My email is firstname.lastname@example.org. My phone is 323-420-7410. I do a lot of short writing on Facebook, and really short writing on Twitter. I’m all over the goddamn internet and all over this goddamn town.
This was an obit my editor asked for back in 2010, though I’m not sure if it ever actually made it into the Weekly….
There’s gotta be something that makes it a blue Christmas. Sometimes it something big, like a war, or a disaster, and sometimes it just a passing friend. James Moody had a lot of friends. He was just that kind of guy. And that makes for a lot of blue Christmases.
You can’t say it was really tragic, though, for Moody was one of those rare jazz icons whose music and life wasn’t streaked with bitterness, anger, regret. He was the guy that made you laugh. Made you feel good. He was the funny guy that played that gorgeous saxophone. Of course, we forget a lot. Moody, after all, “scarred by racism”, as he put it, split for Europe in the late forties for Europe. He’d had quite a young career—a long stint with Dizzy Gillespie, especially—and packed it up for overseas, where the ptomaine of the slave era racism didn’t poison almost everything it touched generations after Civil War and even a bright New Jersey kid like Moody felt suppressed by its dead hand. If you can’t beat ‘em, split, and he did. Abroad, in more ancient lands, he blossomed. He did great stuff there (look for the killer couple sessions with Frank Foster), but Moody’s Mood For Love was the most famous result. You all know it. You may not even know you do until you hear it. It’s so deeply built into jazz by now, worked its way into the jazz DNA. It’s more than a standard. Like Take Five or Kind of Blue, it’s the kind of thing you could tuck into a space capsule and shoot into space for some alien race to find a zillion years from now and listen to and get an idea of who we are. Or were. That tune was James Moody. And he was just beginning.
He wasn’t in Europe long, just long enough for him to shake out a lot of bad vibes and get tired of people not speaking English, and after a few years home and Prestige Records beckoned. This was New York City in the fifties and baby the jazz was happening in a big way, bigger than ever before or ever since. It was the music’s glory years, full of life and death and genius and fabulous, unbelievable jazz. Moody, a star now—“Mood For Love” had been big, radio big—did a whole string of classic sessions. If you know a jazz fan, they got some of these. We just pulled out a small stack of vinyl, putting something on at random. “Flute ‘N the Blues”—when was the last time you heard anyone play the flute so warm and so down to earth? And dig his “I Cover the Waterfront”, Eddie Jefferson on vocals. Oh Lord. There’s nothing like this anymore either. Not like that “Body and Soul” either. Sure, it’s two generations old, and things and jazz change with the years. But people don’t. And James Moody was that same kind of people his whole career. Listen to that horn. It’s a big huge warm alto sound. Nobody else has that. Nobody had Moody’s sense of humor, or just his way of talking to people, especially an audience. You paid good money to see James Moody, and he wanted to let you he knew that. He never turned his back to his fans. Not even now when he’s gone. Folks that knew him, remember him, the rest of us remember the music. That absolutely personal sound of his. How on alto he made jittery bebop warm and less scary. Or could blow some big bluesy tenor that wasn’t sad and doomed and drunk. How he played earthy breathy living flute, transforming a delicate European thing into something loamy and American. And we remember his voice most of all, a voice that could melt hearts when it wanted to, melt ‘em laughing. That sweet guy, James Moody.
Here’s something I wrote for the LA Weekly in 2008….
And fans of the late Herman Riley will be thrilled (amazed? relieved?) when they hear that at last there is a Herman Riley recording available…and it is fantastic. Pianist Bill Harris had released the recordings made by the Encompass Quartet recorded in Washington D.C. back in the 90’s. The band featured Albert “Tootie” Heath, and Harris plays beautifully throughout, but it is Riley who really grabs our attention across the 11 tune set of Monk and Shorter and Dizzy and Harris originals. Perhaps the best treat of all is the two Riley compositions (“MPH” and “Mama Lela”) that show that not only was he a distinctive master of his horn, but a fine writer as well. All you Los Angeles jazz fan that long for that Trane tinged, New Orleans bred saxophone tone of Herman Riley, the rush of ideas here, the aching, aching ballads there…will dig this release. It’s available at www.bhjazz.com.
