Monday, October 26, 2009

New York, New York

We observe family birthdays like composing a compressed symphony. There always has to be a theme – transition and captivating finale. How we arrived at this practice is still a bit of a mystery. Christmas encroaches then vanishes without much fanfare. Weddings are somewhere on the perimeter. October is big birthday month. Both Kristine and son Jesse rule the later part of the Libra cosmos.

Kristine was approaching sixty a number that can play havoc with the mind. For good measure she started reminding me at fifty-seven that sixty was only three steps ahead. It became a cause for impromptu comedy. I actually believed one morning I’d wake up and there would be an IV machine next to my lounge chair with a note – drip on!

I thought about what could be done to make this occasion memorable while keeping in mind failure could bring a medieval flogging. Rather than decide for myself I engaged my dear partner who without consternation blurted out – “I want to celebrate my birthday in New York - my home, my favorite place.”

How could one argue with that? It had been nearly twenty-nine years since I last set foot there. When I left they were still scribbling gang messages all over subway cars and robbing pedestrians.

I mentioned to Jesse about momma’s wish. Now, the next event came as a unexpected surprise.

Moments after our exchange two tickets aboard Porter Airlines arrive in the ‘in box’. That in itself was cause for celebration. Moment’s later accomodation at the Waldorf Astoria for three nights appears. At first I thought this was one of those Nigerian chain letters – you give me ten thousand dollars and I give you ten million bottle caps. As the supreme gesture began to enliven the room - tears of joy flowed like a endless crystal stream under a sunlit morning sky. The moment was grand.

Kristine made the plans – outlined our schedule. I fully trust this about her. Lincoln Center for Herman Leonard Exhibition, MOMA, Blue Note with Roberta Gambarini and Roy Hargrove – Central Park – and shopping. As soon as she mentioned shopping I understood this to be my chance for a nostalgic run through the Soho district – my home for two years in the late sixties.

If you haven’t flown Porter Airlines then you are missing one of the joys of flying away from Toronto. The small passenger plane is a delight. Unlike Air Canada there’s food awarded that tastes like someone actually prepared it with government regulations in mind.

We arrived at Newark International with little fanfare. The day was the same shade of dim gray as our surroundings. I scan the airport thinking of ways to make this a touch more appealing – like a bit of color. How about Chinese lanterns or gangland graffiti?

We decide to catch a train into Penn Station and cab it from there. A taxi ride is over $75 - train $15. That’s a better deal than a taxi ride from Davenport and Spadina to Queen’s Park in Toronto. One is a mere mile or so the other a small continent away.

The ride through New Jersey was everything I dreamt it to be. I thought I saw Tony Soprano whacking a guy near an excavation site. I just waved hoping New York wasn’t as drab and uneventful.

As soon as the train pulled into to Penn Station I could sense the energy level rise above nuclear. The jaunt through Penn terminal out onto 34th street was exhilarating. Everything was beating at an allegro tempo. I could sense my pulse rise in anticipation.

The drive to the Waldorf was a battle for road space and visual treats. A cab ride in Manhattan is more a drill than casual outing. Traffic flows without mishap largely due to the aggressive interplay between cabs. An open space is for the taking. You either capture or sit idle.

The Waldorf Astoria.

Luxury around our house is a movie, a measured amount of calm and two dogs near comatose.

As we enter the sumptuous surroundings the smell of steaming roast beef comes soaring by the nostrils. The aroma was almost too hard to resist until we were notified the brunch in the lobby could be purchased for a mere $100 a person. At that moment I began looking for the Tootsy Roll dispenser.

The Waldorf is all history and wealth. There’s a sweet fragrance throughout - a pleasant odor one can’t fully identify. In my mind it must be a combination of flowers, antiquated wood and carpet. I kept in mind Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Winston Churchill, the Kennedys, Haile Selassie and even the frightful Henry Kissinger had all stayed there.

All thoughts of the Best Western quickly vanished once our room key unhinged the door. The change of scenery certainly put us in the right frame of mind. Kristine found nirvana in the girlie room off the bathroom. I had no business there other than ‘right of passage’.

My youthful days in New York were never quite this luxurious. I lived in a two room renovated flat in the lower east side. At the time it was a delight compared to my neighbors. I would sit on the fire escape and watch the Latino couple directly across scream and slap each other around. The fights were a daily occurrence. I once called the cops after hearing the young woman plead for her life. Later the police told me the woman chided them in a profane laced dress down to butt out.

The New York in front of me showed no signs of its diminished past. The streets are cleaner than Toronto – in fact I felt as safe as I did forty years ago when I first set foot on Canadian soil.

Where did my old nemesis go? The insane guy who erected a life position top of a trash can between my apartment building and subway stop.

Everyday I’d make the journey to either a gig or rehearsal or movie and this horrific guttural sound would emanate from his perch. ‘Hey shithead, I’m going to kill you. You just wait and see.” I kept thinking about wait and see. When was this? Was there a specific date or time of day or night? After a few months of intimidation I learned of my tormentor’s posturing in a nearby bar.

The old men who watched this act instill fear in passerbies knew the man was mentally challenged but never let on. For them it was comic relief. “Hey boy, you scared of that fellow – he won’t do you any harm – that’s just him. He’s a retard,” says one of the ancient specimens glued to a pint. Then the room howled in unison. I wondered what happened to the menacing guy – did he now have season tickets for the Knicks?

The time spent at Lincoln Center honoring jazz photographer and icon Herman Leonard was definitely a high point. The faces in the many photographs are the prime faces of jazz. The splendor of the images attest to the remarkable skill Leonard achieved with a camera and a couple lights which he attributes to time spent with portrait master Yosef Karsh.

The event was not only a triumph for Leonard whose career didn’t receive much traction until he turned 69. At 90 the man is an eloquent speaker and as robust and fluid as any man thirty years younger.

