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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.)
Hanging out in the beer garden at Cafe NELA I suddenly heard the unmistakable guitar playing of Carey Fosse. Very talented guy, that Carey Fosse, trapped between rock and funk and jazz and avant garde. He touches on all of them, mixes them, drops them, picks them up again, makes weird shapes. He rocks rootsily, funks groovily, jazzes swingfully, avant gardes freakily. We stood down in the beer garden where by some sort of Twilight Zone miracle we could hear it all perfectly. Cool. We could hang and laugh and bullshit and rag on each other with a Carey Fosse soundtrack. I said time to go in and watch but Donny Popejoy showed up in a Pabst Blue Ribbon tee shirt easily worth another ten minutes chatter. OK, time to go watch Carey Fosse. He was riffing away way cool. I got to the door in time to see him putting away his guitar. It’s all in the timing.
But he had sounded great outside anyway. Very talented guy, that Carey Fosse.
(pulled from Cafe Nela)
My pal Vince Meghrouni–a fine saxman himself–posted this picture of Lester Young. Vince loves Lester Young. Loves Dexter Gordon more, probably, but he loves Lester Young. It’s a haunting photograph, he’s so thin, so gaunt, really, playing for nobody but the photographer in a bare room. Just the bed, a phone, a clarinet, a saxophonist. I asked Vince if he knew the when and where of the thing. He said sorry, he didn’t. Just one of the things plucked from Google. He just dug that it was Prez. Others liked that it was Prez too. Prez! they said. The President! Imagine that….you’ve been dead for more than half a century and people see your picture and say, simply, Prez! A nickname of a nickname transcending generations.
But it’s such a sad, haunting shot: Beautiful and sad. It looked to me to be near the end.
I dug around the web for a while, looking for answers. Turns out the photo is by Dennis Stock from a single volume collection entitled Jazz Street. You can find it but it’ll cost you, it’s a rare one. Stock was one of those post-war photographers, that New York City feel, film noir, far too early in the morning. It seemed a harder time then, at least in the cities, far from the suburbs, and photography bore that out, black and whites of blacks and whites wreathed in smoke, thinking, listening, worrying, angry. Mr. Stock shot all these jazz pics in the late 50′s, from 1957 onward. Prez died in ’59, and looked decidedly less frail in the Sound of Jazz in 1957 (playing that perfect solo for Billie Holiday) than he does here, so this is probably closer to the end, maybe 1959. He was suffering from cirrhosis (as you can plainly tell here). I heard that he lived in a flat across from one of the jazz clubs (the Vanguard?) and rarely emerged, essentially drinking himself to death. His last few official recordings from this time sound a little frail, but they still swing. I’ve got a couple live things, board recordings I think, that sound sloppy drunk, though I like them anyway. He did a couple gigs here and there those last couple years, but wasn’t getting out of his room much. Drink, illness, maybe mental illness, maybe all three. He made a last stand in Paris for a couple weeks in late ’59, nearly drinking himself to death in the process and probably breaking a lot of jazz lover’s hearts with that sound still coming out of that body. Dexter Gordon seems to nail that as Dale Turner in Round Midnight. Lester Young returned to NYC and did finally drink himself to death a couple days later. He was forty nine years old. They buried him somewhere in Brooklyn. It must have been one helluva funeral. Everybody would have been there, telling stories, remembering better times. Mingus wrote “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” soon afterward. A ridiculous hat, a beautiful tune. You can’t see the hat in this picture. You can’t hear the saxophone, either, but you can imagine it. You look, and if you know Lester Young’s music, your mind fills in the sound for you. It fills that whole room, a thin little man, a bed, bare walls and all that saxophone. A black and white photo and the lightest, most gorgeous tone you’ve ever heard. Perfection.
(Lester Young takes his solo about two minutes in. Within two years, both he and Billie Holiday were gone.)