[2012--I'd forgotten just how much I dug Herman Riley till I re-read this and some other old blurbs of mine. I think he was my very favorite saxophonist in town back then. His was deep stuff, man, bone real and beautiful.]
I wrote this a couple years ago on Monk’s birthday….
It’s Thelonious Monk’s birthday today. He was born on October 10, 1917 which would make him a zillion years old almost. Hard to believe. You listen to a Monk tune and it sounds now, right now, not a zillion years old. Trane is like that too. They were both from North Carolina, a hop, skip and a decade apart. People don’ t come from small towns in North Carolina and change music forever anymore. Those were different times.
I never saw Monk, something I’ve always regretted. I have the documentaries, Straight, No Chaser and the others, and watch him play, hear him speak, marvel at his dancing crazy circles across the stage. I think man, if only I could have been there. I could have seen him, in his later years, but I was nowhere near hip enough. It takes age to realize what how unhip you’d been as a kid. Unhip at least to what had been around since before you were born. You always catch on too late. But then I dove in deep. A zillion CD’s, listening all the time. The movie Straight, No Chaser. The book Straight, No Chaser. I still don’t have all his albums, there are so many. What an amazing string of releases, across what, four labels? Blue Note, Prestige, Riverside and a big fat deal with Columbia. His music—the tunes were terrific, Monk could write a memorable melody to say the least, and his whole approach to the piano was kind of crazy. Powerful fingers plonking out big crashes of chords, or hanging above the keyboard, waiting to pounce. Then he’d whomp a comp so hard it might startle a more fragile band, but his players dealt with it, thrived on it, though at times might have been confused by it. And I loved the way he’d tinkle the keys between those whomps, laying out the melody with big fat notes, like Count Basie notes but lurching and sudden and surprisingly sensitive. I loved his striding swing, a stride you don’t hear anymore and probably didn’t hear much then. But Monk loved to stride. And then there were the ballads. They lilted in their own way and broke my heart. On Monk Himself, I’d listen to all those out-takes of Round Midnight, one try after another, the man struggling to come up with exactly the music he wanted. Finally, beautifully, it emerges. It’s almost spooky. The album was recorded on April 12 and 16, 1957, but if you wade through the liner notes (this was back when I waded through liner notes) it says how actually that was from a late night session on April 5. The studio was in New York City somewhere, I’d have to dig out the liner notes for the street and borough. About that exact same time, an hour south along the Jersey shore but closer as a crow would fly, I was being born. A nice coincidence. No significance, but a nice coincidence for me, anyway. I thought about telling someone but never did. They wouldn’t get it. I just listen to Monk laboring through Round Midnight and imagine Mom laboring with me. I was a rough birth, a huge kid, her first. They used forceps back then, just squeezed and pulled as she squeezed and pushed. Finally, about the time Monk worked out the melody, I emerged. He played, I bawled.
I think about this a lot as I listen to Monk. I don’t dwell on it, but I think about it.
Back in 2006 some hip brewery in northern California came up with a rich brown ale and called it Brother Thelonious. I can’t remember why they called it that, or what was in it, but I remember it was bitter and dark. One of those Belgian things. You can still buy it. I see it at jazz parties, sometimes, though it ain’t cheap and jazz people are so I don’t see it that often. The brewery had a Brother Thelonious release party in Santa Monica in 2006. (Can a beer have a release party?) The Monk Institute provided the music..Walter Smith III and I believe Ambrose Akinmusire were featured soloists. Maybe even Gerald Clayton. They didn’t look too thrilled performing at a beer party. The tunes were all Monk. A little restrained, maybe–the Institute keeps a tight leash–but then the marketers didn’t want to scare the folks. Monk done Monkishly can still scare the folks. We got several bottles of the ale–they were handing them out–but they were guzzled by lushes at our Christmas party. I recall them discussing Monk in slurred admiration. We also got the cool poster. It still hangs in the kitchen. Been there six years now. Happy birthday, Thelonious. If it hadn’t been for you I’d never have become a jazz writer. If it hadn’t been for you I’d never have been. Well, not really, but there hasn’t been a birthday of mine in years that I haven’t listened to that final take of Round Midnight.
