Blue Christmas

Come Christmas I especially miss Charlie O’s…many a chilly December night I spent time in there sipping whiskey and listening to saxophoned renditions of Blue Christmas. A reharmonized Blue Christmas, perhaps, alien and even utterly unrecognizable to those of us not be bop musicians, but the head would return soon enough and it would be a blue, blue Christmas all over again. Herman Riley would let the last notes fade in a sigh and the sound of pads closing, one by one, till there was nothing but utter silence in a stilled room. The patrons would wait till every last air molecule passed through the bell of his horn into the ether before applauding. I think about that often now. For some reason I’ve thought about it even more this Christmas. The vibe is some rooms seems timeless, but alas they are anything but, and once their time is over there’s only silence and memories.
Saxophonist Chuck Manning on some night at Charlie O's.

Saxophonist Chuck Manning on some night at Charlie O’s.

On the road

(Good lord….this is an abandoned draft for a piece I later posted called Mix Tapes. It began as an essay about cassettes. Then apparently I was possessed by Jack Kerouac. Strange, in that I was never a fan. But here I am in the imaginary travelogue of a Good Sam Club beatnik. Apparently at some point I reread this, blanched, and then fearing for my sanity I lopped off these paragraphs. Fun idea, though, you have to admit.)

Part of the problem is that it’s virtually impossible to actually play my old mix tapes anywhere. I still have my ridiculously fancy double cassette deck I bought cheap in the technology’s final throes. It has all these sad features that attempted to match CDs. You can program a cassette and it will play the tunes in any order you want. One tune will end with a loud click, then the machine will whir, click, whir again, click again, and another tune will come out. All these tunes off a cassette played in random sequence. Both sides. Side A track three followed by side B track seven followed by side A track one. Whatever. It seemed so sad and pointless. Like making a really nifty adding machine to compete with calculators or a glow in the dark slide ruler to compete with personal computers. Yet I consider it a tragedy that cars no longer have built in cassette players. Best was a cassette/CD player. Ideal would be cassette/CD/mp3 player. Of course now cars come with a built in computer. So you have CD/mp3 player/infinite variety of web-based music. Which is when you crash the car. So you hire a chauffeur.

Maybe a motor home would be better. You could have live music in a motor home. Can you imagine anything cooler? Hauling ass across the Mojave at three in the morning, the craziest shit happening right behind you. That long sleepy night time stretch between Baker and State Line, all the scenery, the long dead volcanoes to the south, the vast beds of ancient lakes, the desiccated mountains all utterly gone in the darkness, and you’d be ensconced in that driver’s seat, drinking coffee but thinking of whiskey and behind you some handpicked players playing a long, long set, hundreds of miles worth of jazz. Inner Urge? They’d tear into it. The Bridge? Like you’d never heard it. Giant Steps? Need you ask? Then next stop 88 miles and they break into East Broadway Run Down and you’re barreling past all those goddamn trucks. You’re flying. Like this is the most righteous motor home ever. It’s maxed out, tricked out, pumped up, and fully stocked. There’s a bar, a bartender even, and it’s like a 747 lounge but way cooler. I read about a party Jackie Gleason threw on a train from New York City to Los Angeles. A solid week of a rolling righteous jazz party. The partiers got off that train and they died right there in Union Station of shock at the sight of so many sober people. They hadn’t seen somebody uncrocked who wasn’t in a Pullman uniform since Albany. (The city, obviously, not Joe.) Well I’d throw a motor home party and zig zag across the states with live jazz and beautiful scenery and local eateries and picnics full of leftovers and produce from farmer’s roadside produce stands. Stop late at night, sit round a fire and talk and talk. Drinks, marshmallows, the sweet smell of reefer coming from somewhere. Low volume chatter, people are sleeping. Early next morning we’d relaunch with a scatter of gravel and an open road. Put something into the cassette/cd/mp3 player. Something easy to start with. And more coffee. There’d still be a little pink in the eastern sky. No fixed direction, no plan, no nothing. Just moving and looking and breathing all that air. Somewhere in the middle of nowhere the band would start, just jamming on a blues. A long lazy trumpet solo. A river off in the distance. Mountains ahead. A fork in the road. Someone flip a coin. Left or right. East, west, north, south. Whatever. Doesn’t matter. Just keep moving and jamming and living a crazy, beautiful life. Of course there’s the money thing, the reality thing. But if I were a Herb Alpert, say, this is what I would do.

