Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Passing of Yet Another Great

Jack Sheldon died this past week.  He was a trumpeter extraordinaire who worked with such legends as Art Pepper, Jerry Mulligan and Chet Baker.  He did music for Schoolhouse Rock, which was mixed in with my Saturday morning cartoons when I was a kid.  A couple of his tunes included, “Conjunction Junction (What’s Your Function),” and “I’m Just a Bill (Yes I’m Only A Bill).”  Jack was also the trumpeter and bandleader for the Merv Griffin Show.

To see Jack live was a special treat, and I must say that I’m lucky to have had the chance ten or fifteen times.  He would sit with his guys, usually a quartet (piano, bass and drums) and he’d make the audience laugh, poke fun at them, be a little irreverent and keep everyone on their toes.  He told spicy jokes and shaggy dog stories, and yet he always knew where to pull back just before stepping over any lines.

And then he’d count….and one and two and three and…..then the quartet would get going with some hot acoustic jazz numbers with Jack singing, and then taking on a solo or two during each tune.  And brother, he could play.  He could get the most amazing tonality out of his horn and make it wiggle and waggle.  He embodied virtuosity.

It was always a good night with Jack Sheldon.  I saw him at Jax, in Glendale, at the Catalina Bar and Grill in Hollywood, and at Chadney’s in Burbank, back in the day when the Chadney’s would absorb all of the after-hours musicians from NBC’s Tonight Show across the street; talented guys who wanted to blow, strum or drum off a little steam after work on the myriad of TV shows being recorded late afternoons in Burbank.  How many other places in the world could one sit down and see that many fantastic jazz musicians most nights of the week?

And I can’t think of Jack Sheldon without thinking of Ross Tompkins.  Ross was a virtuoso Jazz piano player who worked with Wes Montgomery, Benny Goodman and Doc Severinsen’s Tonight Show Band for Johnny Carson.  Remember when they’d finish the tonight show theme each night and Ed McMahon would say, “Heeeee’s Johnny!” and you’d hear the piano player sprinkle some thirteenth notes in as the theme ended?  That was Ross Tompkins; impeccable timing, and he could play anything.

I mention Ross because he also played most of the same Jazz houses around town mentioned above as the network of jazz players always seemed connected with one another.  It’s the nature of the business.  A couple of these guys play with those guys on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and then with others on Fridays and Saturdays.

My long time friend John and I stumbled into the Money Tree in Toluca Lake one night, probably around 1996 or so, and we sat down at a row of bar stools along a low counter, which was a unique built in feature lining the perimeter of the piano.  The club was intimate; dark inside with a subculture of jazz aficionados mixed with friendly east Valley locals.  There was a more formal bar on the right, and small tables throughout leaving just enough room around the piano for three or four musicians.

John and I sat down and ordered our drinks.  We saw that a duo was in that night and was just finishing setting up.  It was Jack Sheldon and Ross Tompkins.  John and I knew who they were of course, but to have them right in front of our table was something else.

Jack and Ross played a line of tunes that were some of the most wonderful I’ve ever experienced.  Some fast, some soaring, and all with the utmost skill and love.  With both of them such seasoned musicians, the audience was putty in their hands.  John and I would occasionally exchange, “This is just not of this earth” looks with one-another, and then we’d continue to enjoy this magic.

The last tune Jack and Ross played was Louis Armstrong’s, “What a Wonderful World” (written by Bob Thiele and George David Weiss).  It would have been fully inappropriate for two men to be crying, but we almost were. Jack and Ross had closed this night with a performance that had entranced everyone in that room.  When John and I went outside after the show ended with that song, our hair was standing up on our heads.  I remember John slapping at a leaf on a nearby bush as we exited the club, in a way, emoting disbelief of what we had just witnessed. Neither of us had much else to say as it was an evening that couldn’t be topped. We were so lucky to have been there.

