A Sense of Wonder: Ricky Jay, The Magic Arts and Jazz

As I watched Ricky Jay’s amazing sleight-of-hand in the new documentary Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay, I thought about Charlie Parker’s reputed ability to roll a cigarette with one hand. Bird’s dexterity lent itself to the title of one of his tunes and continues to inspire awe in virtually everyone who hears his music. Ricky Jay’s nearly imperceptible movement of fingers and hands with a deck of cards also reminded me of Bird, whose fingers lifted only slightly off the keys as 16th notes gushed from his alto.

Jazz has its own magical elements. In a recent jazz.com article in which saxophonist Steve Coleman discusses Charlie Parker’s “KoKo,” he says that “a certain amount of trickery is involved” in a tour de force of this magnitude.  Perhaps this was part of what attracted Ricky Jay to the music. Last summer, the Elizabeth, New Jersey native told the Newark Star-Ledger, “In high school…I went into Manhattan every chance I got. Most of my classmates had this strange psychological barrier about going into the city, but I would go see Roland Kirk, [Thelonious] Monk, [John] Coltrane. I remember seeing Richard Pryor at the Café Wha.  And of course the magicians.”

Rahsaan Roland Kirk, the blind multi-reedist who employed a sleight-of-hand-and-breath virtuosity when playing as many as three horns simultaneously, projected an aura of ceremonial magic in concert. And Pryor’s genius for verbal elaboration and rhythmic inflection makes him the most jazz-oriented of comics. But it’s not only the challenge of linking idea and execution that jazz and the magic arts share. Historical lineage is ever present too. As I watched Deceptive Practice, I was moved by the homage that Ricky Jay pays to his predecessors, both to those who took him under their wing and entrusted him with their methods (which he likens to studying under a sensei master in the martial arts), and to the legendary figures of time past. The 88-minute film by Molly Bernstein and Alan Edelstein is rich with images of magicians and memorabilia going back centuries, and the scroll of sources in the documentary’s credits indicates they scoured archives and collections far and wide for material.

Deceptive Practice illuminates a world I’d never given much thought to, whereas Ricky Jay himself has been a compelling figure ever since I first saw him 26 years ago in David Mamet’s directorial debut, House of Games. True to form, in Mamet’s movie Jay is first seen dealing cards in a game in which he’s the supposed mark in a con that he and Joe Mantegna are running on Lindsay Crouse. Here’s the scene.

Mamet directed the Obie Award-winning stage production, Ricky Jay & His 52 Assistants, and Ricky’s appeared in other Mamet movies, including The Spanish Prisoner, which stars one his biggest fans, Steve Martin. Martin touted the Ricky Jay documentary on a recent appearance on Late Night with David Letterman. Like his mentor Johnny Carson, Letterman is a devotee of the magic arts, and he hailed Deceptive Practice as “fascinating and historically dense with information.” Apropos its subject, there’s no shortage of disarming humor in the film, and one of its funniest moments occurs in a scene involving Martin and Ricky Jay on Dinah Shore’s TV show.

Ricky Jay’s first mentor was his grandfather, Max Katz, who gave him the early guidance that landed the six-year-old Ricky on television. Katz was a CPA and a respected amateur magician; among his clients was Slydini, the Italian-born sleight-of-hand master whom Jay also learned from. But these connections can take one only so far, for as T.S. Eliot observed, tradition “cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must earn it by great labor.” As the film makes abundantly clear, Ricky Jay’s a tireless worker. No one watching Deceptive Practice is likely to come away thinking there’s anything simple about magic, and you’ll definitely appreciate the difference between the kinds of tricks amateurs play at parties, the wiseguys with a notion of “I know something you don’t know,” and what Jay told the Star-Ledger is “something much more profound.  It’s about creating a sense of wonder.”

In the parlance of his art, Deceptive Practice “tells” us a lot about Ricky Jay’s fairly secretive personal life and emotional core. In addition to timelines and datelines, he reveals a split with his parents that could only have intensified his familial-like devotion to his mentors. We learn also that in late middle age he’s enjoying marriage to a woman of soulmate proportions. Love and marriage. Love and magic. What Deceptive Practice underscores is that like the most endearing masters of any idiom, Ricky Jay is both a brilliant exponent of his art and a trusted keeper of the keys.

Molly Bernstein, Ricky Jay, Alan Edelstein at the New York Film Festival in 2013

Molly Bernstein, Ricky Jay, Alan Edelstein at the New York Film Festival in 2013

I’ve known filmmaker Alan Edelstein for over thirty years, from about the time he began producing his first documentary, a film on guitarist, banjo, and ukulele player Roy Smeck.  Renowned as the “Wizard of the Strings,” Smeck was a vaudevillian who became an early star of radio and was seen in cameos in many movies. Roy’s moniker lent its name to Edelstein’s film which in turn brought the Banjo Hall of Famer unanticipated late-career recognition. Wizard of the Strings earned Edelstein and director Peter Friedman an Academy Award nomination for Short Documentary in 1986.

Edelstein grew up in Northampton, where he presented Roy Smeck in concert with the Valley Big Band at the Academy of Music in 1982. Scenes from the concert were included in Wizard of the Strings, which is slated for release on DVD this year. Edelstein (and co-director Bernstein) will be back at the Academy on Sunday, February 9, for a 2 p.m. screening of Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay.  A Q&A with the filmmakers will follow the movie.

Here’s a scene from Ricky Jay & His 52 Assistants.

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