The grand portraits reveal much of each jazz artist. They aren’t snaps on the fly. They are carefully considered images that bring something from the inner regions of the soul forward as well as a true understanding of light – much like the celebrated painters of old. Light illuminates!

From a social stance this was the place to be if you were a jazz photographer. John Abbott who has photographed over 250 CD covers was in attendance as well as Chuck Stewart - whose work appears in Leonard Feather’s Jazz Encyclopedia, Esquire Jazz Book, Downbeat, The New York Times, Life, Paris-Match, Carol Freidman – who in the 1990s was chief photographer and art director of Blue Note Records, sports photographer Neil Leifer famed for his captivating images of sports legends Muhammad Ali, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and derby winner Secretariat among others.

The night for Kristine was an explosive mix of social and artistic splendor. Birthdays aren’t generally this culturally enriching.

Now, for the New York trapped in memory.

I have long anticipated seeing my old neighborhoods - retracing a few of the endless walks that seem to linger until exhaustion. I could still envision the train rides from downtown to uptown across to Brooklyn - cold searing winds sweeping through each open subway door -the smell of urine – the fearsome thugs who stalked the unsuspecting.

Well, the moment I slipped on board at 51st Street heading to Bleecker Street I realized the city in decay was buried and a polished jewel has emerged in its place.

The riders were no different than the latte set at Starbucks in my neighborhood. Laptops were at full face and clothes creased to perfection. Nowhere to be found were the rambling inscriptions of urban warfare that once defaced every neutral space.

As I began my stroll along Bleecker I saw the change – I mean big change. The tenements that once housed impoverished immigrants were now commandeered by glistening youthful faces. My first impression? A person could get deported in the Soho district for being under thirty. These were gorgeous young people – handsome men and attractive women co-existing in a world of their own design. The longer the steps the more streets pass with much the same in common. Cafes, trendy shops , exquisite building makeovers – all part of a more vibrant youthful New York.

My walk down Bleecker sealed the past for me. The Bitter End was still in play. I stood for a moment and thought about the steamy air thick evening I lounged in front of the door sneaking a view and listen to a dreamy looking Joni Mitchell sing in that angelic voice. Joan Baez did this for me years prior but Joni was something refreshing and alluring. There were the nights Neil Diamond packed them in – the comics – the folk singers – the soul thumping Electric Flag – the jam sessions. I then I set my sights on the Café Wha – my first gig in the city.

I’d been thrown to the curb by the band I had arrived with as they quietly exited back to California. New York scared them shitless! I remember standing under an awning with a cool rain lighting the neon streets and the four of us thinking – what’s next? Under the same protective skin was a guy who played drums with a band called Cat Mother and the All Night Newsboys. He was affable and gracious enough to direct us to the Café Wha in search of employment. This we did the following day.

We copped an afternoon audition and just as fast the band vanished. No word, no warning. I’m left stranded with my portable organ and truck full of jazz sides and clothes. Those items remained for a week or so at some guy’s residence courtesy a local street hustler.

I was now homeless with no compass.

I slept in a telephone both. I slept beneath the Four Winds Café now the Blue Note. I hung next door with Jesse the wino from Louisville, Kentucky who’d arrive each summer drunk and serve life according to Jesse’s limited rules then return home for rehab. Jesse loved the women and hated the tourist.

The basketball court at 3rdStreet and Avenue of the Americas still casts a spell over the area. The greats from Harlem and players from NY University and lesser known would test each other in combat late afternoons. Early on – guys like me would take a few blows from the domain managers and play a few hours of three on three.

One early morning while I was rising from my overnight sleep nightmare I was awoken with a takedown a few doors from the Café Wha. A gentleman began a quick sprint down McDougall with a few cameras in chase when suddenly police emerge from all sides and wrestle to the ground. The guy then begins screaming for them to get the hell off. Suddenly, a crew of ten or fifteen men catch up and yell at the cops – “that’s James Coburn – James Coburn you just threw to the ground. We’re making a movie here.” The police retreat and Coburn coolly brushes down his garment and offers a hand. They were doing just that – filming outside the Café Wha in a VW hippie bus and down the street- The film – The President’s Analyst.

As I was reminiscing a young woman approaches with a clipboard. “Would you sign my petition and donate to a worthy cause,” she begs. I hear her out. “Do you believe in equal rights for gays and do you believe in same sex marriage?” I tell her I’m from Toronto and we’re doing quite fine in those areas. Then she reminds me of the persecution going on in America against gays. I tell her to keep up the battle and that she will eventually prevail. Then I remind myself outside of this cultural oasis lies Rush Limbaugh’s America.

The rest of my walk does nothing to rekindle the aromas and edginess of my past. Everything smells lovely even the fuel. Where’s the two inch thick pizza cooking through an open window, the grimy dude with the oily cloth wiping car windows, the broken glass, the badly painted hooker, where’s Travis Bickle?

I never expected to relive the past in high definition so I’ll let history remain stowed away in grainy black and white. As for Kristine, she likes her New York just the way it is – inviting, exciting and youthful and above all – an hour’s flight away! Happy birthday babe!

Monday, October 12, 2009

I Am Fire Dog

I’ve been reminded my birth took place during the Year of the Dog – 1946 and in some way that minor event underscores my love for this sometimes misrepresented devoted companion. I realize body structure and habits separate those two small free loaders sprinting between the bedroom and front door from me. Yet, I find it hard to relate to them as animals. I prefer most trustworthy friends. It just makes more sense. Besides, I have this compulsion to engage every passing dog in conversation as if they have a clue what’s on my mind.

My affection for dogs stems from my first encounter with the Disney melodrama the ‘Lady is a Tramp.’ My tiny brain could easily relate to things small and close to the ground – that’s where I spent much of the day. Now, what wide-eyed nine-year old wouldn’t fall for a love story between a Cocker Spaniel and Scottish Terrier?

