My Best Jazz Experiences Through the Decades


Sign in to view read count
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 day—the 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.

From Sunnyvale, we occasionally took the 45-minute drive to San Francisco to hear jazz at the Blackhawk. Unforgettably, one evening we saw Erroll Garner. Before the elfin pianist appeared, the sound technician put a thick phone book on the bench. Though Garner was small in stature, under his fingers, the piano became an orchestra. As he punctuated the lush sound, grunting and humming along, he seemed to levitate off the precarious seat.

In 1957, I moved back to Southern California with my young family. My favorite album then was tenor sax star Sonny Rollins' Saxophone Colossus on Prestige. An opportunity to see him came in 1958 when he appeared at a small club on Hollywood Boulevard. With him was Shelly Manne, on drums, and Ray Brown, bass. I was curious to hear how this unusual trio make-up would work out.

As I walked in, I was taken aback to hear them playing "I'm An Old Cowhand," Johnny Mercer's corny cowboy ballad. But here it was given jazz life as Rollins impishly gave his version of the range as his sound soared over the rhythm section. Later that year, Contemporary released that night's music on Way Out West. On the cover, Rollins is decked out in Western garb, posing in the desert.

Another important happening for me in 1958, was the birth of the Monterey Jazz Festival. After a six-hour drive in my friend's hip MG with the top down, we arrived during Friday evening's Louis Armstrong All Stars set. As usual Louie and his group put on a fun show. But, for me, the festival really came alive the next day, Saturday afternoon. Of course, I was aware of so-called East Coast jazz but I was hardly ready for Max Roach's Quintet. As the cliche says, I was "blown away" by the hard-charging sound, with drummer Roach at the center pounding away, horns exploding at break-neck speed. My ears were opened to something new to me.


Jazz was rapidly gaining in popularity by the end of the decade. In 1959 there were posters around Los Angeles announcing the appearance of the new Miles Davis Sextet. This was truly an all-star band with Cannonball Adderley on alto, John Coltrane, tenor sax with a rhythm section of Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb.

I had many Davis LPs in my collection and had seen his groups a couple times. Viewing these three stars up close in the frontline that night was a cherished experience. On the opener (I think "Milestones"), they played in unison before each horn took an extended solo. Naturally, this made each number some 20 minutes long. (I recall having the silly thought: Why not more unison playing, more songs per set.) I realized leaving that each player's turn was classic, Adderley's bright, swinging alto, complementing the dark power of Coltrane's tenor, together with Davis' cool fire. This combination was as good as it gets.

The L.A. club scene was lively in the '60s. One of my favorite spots was Shelley's Manne Hole, on Cahuenga, just below Hollywood Boulevard. It was partially owned by drummer Manne whose groups played there a few times a year. Most weeks, though, top musicians locally and from across the country were booked.

Probably the most remarkable evening there for me occurred here when I saw Coltrane in 1961. He had left Davis and formed a new group which included McCoy Tyner, piano, Jimmy Garrison, bass and Elvin Jones, drums. Opening night was sold out, and the first set was late. Finally, Coltrane entered and began with the Broadway hit "My Favorite Things," playing soprano sax instead of his usual tenor.

Immediately, a hypnotic mood was established as Coltrane stated and re-stated the melody, adding improvisational flourishes each time. Backing him were Tyner's repetitive chords. Jones' furious drumming drove them all, bringing the "Bolero-"like tempo to a smashing crescendo.

During the long piece, I got up and stood next to the piano, drawn by Tyner's seemingly endless reiterations on the chordal patterns. When the extended number finished, I sensed that this was a break out for all. Later the album My Favorite Things, on Atlantic, was released and was hugely successful.

Not far from Shelly's was the Seville club where the hyper-kinetic vibraphonist Terry Gibbs had organized a band of top local musicians to play both here and the neighboring Sundown from the late fifties to the early sixties. This "Dream Band" made several recordings which are re-issued today. I can still see Gibbs up on the bandstand urging the guys, "Yah! Yah! Yah!." I second what many claimed was the "swingingest" band in town.

Disc jockey, now promoter, Gene Norman's Crescendo and Interlude clubs on the Sunset strip were a big part of the Southern California scene in the sixties. The Crescendo booked big-name groups as well as cutting-edge comedians. Count Basie with Lambert, Hendricks & Ross would be headliners; with Mort Sahl or Lennie Bruce opening.

Next door to the Crescendo was the smaller Interlude. It was there on an unforgettable night in the sixties that I saw the Thelonious Monk Quartet. Monk was late getting on. Finally appearing, he petulantly murmured that drummer Frank Dunlop hadn't shown up from the airport.

He took his place behind the piano, nodded to tenor man Charlie Rouse and bassist Butch Warren, saying he didn't need drums. They proceeded to play, "Misterioso," I think. After several minutes, Dunlop showed, picked up his sticks, and all four continued as if nothing had happened.

It was an outstanding set with mostly Monk's unique originals. His eccentric behavior was well known, though. That night, during a Rouse solo, he stood up beside his seat and danced a little shuffle, moving with the beat. At the break, I saw him standing outside on Sunset. Occasionally he would twirl—apparently in his own world.

Another great, Duke Ellington was high on my "must see" list. I had several of his LPs, but had never heard his orchestra in person. In the late sixties, he was scheduled at nearby Pomona College. My wife and I drove over with another couple. On the way, my friend brought out some pot, and we smoked it—not usual for us. I had lit up at parties a few times, but never in the car. Let me say, we were ready for some cool sounds by arrival.

