Rant ‘N’ Roll: Who Was That Masked Man?

The crowd at the 1972 Newport In New York Jazz Festival had never seen anything like it. One minute we were all grooooving to some bebop and swing and the next minute some madman wearing a mask and a cape casually strolled down the aisle from the back and got right onstage with the amazed musicians. He was carrying some crazy kind of axe, which he dramatically proceeded to unveil to actually solo with! The bemused musicians on the bandstand—legends all—gave him the leeway to create the kind of jaw-dropping solo one only experiences maybe once or twice a decade. That’s how good it was. Of course, today, security would have dropped him in his tracks midway down the aisle but after he raised the roof of the joint (I think it was Carnegie Hall), he put away his axe (it was some kind of contraption halfway between a violin and a guitar), jumped off the stage, and marched right back down the aisle to the exit in the lobby to a standing ovation. No one ever knew who he was. All the newspapers the next day made a big deal of the guy who bumrushed the show and crashed the jazz fest.

Five years later, I’m sitting in an open-air café around the corner from The Bottom Line in Greenwich Village Manhattan waiting for the guest-of-honor, country singer George Jones, to show up at a press party. I’ve already talked to the members of his band who all assure me he’s on his way. I’m on my third jack and coke when I spy the guy with the mask and the cape! I swear it’s the same guy! How could I ever forget him? He’s unmasked but he’s in that same ridiculous cape. And he’s carrying his instrument under his arm just like the last time! I smell scoop and go over to talk to him. He’s sitting alone at a table waiting for George Jones like the rest of us.

He proves to be a fascinating raconteur on just about any subject. He takes great pains to point out his name is Master John Blair and his axe is his own invention, The Vitar, a cross, indeed, between a violin and a guitar. When the talk turns to the reclusive Miles Davis (this was during his 1976-1981 silence), Master Blair says, “I know Miles. Do you want to go to his house?”

Now I’m smelling Scoop Of The Century.

We walk through the New York night seemingly forever. I’m starting to be a little afraid but my host keeps peppering me with anecdotes about his recording career and the industry that won’t let him do his thing. We finally reach a brownstone on the upper west side (I must admit my memory is a little hazy on this point. It might have been the Upper East Side. Or somewhere else. Or it might have been a different year.)

Master Blair rings the doorbell.

A woman’s voice comes out of the intercom.

“Who’s that?”

“It’s Master Blair,” he confidently says. “I’ve got a reporter with me. He wants to see Miles.”

“Is he white?”

“Yeah, but he’s cool.”

“Hold on.”

We stand there for the longest time. I look up at Master Blair. I’m practically shaking. Am I really going to go inside Miles Davis’s house? This is too good to really be happening. We wait. And wait. And wait.

Finally, the woman comes back.

“Miles is busy,” she says, “He says to go away.”

As we slowly walk back downtown, Master Blair seems visibly deflated, a proud man, yet so wanting to impress his new friend. He scribbles his phone number down on a matchbook cover for me and disappears into the night.

I never saw him again.

In 2006, I chanced upon his obituary and learned he was a doctor with extensive degrees. I also learned from a daughter of his that he suffered from mental illness refusing all help and becoming homeless in the process. But I’ll never forget the night he took me to Miles Davis… almost.


Mike Greenblatt would like to make Rant ‘N’ Roll interactive. Send him an email at mg2645@ptd.net, and your comments, questions, complaints and complements will be part of this column.