Saturday, September 13, 2014

Casey's Tavern

It’s been a long time since I came to see him play.  He gets together with a bunch of guys every Thursday evening at the same place, still, after all of these years.  The last time I saw him, he was playing piano at the Bel Air Hotel, where my parents, Brenda and I had a nice dinner and watched him run through all of the standards with his Louisiana style of playing.  Lloyd Hebert is from Baton Rouge, and he has a slightly hard-hitting, sometimes brash attack in the keys.  His voice is precisely the same; a hard Louisiana accent with a kind of aggressive cadence.  I am always expecting him to talk about catching shrimp or motoring through the bayou.  Yet, in his melodic piano playing, he has all color hues and subtlety of a watercolor painting.  He passes through and even makes an issue at times of major 7th notes in his playing, which gives his improvisations a layer of melancholy.  I’ve always loved that.  It speaks to me. 

I first met Lloyd at U.S.C.  I had studied piano with different teachers outside of the school intermittently, and now back in the U.S.C. dorms, one of my dorm mates, who seemed to always be attached to a small Casio type keyboard he was carrying with him, did a little jazz-blues run in front of me.  I asked him to do it again. When he did, I told him to please reveal to me where he had learned this. 

“I’m taking a Jazz Performance Piano course here for a couple of extra credits.”  I asked, “You’re not in the School of Music here, so anyone can take this?”  “Yeah, I believe so,” he answered.

The very next day I went down to the music school asking how I could add on this music performance course.  It ended up being an easy addition and I arrived at my first music lesson with the then head of the jazz piano division of the music school.  Lloyd introduced himself to me and immediately asked me to sit down at his piano and play a little for me. 

Right away, I sense that he was a gentle, encouraging man.  He liked what I played for him (“Misty,” or one of the standards I had learned).  I had endured one terrible piano teacher when I was in grade school, and then, through an older neighboring kid on my block I stumbled upon a much nicer piano teacher in middle school.  They were both classically trained, but since by the time I worked with the second instructor, I was more desirous of learning popular tunes, such as “Grease,” and “The Star Wars Theme,” on the piano, that’s where my focus landed.  I should add that those were very simplified versions of the songs, so I never really did Frankie Valli or John Williams any justice. 

But this new instructor for me at U.S.C, Lloyd, was dynamic right away.  An accomplished jazz musician, he taught both theory and jazz voicing’s in a way that I had never experienced.  I continued my lessons with him throughout my time at U.S.C, and then once I graduated, I took lessons from him at his house.  He lived in a modest house in Burbank with his wife.  In front were a living room with a television, a kitchen, and then two bedrooms.  Beyond that in the back of his home was a recessed area where he had his music studio.  A medium sized grand piano, his horns (he was also a trombone player), and lots of sheet music everywhere like a mad scientist in a music lab.

Sometime near the beginning of my career at the Walt Disney Company during, “Boy Meets World,” I stopped taking lessons simply due to the time that had narrowed in my life with a busy production schedule.  And yet, I would go see him play with his quartet at, Jax, in Glendale, and at various other locations around town.  But once my parents began to get ill around 2006, even my visits to his shows curtailed.

So tonight, after so many months and years of thinking to myself, “I need to go see Lloyd play,” I go to the spot where he has had a standing gig for all of the time that I’ve known him.  His group at this venue is usually more of a Dixieland band. Or at least it was the last time I visited this weight station out in the west San Fernando Valley. 

I find the last parking spot along the busy street where the meters don’t need to be fed after 6:00pm.  I make sure there is nothing sitting in the seats in my SUV that might look like something worth stealing.  Casey’s Tavern is on a busy, somewhat grimy part of Sherman Way in Canoga Park, CA. This section of the boulevard is made up of small, old business buildings; stores that might have once been nail salons and the like, but many of which are not visible from the outside, or are closed and locked, and not identifiable in the evening. 

I ask myself a question I remember asking myself the other time that I saw him here.  “Does he really like playing here?  I just can’t imagine him driving from Burbank all the way across the valley floor to this area where I wouldn’t be surprised to see a street-walker or a biker fight.”  Then my alter ego, the more level headed, less fearful, non-snooty one, the ego that appreciates people and art and the fabric of the city retorts, “How is it that I can be so superficial about these things sometimes?  What does it matter where the club is located?  All that matters is that people are getting together and making something great happen. Music. And it happens to be here.  Big deal where it is!” 

I walk down the sidewalk westward towards Casey’s, and on the way I pass an all night make shift billiard hall, again probably created from two smaller former stores with a wall removed.  I get to Casey’s, the front of which is just a tan and brown themed wood and stucco wall from the front with an old “Casey’s Tavern,” sign steadfastly protruding from the roof’s eve.  No windows facing the street.  But I can hear the thudded bass of amplified sound from inside.  “That’s the band, Lloyd is in there playing!” I tell myself. I’m excited. I’ll bet he’ll be surprised to see me. 

