My Best Jazz Experiences Through the Decades
I've been a jazz fan since I was a teenager in the late forties, growing up in Southern California.
From grammar school on, I listened to pop tunes of the daythe hit parade songs and big band music that were in the air on the radio. As I entered junior high, I became aware of rhythm and blues, at that time called "race music."
My friend's father worked for a record distributor selling music recorded by black musicians to record stores, principally located in central Los Angeles. He gave us kids samples.
Players heard on the seven-inch shellacs were such as Louis Jordan, Herb Jeffries and Slim Gaillard. They impressed me, seeming to have more down-to-earth appeal than the often banal pop songs. I introduced my high school classmates to hipster Jack McVea's novelty tune "Open the Door Richard" when I chose it to translate for a Spanish assignment, and then they sung the translation. Aside from my liking such high school dance standbys as Benny Goodman's "Let's Dance" and Artie Shaw's "Frenesi," this so-called "race music" was the closest I came to jazz.
I credit disc jockey Gene Norman for steering me toward jazz in the early fifties. He had a late evening program on KFWB which featured bands such as Lionel Hampton and Stan Kenton and singers like June Christy and Anita O'Day. With Norman on the radio dial, my college friends and I would drive around the L.A. area weekends looking for girls. At that time I was really impressed with Hampton's 15-minute version of "Stardust." Other stations would only play the three-four minute 78s.
Kenton's band was popular with teenagers. It played in big ball rooms such as the Rendezvous in Balboa Beach and the Palladium in Hollywood. My crowd went to listen but rarely danced. In fact, we stood in front of the bandstand and felt the full force of the orchestra.
Kenton's "Artistry in Rhythm" and "Intermission Riff" were big favorites. On one memorable occasion at the Palladium, however, I was surprised when the musicians stood and sang "The September Song" a capella. The novelty of this impressed me.
At that time, a buddy lived in Manhattan Beach, and we often went to the Lighthouse in nearby Hermosa Beach, said to be the place where so-called West Coast jazz was spawned. We'd go barefoot off the beach for the popular Sunday afternoon concerts with Howard Rumsey and the All Stars. I was particularly taken by the Latin beat of "Viva Zapata."
In 1952, a friend and I heard about the piano-less quartet of Gerry Mulligan playing at The Haig on Wilshire Boulevard. Mulligan was known for his participation in the 1953 Birth of the Cool" release on Capitol. The buzz was that his current group was really hot.
The club was small. There was a line out the door and along the boulevard the Saturday we went. Regarding the quartet's lack of a piano, the story was that the club was too small to accommodate one and the quartet, as well.
The crowd was eager with anticipation. When the players began "Walking Shoes," there was a burst of applause. It was something special the unique way Mulligan's rough baritone blended with Chet Baker's soft trumpet. That's a night I won't forget.
In 1954, I was enrolled at San Jose State College when I saw posters that Baker had an upcoming appearance at a theater in town. I hadn't seen Baker since the Haig. Learning that he had his own group, I had to go. Being a broke student, I signed on to usher.
Baker came on, his trumpet at his side and began singing "My Funny Valentine" in a soft, romantic manner. I was utterly surprised and somewhat dismayed to hear him. But I soon got caught up in his liquid phrasing, and it turned out fine. His quartet included the great Russ Freeman on piano. That evening what stood out, though, was the squeals from the women. "Chettie Baby" was now a heartthrob.
After graduating college, I took a job in Sunnyvale in the San Francisco Bay area. This period marked the rise of the Dave Brubeck Quartet. In Downbeat, I read that he was a hit at college concerts throughout the country. I promptly bought the 10-inc L.P. Jazz at Oberlin" on Fantasy. Coincidentally, seeing an ad for a Brubeck concert at Palo Alto High School, I rushed out to buy tickets.
In the austere auditorium, out came the be-speckled Paul Desmond, who looked like an accountant carrying an alto sax. But when he started gloriously playing "These Foolish Things," the crowd came alive. When Brubeck on piano later joined in with crashing chords, the fans erupted in applause.