And so, I will close with this.  I met Jack Sheldon many times after this night, and I hired Ross Tompkins to play piano on an alternate version of my tune, “How I Loved You,” on my CD titled, “Watercolors over the Sea.”  I’ve yet to put that alternate take onto iTunes with the rest of the songs; I will soon.  How someone like me could hire a musician like Ross Tompkins proves that our universe does indeed have some seams. 

But these two men were not only fine, seasoned, legendary musicians, but they were such authentic people.  Such nice guys to sit and talk with.  I was in Jax in Glendale one night about six years ago watching Jack Sheldon’s quartet perform when Ross Tompkins walked in and sat next to me.  In between the numbers, Jack, Ross and I talked a bit, and I felt like I had known them for years.  I guess I had.

Note:  When you get the chance, grab a copy of the film “Trying To Get Good; the Jazz Odyssey of Jack Sheldon,” which is an excellent documentary about Jack Sheldon’s life and music.

  Jack and I after his big band show at Catalina Bar & Grill

Ross and I after he laid down the piano tracks for my tune.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Irony of Good Fortune (an excerpt from a larger piece)

It was not an accident that I attended USC, which was within easy walking distance from my old neighborhood.  I considered other universities, some of which were out of the way.  But at that time, I wanted to stay close to home in the LA area, and I knew at some level that going to USC would have a special ironic meaning to me.  One that said, “Anything in this life can happen.”  I could be born on one side of the tracks, looking across to a major university with little likelihood of ever attending it, and then life could go by and I might just find myself in that school looking back from the other side.

And what was it like to actually go to USC, knowing that my life had started just outside of those black gates?  It was indeed weird.  I felt that I had extra life experience with the area that other students didn’t, but that I would seldom if ever disclose this fact to any schoolmates.  Not so much because there was shame attached, of which there was a little, but more because it was such a long and involved story that without knowing all of it, friends might misinterpret the complexity of my history there.  So I generally said nothing of it.

But down the street, on Adams and Hoover, was the little park that had once been a gas station where my mother, father and I would cut across to get to Eddy's Market near Union and 23rd streets, and other points beyond.  I might be at University Village while a student at USC, going to the market or going to the movies, and just down the street was my biological mother, still living in the same bungalow on Toberman Street that she moved into after my father split with her from the Portland Street apartment and took me to an apartment on Scarff Avenue.  I don’t know if it was really a good thing for me during my time at USC to have all of that immediacy to my before-life.  But there was an intrinsic pull in me from when I was adopted that desired that still desired some amount of proximity to it all in order to maintain some connection with my first life. 

Every once in a while, maybe after classes or when I was on my way somewhere, I would drive down one of those aforementioned streets and see where it had all happened.  I often felt lonely while doing this; repercussions of abandonment passed through me like ghostly aftershocks of a time long passed.  I suspect it’s why I didn’t make those visits too often, yet often enough.

In hindsight, I think my university experience would have been more complete had I gone away to a school in another part of the country.  Being in a totally different place and acclimating would have been a good experience.  One summer during my university years, I traveled with a friend on a bus to different places that gave me insight into how other people lived.  However, at that time in my life, when there were still questions to be answered, going away was unthinkable.  There was another reason for my having chosen USC; something that had been in the back of my mind for many years, and through which attending USC could also give me access; finding my sister.

Monday, June 13, 2011

5.5 at Zeros

A bunch of years back while working at Disney, I got to know a guy, Jeff, who liked boogie boarding as much I did.  I grew up going to Santa Monica and Manhattan Beaches boogie-boarding with various high school friends of mine, who, by the time I was working at Disney had either moved out of the LA area, or had just moved on from the hobby.  So I was glad to have found a comrade who still enjoyed the sport at our age.

Jeff was a fun dude who did his job well at Disney and enjoyed the outdoors.  He had a friend named Peter, who I met as we started all surfing together.  They had known each other before I knew either of them, and so they tended to go to a spot on the coast called, Zeros.  Its real name is San Nicholas Canyon County Beach, and is one of three little coves about six miles north of Zuma. 

