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.

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Cold

We haven’t had a good December cold snap like this in a few years.  Thirty eight degrees just before sun up this morning and people are freaking. People from Buffalo and Chicago and NYC and Erie and Canada feel betrayed. I thought I left this at home they say. As if thirty eight degrees in December would even make the news back home. Southern California thins the blood, they’ll say. Those deep winter days hovering in the eighties will do it. People suffering through the Ice Age back east watch pretty young things in shorts marching in the Rose Parade, see all the short sleeves in the stands, the palm trees and flowers and all that warmth and before you know it the car is packed and they’re heading out here never to see snow again. Then comes arctic air. It slips uninvited down the coast all the way from Alaska and temperatures plummet and the mountains are white with snow almost to the bottom. Angelenos dig out heavy coats from the recesses of their closets, ladies buy stylish boots they’ll never wear again. People complain about the frigid temps all day long, and Jackie Johnson almost gets excited. Somebody downtown dies of exposure.

There was a cold snap a few years ago that took some of the valleys down into the high twenties….I remember I’d gone out to Sierra Madre to the Cafe 322 to catch some jazz. (Chuck Manning was playing tenor, maybe it was his quintet.) Afterward a few of us stood outside talking, all macho and freezing. Finally someone gave in and we made for our heated cars. As I drove home via the 210 the temperature kept dropping till it hovered at the freezing point. I decided I needed to go past that and keep driving till it got below thirty degrees. I headed up the Angeles Crest Highway into the mountains at midnight till the thermometer read 27 and the signs warned of black ice. On the way down the cold air seemed to refract the light in ways we never see down here in balmy southern California, and the city glittered like diamonds all the way to the Pacific.  I pulled off and got out of the car and drank my coffee and all was utterly silent. Just me and the city and the arctic air. L.A. doesn’t do cold well, but it does it beautifully.

When I got home I wrote a long account of the night–the cold, the jazz, the black ice, the steaming coffee and the glittering diamonds. Even the music I was listening to in the car. I can’t remember what I was listening to now, or any of the details. I lost that story long ago. All I have now is this, a scant paragraph and a vision of what the city looked like from a couple thousand feet up, and how quiet it all was, hushed and brittle. At night I think maybe I should make that drive again up into the mountains to regain the details. The feel, the bite of the cold, the warmth of the coffee, the glittering diamonds of the city. The silence. But it’s so warm in the house, and there’s always a game on, or a movie, or music on the stereo or things to write. A book to read. Dessert. Whatever. And besides, maybe this time when I turned round way up there I wouldn’t see glittering diamonds at all. Just a big cold city, wishing it would warm the hell up. 

Rose Parade...and you thought it's be like this every day.

The Rose Parade…and you thought it’d be like this every day.

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Giggling

I heard that my brother was on the radio giggling. I didn’t hear it myself–I can hear him giggle anytime, little private giggling sessions, laughing and laughing as only brothers can laugh and laugh. But tonight he was–is, actually,as I write this–on the radio, he and Alan Hambra, giggling and chuckling and thoroughly bechortling themselves. You can do that on college stations, giggle and bechortle yourself. Bechortle yourself silly even.*

But you can’t giggle on KCRW. You can’t even think about it. Not Henry Rollins, not nobody.Though there was a time before the lighter, friendlier Henry that giggling wasn’t even conceivable. He was like one of those mean, gnarly L.A. rappers that took names and kicked ass and shot people. Now he’s more like the Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Happy. But still giggle free. If you have wine and cheese fundraisers like KCRW then you are required to chill since no one in Santa Monica is funny. So by chill I mean rich white people chill which the rest of us would call boring but what do we know? And I never even use the word chill unless I’m making a jello salad, but when you talk KCRW-speak you gotta say chill. It’s chill or be chilled.

But on KXLU you can giggle. A little irony helps, but giggling is encouraged. Which is a good thing. Giggling on the radio is a positive life reinforcement. It’s like kayaking or volunteering at the neighborhood youth center or dancing with a mailman. It’s like petting a wiggling puppy or waving to the little towhead in the stroller. It’s like watching tight jeans walk away, slowly, with just the hint of a swish. A good thing.

Not on jazz stations, though. No giggling at all. No one has giggled in jazz since Ella Fitzgerald, unless they are way stoned or posing for album covers. And sometimes Ella doth giggle a little too much. Like maybe she wasn’t giggling inside.

OK. One time me and the legendary artist George Herms were at Charlie O’s. I can’t remember who was on but they were hip. Way hip. And Charlie O’s was hip, jazz hip. And the two hippest cats in the room–we were that night, so hip–were sitting in front of the stage a couple feet from Charles Owens or Chuck Manning or somebody which was hipper than living fuck, I mean it was so happening. Two hip cats digging the sounds. People watched us. Waited to see if we applauded first. We were that hip. You ever been that hip? I’m not that hip anymore, but George sure was, and still is, and I was, and how. Hip.