I enter into the club.  It’s set up differently than last time.  The club is shaped like a shoebox with an “L” near the doorway.  Eight years ago when I visited, the seating was such that people sat in the “L,” and the band was in the center of the place.  This made it difficult to see the players for some of us who were seated at the very outreaches of the “L,” because there was a wall between ourselves and the band.  But now, it is the opposite.  As I let the wooden door close behind me, the musicians are immediately to my right, and I cross along their side to get to the seating area, which is towards the back of the club adjacent to the bar.  

Right away a bar tender comes to my tall table and asks me what I’ll have.  “A Coke.”  I don’t drink and drive, so it’s always a Coke unless I can walk or take a cab. It’s a much easier rule to follow than trying to gage how much alcohol could be in my system, given the time I’ve been somewhere, eating, etc.  And tonight, I’m about fourteen miles from my doorstep.  So I’m drinking a lot of Coke tonight.

I’m seated in a good spot only about mid way back in the place, but in front of me are low tables, so mine is the first tall table in line of sight to the band.  I finally focus on the musicians.  Lloyd is sitting on a stool holding a trombone near the piano with tan Khakis, a short sleeved print shirt with soft purple colors, and he’s wearing silver rimmed glasses.  A young man with a Hawaiian shirt, probably his son who I recall played piano as well, is vamping on the piano.  There is the bass player who I recognize as being a part of their band for a long time, a drummer, a jazz blues guitarist, and then an old, short, plump man also sitting on a stool in front of the band.  This man has a trumpet in his hand and seems to have taken the position that Jack Sheldon used to at his own shows; that is, trumpeter and emcee with a few jokes thrown in here and there.  This man’s solos are not as virtuosic as Sheldon’s, and his puns not as edgy, but he fills the role well enough.

I will insert here that I was once at the Money Tree in Toluca Lake, and I hit a great night when Jack Sheldon and his band had Ross Tompkins sitting in with them.  They were musically effusive that evening.  They ended the show with Jack singing, “What a Wonderful World,” with only Ross Tompkins accompanying him.  The rest of the band stayed silent. I left there that night with my hair standing on top of my head in disbelief of what I had just witnessed. 

Tonight at Casey’s, the band is playing, “Summertime,” and the players have a jazz sound to them.  As they finish this tune and another song begins, I realize that they have generally dropped their “Dixieland only” status, that was so much a part of their identity at this venue, and they do more of a mix of jazz with a little Dixieland thrown in.  I prefer this because I am less partial to Dixieland and more to jazz.  In fact, it was exactly the last time those eight years ago that I was at this club with my girlfriend Brenda during which Lloyd, as he was heading the band that night, said one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard him say.  They were playing all Dixieland that night, and Lloyd and another player were throwing in some thirteenth notes and such, and one of the band members complained that they were getting away from Dixieland by doing that, to which Lloyd replied, “Oh Hank, you can never take a little discord, can you?”

I laughed inside hard that time, because it’s so true; true for me.  Dixieland is a much more, how would you say it, “fixed” way of playing than jazz.  There is not only less improvisation if any in Dixieland, but also, the notes are more “on the nose” if you will.  I liken Dixieland to Ragtime.  The notes are there and you play them.  They are often intricate and weave in and out of each other, but they are played straight on and pretty much straight as written. 

Jazz music allows for a lot more variation in melody, chords, and timing.  If you take a jazz standard like, “Meditation,” or, “I Love You,” the performers will play the melody over the basic chords for the piece, but then the players will add in more complex voicing’s to the chords, eliminate some of the roots (because, for instance, the bass will have the root and other basic notes in the chord covered), and even fifths or thirds will be eliminated to allow drop in’s of seconds, sevenths, ninths, eleventh’s and thirteenths.  All of this, plus the player who is carrying the melody will improvise and contort the tune’s melody.  Well, all of it makes for a wonderful soup of emotion that is created the instant that you are experiencing it; something that is really glorious when you realize what is happening. 

So, without any intent to make Dixieland extinct at all, I am glad that they are more jazz oriented nowadays at Casey’s.

As I look closer at Lloyd, I can see that he is much more frail than he used to be.  He is thin, appears more brittle, and he’s not quite in charge of the band like he used to be.  The trumpeter in front calls out song ideas to Lloyd, who then chooses from amongst them.  Lloyd moves from trombone to piano. His playing is still there, perfectly timed, but it’s slightly more faint.  Is it because they don’t have him mic’d as well tonight?  No, I think it’s because he’s slowed down a bit.  In fact, I can see that all of the guys in the band are older now, and that the ensemble as a whole is fainter in their playing; less energetic, less attack in their solos.  But all the same, I love being here because I love the sound of live jazz.

