old-fashioned stereo, the kind of record player that had an arm on top of a stack of records. He only had about 11 vinyl records, all of them laced with static, but everything about them was fascinating. I loved to watch the records going around, spinning faster and faster, and I loved the snap, crackle, and pop of the static.

Kiger was proud of his meager supply of records. “I may not have many, but the ones I’ve got are choice,” he said, laughing at his little joke. And he was right. He had a couple of records by the trumpeter Bobby Hackett, his playing so thick and lush, so full of yearning intervals you never wanted it to end. Then there was Jack Teagarden, the trombone player who was best known for his work with Benny Goodman and his duets with Louis Armstrong. It was a unique collection, and one that could not be replicated. I took every opportunity to listen. Often, around 9:30, the devil came out. Kiger would open a can of beer from a 12-pack, and by the time we played Billie Holiday (I always begged for “He’s Funny That Way”) he was on his third.

He taught me how to listen to music. Always know who the composer is and something about his life. Get to know the back-up players. Who’s playing piano, and who did he play with before this record? A couple more beers, and he dug out my favorite, Zoot Sims. Zoot was a tenor saxophone player who gigged with the likes of Stan Getz and Al Cohn.

The first couple of cuts of Zoot’s LP were standards from the American popular songbook, like “Whispering,” recorded by bandleader Paul Whiteman in 1920. Some 30 years later, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie jazzed it up, turned the chords inside out, and bequeathed a new bebop incarnation retitled “Groovin’ High.” The last song on the first side of the record was a real beauty, an ancient Sigmund Romberg melody called “Little Gypsy Sweetheart.” The first couple of lines went: “Slumber on, my little gypsy sweetheart…”

“Little Gypsy Sweetheart” quickly became the closer for our listening sessions. By then, Kiger had finished half of the 12-pack, and was beginning to get “toasty,” so I drifted off to bed, closing the door behind me, leaving him to get out his hard-core bebop tunes, what I called the “pornographic jazz collection.” That’s what it sounded like to me: a drum playing loudly with dips and dweebs and a soprano sax—toots and squeaks and squeals splattered here and there like a Jackson Pollock painting. I preferred to go to sleep to the last chorus of “Little Gypsy Sweetheart” while Kiger sat in my living room and turned from Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde.

He didn’t sleep much. By the next morning he’d be up and out of the house way before I was dressed and ready for the day. I learned he walked to a small café for breakfast and coffee. By the time he got home I was out for lunch with a friend or running errands or at rehearsal for some upcoming event.

Our rooms were at separate ends of the house, and we seldom saw each other in the daytime. I was surprised one afternoon when I came in to find him napping on the living room couch, his golden trumpet an arm’s length away. He had been writing arrangements, with the staff paper clipped to a hard-surfaced book, and every 10 or 15 minutes he’d pick up the trumpet and play a few arpeggios, “just to keep my lip strong.” Brass players have to worry about their embouchure, which is what the puckering muscles of the mouth form. The lips, tongue, and teeth make up the embouchure. Proper mouth formation can make the difference in a strong or a weak sound.

That afternoon was bright and spring-like and warm, and I took off my coat and threw my purse aside onto an upholstered chair. “What have you been doing all afternoon?” I asked, aware that I was on the verge of turning the conversation into something personal, and that was forbidden territory. But Kiger fooled me.

“I’ve just been lying here listening to all your neurotic girlfriends,” he said.

Sure enough, there were nine or 10 messages on my answering machine from women friends in varying states of emotional distress, and they had all called me for “support.”

All of us were reading self-help books in those days, and we were all familiar with concepts of “intimacy.” We used the word “syndrome” a lot. When I had finished listening to the messages, Kiger gave me one of his Barry Fitzgerald looks, an errant lock of hair at the forehead, and I slunk off, my tail between my legs, to get ready to go to work.

Just shy of his Ph.D. in music from Indiana University, Kiger was highly regarded for the chord charts he wrote for singers and horn players and for his arrangements for big bands, most notably the Blue Wisp Big Band. You could recognize his penmanship anywhere. His beautifully formed notes and his elaborate treble and bass clefs were in black, Gothic, like the printing on a fancy wedding invitation.

“They were more than charts,” trombone player Bill Gemmer says. “They were works of art.”