1957 rolls in and ’Old Yeller' hits the film houses - another wonderful children’s play on loyalty and sacrifice. Yeller was a big yellow Labrador retriever who’d never let harm come to his adopted family. Oh yes - that played well with dog boy!

And then there was ‘Lassie’- this ‘always on duty’ rough collie and his soul mate Timmy. Every kid in the neighborhood wanted a dog like ‘Lassie’ even if there wasn’t much ‘sleepy rural town’ crime busting to done.

Not long after the films and television shows began to stir imagination dad brings home a mix breed from the dumps of Colgate Palmolive Company – the plant he stood guard a good thirty years. The part Beagle – part undetectable Bowser was quickly given the name ‘Corky.’ I have no clue why - other than it sounded like the kind of heroic dog that would stand guard over’ Lady’ and run as a eager pack member with ‘Old Yeller’.

Corky didn’t live much longer than a month.It was discovered he was riddled with cancer much to do with the nasty substances brewing on home turf - the Colgate dumpsite. They were the type of airborne toxins that chemically removed paint from employee’s cars in the company parking lot.

The loss of Corky played like the final seen in ‘Old Yeller’ – Dog goes down kid gets wounded. Oh my – how that hurt! I barely knew the dog yet I burdened him with my boyhood grievances. He was a great listener and seemed to understand. I think.

No other dogs were accorded top billing in my life until I was introduced to another mix breed pup in Greenwich Village. It must have been 1967 and someone brought this black and white with a spot of brown pup to me looking to bribe it a home.

I’m living on the fly and have little time to spend with the little fellow but work out a compromise with my roommate who spent most days attending Hunter College.

It didn’t take Spirit long to adapt to our two room flat. Every item became a massive chew toy. Shoes, paper, television, radio, cabinets, clothes, nearly everything I held dear was shredded. One day I pulled Spirit aside -looked deep in those vacant eyes and reminded him – Corky died for his sins.

I had no idea at the time how dogs were viewed around the world. To realize there were cultures that killed dogs over antiquated religious doctrine would have shocked and still to this day baffles me. In fact, try waving down a taxi in Toronto with two small dogs. I can’t count the times I’ve been waved off or refused due to some cultural mistrust of dogs. This is Canada not some far off desert community where some kind of orthodox voodoo is practiced against dogs.

A lifetime interacting with my own species has given me plenty insight into people's motives and actions – the good and bad. Life becomes fairly predictable. Yet, there is nothing more predictable than the dog hovering nearby.

The eyes are totally void of hate, envy, greed or most devious behavior. Nothing pleases my two joy pals more than comforting family or receiving the same in return.

Both Yorkie blended terriers assume I really enjoy hitting the living room floor at 9:PM just when I'm settling in for a movie - for a good forty minutes of ‘lob the squeak toy’. I think they believe I lay awake at night dreaming of the moment when the toy lands nearby - a sticky, soiled mess of goo and I grip and let fly and the pleasure it brings me. I think what amuses me most is the speed at which four tiny feet pick up momentum and the metronomic sway of synchronized fur fluttering about during the race for the object of affection.

The toy usually returns with an empathic drop and pause. It’s at this moment all planetary movement halts. This is when the dog’s eyes refuses to camouflage that spiritual passage leading directly to its soul. The pupils stand as wide as telescopes and suck you in. Is this the cosmic Black Hole scientists refer too?

How does a dog sense a person is undergoing heartaches – sorrow, depression, loss, perceived failure or physical pain? This is where I begin to see dogs as something scared – the Good Samaritan that gives of them until the adult mercenaries arrive. The hallowed nurse that never turns a blind eye to suffering – the assuring doctor that tends to patients needs even when the odds of restoration seem impossible.

There have been plenty loving souls enter my conscience long after ‘Spirit’ was stolen along with my portable Farfisa organ from that New York flat. There was an oversized herding dog - a Puli mixed with steroids and sheep dog fur named Barney we purchased through the Bargain Hunter in the early seventies. He came with a guarantee. I don’t actually remember what he didn’t do that made him so desirable or assured.

Barney lived to shock pedestrians. Just as someone would pass he’d turn and run towards their backside and cough up a baritone sounding riff like he was channeling demons from the underworld. It was loud and ferocious. If the person nearly collapsed in fear he’d perk up and parade the other direction. This was a difficult habit to break. His other call to duty was during those intimate passion filled nights. Barney would jump to the edge of the bed and howl until every person in the neighborhood was notified. At first it was a hilarious interlude then it became an annoyance. It wasn’t until we moved to a farm in New Castle he found better things to do.

Then there was Happy, a gorgeous high strung Belgian sheepdog who spent a great portion of her life in retreat. She made her family entrance when she was six months old. There wasn’t a bad gene if her body. She was all sweetness and motherly. She became an instant pup factory. It seems every six months another pile of carbon copy Happys’ would mysteriously arrive. We couldn’t give them away fast enough.

Happy was a digger. She would bore beneath anything. The land below our front porch became a massive chamber of tunnels leading to places unknown. She saved her greatest work for me down in Georgia.

I’d been collecting Rolling Stone Magazines since day one during the mid-sixties and the boxes of collectables traveled with us wherever the miles piled up. This time we settled in a suburb outside Atlanta called Marietta. The property came with a tool shed something I had little use for other than shaving grass or winding garden hose. One steamy afternoon I happen to notice a crack in the door and spring open. There before me is a giant pile of dirt and mud mixed with demolished pages of political cartoons, Hunter Thompson and Tim Cahill articles, Aerosmith reviews and Grateful Dead photos – courtesy Rolling Stone. Underneath it all was the gazing eyes of the family neurotic. At first I thought the world had collapsed around me then I began to understand. This crazy dog wanted to mother all humanity. How could one even entertain punishing her or even try to reason.