The intermission comes at about 9:00pm, and the musicians take a break.  I look around the mostly wood walls that have mirrors and old advertisements on them.  The room is pretty full, and people are now milling about. At the tables in front of me, there are people of mature age, some of whom I have to assume know some of the band members.  They sip glasses of wine and dress in a lot of white clothing; a definite indication of their retired, relaxed years I suppose. 

The bar is filled with a mixture of people, several of whom are turned around in their stools who came to see the show, and probably several locals who just like to come in, have a drink on a Thursday night, and hear some music.  The music may be more of a background accessory for them.

I turn to my right, which is towards the back of the room, and there is a tall table like mine with a young couple; a white young man with a Latina woman.  They look like it might be one of their first dates together because they are keeping pretty tightly to themselves as if to keep reminding themselves, “We’re on a date, and we’re drinking drinks, and we’re watching music.”  Something lacking in their fluidity, but they seem like they’re enjoying being with each other.

At table back from them is a quartet of three guys, also in their twenties, and a gorgeous, lively, young brunette with a casual black top and white shorts.  My peripheral vision picks up that this girl has stellar legs.  I need not look any further to verify this.  No wonder all three guys seem to be happy to be sitting at that table!

Now Lloyd happens to walk towards me.  Oh good.  He probably just noticed that I am here tonight and wants to say hi.  But as he walks, his directionless eyes reveal to me that he is just moving through the room, and I happen to be in his path.  He gets near my table.

“Hi Lloyd,” I say.
“Oh, hello.”
“How are you doing?”  I figure that in a few words, he’ll realize who I am.
“Good.  Say, what’s your name?”
“I’m Fred.  Fred Herrman.”  He seems stumped. “We recorded one of the songs on my album at Curt’s house in Burbank.  You were my music instructor at U.S.C.”
“Oh, I don’t seem remember Curt.”  He gives a kind of shug of his shoulders, an indication of, “How can everybody remember every name that they come across in life?” 

Lloyd knew Curt for a lot of years in the professional musician’s circle.  And then with a moment or two of additional thought, I realize that he really doesn’t remember who I am. 
“Well, I’m really enjoying your set tonight,” I tell him.
“Oh that’s great.”  And then he stiffly leans into me, as if confidentially, “Listen, I have to get over to that bathroom before I run out of time.”
“Haha, of course! Okay Lloyd.  It was great to see you.” And he walks to the back where the bathrooms are located.

I feel sad now.  How did eight years make him forget who I am?  He was so patient with me all of the years that he sat with me explaining why you would overlay a flat five with a diminished arpeggio, or a flat nine with an augmented arpeggio.  Lloyd showed me that implication is important in music.  That when stand close to a painting, you can see that there are swaths of colors that the painter has put down; shapes, lights and darks.  Then, when you stand back from the painting, you see that these lights, colors and shapes show you leaves and mountains and reflections in water.  He said it's the same with music.  You don’t have to put down every little note that you want to convey, but rather, you can imply ideas through your choices for the listener.   

He also told me how you have to play from the feelings that you experience throughout your life.  That when you hear a really good player, it’s because you are hearing their life reflected in their playing.  You hear the joys of their love, and their heartbreaks that tore at their souls.  And likewise, when Lloyd would play for me, “Green Dolphin Street,” or “I’ll Remember April,” I swear that I could hear his own childhood, maybe the longing for the simple days in Baton Rouge, in his improvised melodies.  I could hear the girl that he likely experienced a summer with, but who got away, and of whom he always wondered, within the key voicing’s he chose in his playing.  And I could hear his the love and security of the life he made with his wife in how he gently raised his ending of a song a half tone up, then to the four, then resolved into the original key. All of those kinds of nuances that told deep stories and were just further proof of his philosophy that dictated, “Go and live some life first and get your heart broken; and then you can come back and give people something to hear about in your playing.

I love this man, and I love what he gave to me.  His time, his passion, and his caring.  And it makes me sad to see that he is fading. 

But I will look at it like this.  I have an appreciation of music from the people who have taught me to listen, such as Lloyd Hebert.  Understanding both the feeling and the mechanics of music enhances my enjoyment greatly of it.  And Lloyd is responsible for a lot of that.  He’s gotten older, and that’s just part of life, and in that way, a part of what he's been playing about.  The old Lloyd too will assuredly work into someone’s music somewhere; maybe his son’s, maybe mine someday. The music that he plays with his band seems to keep him going and active, so God bless him for keeping on.  He doesn’t have to remember me.  I’ll keep visiting him at Casey’s and will be a part of his music.  I’ll remember April, and Lloyd.