Thursday, January 28, 2010

Easterly Winds

The first time I ever heard it, I was laying back in the chair at my jazz-loving dentist’s office and I was under the influence of laughing gas.

I tried, in my semi-delirium, to figure out what it was that I was listening to.

I thought I recognized the trumpet of Lee Morgan and the alto saxophone of Jackie McLean but I thought I’d heard pretty much everything those guys had done together and I’d never heard this particular stretch of upbeat high-energy, the trumpet and alto harmonizing above a soulful vamp.

I tried to ask the dentist what he was playing on the speakers but kept laughing at the sound of my own voice through the cotton. The dentist told me to hold still and drowned out the end of Lee’s solo with his own high-energy drill.

I kind of forgot about it after that—not sure if I’d really even heard it or it was just the nitrous oxide improving in my brain.

But about a year later I heard that tune, without the aid of any chemical, over the sound system in a Tower Records store in Marina Del Rey.

I rushed from the jazz aisle to the front counter, but the CD case wasn’t on display.

The pierced-up kids behind the counter didn’t seem to know what was playing. A girl in a bright beanie said there were “like eight CDs in the changer” and the player was “on random.”

A few years after that I heard it on the radio—KLON (the station now called KJZZ)—and made my daughter sit with me in the hot car till it was over and Jim Borges said what I’d been waiting now for almost three years to hear: “…and before that, we heard Easterly Winds out of the album of the same name by pianist Jack Wilson. The tune features Lee Morgan trumpet, Jackie McLean on Alto, Garnett Brown playing the trombone with Bob Crenshaw on bass, Billy Higgins at the drums, and the leader on that date, Jack Wilson behind the piano.”

I scribbled it down on the side of a Jiffy Lube receipt.

The next day, I went to Rhino Records, assuming they’d have a copy. They didn’t. No one did. Not even the Tower Records where I’d heard it. I asked someone behind the counter about it, told her I’d heard the album right there in the store a while ago. She said their manager liked to bring in his own stuff, just to listen. He wasn’t there to ask about it but the girl offered to order it. Together we looked it up in that thick book that was the phone directory of recorded music in the years before the internet. The girl had to make a phone call to get the price. She had to repeat it to me a few times before I couldn’t believe it.

$37—it was an import.

I wanted that music—but I just couldn’t bring myself to pay that much for a single disc. So I hustled the used bins across the city with no luck and finally found a store—Aarons Records in Hollywood—that would order it for under $20.

It took three car trips and two phone calls but, at last, I had it.

No CD player in my car in those days—I drove home with the disc still in its case on the seat next to me.

A 35 minute drive feeling the anticipation.

Then the wonder of discovery. Rediscovering the title cut that made me have to have it—and then hearing, for the very first time, the other swinging cuts: Frank’s Tune, Nirvana, Do It.

I don’t go to the jazz-loving dentist anymore. He is no longer a part of the “network” of my dental insurance.

There are no Tower Records stores anymore.

Thanks to radio state websites with their playlists, no one has to sit in a hot car with his daughter to find out the name of what just played.

Today, a person can download the Easterly Winds over their computer for 99 cents.

It would have been nice to have been able to do that when I discovered Jack Wilson.

But I’m kind of glad I didn’t.

Monday, January 25, 2010


I began listening to jazz when I was 15 and got tired of the pop music on the radio. My family had recently moved to Los Angeles and I didn’t know a lot of people and suddenly all the rock and soul music no longer seemed to be mine. I’d gone searching the FM dial for something else.

I found the electronic rhythms of Ramsey Lewis, Grover Washington Jr., Crusaders, fusion they called it at the time . Eddie Harris even electrified his saxophone. The cover of his LP Is It In showed a giant plug entering a giant wall socket.

At first all the jazz records I bought were for their cool covers. Billy Cobham’s Funky Thide of Sings had a contemplating orangatan, Bob James Two showed a golden hand gripping a red apple, Tom Scott’s L.A. Express featured a metal belt buckle attached to a belt wrapped through the loops of a pair of jeans tightly fitting around a woman’s hips just below her belly button.

Mostly, I also liked the music.

This was 1974—long before the Walkman or the Ipod, before those small headphones we all carry with us now—when people shared their music with one another, whether or not anyone wanted them to.

I walked around my school and the streets blasting Crusaders Southern Comfort, Return to Forever’s Romantic Warrior and Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters. I must have been quite a sight, strutting my army surplus pants, sagging from all the spare batteries I lugged in the side pockets, teasing out my Jewish curls with an Afro pick, and gripping a cassette tape player, bopping my head to those soulful bass lines.

One night at a bus stop, I made a discovery. With no one there with me to hear my sounds, I stopped—at least for that a moment—thinking about how they sounded to everyone else and actually listened.

Herbie Hancock’s Chameleon suddenly blew my mind—the crazed logic of the screaming synthesizers giving way to mellow piano solo. For me, that simple ten-fingered improvisation was my door into bebop. Didn’t matter that it was played on a Fender Rhodes. Herbie was throwing it back to the 50s and 60s. When I got some more record-buying cash, I picked up Maiden Voyage, My Point of View, and Takin’ Off. On that one I heard Dexter Gordan and needed to hear everything else he'd ever played.