Jason was a six week old Springer spaniel who entered life as a comic. He didn’t really tell jokes - he just brought the laughter through body movement. There would always be a worn sox caught up under a lip. The more I’d laugh Jason would wiggle and prance about. You could twist him in any position and use as a pillow. We’d travel the subways and buses together without need of a leash. He’d attend most recording sessions with me and chew on a microphone filter the entire time savoring every fiber. I’d dress him in shorts and cap and send him to roam the neighborhood. He never once complained. We were inseparable.

Happy lived to be fifteen and Jason was shot and killed by a farmer who accused him of rousting his chickens and ducks.

After that we made do with two cats the next twenty-two years. I do love cats but cats aren’t dogs. When the two felines passed away - both in or around twenty years old I set my mind on getting a dog. I never thought of getting two – but as I’m writing that’s the way things turned out.

Samson and Suzie run the house. They do all the things dogs do. They stand for hours scratching, sleep with bellies exposed - demand a doorman be on call twenty-four hours a day. They both whine and compete for the occasional bike ride with me. They sleep either on my head or nearby. They follow us room to room waiting for action. They hang around the kitchen coaxing me to pop the fridge door. They have memorized the words chicken and ham. They are on speaking terms with the crafty squirrels out back even if they are profanity laced exchanges.

As I look at these two constants I’m truly awed by their compassion and kindness towards humans – I can’t speak for most living things beyond the fence. To know it’s been some fifteen thousand years since their ancestors were first domesticated in China brings a bit of clarity. I guess I have the Chinese to thank for this and for calculating and inscribing 1946 the Year of the Dog.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Piano Speaks

Recently, I encountered an interesting discussion on the Internet concerning the quality of performance pianos in venues such as night-clubs. This has always been a contentious issue for suffering pianists. One interloper suggested replacing acoustic with electronic - inviting a maelstrom of acerbic responses nearly drowning the debate in puerile squabbling. Unlike woodwind, brass, string or percussionist- a pianist has little say in selecting a preferred instrument for concert situations. Electronic keyboards are 'Get By' solutions more suited for causal gigs or pop related work. No digital entity can assume the stature of warm-vocally resonant wood, companion felt and metal. Below are a few of my memorable hits and misses.

First year of high school, I’d surreptitiously enter the gymnasium and climb the dimly lit stage and seat myself behind a baby rosewood grand piano then carefully raise the lid and place it high on the longest peg and begin humbly tapping out a few choice notes while checking the hall for spies. On second pass, I subconsciously close my eyes and encourage the hands to search and discover and discard-leaving me awash in a room reverberating with harmonious intent. I couldn’t have felt more fulfilled or joyous. I dreamt of the moment when I’d be accorded the opportunity to play in front of people. A year later it came.

My first gig was not on anything as rare and satisfying as a Steinway but a sleepy Chickering stuffed back of an American Legion Hall in Jeffersonville, Indiana. Judging from the numerous cigarette burns, the poor instrument looked as if it had been tortured into confessing crimes never committed. While lifting the piano lid, I couldn’t help but notice the keyboard scowl back at me with some thirty odd missing teeth. The remaining ivories - covered in ash and spent beer displayed a curious mix of yellow and brown stains. Nearby, a barmaid watches as I examine the neglected relict, closes in and speaks, “Roy plays that piano beautifully. Do you know Hello Dolly? What about Beer Barrel Polka?” Confused and shy, I continue examining the ill-equipped instrument when she interrupts again. “Why don’t you go ahead and start Mr. Piano Player.” This I do.

The first tune that comes to mind is a light jazz version of “Sometimes I’m Happy.” I spread my lead sheet along a fractured wood support and commence playing. As I begin hammering out the first series of chords a nightmarish synthesis of scraping metal and overlapping tones pierce the smoke-hazed beer hall like the dissonant cry of a brooding river-boat calliope - stunting my effort. “Keep on playing boy,” a voice from behind the noxious veil of smoke commands. Again I search for something musical only to be derailed by the dismembered Chickering. Defeated, I rise, close the lid and tell the barmaid I think the piano had been kinder to Roy. “Honey, you can go home,” she says, “Roy comes in about this time every night. He just loves that old piano.” So he should!

In 1976, during a month long tour of Japan with the Pointer Sisters I was introduced to concert grands - mostly imagined, rarely touched. Nine foot Yamahas and Steinways, two or three waits before each concert. One hall presented a Steinway inscribed with the phrase, ‘This Is a Beauty’, Arthur Rubinstein. Also etched on the sound-board the name Van Cliburn. All I could think of was how magnificent Chopin and Tchaikovsky must have sounded when these immortals concertized. Needless to say, those were some of my most inspired evenings. Everything I played behind 'The Sisters' was affected positively by the exceptional pianos I was accorded. Rarely have I had the same relationship with electronics.

I’ve always admired the original Fender Rhodes - the dreamlike quality of its tone. One summer night in 1982, I lost myself composing on a superb Fender Rhodes in an apartment at the Sunset Marquis Hotel in Hollywood. A comforting night- breeze sifted through the partially collapsed window blinds prompting me to search deeper for abstract harmonic sequences when a voice interrupts from the wilderness, “Shut the fuck up or I’ll kill you.” As violently as the order arrives, I was uncertain the directive was meant for me. Cautiously, I inspect the narrow pathway intervening the two buildings and spot a menacing figure - barely visible, lurking below a security light. The bald plated being sights me then screams, “You hear me…I’ll kill you if you keep it up asshole” I was too mortified to reply. Next morning I would learn the threatening skinhead was none other than the bass player of the vile punk band the Plasmatics, the antithesis of everything music meant to me.

