Sunday, February 21, 2010

Implied Soul

I think that my grandparents believed my father to be a prodigy. They made a big fuss about the way he played the piano and discouraged sports or anything else that might jeopardize his previous hands. His training was strictly classical—but I wonder if the dominant influence on him musically came from his teachers or from the trepidation with which his family regarded his fingers.

John Strauss never quite became a virtuoso of the instrument, though he was good enough to accompany night club singers (including my mother), tour in the music pit with Broadway-bound musicals and, on one occasion, to perform a Beethoven sonata live on New York’s WQXR classical music station where his older brother was an announcer.

When my father came back from World War Two, he studied music and music theory on the GI Bill at Yale University with composer Paul Hindemith. He wrote an opera and a piano concerto but after marriage and two sons, John Strauss turned to television for a steady income. He composed the theme songs for Car 54 Where Are You? And The Phil Silver’s Show though his bread and butter was in the cutting room—first as a sound editor, then a music editor. He eventually became one of the most sought-after editors in New York, working on three of Woody Allen’s early films as well as The Heartbreak Kid, Little Big Man, and Slaughterhouse Five.

When my mother’s career brought our family to the west coast, my father got himself hired onto Dino De Laurentiis’s King Kong remake, but local editor’s union politics forced him off the movie. Unable to get hired on a west coast union movie, my father considered his options—work back in New York and separate himself from his family or find something else to do. He was in his early fifties and wanted a career change anyway so he turned back to his first love, music.

He bought a Fender Rhodes and some amps and set about joining a fusion jazz group. He met some guys through the local musicians union and started jamming with them. I think they even got a few gigs in some clubs out in the desert. But my father told me he was struggling with the improvisational aspects of the music.

He took me a Tower Records on Sunset and asked me to guide him through the jazz aisles. I was no expert but I knew a little about the great keyboard players. We listened to some of those records together. Oscar Peterson, my father described as “frightening.” Said he was exhausted just listening to him. Herbie Hancock and Ramsey Lewis intrigued my father, but I could tell he just didn’t think he could pull that kind of soul out of himself. He’d been raised to be a cautious man and it was costing him as an improvisational musician. He didn’t think he would ever get out of the desert, musically speaking.

Then I spun an Ahmad Jamal record. Live at the Pershing Square Lounge, 1958 and together we marveled at the poignant understatement, the implied soul of his music. “But Not for Me,” "Moonlight in Vermont." Ahmad would make you hear the melodic statement without quite playing it. He'd tease rapture out of a few tones. “Woody ‘n You,” “Poinciana.” My father smiled and said, “Yeah.”

“You can play like that,” I said.

“Not like that,” my father said, respectfully. “But I think I understand what I need to do.”

A few weeks after that, on a Friday night, he took me with him to the desert night club where he and his fusion combo were playing. It was a funky little place on a quiet flat stretch of highway. My father and his cohorts called themselves With the Flow and they were pretty good. I watched my father—who was at least fifteen years older than the bassist, drummer, and the very versatile horn player—trying to let loose on the keyboard. He did seem more relaxed than I was used to seeing him. He even, at one point, let out a groan during a solo and swung his head back and forth. He seemed to be letting his hands and his heart find the music.

A month or so later, the club they were playing in went rock and a week after that With the Flow broke up. My father was offered an editing job on a New York-based movie. He sold the Fender Rhodes but kept all the jazz vinyl. He brought the Ahmad Jamal records with him to New York. Years later he told me that those records had inspired him in ways beyond music.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Relaxing @ Camarillo

I hate to admit this but when I first heard Charlie Parker, I didn’t get him. Maybe it was the poor quality of the recordings. They didn’t have the richness of sound to which I’d become accustomed. Or perhaps I just couldn’t keep up with the speed and fury of the music. I sense that now from my students when I play them Bird for the first time.