Then we started giggling. Laughing and chuckling and, thoroughly bechortled, we giggled. Couldn’t help ourselves. The very air in there was laughing gas and the music was so alive and on that we, well, giggled. Giggled and giggled, giggling and giggling.

Then it happened…..Someone hushed us. Loudly. An angry shushing. Shush!!!  And we froze, looked sheepish, and giggled.

Sometimes a man, even a hip man, just has to giggle. I suppose if you’re a Prussian you don’t giggle. You hold it in and it forces its way out in excessive boot heel clicks or the rearward song of the pumpernickel. But not a couple good ol’ American boys. No, we just did what a man has to do.

We giggled.

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* And you can make up words like bechortle if you are a writer and don’t give a fuck what anyone thinks.

Jazz and the death of the middle class

(This is a long piece never published or posted and that I believe was written in 2012. It reads like a couple pieces turned into one. I suspect that’s why I never posted or submitted it. I’ve left it as is rather than update it to 2014.)

You ever been watching an old movie and wondered just how much the prices then compare to now? Drove me nuts. So I looked around and found this site. So when Bogie asks for a dime to make a phone call in 1941, that’s a buck and a half today. A small chunk. When John Huston drops a silver dollar into Bogie’s palm in 1948, that’s a ten spot today. Not bad. It’s a fun toy to play with, this site.

Inevitably, though, you start applying it to your own life. Turns out I paid nearly $40 to be deafened by Deep Purple in 1974. and that beat up Buick Opel I bought for $350 would be $1800 today. $1800 seems a bit much for that heap now. There’s a gnawing sense that maybe the concept of $350 then wouldn’t match the concept of $1800 now. Did I really think of it the same way. Did $350 then seem like $1800 does now? I have no idea, and it’s me I’m talking about. Me thirty nine years apart. I can’t tell. I was making nearly $12 an hour in 2012 dollars at that silly-assed little job in 1979. I quit that job to be in my first punk rock band. Lifestyle issues. Work started at 8 am. I was partying till 4 am. Either the band or the job had to go. You guess which.

Now it gets less fun. I took the going rate for what I do now and see what that would have been in 2003. Turns out my pay today would be a little over half of what I made ten years ago. Of course, there was all kinds of overtime then. There’s none now, or it’s unpaid (if you work in an office, you know how that works.) So when you figure in my weekly take home then versus now in 2012 dollars, I am making half or what I made then. That’s right, 50% less. If I go back to 1993, when I first began in my chosen profession, I am making the same as I was twenty years ago. It’s like the last twenty years never happened. Of course gas is higher now (even accounting for inflation), and medical insurance is much, much higher. So I am actually earning less now than when I started out twenty years ago. A lot less.That is not only depressing, it’s astonishing. Part of that whole growing income disparity we’ve been hearing about.

Of course, I’m not the only one. This applies to the American middle class across the board. Not everyone, of course. In fact a segment has done very well. That top 20% of the US, the ones who have 85% percent of the property and over 90% of the liquid cash (i.e., real money), they’re doing terrific. There are many, many more wealthy than there ever were before, if you drive around southern California you’ll pass though vast swathes of suburbia that are devoted to them. Their big beautiful houses and expensive eateries and stores selling ridiculous things. The problem is that the other two thirds or so of the middle class have been losing ground. Their wages have plunged up to 50% historically, compared with ten or twenty years ago, and they pay much more medical costs, much more for a lot of essentials. Many of the have mortgages set bubble high, and that housing bubble burst a long time ago. You keep hearing about the disappearing middle class, you can see it when you use a little inflation calculator like this. Seeing how much you make now would have been a decade or two ago. In most of your cases, it is very depressing.

Now let’s get to my point, which is jazz, and where it’s gone, or really where the fans have gone. Well jazz was a middle class music. Some rich people, sure, but not so many…they were much more into putting on the tux and listening to classical music. That’s rich people music. They keep symphonies going. Jazz clubs were filled with people making a good living working hard for decent money, all the middle management people or civil servants or academic types. They weren’t rich, they weren’t poor, they were what was once thought of as the backbone of the country. Now the wealthy are the backbone, the job creators, the ones to whom we all look to hire and pay us and keep us off the dole. Sometimes they’re jazz fans. We in the middle class don’t make much money, and more often than not a lot less money, but we get by. We just cut out the extras. The new car, the overseas vacation, the nice restaurants. The jazz. We have to cut out jazz. Most middle class people cannot afford to go to clubs anymore. We stay home, listen to CDs and the radio and remember all those nights hearing some of the greatest music in the whole world.