Jeff miraculously got me into a rhythm of leaving my Burbank home at 5:00am on Saturdays in the summertime, driving across the 101 and over Kanan Dune Road, and showing up at Zeros at 6:00am, just as the yellow sun’s rays were starting to beam over the Santa Monica Mountains.  As long as it wasn’t foggy, it was always a gorgeous way to meet the morning.

At the time, one would pay for parking by putting one’s car in a parking space, noting the space number painted on the ground, and the slipping a dollar-fifty into a slot with the same space number in a metal payment box.  You’d approach the cove via a steep service road, and then a dirt trail, which was later converted into simple steps made out of partial railroad ties.

Our gear included our boogie-boards, rubber booties (to protect our feet from the rocky shore), wet-suites and fins.  It was kind of the standard get-up for any serious boogie-boarder.

Zeros was an interesting spot to boogie-board in.  The hard board surfers were often locals and didn’t appreciate boogie-boarders getting in the way.  As long as you (the boogie-boarder) were adept enough at your sport, and you knew how to stay out of the way of surfers picking up rides, you’d be okay.  Only once do I remember an altercation involving someone in our group.  Peter and a surfer got into a dispute over someone being in the way of the other.  But nothing serious became of it.

These little coves make great surf spots.  The topography around these covers often makes the waves break in uneven ways, peeling off either to the left or right, pretty consistently.  I recall getting some really good rides at Zeros, where I felt like I was sliding down smooth glass for a good fifteen or twenty seconds, until I met up with a part of the wave that was closing out. 

There is one day in particular that I will never forget.  Jeff, Peter and I were all three kickin’ it a bit outside (beyond the wave breaks), waiting for that magical huge set to come in, when Peter said, “Hey, let’s paddle to that next cove over there.”  Peter was pointing south to a beach that was about a quarter of a mile away past a rock outcrop that we would need to paddle around on our boogie-boards.  I know there was a moment when Jeff and I contemplated the idea of sharks, but it was fleeting, and as I recall, Peter had done it once before and still had all of his limbs in tact.  The trick with this was that the venture had to be done during a high tide in order to get past most of the rocks between the two coves.  Today was indeed a high tide.

So we paddled and paddled.  It took longer than I had anticipated since we were also fighting the oncoming swells from our right.  I’ve noticed that the dimension of “here” to “there” always seems to elongate whenever you have to do something strenuous. 

We finally arrived at this cove and found that it had a sandy beach (unlike Zeros which had a lot of rocks and pebbles) and was populated by a few large, very expensive homes that owned the property down to the waterline. There were also a few large rocks coming out of the water on one side of the cove, but we were able to steer clear of this area.

The important aspect of this cove was that it had GREAT waves that day, and that no one else, but we three, were there. The fact that the exclusive homes prevented any access to this cove from the road worked to our favor.  We boogie-boarded there maybe three and a half hours or so, catching long clean lines to the right, one after another, with no interference from any other surfers.  I even recall us looking at the surfers sitting in the water off of Zeros, who were undoubtedly looking back at us wondering what gold we three had discovered.  It was the perfect boogie-boarding experience.

We finally wore out; each of us wishing we could go on surfing forever for that day.  We started our long, arduous paddle against the now wind-pushed swells back to Zeros, got out and felt surfing-satiated like we’d never felt before. 

I remember thinking to myself, “I’ve got to make a note of what the tide level was today for future reference.”  I drove back to the valley and went to Val Surf to look up the tide tables, and then marked it down on a little white piece of paper in my car; one that eventually turned yellow and was thrown out during a car wash.  But it’s stayed in my head all of these years just in case I decided to go back and do it again.  It was a 5.5 tide.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

My Favorite Word of the Week - "Yonks!"

Keith Richards really made me laugh during his interview with Terry Gross when he referred to his relationship with his other band-mates as having gone on for, "yonks."  One of the many British phrases I've never heard before.  I should add that the interview was fascinating.  Listen To The Interview