Eric Dolphy Day

From a Brick’s Picks, 2010….one of the great things about writing for the LA Weekly is that they let me write whatever the hell I wanted. No one there knew anything about jazz so they couldn’t tell if I was telling the truth or not, and they knew less about hockey. (I remember a copy editor thought Stanley Cup was a guy.) I never actually went to the office and almost no one knew who I was or even what I looked like, which made me all the more unapproachable. So if I said I flew to Vancouver for the Eric Dolphy Parade and a hockey riot broke out, who was going to argue….

When we heard that the city of Vancouver planned to commemorate both Eric Dolphy’s birthday and the Canucks’ Stanley Cup championship with a bass clarinet parade we made plans to be there. The game was a hard fought massacre. After someone’s grandmother put the last goal into the Vancouver net the mood began to get ugly. We slipped outside to get a good spot for the parade. But the mood on the street was just as ugly, and getting uglier. Not an ideal jazz crowd. Around the corner you could hear several hundred bass clarinets either tuning up or playing one of Dolphy’s more outside pieces. The cacophony grew louder as the parade came up the street. In a remarkable display of civic counterpoint the crowd chanted Bruins Suck! Suddenly one of the musicians broke ranks and swinging his bass clarinet like a hockey stick broke half a dozen windows. The other musicians followed, hundreds of them, smashing windows with their bass clarinets and wreaking havoc. The crowd went nuts, breaking windows, chanting, burning, looting. Fistfights broke out everywhere. This was not the true jazz spirit. We fled back to the limo, made a beeline for the airport, and got to LA in time for the third set at Charlie O’s. Soothed by the hard bop and a couple whiskeys, we stole the waiter’s pen, grabbed a stack of cocktail napkins and wrote this column.

Go Canucks

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Buddy Collette

Buddy Collette passed from this mortal coil in 2010. I loved Buddy Collette, and here’s the obit I put together for the LA  Weekly. I remember it was a last minute job, and the editor gave me an hour or two to turn in copy, so I had to go with this, my initial draft. Fortunately I’d had long conversations with Buddy, and so I could let him tell his own story.

You never really talked to Buddy Collette, you listened. That’s an octogenarian’s right, saying your piece without being interrupted. He’d been wheel chair bound for years now, ever since the stroke that took away his chops, but he had no intention of sitting in a corner and withering away. Not Buddy Collette. This was a man who had been at the very birth of L.A. Bebop, with Charles Mingus, Lucky Thompson, Britt Woodman, who’d broken the color barrier and gotten himself into a television studio orchestra. A man who’d help integrate the musicians union, one of this town’s little known unknown Civil Rights achievements. He played with everybody, not just his old bebop running buddies, but with the big bands of Gerald Wilson and Benny Carter and so many others…if they rehearsed in L.A. and were integrated at all he likely as not was in the ranks, playing and writing. He played flute in the legendary Chico Hamilton Quintet…and that’s his tune, “Blue Sands”, that Eric Dolphy plays on in the documentary Jazz On a Summer’s Day. Buddy’s flute playing was so fine, so distinctive. It was his best axe. Many of his best students, Eric Dolphy and James Newton among them, seemed to pick up on that, becoming glorious flute players themselves.

It’s amazing the players he taught. Mingus is probably his most renowned student, though Collette was still a kid himself at the time. There’s great stories of them on a street car, he with his alto sax, Mingus heaving into a double bass, making music for very tolerant riders. He taught Frank Morgan, Sonny Criss, Charles Lloyd (who’s in town this weekend, coincidentally). Who knows how many more. He stayed in L.A. when his contemporaries—Mingus and Dexter Gordon among them—headed to New York and fame. Buddy had a family here. A house. Steady work. L.A.was home. He was born here, lived here, died here. He was Angeleno to the core.

A stroke robbed us of his beautiful playing back in 1998. It hit the L.A.jazz scene hard, losing an institution like that. Thing was, he was still here. He did the hospital thing for a while, then the recovery thing. He was driving himself around before long—probably without doctor’s permission, but no matter. He dove head first back into educating and organizing. And he kept talking. He still had that. Had his memory too, a jazz musician’s extraordinary memory, and he’d forgotten nothing. Steven Isoardi and the UCLA Oral History Project sat him down in front of a microphone and let him go. It poured out, into a dozen or so phone booked sized volumes, all of Buddy’s past. Of Central Avenue, and the union battles. Tales of Mingus, of everybody, of L.A.back then in the forties and fifties, and what had changed for the better, and what hadn’t. You can read some of it in Central Avenue Sounds. But he had more to say. All you had to do was ask.

Buddy wished he could have had more time to tell his story. He had so much to tell. He could have gone on for hundreds or thousands of hours. Didn’t take much to get him going. Ask a question and out poured jazz stories and civil rights stories and stories about all the people he’s ever worked with, had grown up with, partied with, made beautiful music with. There was anger in there…he once said the history just doesn’t get across the anger.  The pent up rage of being a second class citizen in Los Angeles back then, with the cops and the rip offs and the gigs you simply could not get just because you were the wrong color.  Desegregation had been a rough battle. Watching his beloved Central Avenue go to rot and junk had been rough. There was plenty to be angry about. He’d make sure you understood that. But it’s so hard to stay angry. He’d never played angry…his music was anything but. It was sophisticated, swinging, bopping and beautiful. That’s what he got across to the kids too, taught then to play real jazz. Hearing those kids play he knew just what he’d been struggling for all those years.