No greater thrill could match the times I played on Glenn Gould’s grand piano in the foyer of Roy Tompson Hall. From one end of the instrument to the other the piano resonated as if the Gods had ordained it nature’s virile sound board. Notes sounded broad and confident - intervals, clear and precise. I’d spread all ten fingers and think like a composer and play as an orchestra. This was the perfect situation for making solo piano recordings.

In the early nineties I was invited to play the Pilot Tavern’s tenth anniversary party. Word came chanteuse Holly Cole was showing, maybe even Buddy Bolden.

Vocalist Liberty Silver and I were hired to play a couple sets - me behind a supposed refurbished and resurrected Mason & Reich - a piano of equable repute.

As I enter the Pilot I witness the lovely grand posing with its spectacular sheen - top fully extended - waiting to comply. The room was buzzing with music people. I raise the keyboard lid and play a brief figure - mid-piano upward then retire out of view. Everything sounded in order.

Minutes pass before Liberty and I take the stage. I call an up tempo selection with walking bass and count the tune in. As we sprint from the downbeat my left hand abruptly hits an unexplained succession of pot-holes nearly amputating my fingers. In desperation I descend a register to find the same indiscriminate pattern.

Third time through the tune comes ‘Solo Time’. I signal the right hand, ‘Flail Away’ leaving the left hand to crash about and gather splinters. I can't express the grief, the embarrassment and torment simmering inside. "Baby, I thought you said this guy could play? He sounds like your cousin Ernie, the one missing four fingers on his favored hand."

The song abruptly ends. Liberty looks over and inquires, “Oh! Bill, that bad? Should we try something else?” We make a second attempt at a medium-tempo number to no avail. With no other alternative, I rise - clutch the microphone, apologize to the crowd and explain that the manager had lured me here offering a wonderfully refurbished baby grand for a companion. I then lead them through the crime scene.

"Here’s where B below middle C usually resides. Wait a minute where’s the missing G? Oh lookie here, E and D are mute too. Let's see what else is absent down there. A, G, and F! Well, well....I haven't tested anything surpassing C above middle C. Hmmmmmmm!Count with me; One, two, three, four, five pot-holes! It's my guess this piano was refurbished by a hit and run driver!"

Needless to say, I refuse to feed embarrassment so I stalk the tie-dyed hippie manager who rarely acknowledged musicians when the room was less than full for an explanation. Hell, the place was at capacity! The next thirty minutes he avoids me like I was walking Ebola virus. "Look, I'll be with you when I get a moment. When's your next set?" he says. Now the hurt spreads to Liberty who isn't someone to short side. Eventually, the club grudgingly paid up but never offered an apology. I wondered who invented the myth the wooden piece of landfill had been groomed to perfection once again. I can only assume the manager actually believed a can of Pledge applied to a handsome cabinet was all that was needed to carry the night. My, she was a beauty!

A good decade and a half has passed since that encounter. The years in between have been kind to keyboardist with advances in technology. I resolved the live gig issue once I bought one of the PF series Yamaha digital pianos. Never once did the piano let me down during the six years of constant play. These days it’s the Roland FP-7 that serves me well. I can haul to a gig or play in the house. Sound and touch exceed my expectations.

Much of the studio work I do these days revolves around my productions at Inception Sound Studio in Toronto. Studio One sports a refurbished nine foot Steinway that brings to mind those glorious ECM piano works with Keith Jarrett. It’s one of those rare pianos that respond to the players touch in such a way it seems to inspire an unconscious reverential hook-up between soul, mind and seasoned wood. Singers Sophie Milman, June Garber, Jessica Lalonde, Real Divas, Sophie Berkal-Sarbit, Kinga Victoria, Josephine Biundo have all benefited significantly from the crafted piece of soulfulness.

There are even more advances in technology on the horizon. Some are already here – some still in the planning stages. I’ve been reviewing a few and have played a couple. Rather than expound at the moment I think I’ll wait and see if any really send my fellow keyboard magicians into a testimonial rant.

I guess I can now admit having a solid digital at my command has been a positive benefit. The old ruptured Petrof in the basement looks good but sounds dreadful. Occasionally, I'll play a few scales or spot a couple pages of Czerny for technique but the cost of up keep far exceeds the pay-off. For now, having a piano that feels solid and sounds real and is always in tune is a delicious pleasure

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Last Piano Lesson

Eva Smith was my first piano teacher. She was a beautiful African American woman well into her seventies. Lessons were no more than fifty cents a pop yet came with so much history and joy. Her students were mostly the black children who lived on the fringe of our town. Everything about her in this piece of fact/fiction is spot on. I owe my world of music to her patience and love for piano.

The Last Piano Lesson.

Every Thursday after school, Charlene would arrive a half hour early for her piano lesson. Ms Evelyn’s sizable back lot, thick with ragweed, wildflowers and tall grass, was enough landscape for a young girl’s imagination run wild with fantasy. Charlene would quickly dash back of the stately wood frame manor, then disappear in the overgrowth, defying wind as she cut an Olympic path through tall blades of blue grass and goldenrod. Wind bowed Tea Roses slumped near the edge of a window box attached to Ms Evelyn’s makeshift conservatory.

Charlene would sprint past pretending to eavesdrop on their conversation then regain top speed. She made friends among the undergrowth, small beings who awaited her weekly arrival then collapse among dried leaves of deciduous plants, gasp for breath, close her eyes, then inhale the garden’s sweet confection. As moisture rose through the wall of her throat she’d guide each syllable through small passage producing the most glorious tone.

“Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa, men have named you, you’re so like the lady with the mystic smile. Is it only ‘cause you’re lonely, they have blamed you for that Mona Lisa strangeness in your smile”.

It was three days beyond Charlene's fourteenth birthday. Up to now she held emotion in check growing from an awkward child into a young woman sleek of figure, skin polished to an ebony sheen. Hope, aspiration and a tremendous will would serve her well in the coming years.