When I was their age, I did most of my jazz listening in the car. KBCA FM or cassette tapes I dubbed off the radio at home or off LPs from the library or the few I could afford to buy.

Mostly I made short trips around town—to the junior college where I played student in a few classes or the part time jobs from which I sketched an income. A few times a month I made the 50 mile drive up the PCH or U.S. 101 to Camarillo State Hospital where my older brother lived. Autism and schizophrenia had institutionalized him for most of his life but my parents had always made frequent visits and taken him on overnights at least once a month. When I’d gotten my drivers license in 1975, I began sharing that responsibility.

I’d pack a few tapes for each trip.

Camarillo State Hospital was a sprawling island of Spanish-style buildings in a sea of vegetable fields. Lettuce, cabbage, broccoli in rows that stretched to the jagged horizon. The smell of fertilizer was overwhelming. People shuffling along the grounds in faded robes would hold their noses against the stench while they talked to themselves.

My brother lived in the hospital’s developmental center. Camarillo also had buildings that housed the mentally ill, others where drunks and addicts detoxed and tried to rehabilitate. Usually, the residents kept to their own areas but occasionally someone strayed.

One afternoon, parking my car next to Building 8, a man stepped out from behind a tree. He wore a robe that looked burnt and sunshades that slid down his nose as he bopped his head to the beat of Dexter Gordan’s Fried Bananas still going on my car stereo.

He asked me for a cigarette and when I told him I didn’t smoke, he asked for a dollar. His hair jutted off his head in about five directions and he smelled of rancid oil and tar. Had a toothbrush behind his ear. I gave him 50 cents and he said, “Thanks, jazz man.” And disappeared around the side of the building.

Three weeks after that, as I pulled into the same parking spot, there he was, reciting a slightly delirious rendition of the Carole King song: “When the jazz man’s testifying a faded man can see. He can sky like a foaming angel or climb up in the trees….”

I handed him a dollar before he could ask and thought that would get rid of him, but he followed me inside. Seemed to think he owed me his company now. He said, “I talked to Charlie Parker. When he was here back in 1946. He ain’t have too much to say but he said it to me. Do you know about Charlie Parker.”

I kept walking. This guy didn’t seem old enough to have been in this place for more than thirty years.

He followed me up the stairs to the long empty hallway. It was always like that—like the building was deserted. The floors shined, the walls were dull and dusty. The windows framed in rust.

“This building used to be for junkies,” he said, and pointed to a closed door we were passing, said that was where he’d first met Bird. Just standing there, looking around, thinking. "We had a few words a few times. About how relaxing it was there. About how Bird liked picking lettuce and playing easy in the hospital band. Man,” the guy said, and this stopped me: “Bird went out and wrote a song about it— about what we talked about.”

He asked me if I’d ever heard that song.

I shook my head.

“I never heard it either,” the guy said “Don’t even know what it’s called. But would you find me a copy? Could you please? I’ll pay you for it,” he said, and showed me the dollar I’d just given him.

I didn’t think much about it after that—until the next time I was at the library going through the jazz bins. I came to the P’s and found it pretty much dominated by the recordings of Charlie Parker. I snagged them all and read the tune selection on the back of each plastic-covered jacket. Ko-Ko, Out of Nowhere, Moose the Mooch, Now’s the Time, Groovin High, Cool Blues Klact-ovesede-tene. Nothing that fit that dude’s description. I moved on through the bins, ended up with a dozen or so LPs—a variety of things known and unknown—to check out at the circulation desk.

When I got home, I played through each side of each album. One after another, impatiently, my nervous hand lifting the stylus off of what I didn’t like or understand, studying the album covers.

I came to a compilation with a blank gray cover, laminated in clear streaks. On the library sticker it said, Saxophone Serenade. Taped to the back was a paper line-up of tunes. Wardell Gray, Clifford Jordan, Booker Earvin, Lester Young, Charlie Parker. Parker’s first tune on that compilation was, “Relaxing at Camarillo.”

