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.