It was a good life, Buddy. We’re going to miss you.

Barber shop quartets

Barber shop quartets. No one thinks of them anymore. Not even in jokes. Not even in commercials. They are gone. They were everywhere, once, sweet adelining in four part harmony, but they’re gone now. Extinct. Like dinosaurs in candy striped shirts. “When you hear music, after it’s over, it’s gone, in the air. You can never capture it again” Eric Dolphy said. Though I doubt he was thinking about barbershop quartets.

There are lots of cemeteries out near Palm Springs–Sinatra’s out there, and William Powell–full of past generations, and there are thrift stores, full of those past generations’ stuff. Flip through the record bins and you will find barber shop quartet LP’s by the dozen. Four guys in candy striped shirts with vast mustaches waxed like my neighbor’s Camaro. They stand mouths agape, and there’s a barber pole and a guy in a barber chair swathed in shaving cream, looking disturbed. You will find all kinds of these albums in thrift stores in Palm Springs, every one of which opens with “Bill Bailey”, and finishes with “Sweet Adeline”. I was always terrified of the idea of a barber shaving me while singing Bill Bailey. Syncopation and straight razors never make a great combination. Sweet Adeline would be OK, though.

The old people–our fathers, probably your grandfathers–also had collections of albums of forgettable music with unforgettable models on the covers in various states of undress. Come hither they whispered. Zowie. How many of my generation lost their imagination’s virginity looking at dad’s records? We didn’t have internet porn then, and Playboys were locked away, so all we had was the thrill of those women and wondering if they really do drape themselves across pianos like that.

They don’t.

The bins are also full of the greatest generation’s Dixieland records. They made the world safe for democracy, that generation did, and then they listened to Dixieland. Not while saving the world for democracy–Basie and Ellington and the Dorseys and Glenn Miller scored those scenes–but afterward, when they settled down and grew vaguely nostalgic about the music their own fathers listened to. As the originals were all ’78’s few could play them, even by the fifties. So they went out and bought records by the Firehouse Five Plus 2, Turk Murphy and a thousand similar bands across the country. Those records are fun, actually, even a blast, and a lot of the bands are first rate. A little hokey, sometimes, redolent of good times and happy funerals and riverboats slapping the Mississippi into white foam. It was a fairly innocent jazz. The Firehouse Five Plus 2 played Disneyland. They never played in whorehouses or got in knife fights or suffered acute alcoholic psychosis that landed them in the loony bin for the rest of their lives. No, this was all straw hats and banjos and good times. But I like them. My dad loved the stuff. I have a mess of them tucked away in the record cabinet, segregated from the real jazz that my real jazz friends listen to. That way nobody gets embarrassed.

And then there were sound effects records that were ideal for early marijuana experimentation, replete with prepared piano dissonance and percussion that would boing from speaker to speaker. Remember those? No? My dad had some, a bunch of them to go with the giant hi-fi console and speakers in the living room. We’d sit in the dark and listen to funny sounds pan from one end of the room to the other. My favorite was the fireworks show. Ten minutes of people listening to fireworks, oohing and ahhing and breaking into applause, big booms and whistles and bangs in the background. Wintry nights in Maine pretending it was 4th of July. There are scores of these records in the bins. Not sure why I never pick any up. They certainly were popular with the exotica crowd a few years ago. They’d put on Tiki shirts like their dads are wearing in the old photographs, and mix long forgotten martinis and listen to Martin Denny records. Somehow these people always thought that I, a jazz fan, was therefore a Martin Denny fan. Funny how wrong people can be. I never made the mistake of thinking the Tiki crowd was nuts about Dixieland, however. Or Cecil Taylor.

You can listen to Martin Denny, though. Listen to a lot of those old space age pop records, if only for the jazz players mentioned in Stan Cornyn’s liner notes. With patience, you can hear some terrific soloing. Those records helped an entire generation of musicians who’d once had steady work in swing bands now make the rent. I still catch myself picking up the occasional LP because a favorite jazz player–Buddy Collette, say, or Don Fagerquist–are in the credits. Jazz on the cheap, sort of.

Then there is Nelson Eddy and Jeanette McDonald. The gene that made those records listenable seems to have disappeared from the genome. What sounded like real music to our grandparents sounds like torture to us now. Their albums stuff the Palm Springs thrift store bins where they sit forever, unwanted. Let’s just say that Gilbert and Sullivan did not age well for the rock’n’roll generation. It must sound like gas music from Jupiter to the hip hop generation. I hear Nelson Eddy and Jeanette McDonald and I thank god for Bing Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald and the others who saved my people from operetta.

Though personally I never minded a barbershop quartet.

No Bill Bailey?

No Bill Bailey?