Man, this story got a little off track back there. We were talking about cassettes. Blogging is like a too long saxophone solo, or an acid trip. Or a crazy guy on a bus, talking and talking. But I really have thought these thoughts out there on the road. Alas I have to work like everyone else. All the stories I could be living, but can’t afford to, so I make them up. Reality has never been my strong suit.

Zoe

Maybe a decade ago this sax player I know calls to tell me about a gig he had coming up. Some nice jazz club in the Valley, Spazio or La Ve Lee or somewhere like that. Now I really dug the guy’s sound on tenor. Still do. He plays a relaxed be bop, and plays some mean funk, too. This was his funk band coming up. He rattled off the names of all these great players. Heavy cats as they say. We also got a singer, he told me, named Zoe.

Zoe? What’s her last name?

No last name, he says, she’s just Zoe. And she’s just starting out. She’s been doing a lot of acting.

She’s an actress?

Well, sort of. Actually, um, you’re not supposed to know this, but she’s been in porno for a long time, but under a different name.

Oh….

So she’s a porn star jazz vocalist? I was actually kinda impressed, since no one just becomes a jazz singer, the way no one just becomes an opera singer. It takes years of practice. The porn by day, jazz by night (or other way around) lifestyle must have been hectic. And she’s just called Zoe?

Yeah. That’s her new singing name. She wants to move on from the acting and be a jazz singer.

Oh….

Well, I said, she must be pretty good to be in your band.

Um…well, this is her first gig. But she’s really excited about it, the new career move and all. Just come on down and check us out.

Well, I missed the gig. So he sent me a clip. The band was good, and I gotta admit she was hip. In fact she was all hip, and I never seen a jazz singer move them quite like that. Poly rhythms, I guess you’d call them. Funny he didn’t include her singing. Not a peep, not a note.

A jazz Halloween

Another great Halloween in South Pasadena, hundreds of kids, ran out of candy early. And either I’m getting taller or the trick or treaters are getting shorter. Don’t think under two feet, but close.  Moms are getting slinkier, too, not that I noticed. Boas are still in. I worry about the kids running down the front steps, but it was a stunning mom in six inch heels that nearly toppled over. She caught herself, regained her composure, and it was like nothing ever happened. Slinking and styling on Halloween.

Elliott Caine had picked out some crazy 20th century classical music and New Thangy free jazz vinyl to freak the trick or treaters. It blasts from the living room. Ornette getting weird. Stravinsky way out there. Some of the kids notice. That’s some weird music, Mister. They take their treat and run. Archie Shepp is really getting down now, we’re partying, handing out candy, eating pizza, freaking on some of the crazier costumes–you can always tell when mom or dad is an artist. Their kids look like an installation. Archie is screaming on a big fat tenor, a battery of African drummers generates waves of syncopation, the arrangement lays in horns like Duke Ellington. Swinging, pounding, screaming. Crazy. Trick or Treat. We toss candy in the bags. Thank you! Goblins are very polite these days.

Later, candy gone, we turned out the lights, shut the door and retreated to the inner sanctum. Time to stretch. Fyl flips through a beautiful volume of Herman Leonard, the pictures of long gone jazz players are black & white and ill lit, full of shadows, smoke haunting the frame like ghosts. Miles Davis blowing behind us, cooking, Trane comes in blowing sudden rushes up and down the scale, but Miles owns the session. Elliott stops to listen to a particularly good passage. His fingers work the solo. It’s all about Miles tonight. Fifties Miles, Prestige Miles. No Lee Morgan this year. It’s the Prince of Darkness. Fyl shows us a Herman Leonard photo. Miles with trumpet, glaring. Jazz noir. Day of the Dead. Elliott starts telling us about another old jazz cat who had died, a player, can’t recall the name now, and how his son had just given him the old man’s record collection. Two big boxes full of amazing albums. We’re flipping through them and sampling some on the turntable. All kinds of great 1950’s stuff, a lot of west coast cool, and we’re digging the sounds and the wind is blowing and shivering branches tap the window. Fyl says they’re calling us. Who? The dead. The dead? The dead jazz musicians, she says. All the ones in this book. They want to come in. We laugh when an incredible trombone solo comes out of nowhere. Frank Rosolino, on cue, on Halloween. Properly sensitized, we sit in the dark, listening to the wind and the bones and telling scary Frank Rosolino stories. A jazzman Halloween.

Louis Armstrong and Death itself, "Pennies from Heaven" (1935).

Louis Armstrong and Death itself, “Pennies from Heaven” (1935).