I listened and tried to imagine the place where Parker stayed, picking lettuce and playing in the hospital band—the place where my brother now lived—those long deserted hallways and all the chaos and loud confusion that went on behind the locked doors, but for me “Relaxing at Camarillo” seemed like just another frantic tune in a hurry to be over.

I listened to the tape on the way up to Camarillo the next time and imagined the dude and me listening to it together. Sitting in my car, looking up at the Spanish roofs and the trees and the dusty hills thinking about the chance meeting he'd had with Bird, and all their conversations that were now, somehow, in this melody and in all the improvisation flowing from it. I imagined the tears welling up in the man’s eyes as he remembered his brief friendship with this tragic genius and I felt as if I’d been with them that day, taking about how relaxing the place was.

I rewound the tape a second time as I slowed my car and navigated the narrow road that fed the parking lot, thinking I’d just let the guy hear it from outside and see how long it would take him to figure out what it was.

But the guy never showed up that day. Or the next time I was up there—or the time after that.

I always looked out for him—even after the place was closed and then turned into a state university and my brother and his unit were moved 100 miles away to Costa Mesa, I still expected to see that guy every time I got out of my car.

Friday, February 5, 2010

My Favorite Things--with or without

I remember when most of my friends believed in the power of drugs.

I still have a few friends who do.

But back in the late 1970s, it seemed like everyone did.

There were the movies you had to see—and then there were movies you had to see high.

There were things you didn’t want to do unless you’d smoked a joint. Like kick back and dig some jazz.

That’s what my friend KD was saying while he lit a J on the floor of his one room bungalow apartment off the alley behind Rose Avenue in Venice. He passed it to me and dropped John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things on his turntable and cued the stylus.

It was the first time I'd ever heard it.

KD and I sat in our cannabis cloud and listened, watching the Atlantic Records label twirl and the lush KLM speakers bump slightly with each pluck on Jimmy Garrison’s bass. McCoy Tyner’s oceanic cords, Trane’s smooth sensual soprano over Garrison’s steady strut and Elvin's cymbolism. Taking Mary Poppins into the minor mode and then up to the stratosphere.

McCoy Tyner’s patiently meditative solo, rocking those cords, asking questions his right-handed improvisation answered.

I sat on a wooden chair, toking KD’s weed, moving my head to the music, feeling it in a new way. A sound exploration. A melody reinventing itself, weaving its way through my mind and attaching itself to memories it had nothing to do with.

Trane came back in, like he was just going to end the tune, but after one bar of the melody he went off—and pushed that tune into the upper register and wound and unwound it until I thought my head was spinning. My heart forgot its own beat and started keeping time with Jimmy and Elvin.

When it was over, KD and I stood in our intoxication and slapped five and then spontaneously busted out of that bungalow. We ran two blocks to the ocean and kicked off our shoes and got our feet wet. We chased after some stray girls and got two of them to talk to us for a while and tried to get them to come back to the bungalow.

They wouldn’t come—and when we got back KD’s stereo was gone. So was his weed. The Coltrane album was tossed on the floor.

KD threw open his front door and cussed out at the night. Then he ran to his car. I went with him. We drove down the alleys as if we would find the thieves still carrying the sound system and the baggie. In the fourth alley, near Oakwood, we got jumped by a mob of cholos.

They kicked us through the open windows of KD’s Jensen Healy and broke bottles against the car as we screeched off. We sped around the corner and back down Pacific. Silence in the car and still silent back in the bungalow. We and sat there sadly. I didn’t know if I’d ever enjoy another bar of music. Not without Kevin’s system—or his weed.

A few weeks after that I heard Trane’s My Favorite Things on the radio in my father’s car.

I hadn’t smoked anything.

The radio was a cheap Pontiac factory AM/FM.

Of course it didn’t matter.

Coltrane was the sound system.

Coltrane was the mind altering drug.