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Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry Once Blew Us Away Under LA’s Big Top

Mort Weiss By

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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 went—oh, 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 & pianist—dig? In these places is where one learned to blow!

To this day, I remember the very first tune that I felt comfortable with—that 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 playing—most of which are now in the aptly named Great American Songbook—at 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 DeFrancesco—but that's another story.)

As I recall all of these things, and the many sessions I've outlined here, it comes to mind that you—the reader—should 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 called—or 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 in—and 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 lines—as 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 Lloyd—who 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 thing—as the customers played and did their thing. Cool!


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