I was hooked.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Langley's Basin Street (continued from last post)

Most of Reggie’s stories came from a guy in his apartment building, a cat named Raymond, who remembered Central Avenue when it was a jazz destination and another guy around the corner who had worked as a cashier at Dolphins of Hollywood, the coolest record store in Los Angeles.

Reggie found my copy of Roach/Brown at Basin Street and looked it over. He kept staring at the back of it and then showed me something I’d never noticed before: the name written in blue ink. I’d bought the record used—at Rhino—and knew someone’s name was at the bottom there, but never bothered to read it.

“Langley Patterson!” Reggie said, and I realized that I owned an LP that had once belonged to my favorite late-night jazz DJ. He had been stabbed to death on his way to work less than a year before.

Reggie didn’t ask me how I had ended up with Langley’s record. He cradled the record jacket, studying it, then slid out the LP and handed it to me.

We listened to Clifford Brown swing with Sonny Rollins, Max Roach, Richie Powell and George Morrow. At first we kicked back and gave ourselves over to the frantic splendor of the music, but Reggie couldn’t get over the fact that we were listening the grooves of Clifford Brown’s “I’ll Remember April” that Langley had once put the stylus to.

A tragedy within a tragedy—and a very small but somehow important piece of jazz history.

He said sometimes it was hard for him to listen to Clifford Brown without getting really sad. Or Lee Morgan—who got shot and bled to death during the first tune of his first set at a club called, of all things, Slugs—or the largely overlooked Joe Gordon—who burned to death in a house fire less than a mile from where we were sitting.

He said that his neighbor had told him about a tape some recorded the last night Clifford Brown played and how that tape survived the crash that killed Brown (along with pianist Richie Powell and his wife). Said Max Roach had ended up with the tape but for years couldn’t bear to listen to the last sounds of a man who died when he was only 25 years old.

I’ve never been able to verify that story—and have seen evidence that suggests it’s fairly inaccurate—but for me, in those moments, kicking back in my living room with a guy I barely knew and listening to Brownie, there was a truth to that story that transcended whether or not it had happened that way.

The story stayed with me for years—and would become the initial inspiration for Now’s the Time.

Reggie handed me the record jacket, like he knew I wouldn’t really want to part with this particular copy of this album.

But I did—I thought Reggie should have it.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Amazing Bud Powell

I don’t know how many hours of my life has been spent in record stores. Not many lately, but it once was a regular indulgence. Rhino Records on Westwood Boulevard was my favorite spot. Those bins of used and promotional LPs were a treasure trove for a young man discovering jazz.

By the late 1980s I was spending more time tearing through the CD racks. Still, I’d sometimes browse around the jazz LPs for the full tactile experience of holding a record jacket and the connections they had with the roots of this music and for the occasional conversation with a kindred soul.

One of those conversations was with a guy who ended up in my living room going through my albums. I had told him I wanted to convert to CDs and would sell him any of the vinyl I owned. His name was Reggie and he was strictly an LP man. No intention of switching over. Said his jazz collection took up an entire wall of his apartment.

He knew what he was looking for. Snagged my copy of The Amazing Bud Powell Vol. 1 and asked how much. I gave him a price and he slid the record out of its frayed jacket, then asked if he could play it. I hadn’t really gotten into that album at all. It was somehow too intense for me, too introspective.

Reggie didn't seem to mind any of it--or the mild popping of the record. When it got to "Un Poco Loco, " he said that the way he’d heard it, Bud Powell composed that letter while he was still living in his mother’s home, calculating those crazy chords during dinner, kept going back to the piano and pounding away—until his mother couldn’t take it anymore and stabbed the back of his hand with a fork.

I don't know if that story is true—I've never had any of Reggie's stories entirely verified (though two of them inspired a novel)but suddenly the incessant cow-bell drumming, the repetitive rolling chords, and a right-handed solo that seemed to be talking to itself all made sense. I wanted to hear it again. I wasn't sure I wanted to sell it.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Etta Jones

I'd heard Etta a few times over the years on the radio but did not come to full appreciate the beauty and power of her soulful voice until one late night outside Philly. It was the night of a daughter's college graduation and we'd left my son's sweater at the restaurant. It was a ten minute drive but when I found a jazz station on FM and heard the first cut of Etta's Don't Go to Stranger's LP--"Yes Sir, That's My Baby"--I got lost.

Lost in the music.
Lost in the era of the music--very early 1960's.
And lost on the highway.

Ended up somewhere in North Philly.
Then across the city to the Betsy Ross Bridge.

"Don't Go to Strangers," "I Love Paris," "Fine and Mellow."
It was getting toward 10:00 and I was afraid the restaurant would close on me. Finally, a DJ came on to sing his praises of Etta and I pulled over and called the restaurant for directions. A police officer stopped behind me and came up to the window. I guess I was still feeling "Fine and Mellow" because he asked how much I'd had to drink.

Nothing--except for the sounds coming out of that radio: "Where or When," "If I had You," "On the Street Where You Live," "Bye Bye Blackbird..."