Carole Simpson Remembered
She started playing. She never said what she was going to play or in what key she'd be playing it. She would leap full-throttle into one tune after the next, and she knew more tunes than anyone I can think of this side of Sonny Rollins. She was a geyser. Phrases burst out of the piano under her hands, and she rarely repeated herself. I held on for dear life, quite a few times playing tunes I half know. I've got a pretty good catalog of tunes at my fingertips, but very few people born after 1940 or so have heard "Lullabye In Rhythm," "As Long As I Live," or several dozen other Carole staples. I did okay, but she took me to school.
For a good many years after that, we played regularly together, at least every couple of months. It was like having a favorite aunt who could play great jazz piano, and we did a variety of jobs restaurants, Christmas parties, New Years Eve's, clubs. When I was called in to do some cues for a Flintstones TV movie, I called her in for a Shearing-style version of the theme (which also included punk rock legend D.J. Bonebrake on vibes). Every gig she took, she played the same way, in her same style. And she charmed everyone in every room she ever worked.
"Too modern. Too bebop for me. I like a melody," she'd say. I doubt she learned anything written after 1962. Come to think of it, the most recently-composed tune I ever heard her play was Ahmad Jamal's "Night Mist Blues." She never knew the title of it. My favorite Carole memory is personal more than musical. Our gigs were always the type that had me in at least a jacket and tie, if not a tuxedo. During those years, I generally carried a nylon wallet, of which Carole hated the sight.
"That wallet is terrible. It looks like it's falling apart!" We were playing a job on or around my birthday in 2001 or so, somewhere out by the airport. How she knew it was my birthday, I have no idea. But she gave me a box. In it, a gorgeous black wallet, very soft leather. I was blown away. I transferred all my cash and cards to it at once. She was thrilled not only that I liked it, but that I would now carry a "real wallet."
The next day, when I tried to deposit the check from the gig at an ATM, my bank card didn't work. Within a half hour, I had ascertained that none of my cards worked. What the hell?
As it turns out, the wallet Carole gave me was not leather but rather eelskin, which retains a charge and erased all my cards.
As she got older, she played fewer jazz jobs and I saw her less frequently. The last time we saw each other was March 15, 2009. She was playing in Hollywood at a tiny place at Sunset and Gower and called to ask would I come. I said sure. When I got there, she was sitting. Upon seeing me, she stood, with some effort, and hugged me weakly. She said she was so happy to see me. Apparently, her bassist hadn't shown up, did I have my guitar, could I play. My date and I ran over to my apartment in North Hollywood and I got my guitar and hurried back. By the time I walked back in, the bassist was there, so it became a trio. Carole was still playing well, but without force. The air was clearly out of the balloon, but the spirit made do, happily if haltingly.
At the end of the set, I set next to her. She squeezed my hand and thanked me for still wanting to play with her. I said of course I still wanted to, that I still loved her. Which I did.
"I still love you and your playing so much," she said, "and I feel terrible that I haven't been able to remember your name all night." We spoke a few times after that, but she didn't really remember me and I could tell. The least I'd heard until shortly ago, she'd left town to live with a daughter.
It was Reno where she ended up, and she died there of natural causes on January 25, 2013. There was no obit in the Los Angeles Times, nor was there a big musical tribute at the Musicians Union building just down the street from the big round Capitol Tower where she made her great record. There was a mention on a website that was- -true to her stylevery light on biographical data. It did mention she passed while under hospice care, which made me sad. It meant she was in her last days no longer the glamorous older woman who drove a convertible, and that's how I know she would hope to be remembered.
Every city has its wonderful musicians who may or may not have recorded even as they piled decades of great playing one on top of the other, and Carol Simpson was certainly that. While she never achieved the fame of her fifties peers, she was one of the people who helped shape the town's identity during one of its most fertile periods. She was a fantastic pianist and singer, a formidable music professional of the first water, and a lovely, wonderful friend. Also, she was the hippest woman I ever met.