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Herman Riley again

Lockjaw and Prez made him pick up the saxophone. This was New Orleans. There was a teenaged “Iko, IKo”, the very first. By ’63 he’s in L.A., playing Marty’s every night, and players—Sonny Rollins, everybody—dropping by, sitting in. Steady work with Basie and the Juggernaut and Blue Mitchell. Twenty years with Jimmy Smith. A million sessions for Motown and Stax, and first call for a slew of singers—that’s where you refine those ballad skills, with singers. Live he slips into “In A Sentimental Mood” and everything around you dissolves. There’s just his sound, rich, big, full of history, a little bitter, maybe, blowing Crescent City air. He gets inside the very essence of that tune, those melancholy ascending notes, till it fades, pads closing, in a long, drawn out sigh. You swear it’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever heard, that song, that sound, and you tell him so. He shrugs. “It’s a lifetime of experience” he says, then calls out some Monk and is gone.

LA Weekly, 2006

Herman Riley, with John Heard on the bass.

Herman Riley, with John Heard on the bass.

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Jazz person

A writer just accused me of not being a jazz person. Not sure why exactly, something to do with either liking rock music or rock music fans. He sure was pissed though. I wonder what I have to do to prove I’m a jazz person? Just what is a jazz person? Am I a fraud? Now I’m having an existential crisis. What would Monk do? Well, actually Monk would mumble and spin around and not get up till sundown. Though that’s not being a jazz person, that’s being a Monk person. I tried to be a Mingus person, taught my cat to use the toilet and everything, but somebody chased me with an ax. And I tried to be a Roland Kirk person but kept bumping into things. So I decided to be a Wynton person and just get on everyone’s nerves. Which automatically makes me a jazz person. Existential crisis over.

Letter of reference

 
[Pardon this one, but I’m posting it as an online letter of reference.]
 
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“At Charlie O’s, it’s a bebop house, let’s face it. But when Brick Wahl comes in, he wants the real deal, so I open up for him. I won’t hold back! Whenever Brick Wahl’s around, I have to play no holds barred. He’ll say, ‘Oh I sure like that, man.’ He was a drummer, you know that? He’s the real deal. He’s not a jive dude, you get him in a conversation, no bullshit about him at all. I tried to thank him for giving me a pretty nice write-up, tried to pay for his wife’s dinner and buy his beer — he got PISSED! I never made that mistake again. He was just doin’ his gig.”


Charles Owens to L.A. Times writer Greg Burk, July 2011
 
 
 
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A duck walks into a bar…

My brother used to annoy the hell out of me with this joke: A duck walks into a bar. Bartender says what do you want, duck? Duck says you got any grapes? Bartender says no, I don’t have any grapes. I got whiskey, gin, vodka, run, beer, you name it, but no grapes. And besides, I hate ducks. You show up here again I’ll nail your web feet to the floor. The duck leaves. Next day the duck walks into the same bar. Bartender stares at him. Duck says you got any nails? Bartender says no, I don’t have any nails! Duck says you got any grapes?

My brother told that joke a hundred times. I began to hate that joke.

A couple nights ago there was a delay in the set as Charlie Haden’s orchestra was getting together the right charts. Someone said tell a joke. Haden looks up. A joke? OK. I know this great joke. He hobbles up to the microphone. Let me get it straight in my head first so I don’t screw it up, and thinks a minute. OK. Here it is: A duck walks into a bar…..

OK…when your brother deliberately torments you a zillion times with a stupid duck walks into a bar joke it’s one thing. I mean you wind up hating the joke. But when Charlie Haden tells the same joke, do you seethe or do you laugh? I laughed. I had to. Everybody else was.

Besides, it was funny.

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Halloween

A friend was just bitching about Halloween. He hates Halloween. He hates everything, actually, but today he hates Halloween. I love Halloween. Not Halloween for grown ups so much, that can be annoying, but for kids. We go out to South Pasadena every Halloween and cover the trick or treat action at the door for a jazz trumpeter and his wife. They walk their little ones around the neighborhood and we man the door. There are hordes of kids, hundreds and hundreds, from cindy lou who’s a foot high to Occidental College students with a hat and a brown paper bag and that herbal smell.  One time some Hooters girls came dressed as Hooters girls. Funny what you remember.

