The following are the remarks of David Jackson on receiving the Community Media Workshop’s Studs Terkel award last week. Jackson, a Chicago Tribune reporter, is currently a Nieman Fellow at Harvard.
I got into journalism some 25 years ago when Curtis Black, that dapper trumpeter over there, was launching a free monthly broadsheet he called Haymarket and asked if I’d interview 60-year-old hard-bop tenor Von Freeman.
I had no credentials and no clue what to expect when I arrived a few hours before Freeman’s next Monday open jam set at the New Apartment Lounge on 75th Street, and found him huddled at a back table with a crew of gnarled codgers.
Still, somehow, my chirpy tape recorder worked like a 007 license — a permit to exercise unfettered curiosity, to ask any question that bubbled up — and for the next 90 minutes this wise and wicked-funny man entertained my every query.
Transcribing his voice later that night I felt the rugged melodies blow through my fingertips again, felt the street philosopher rise, unique and powerful, through the mirror of each page.
I applied for an internship at Chicago magazine, which was housed in WFMT’s studios in the stark glass towers of Illinois Center. That’s where Studs walked to work through the underground pedway, talking garrulously to himself, as if to stave off the tacky cacophony of the indoor mall.
He was all Mike this and Mahalia that, muttering like a homeless ambulatory psychotic, except it wasn’t he who was insane.
Long before the invention of the cell phone, I believe Studs was using the first, celestial blue-tooth.
He soon found my little kiosk.
“I want to meet some young people. Can you help me?” the world’s wisest man was asking me.
Working and Division Street were my teenage adventure tales, my Robinson Crusoe and Fantastic Voyage.
And dudes, this person was old. Close up, he looked like a summer dandelion. His downy hairs crinkled out in every direction beneath that rumpled hat like spent lightning bolts, his head pulled forward by that monumental nose.
But those eyes: limpid blue, ageless and alight . . .
“See, I don’t drive.”
His voice had a way of twisting you to the mat.
So at night I drove him to the clubs and coffee shops where young people hung.
With a massive tape recorder strapped across his trench coat, Studs would wade into the maw, pink and green lights washing over him, his pinecone sized mic held aloft. Mashing the plastic buttons he’d pull aside the girl with the pierced nose or the boy with the menacing spiky hair.
“Did I see you,” they’d ask, “on TV?”
He was simply part of America’s atmosphere.
I won’t tell all the stories except to say he taught me lessons beyond words, and tried to teach me how to make words work.
It won’t make sense to anyone else if it doesn’t make sense to you, Studs said. So before you tell the story, find a friend or if you have to, stand alone in an empty room and say it out loud.
Say it out loud, he said.
Say it out loud.