Whether the puffs enhanced the evening isn't clear. But when the lights dimmed and Cootie Williams on trumpet, Jimmy Hamilton on clarinet and Buster Cooper on trombone gathered in a circle to begin "Mood Indigo," it sent shivers up my spine. That night I further appreciated how loose and together the band was. This was my initiation into the Duke's court—the first of many times I would see him.

In the mid sixties rock music, along with folk music associated with the protest movement, cut into the popularity of jazz. Many were listening to the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. Interest in jazz waned—not as many records were sold and many clubs closed. Always a true jazz fan myself, I, too, added rock and folk to my LP collection, becoming somewhat of a "folkie." I still went out to hear jazz, but not as much as before.

In 1969 Miles Davis recorded Bitches Brew with his new jazz-rock fusion group which included keyboards and electric instruments. Like a lot of mainstreamers, I didn't like this new Miles. In the early eighties I did relent and attended a Davis' concert at the Hollywood Bowl. Although the music wasn't my thing, it was great the way Miles roamed the stage, playing as he went from one young solist to another. And I enjoyed his doing his "wah-wah" thing on his electrified trumpet.

When I saw Basie in 1975, it became clear that a concert could have a visual impact, as well as aural. The Count had just hired a young Butch Miles as drummer. I can still see this 25-year old from Irtonton, Ohio, smiling broadly, in the middle of this veteran band. He was a dynamo with his sticks, and you could see the beaming Basie sitting back, getting a big kick out of this white kid. He certainly drove these guys in high on "Corner Pocket."

I saw Rollins again in the seventies on tour at a local college. Two decades earlier he had seemed austere and "no nonsense" on stage. This time, though, he joked with the crowd and, late in the set, Sonny marched out into the audience blowing "St. Thomas." Not yet a prancing Mick Jagger but much more accessible.


In the last decades, I have spent wonderful nights-out, listening to greats from Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Oscar Peterson and Keith Jarrett to Joe Lovano and Michael Brecker and on.

Notably in 1993, the first West Coast Jazz Party in Irvine, California, was born. At these parties, now going annually 16 years, promoters Joe Rothman and John McClure bring in some 70 premier jazz musicians. The bulk are from the West Coast, but always include prominent names from the East—Bill Charlap, Byron Stripling, John Pizzarelli, Houston Person, for examples.

At these parties, established groups play, but the central concept is to put participants together in various groupings with those with whom they don't normally play. As fans know, in these jams, a player shouts a tune and the group is off—melody in unison, then solos, each picking up on a phrase left by another; one starting an idea, another finishing it. As the late critic Whitney Bailliet wrote it's "the sound of surprise."

One memorable jazz party session took place shortly after Lionel Hampton died in 2002. Clarinetist Ken Peplowski and vibes player Terry Gibbs took part in a stirring tribute to the great one with Hamp's trademark "Flyin' Home." They followed by playing "Don't Be That Way" from Benny Goodman's book with whom all three, Hampton, Gibbs and Peplowski, had played. Truly a romp.

"Jazz cruising" for my wife and I also started that year with the annual Jazz Cruise. The ship sailed the Caribbean with world-class performers on board. Since then we've taken two others; all have been exceptional experiences. For me, an avid snorkeler, being on board—listening to music day and night, going to beaches during shore day is paradise. Another big plus—talking to your favorites.

One afternoon in 2004, I spotted pianist Junior Mance relaxing on the aft deck. It was some 40 years since I had seen Mance at a club on L.A.'s Central Avenue. I was happily affected then by his joyous post-bop style. We talked about the days back then, before the 1965 Watts riot, when white folks rubbed shoulders with blacks in that part of town. He went on to fill me in on what he was doing lately. The conversation meant a lot to me.

A noteworthy onboard concert that year featured compatriots, pianist Benny Green and guitarist Russell Malone. The duo performance took place in the big showroom. Before starting, Green told the sound booth technician to turn the speaker volume way down. They didn't need big sound for listeners to appreciate the delicate intricacy of their playing.

On the 2008 Playboy Jazz Cruise, I saw another indelible performance. With his group, trumpeter Roy Hargrove began in high gear and closed with a toreador's flourish, hailing the crowd with a ceremonial trumpet call to the bull ring. A stunning finish, capping what to me was one of the best sets ever.

As I look back, I see that most of my most vivid memories come from the early times when a lot of this music was new to me. My schedule now is still filled with jazz. I go to Catalina's in Hollywood to see big names or to Steamer's a small but bustling club in Orange County where local L.A. area players perform. By the way, it is encouraging to see the young college kids catching music there. At the parties and on cruises nowadays, it's mostly oldsters.

Next, I'm going to a Django 100 concert, commemorating the centennial of the legendary gypsy jazz guitarist. Then, a couple weeks later, on to the Newport Beach Jazz Party. There is plenty more room on my best list.

Post a comment




Read Betty Carter: Along Came Betty
Read Who's The Hippest Chick In Town? Anita.
Read Billie's Last Chorus
First Time I Saw
Billie's Last Chorus
Read Dr. Billy Taylor
First Time I Saw
Dr. Billy Taylor
Read From George Coleman to Meeco: Ten Overlooked Classics
Read Bill Frisell: Never Ending Revelations
Read Ugly Beauty: Jazz In The 21st Century

Get more of a good thing

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories and includes your local jazz events calendar.