“Are you singing something special for me Charlene?”, asks Ms Evelyn.

“Oh, Ms Evelyn, I’m coming,” she says, then hesitates. ”

“I can’t talk to you through that screen door. Come on in and let me dry you off.”

Charlene carefully slips past the rusted screen trying not to attract any permanent stain to her new birthday dress. Evelyn takes notice of the long trail of perspiration,.

“Don’t sit on the sofa child until I dry you off! Stand there until I get back.”

Ms.Evelyn quietly disappears into one of the unseen rooms of the manor and returns with a small white towel.

“Ms. Evelyn, I just don’t feel like the person that was here last week.”

“Of course you don’t feel like the girl who was here last week, you’re a young woman now. You’re fourteen and start to think things a woman thinks. .”

Evelyn lifts Charlene’s thick tightly wound braids and lightly presses the folded towel along the upper shoulders and slender neck then falls silent as if lured into a dream state by something familiar but yet faraway.

“You are the most beautiful creation mother of the universe has ever given. Look at you, your skin is as black as the coal my father lifted from the bottom of those hills in Harlan County and your eyes clear as mountain spring water.

Charlene listens then faces her teacher. “See how much I’ve changed.”

Ms. Evelyn lifts an eye pretending to examine the young pupil.

“Ms Evelyn, do you like Mona Lisa ?”

“Who don’t like Mona Lisa? Are you talking about the painting or Nat Cole’s Mona Lisa,” inquires Ms Evelyn.

“The song Mona Lisa! You know I just don’t think the songs you’re teaching say much. We’ve done played Hanon, Clementi, Czerny - it all exercised my fingers. You know I love Chopin, Brahms and Mozart but they’re just notes without words. When King Cole sings Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa, I feel he’s talking about me - I am that painting on the wall.”

“Is this about music or have you fallen in love?” Evelyn asks.

“Ms Evelyn, I’m always in love. I can’t help myself - I’m surrounded by love. Mom calls me her Nubian princess and dad says I’m an African queen, daughter of the Pharaohs. Aunt Emma prays evil away, sings me spirituals. Sister Angie’s my best friend. How much more love can I take?”

Ms. Evelyn directs Charlene towards the old upright piano. “Girl, we’ll talk more next week but right now I’ve got to put some knowledge in your head.”

Charlene positions herself directly in front of middle C then arranges her slim fingers directly over ten partially chipped white keys she’d played a hundred times before. Ms Evelyn conducts the downbeat with an inch and half hook nail curled beneath the second finger. An arthritic hand unfolds exposing the strange appendage -making it look more like a falcon’s claw than human.

Charlene’s first encounter with the ghoulish joint sent her squealing all the way to papa’s lap. Dr. Logan soothed his six-year-old daughter then placed her back atop the oak veneer bench. Ms Evelyn just laughed, fetched some candy corns from a crystal jar, spreading a few along the keyboard. Young Charlene moistened her middle finger, tapped until one stuck, then lifted to her mouth. This pleased Ms Evelyn as she gradually acquired the young girl’s confidence.

Ms Evelyn was a beautiful woman in her early seventies. Both sides her cheekbones were covered in red rouge smeared in circular patterns. Cold cream rubbed deep in her silky brown skin making her look like an precious Christmas ornament. Every item of clothing hung at natural length on her diminutive frame. The signature red-rubber boots worn rain or shine were always polished to a reflective mirror finish. Whether sitting in front of Calvin’s Cafe waiting for the Utica bus or weeding her wildflower garden, the shiny red boots were Ms Evelyn’s calling card.

As Charlene depressed each note a hammer would strike three inharmonious strings. The sound was ungodly. If one could imagine dueling riverboat calliope’s you‘d begin to understand what Charlene was up against.

“Ms Evelyn why don’t you ever tune this thing?” Charlene begs.

“Its just like it was when my husband Pastor Wilkins was around young girl. He’d smoke his favorite cheery blend over there and smile approvingly. If it sound good to him, it sound good to me”.

“But Ms Evelyn how am I going to sound good to you if you never tune this tired piano?”

“Young lady, that piano will never be tired or fail to deliver if you play the notes correctly,” a rather taken Ms Evelyn responds.

Charlene quietly goes about her lesson. As she labors through Hanon exercise number thirty-five, she suddenly halts play, pauses, and then looks Ms Evelyn in the eyes.

“I’ll never be a great concert pianist. I could never memorize a book thick with classical notes. Ms Evelyn, what I want more than anything is to sing and play like Nat King Cole. I just can’t relate to these old men with bad hair perms.”

“Charlene, you know what you’re saying? ”

“Nat’s beautiful, Ms Evelyn. His face is so smooth. His manners, the soul in his voice touches me like no other man in them books.” Charlene, realizing what she had just said, buries her eyes in the pleats of her dress.

“Look at me, Charlene! Your words ring true. I see something in you so different from the other students. You hear, feel and breath music like God picked you special. It was the same for me when I was just a bit older.”

“Ms Evelyn, you like the blues too?”

“Charlene, when I was twenty-two I got a call from the father of the blues, W.C. Handy. He said his piano player got a temporary job at the world’s fair and I’d come highly recommended. He also said there’d be a train ticket waiting for me to Memphis and he’d be there to meet me . Do you know how scared I was?”

“Did you go?” Charlene asks.

“Of course I went! Do you know how many evenings we sat around my mother’s house singing St. Louis Blues? Oh, I love that song. People don’t play it right no more. It’s a spiritual! Scoot over young lady, let me show you what I mean.”

Ms Evelyn had never played a note for Charlene. She taught by waving her slender arms like a miniature Toscanini, then jabbing her pencil into a collection of Walter Thompson etudes and minuets. She’d say “No, no, no. Did I teach you to play like that? Start from the top ‘til you play it right.”