After the kids are all gone (or the candy runs out) we drink beer and eat pizza and hang and listen to Lee Morgan on scratchy vinyl and the trumpeter tells jazzy tales of woe, degradation, and soloing pure and beautiful. Later, back home, we’ll catch the tail end of whatever horror movie marathon is on. Bela, Boris and Vincent Price. Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley’s heaving bosom. The bite comes hard, with a crunch, and the blood flows and runs down Christopher Lee’s chin. Barbara swoons. My wife gnaws on a Snickers bar she copped from the bowl. I’m chewing some bubble gum. We drink beers and watch and shiver. Halloween.

It’s our connection to the pagan past, Halloween is, and to an early Christianity when death was ever present and  the souls of the fallen were all around us, lost in limbo. We lit candles then, we prayed, we cowered, and we saw spectres everywhere. They were real then. They’re on the TV now. But if you let the stories get to you, really get to you, the spectres can be real all over again, and you can feel a hint of the terrors of life in the dark, dark ages.

Cool, no?

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Jazz Critics Awards

My favorite music columnist ever was Bob Tarte, who never let the fact that it was completely untrue get in the way of weaving an odd story into what should have been a collection of world music reviews. I mean he’d still review the cds, but the reviews would be worked into a strange narrative that sometimes was true and sometimes flat out bullshit. No matter. He wrote well, was funny as hell, and never met a genre he didn’t like.

One Sunday nite I was putting together the week’s Brick’s Picks and man what a dead week. It happens. I tried over and over to write a column that didn’t bore me to tears. No go. So I decided this was my Bob Tarte moment. And here was my opening paragraph:

Well, the Jazz Critics Guild had their awards ceremony, perhaps you saw it on TV. Stars galore, and world famous jazz musicians, and Hef and all the girls. Paparazzi and autograph seekers and Joan Rivers on the red carpet, trashing all our clothes. Billy Crystal couldn’t make it, but fill-in Ricky Gervais was sweet as pie. Quite the gentleman. Boney James grooved but unfortunately no one could understand anything he said the jive was so thick. Great hat, though. The presentation went on all night, and every critic went home clutching his Lenny except yours truly. Couldn’t even win the Tallest Jazz Critic award (who knew Kareem was reviewing jazz now?) All the critics left with their statuettes, Joan Rivers gushing and all the rock writers green with envy. Empty handed, I left for the after party. It was a drag. Kept getting mistaken for the bouncer.  Eventually everybody wound up in the recording studio under the pool at the Sunset Marquis laying down “We Are the World” in different time signatures. I couldn’t get into it and split for the Rainbow, got into an argument and was beaten up by Lemmy. This town will break your heart. 

I submitted and forgot about it.

A couple days later I get a panicky email from my editor. URGENT!!! Call me ASAP about column!!!!!!! So I called him. It was the first time we’d ever spoken actually…in fact he was one of the only of my thirteen editors at the LA Weekly to ever hear my voice. And to this day he’s still never met me. None did, I think, except the first couple. I preferred being the mysterious cat who turned in copy no one there could understand without ever being seen. That way they didn’t bug me and I didn’t demand they pay me what I was worth. (Writers got paid then. We didn’t yet owe it to our readers to write for the sheer privilege of having them read us. I have actually been told this, more than once.)  Anyway, my editor was freaking out bad. He said my first paragraph didn’t make any sense, and the other editors–his bosses–freaked. Apparently they couldn’t tell if it was real or not.  Maybe they were freaked out about lawsuits. Ricky Gervais would get all uppity English and sue. Joan Rivers would say something perfectly awful. Lemmy would beat them up. I have no idea. But my editor killed the lede. He editor was effusively apologetic. I think they expected me to throw a writerly tantrum. I guess we do that. But I just said no problem, I just made it all up anyway. It was a dull week. He sounded bewildered but relieved.

Hell, I said, I just thought it was funny. He didn’t. He would now, as he’s no longer there, but being an editor at the LA Weekly at the time was like working for Stalin in the 1930’s. A people’s hero one week, a non-person the next. All traces removed. At least the bullet to the back of the head was metaphorical.

Anyway, when the issue came out that Thursday the offending paragraph was excised, as I was told. In its place was the following:

“It’s awards season and even the Jazz Critics Guild got in on the red-carpet action.”

Which means they believed it. I don’t know who exactly–was it my editor (which I doubt), or the editors above him, or Stalin him or herself? I have no idea. But whoever it was, they believed it. The Jazz Critics Awards, the Jazz Critics Guild, Ricky, Joan, Lemmy, all of it. Even “We Are the World” under the pool ar the Sunset Marquis. I liked to think they fell for the whole bit, hook line and sinker.

I said to myself I can retire now.

And I did, a year later.