It’s not the first time economics has throttled the music. The Depression wiped out the music of the 1920’s, all that hot and wild stuff. Record sales crashed by 1931, rock bottom, clubs and music halls closed, musicians nearly starved. The end of Prohibition, closing all those easy money speakeasy’s, just piled it on. Jazz recovered, but it emerged a different thing, big bad swing, selling to kids with a little change jingling in their pockets. That thrived until the economic and social dislocation that followed World War II when the crowds dried and the big bands had to bust up, a virtual mass extinction. It was all crooners and R&B, and be bop changing everything from the inside. Jazz recovered again, but was much smaller…smaller bands, smaller clubs. Still, there was money in it.  Labels thrived, and musicians made a living. This lasted a whole generation, during rich the music reached its creative apogee. Virtually every one of the major figures in jazz was from this time. Even the big bands that had lasting influence — Basie and  Ellington and the rest — worked during this period, no matter how far back in history they went. And this was a period of fairly steady economic growth, rising wages and am expanding middle class.  Your average Joe could afford to buy lots of jazz records, and there were lots of jazz records to buy. Your average Joe could afford to go to jazz clubs. Basically your average Joe could afford to be a jazz fan.

The economy went into a steep dive in the seventies and the middle class took a beating. Jazz hit the skids too, the fans disappeared, record sales dropped, there were less clubs. Fusion thrived at first, but it too lost steam by the end of the decade. The decline has always been marked up as a generational thing, rock music taking over, which was certainly true. But I wonder if the miserable economy that went on a good ten years had anything to do with it. I’m inclined to see it that way.

Economic growth picked up in the early 80’s but so did a rise in wage disparity…the middle class receiving less, the upper class more. This trend continued through  the early 90’s,  a little more each year. It leveled off somewhat during the rest of the 90’s, then renewed again in the 2000’s, until by the time Wall Street and the housing markets caved in 2008, the middle class was already shrinking, battered by the inexorable decline in their wages and benefits, outsourcing, jobs going abroad and corporate consolidations. Going out to clubs once or twice a week–which is what jazz needs to maintain an audience–became a financial risk. You spend too much money. Audiences were already dropping in 2007, even though here in L.A. there was a sudden increase in venues. Then came the crash. The stock market crashed. The housing market crashed. Jazz crashed. Audiences dwindled. Clubs folded (or stopped booking jazz) at an incredible rate. The middle class had been on the ropes for nearly thirty years and in 2008 caved in completely. Venues–and businesses in general–that catered to a middle class clientele  struggled to survive. Those that drew the upper class mostly held their own. And that trend included almost all jazz clubs in Los Angeles. The high money places tended to survive, the smaller joints like Charlie O’s or the Cafe 322 went under. I can count the surviving full-time jazz venues on the fingers on one hand, and not even bother with the thumb. And CD sales? You van make the top ten in the national sale charts by selling hundreds of compact discs. Hundreds.

I wouldn’t take this analysis too seriously. It’s just opinion. I’m not an economist, or even a businessman. I was just a jazz critic. And I know there are all sorts of reasons I haven’t even touched on, mainly generational. And maybe the music is stuck in a stylistic rut. All the various things you hear people say. But I’ve just had a nagging suspicion that maybe economics had a lot to do with it. This came to me as I wrote my jazz column in the LA Weekly. When I began in 2004 there were a lot of jazz joints out there. And often a lot of people in them. The number of people  began to drop off in 2007, something I could tell both from personal observation and from the complaints of the club owners I dealt with. Then in  2008 the numbers plummeted. Scary. It picked up a bit as people got used to the new economic reality, but those people weren’t buying dinners anymore, and were buying less drinks. Some weren’t spending any money at all. But even that audience began to disappear. There were bright spots–the Blue Whale, Vitello’s, the occasional Jazz Bakery shows scattered around town. Vibrato kept at it, Catalina still booked jazz gigs, maybe an occasional few others. But they’re wasn’t much else.. Gigs disappeared, and fans were few and far between. That hasn’t changed much since. (I think this was 2012).

The middle class is barely hanging on in this country. We hear that time and time again. Jazz isn’t hanging on at all. When they gutted the middle class, they buried jazz. If it weren’t for rich people donating to museums and institutes, I don’t know if it’d be there at all.  But then I go to the Blue Whale and think maybe it’s being born again. It’s not the sort of jazz I grew up with, but then it never is. 

The old fashioned jazz joint..tables, burgers, drinks, fans and a killer band. That's Chuck Manning on tenor and the Charlie O's house trio of bassist John Heard, drummer Roy McCurdy and pianist Andy Langham.  Three sets, no cover, two drink minimum.

The old fashioned jazz joint..tables, burgers, drinks, fans and a killer band. That’s Chuck Manning on tenor and the Charlie O’s house trio of bassist John Heard, drummer Roy McCurdy and pianist Andy Langham. Three sets (or was it four?), no cover, two drink minimum.

 

(Photo from Hot August Jazz at the invaluable AllAboutJazz.com. Charlie O’s closed that month.)

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