Jazz just seemed alive.


(pulled from an emailed essay, 2004)


I came across a great stash of jazz albums on Saturday for real cheap. One of them was a bunch of Jimmie Lunceford sides from the late thirties and early forties. I was listening to it Sunday morning, and reading the notes that talked about Central Avenue and the Dunbar Hotel, and Gerald Wilson, and on the back there is a great shot of the band from 1941, including Snooky Young on trumpet. By that afternoon I had completely forgotten all that , of course, in the middle of all the people and music and heat of the day at the Central Avenue Jazz Festival. Even while walking through the lobby of the Dunbar Hotel and looking at the pictures it hadn’t occur to me. The Gerald Wilson orchestra took the stage a few hours later, and during the first number, a Basie tune, Gerald Wilson calls out the first soloist: Snooky Young. He stood up there in the back and blew hard, and with that plunger in hand his horn was talking, telling some old, old stories. I’d seen Snooky Young there before, of course, probably every time I’d seen the Orchestra play this Festival. But having seen that picture that very morning, and listening to him solo on that old wax and then here in person, in front of me: it was different. That ephemeral connection to the old days, what I’d known only as history, suddenly became very real. Maybe it was the sunset breeze kicking up but for a minute there I felt a chill. Like watching an old black and white photo turn into color and start moving. Making history real. Jazz just seemed alive, all of it.

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.

Gerald Wilson, coming from a different time

(2013, after a show at Catalina Bar and Grill, Hollywood)

Staring at sound. I saw Gerald Wilson do just that a couple nights ago, staring right into the bell of a screaming tenor sax. Kamasi Washington was blowing like a freaking hurricane, just roaring, and Gerald stood maybe two feet in front of him, letting that crazy dangerous torrent of notes wash right over him. He watched and counted time almost invisibly, nodding ever so slightly for another chorus, and another, and another. Kamasi was loud, a big huge room filling sound, and Gerald, 95 years old, never flinched. I was sitting a few feet away, with a profile view of the scene and wishing so bad just then that I was a photographer and not a writer because I could see the picture, still can, and if I had taken that picture I’d stick it right here and cut out a thousand words. But all I have is that image burned into my brain, as perfect a jazz image as I’ve ever seen. And one I’m not likely to see again, not so close, not so perfectly framed. Gerald comes from a different time.

Gerald Wilson in the throes of creation in this priceless shot by Tony Gieske.

Gerald Wilson in the throes of creation…. (photo by Tony Gieske from the International Review of Music)

Gerald Wilson

[from Brick’s Picks in consecutive issues of the LA Weekly, 2011]

The Gerald Wilson Orchestra are perhaps this town’s signature big band. Gerald Wilson has that direct connection with this town glory days, when jazz ruled up and down Central Avenue and L.A.was second to only New York City in the quality and quantity of jazz. Of course, that was a helluva long time ago. But Gerald Wilson was there. Way back in the thirties, playing trumpet and writing arrangements for the great Jimmy Lunceford band. But here’s the thing…..Gerald Wilson never stayed back there. He left that era behind. He may have lived that history, but he’s not stuck in it. He kept writing and playing all along, putting out incredibly hip stuff in the sixties, the seventies, right into this new century. He’s had a vital, muscular orchestra all these decades, cycling in new blood and keeping on the veterans who still have the fire. The material is thrilling (including, of course, “Viva Tirado”), the solos are exultant, and the band always plays like their lives depend on it. Wilson, all ninety plus years of him, is up front driving them. The players feed off his energy and he feeds off their power. The audience gets swept up in all this jazz celebration. You see the Gerald Wilson Orchestra and you feel lucky to be there, like you’re in on a very rare thing. You are. On a good night (and we’ve yet to see a bad night) they just might be the greatest big band in the world. They’re at Catalina’s on Sunday at 7:30. One set only. Be there, man. Just be there. Continue reading