Kiger had started out playing with the Cincinnati-born saxophonist and composer George Russell, in what was a hot New York City jazz band, and he had some early success in that group, both playing and writing arrangements and copying parts for a whole section, one part for each horn and each rhythm instrument. If the band was 16 or 17 pieces, he wrote out 16 or 17 charts. As he aged his writing hand grew more arthritic, and he had to learn to use a computer to write. He bought one, but he resisted using it. When I asked him how his computer education was coming along, he said, “I walk past it on the way to the kitchen, and it hisses at me.”

He didn’t talk much about his early years on the road with George Russell. It may not have been the gig he wanted, but he was getting exposure and polish on his solos, and he was learning to “play well with others.”

Not all of Kiger’s gigs were sophisticated, though. He loved to tell the story of a Gypsy funeral he played one day in Indiana for the King of the Gypsies. “They put us in the back of a wagon and glared at us and said, ‘All we want is three songs: “Sweet Sue,” “Autumn Leaves,” and “Indiana.”’”

Kiger looked pained and sat quietly, fingering his cornet mute. “We rode around playing ‘Sweet Sue,’ ‘Autumn Leaves,’ and ‘Indiana.’ About the fourth time we went around, the saxophone player yelled, in the direction of one of the headstones, ‘Hey, Paulie, I’ve still got the Plymouth.’ It was the strangest gig I’ve ever played.”

Kiger’s employment with Russell didn’t last, and in a fit of pique one moonlit night he buried his trumpet in the back yard, digging the grave himself about three feet down. Marjean Wisby got the news on the telephone behind the bar at the Blue Wisp, and it went all around the club, whispered behind hands, “Kiger’s buried his trumpet.”

For awhile he existed on what money he could make writing arrangements and chord charts, but the urge to play was too strong to ignore, and so he dug up his instrument and began to drive back and forth to Indiana from Cincinnati, playing with bandleader and composer Henry Mancini and working tours with Johnny Mathis and Elvis Presley. No, he never met Presley, but it was a “notch” in his résumé. He traveled to California with the Blue Wisp Big Band when they did a short tour of the West Coast.

In the best times, when he was sober and playing well, he had an on-again off-again relationship with a woman named Susan, who had a soft, freckly face and carroty curls. She was chic and slender and close to his age. As much as he was capable of loving, he loved her, at least “for a minute” as he might say. He started each episode with her wholeheartedly, but each episode ended badly, and he ended up drinking like a country song, nearly destroying himself time after time.

Susan was worth it. She dressed in dramatic cocktail outfits and high heels, and they’d sweep into the nightclubs and restaurants, beaming and sophisticated. The evening would start out great—they’d order food and wine and the talk would flow. But once the eating and drinking were over, Kiger’s eyes and ears were glued to the stage. He listened intently to every note and nuance, how each chord change was built. There were lots of ways to stack those chords, and that, along with the impeccable swing of a really rhythmic head—the basic melody of the song is referred to as the head—could sell a tune to a big band. A 17-piece big band was like a hungry maw. Feed me more notes! it seemed to cry.

Nothing pleased Kiger more than a new arrangement to be worked out, but it made him a bad date. Like many musicians, he was conflicted: miserable when he played and miserable when he didn’t, and he and Susan eventually parted. As my grandfather used to say, “they split the sheets.”

Kiger moved back to Indiana in the early ’90s, and I lost track of him. I was working a lot, singing almost every night of the week, and I was younger and too self-involved. When Facebook came along, I signed up and was surprised to get a friend request from him. I was delighted, and I wrote a long, effusive message which he probably didn’t read. After that I got e-mail messages from him about once a week, messages that were usually about music, pointed and sharp and amazingly witty. Kiger was just plain smarter than the rest of us. He kept up his cyber skills, too. Before long, he had a truly cool page on Facebook. From the musicians he chose to write about to the fonts he chose to display his work, everything was original, warm, informative. He posted his own record collection, one cut at a time, and posted a surprising amount of text about the music.

I didn’t hear from Kiger for a long time, and the next thing I heard wasn’t good. He had cancer, and it was terminal. Bill Gemmer was able to talk to him. “I don’t know what to say,” Bill told me he said to Kiger.

“Let it go. Let’s talk about music,” was Kiger’s answer.

I noticed when the jazz postings stopped, but I didn’t want an answer so I didn’t ask what happened. The loss of his musician’s knowledge was like losing an arm or a leg. If you had a song you needed chord changes for or, say, knew a song you thought might have been written by the composer Burton Lane but you couldn’t find any reference to it on the internet, you would stamp your foot and long for just one more hour with a man like Alan Kiger. I realize now that I didn’t ask the right questions at all, but somehow when it came to Kiger, I always got the right answers.

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