Los Angeles/Hollywood, California, in the late 1940s through the early 1960s was a happening place for jazz and jazz musicians. There was always a place to play a jam session, or more correctly session(s)mostly in beer bars. (I'm not counting the ones that went on all night in some one's pad, if they were lucky enough to live up in one of the many canyons in the Hollywood hills) I've seen many a sunrise from the Laurel and Topanga canyons, and if enough Benzedrine was around, it could go on for days.
The word got around that there was a session up at so-n-so's pad, and different cats would fall by and it just kept going. Different cats came and wentoh, yeah! (Damn, I'm starting to sound like Mezz Mezzrow; Google him ... then forget him ... sorry, Mezz!) Back to the beer bars (another good name for a motion picture): One played for free. I remember waiting around with say another horn man or two, and maybe a bassist (they always seemed to have a gig somewhere), waiting to see who would show up. In that scenario, hopefully a drummer & pianistdig? In these places is where one learned to blow!
To this day, I remember the very first tune that I felt comfortable withthat is, I could play the head and blow through the changes. (No one ever brought music or music books to a session; hell, there weren't any.) The name of the tune was/is: "There Will Never Be Another You," in E/flat-concert. One always calls out the keys "in concert." I learned it and many other of the good tunes that all the cats were playingmost of which are now in the aptly named Great American Songbookat a place on South Western Avenue called Tap City, which meant broke, as in no money. (I recorded it on my first album, with Joey DeFrancesco also aptly named: Mort Weiss meets Joey DeFrancescobut that's another story.)
As I recall all of these things, and the many sessions I've outlined here, it comes to mind that youthe readershould know and understand that these events were not by any means wild, raucous parties where you tried to score a chick and get drunk and fight, etc. (I'll write about that when we get into my rock 'n' roll days; see the "Wild Boy" YouTube I posted in the comments section of my Elvis article.) No, these were about learning and picking up on what other cats were laying down at the time. In fact, if a cat in any way would not be in a hip mind frame, other cats wouldn't even play with him. Yes, there was a pecking order in a big city like LA and other major cities at the time. If you were from out of town and you weren't known and somehow made it onto the stand, you had no say on what tunes that were going to be calledor in what keys and/or tempos. If you were crazy enough to grab the break and take the first chorus, man, you better have had something to say. All the above also applies to how many choruses you took.
I remember when I stated going to sessions. I was 15 years of age, and it was 1950-ish. Looking back, I had big ones: I'd walk up to one of the older cats who seemed to be in charge (they were all older cats) and I'd ask if I could sit inand the cat would look at me and kind of hesitate. He would look at the case I was carrying and say: "What's that?," and when I said "a clarinet," the cat always said: "Hey, man, why don't you come back tomorrow? There's all these other cats that were here before you, etc." Well, after this happened over and over again at different clubs, I finally got it. So I started going back to the clubs, taking out my horn in the parking lot and or men's room and putting it together (always in the back of the club), and when they finished a tune I'd be in the hallway in back of the stand, and I'd just start playing my ass off! Bird licks, obligatos, crazy insane runs and linesas loud as I could. A hush would fall over the whole room out front. (I'm getting goose pimples writing about this.) This one time, it was a big black cat and I remember this very, very well. He yelled: Who the fuck was that!? I said, "me." And he said: "Well, get your ass up here on the stand!" Looking back at this pivotal point in my life, that fellow grabbed me, aimed me and started me on a journey.
There many other places where we would play. One I remember was named the Red Feather. Bird allegedly played there on his ill-fated trip to the coast in the 1940s, before he went to Camarillo to "relax." This is where I met Charlie Shoemake, a pianist at the time, and Charles Lloydwho had come out west to attend the USC dental school. (He quickly changed his major to music. I'm sure his parents were thrilled.) Another unique place was the Waldorf Cellar, eight steps down at Fifth and Main Street in the heart of LA's skid row. It was a gay bar, and they offered us musicians a place to play and to do our thingas the customers played and did their thing. Cool!
But the one place I remember most was called the Big Top, owned by a guy named Earl Bruce. (Man, if you're out there, please get in touch with me!) The Big Top was located in Hollywood on Sunset Boulevard, two blocks east of Western Avenue next to the Columbia Studios lot. It had a small stage, and a reasonably tuned piano. I started going there when I was 17 and when I was drafted and in the Army (1954-56) other guys would be dreaming about their girlfriends and things back home. Me? I'd be dreaming about the Big Top, and blowing with some ass-kicking rhythm section. And if and when I got to come home for a couple of days, that's where you would find me. The Big Top attracted the very best of the young lions of the day, and the older more experienced cats. One never knew who would come through those doors. I played with way too many cats to list here, including one great night when I got to play a set with Dexter Gordon. Oh, yeah!
I wanted you to get a feel for the place, the people and the mood that prevailed among us catsthe jazz musicians of that day who were hanging and/or blowing. It was the Creme de la Creme of the Cool! I saw my first Playboy magazine there, with Janet Pilgrim as the centerfold. Saw the first Mad comic there, too. There was an air of "hey, we're here to play and learn and to talk to like-minded peopleand to pay homage to Bird, Diz, Bud, Max, et al." Bruce, the club owner, was a car buff and had one of the very first gull-wing Mercedes in town. He hung with a lot of car people. Occasionally, the legendary Von Dutchthe auto and bike pin-striping catwould come in with his friend Steve McQueen, who was then just a young cat trying to make it in Tinsel Town. (For those of you in Walla Walla, he did!) A nice, quiet, laid-back cat. The Dutch played flute and would sit in for a couple of tunes. Man, I mean, this place was a Jack Kerouac birthday cake, dig?
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