One of my favorite jazz pieces, it seems forgotten today. Not sure why. He recorded it in 1948, well before people really thought of doing anything like this. It’s an art piece, really, and within twenty years there’d be hundreds of solo tenor sax recordings. But in 1948 this was about it. I suppose with the bebop explosion going on something as spooky and contemplative as this would be passed over. It’s not as exciting as “KoKo”. certainly,or “Salt Peanuts”. But it’s deep, and it’s beautiful, and it’ll hang with you for quite a while. Those were jukebox nights then, and for a nickel you could sit at the bar and smoke and drink your rye and listen to the notes of an unseen saxophonist. It ends with the melody hanging in the air, unresolved, just like this.
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.
(from an LA Weekly article–2005. My editor Greg Burk and I went down to Leimert Park and wandered about. Talked to a bunch of the local jazzers. He wrote it all up in a piece and then added part of this account of a gig at the World Stage. Space limitations let him use only about half of it, but here it is in all its raging glory. To this day, I look on this Charles Owens performance–if that’s the word, it seemed more than that–as one of the most spectacular nights of saxophonery I’ve ever witnessed.)
Went down to Leimert Park on Saturday night to check out sax player Charles Owens and trumpeter Richard Grant at the World Stage. Inside, the place is just a tiny storefront with folding chairs, really, and it was stifling. Nedra Wheeler was squeezing her double bass behind an unused drum kit. Derf Reklaw, up front by his three congas, was tearing the folks up with an outrageous story about some nearby African gig where he was yelled at by the bandleader for not dressing African enough. “What you mean, man? These clothes are from Senegal! I bought ‘em there!” Owens walked in decked out in matching powder-green shirt and slacks and a big white Stetson. Absolutely incongruous; someone cracked wise about the hat. A guitar player, whom I did not know (it was a very young Steve Cotter) took one edge of the stage as Owens busied himself taking away that unused house kit a piece at a time, giving the band some breathing room. A local loony took a seat in back, chortling a little too intensely, and the doorman hushed her — for the first of several times. Outside on the street, a trumpeter was blowing loud, flat, cracked notes. Someone went out and shushed him too. Owens was doing mostly Joe Henderson tunes. Reklaw laid out some Elvin Jones rhythms that kicked up the energy — certainly got the loony going; she was squirming in her seat and shouting like Moms Mabley on bad acid. In the second set, Owens’ “Shake Your Booty” was genuinely funky; he took his solo from the back of the room, and the whole place seemed filled with the music; the loon was going even more nuts. Owens took his solo outside—literally, out onto the sidewalk, playing for all the folks out there–came back in, dropped out and Wheeler took over, laying down a swimmy groove. The encore on Joe Henderson’s “Jinrikisha” was the best, Grant blowing like Freddie Hubbard, Owens filling the air with flurries and screams, Wheeler and Reklaw locked in a monster groove, the guitar player darting around all of them. After most of the folks had wandered out, it still wasn’t over. Don Littleton came up, started messing around on the congas, Reklaw picked up his bongos, and suddenly there was a new jam, with Owens playing “Cherokee” at bop tempo over the manic hand drumming, crazier and crazier till, just like that, it ended. Reklaw, shaking has stinging hands, sat down. Littleton started up again, and Owens jumped in even madder, freer than before. When it stopped, the dozen people remaining burst into applause. They’d seen the most dangerous jazz created anywhere in L.A.that night.
(Photo is by Rick Loomis from Greg Burk’s fine piece “Charles Owens, spreading the jazz faith worldwide” in the Los Angeles Times Sept. 17, 2011. Make sure to follow the link to the full profile.)
(Photo from Jimmy Dewar’s website.)