Ms Evelyn didn’t scare Charlene. She cared for the notes she was playing, even the bad ones.

Ms Evelyn placed her weather-beaten hands in G minor position, began rolling a sorrowful passage. Her voice opened with the phrase “I hate to see the ev’nin’ sun go down.” She paused, and then listened as if to hear a chorus of angelic voices repeat her words. “Hate to see--the ev’nin sun go down. Cause-ma baby, he done left this town.” She then skipped a couple verses and got to her favourite lines. “St. Louis woman, with her diamond rings, pulls that man around by her apron strings. Twant for powder and for store-bought hair, the man I love-would not gone nowhere.”

“Charlene, you hear that B flat, that’s the blue note. Come here child and put your middle finger on it.” Charlene slowly extended her lanky arm over Ms Evelyn and depressed the black note. “Honey, that’s you. That’s your history, that’s your sorrow, that’s your joy. That’s your grand folks. That’s community, Thats spirit. That’s your ancestors blood spread all along railroad tracks and over every field where the tall grass grow down south. You’re home young one, you’re home.”

Ms Evelyn rose from her stool, and walked to a cedar chest next to the china cabinet. She lovingly removes photographs of Pastor Wilkins, then folds each doily, carefully placing them on the dining room table. After lifting the heavy cedar lid, she dips her slender arm under an assortment of lace, crochet, Afghans and heavy quilts. Ms Evelyn pulls a magnificent tapestry up from the crowded storage. With the caution of a museum curator, she unfolds the scholarly find, drapes it across her lap. Gold tassels adorned the outer rim, with the name Evelyn Smith
embroidered in the middle over a picture of downtown St. Louis. Charlene kneels next to Ms Evelyn then gently massages the threads linking each letter of her name.

“Ms Evelyn, this is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. The world should know about you. You’re probably the most famous person nobody’s heard about.”

“Charlene, Ms Evelyn don’t need to be famous. Mr. Handy told me all I need to know. If the music is inside you and you keep talkin’ it out, it will one day flow like an endless river releasing you from uninvited pain and sorrow, bringing God’s love. You’ve got to be aware of what it’s saying.”

“Ms Evelyn, that’s just what I’ve been trying to explain to you. I hear it so deep and true. There are times my soul weeps when I hear hateful words. The ones that try to shame the color of my skin,my mother, and her mother. There’s something in those piano notes that tell me I am the Mona Lisa in the painting, half smiling, half crying, and that God will look after me.”

“Charlene, you have African blood in your veins. You are part of a proud people going back to the beginning of time. All of our trials and tribulations flow like tributaries from the heel of your foot to the top of your head. You hear the blues, the screams of your ancestors, the laughter of children, the heartbeat in a mother’s stomach, prayers in testament. You are beauty, you are grace, above all very much alive. It’s time you move on.”

“Move on?”

“That’s right Charlene. Everybody’s got to face change”

“But Ms Evelyn, I’m just getting to know you.”

“Charlene, you come and see me anytime, and we’ll speak as women about all things, but there’s no more I can do to help you play the music you hear. I’m not a modern teacher. I don’t understand sophisticated harmony and complex chord movement. This you must find with someone more educated in contemporary thought. This will have to be our last lesson.”

Charlene begins crying uncontrollably. “What about your backyard?

I’ll miss the tall grass and the smell of wildflowers.”

“Of course you will, I’ve got to cut them sometime,” Ms Evelyn
responds. “Life is about change. Even I’m thinking about learning to drive a car. Every few years I’ve got to learn something new. That’s why my mind is always young even though my body keeps changing. I love you Charlene, you’re my most favorite student ever. Now go out and send in your dad, we’ve got to speak. Remember, you can come and visit anytime you want.”

“Ms Evelyn, are you sick?”

“Why do you ask that child?”

“Us women don’t need to keep secrets from each other, right?”.

“Charlene, you don’t need to know my personal secrets.”

“Ms Evelyn, you’re not feeling well. I can see that.

“Child, it’s really none of your business.’

“I knew it, you’re hiding something terrible from me, aren’t you.”

“Please Charlene, keep it to yourself. Nobody but me and you need to know. You saw my hands tremble on those notes. I’m afraid it’s only going to get worse; at least that’s what them doctor’s say. Remember, this is between me and you.”

“ But you said you’re going to drive a car?”

“I know what I said Charlene. There are nights I cover myself in bed and cry like a baby girl. Sometimes the pain is more than I can bear. This house has been dark all the years since Pastor Wilkins passed away. When you kids come its like someone switches on the sunlight, but when you leave darkness sits wherever it feels. I hear Pastor Wilkins’ sweet voice whisper , ‘just a little longer Eve, just stay a little longer, the children need you, I can wait’. They say you’ll know when your time comes, just like you know when it all begins. Charlene, my work is done. You’re my masterpiece. Go git your dad.”

“But Ms Evelyn”...

Charlene sits for a moment, then begins crying. She slowly rises, walks behind Ms Evelyn and curls her arms around the old woman’s neck, then presses the soft flesh of her lips next to her cheek. A steady row of tears meet the saliva from her mouth causing Evelyn’s makeup to spoil.

“Charlene, you’re making a mess of me.”

“I don’t want you to die. I’m scared for you.”

“Charlene, I’m not scared to die. I’ve seen all I need to see. The good Lord delivered me and my family from the fields of Alabama and showed us the way north. I met the love of my life and five grown children later I got to see the world. Singapore, Bombay, Istanbul, the Belgian Congo, all these places I can still hear the children’s voices laughing and taste the midnight air. How many will ever have such a beautiful complete life? And look at the past twenty years with all of the children who passed through that doorway and left with a song in their heart. I have nothing to feel sorry about or for that matter nothing to fear.”

“ I’m so sorry Ms Evelyn. You’re right, it ain’t none of my business, I think I’d better leave now. Can I see you next week?”

“A young woman can always make a social call.”

Charlene squeezes past the large presence of Dr. Logan then timidly walks back of the manor and climbs the decaying porch stairs. She studies the vast uneven terrain, closes her eyelids and savors the humid air. She then blindly walks forward as if summoned by a benign stranger. Her long arms unfold, cross, then rise gently over her shoulders . The overpowering fragrance of an isolated flower awakens her from a temporary dream state. One long thorny stalk of a single rose with petals curved by the sun’s rays hangs silently only inches from her face. The plant rising near eight feet seems to be conducting a rapacious movement to some unfinished symphony.

Charlene cautiously pulls the stem near and sinks nose and mouth deep into the petals, then dusts her face and neck before snapping the limb separating the flower from its life source. “Forgive me, it’s only one,” she says as if addressing a thousand jurors. Minutes pass as she walks slowly back to the front porch then places the broken stem holding the single rose in Ms. Evelyn’s wicker chair. She positions the flower so that it rests in the centre part of the thin cushion, then climbs into the back seat of Dr. Logan’s ‘58 Olds, rolls over and begins sobbing. Within moments her voice unleashes the most beautiful sentimental tone. “Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa men have named you, you’re so like the lady with the mystic smile. Is it only ‘cause you’re lonely, they have blamed you, for that Mona Lisa strangeness in your smile.” Charlene tucks her face deep into the warm leather upholstery and drifts peacefully to sleep.

Remembering Jaco

There are those in life who will never be forgotten. Whose brief existence offers so much promise, but whose life circumstances fix the odds against achieving continuance. A flame caught in an unforgiving draft, cast into eternal darkness. Such is the journey of bassist/arranger/composer Jaco Pastorius.

Pollock, Parker, and Pastorius walked much the same ground. Drive, genius, debilitating depression and uncompromising intellect. Each man understood just how magnificent they were and never hesitated to remind friends and acquaintances of that fact. Each man knew the art they were reinventing could undergo change, recover, and successfully bear new rewards.

Young Pastorius was all bravo. He swaggered, jeered, and stuck it in your face like the punk down the street who kept quick-stepping around you on the way to the hoop. Did I say hoop? Jaco was a court rat who spent as many hours playing one on one as laboring through a set of chord changes. This was life served at full throttle.

It was "Donna Lee" from Pastorius’s Epic Records debut that notified the music community of his arrival. Here was an unknown player doing things on electric bass never before conceived possible. Fleeting lines, harmonics, supremely crafted solos; lead, rhythm, everything on an instrument which had been traditionally assigned a supporting role underneath woodwinds, brass, percussion and most other equivalent strings.

I can’t recall the number of times I dropped the needle on the track for unsuspecting musicians, especially bass players. "Who the hell was that," was the usual response. "That sounded like a Parker tune? Are you sure that was an electric bass?"

It was a matter of days before I recognize some of the meatier originals on the recording. Then I discover a theme Jaco had been developing since he was eighteen. The unconventional use of harmonics as part of the composition was revolutionary. The phrasing, mood, tone, and close-textured symmetry made the piece his unspoken elegy.

Everything Jaco assimilated from playing in R&B and jazz bands in south Florida served him well the coming years. During a ten month road stint with white soul singer Wayne Cochran and the C.C. Riders he learned to read and write music through Cochran’s music director Charlie Brent. The strict rules imposed by soul singer Cochran, who’s 14 piece band was a virtual touring classroom, were ignored in order to accommodate the quirky player. Never one to adhere to Cochran’s dress code, which required tuxedo wear, Pastorius performed in street clothes off stage hidden behind a scrim.

Not long after leaving Cochran, Pastorius replaced Alphonso Johnson in Weather Report while the band was half way through recording Black Market. Evidently, Zawinul saw himself in Pastorius and gave the young player extreme latitude in matters of music and stage attire.

Now comes Heavy Weather. If ever there was a recording from the seventies that deserves the epigraph "For All Eternity," this would be it. Weather Report had been progressing towards this sound since "I Sing the Body Electric, Black Market, and Mysterious Traveler."

How many times and incarnations have you heard the epic Zawinul composition "Birdland?" Here’s a track in which every part can be isolated and committed to memory. It’s just that rich. Each individual pattern runs parallel, intersects, and unites at just the right moments. No cover band can successfully render the tune publicly without precisely duplicating each line of counterpart and interconnecting melodies. We were ecstatic knowing a track as good as this came from an idiom so under appreciated could achieve such universal acceptance. It made you consider maybe jazz fans and musicians didn’t emanate from the far side of Neptune after all.

One glorious night in the mid-seventies I attended a double bill featuring Chick Corea’s "Rerturn To Forever" and Weather Report at Massey Hall, the celebrated institution that gave us the "Greatest Concert Ever," with Parker , Gillespie, Roach, Powell and Mingus. The building bled an intoxicating mix of dust, mold, sweat, tobacco and hashish. A floating blue-lit cloud hovered below the rafters leading to the main stage giving the evening a ghostly surreal atmosphere.

Corea and band played an exotic blend of classical, Latin and rock injected pieces with conviction. Throughout the performance it was Corea’s stunning pitch-wheel bends and cascading lines arising from the Moog synthesizer and complex unison figures with guitarist Al DiMeola that steered the set to a gratifying climax.

You could sense the anticipation as the stage was being adjusted to accommodate Weather Report . I heard voices whisper "Jaco, Jaco, Jaco, which one’s Jaco," from behind and across the aisle. "I wonder if they’ll play "Birdland" first?"

As the lights dim, Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul amble to their respective places like seasoned jazz musicians unaccustomed to the visual theatrics of rock arenas. The last to find himself in position was Pastorius who quickly acknowledged the approving shouts and whistles greeting his arrival by hoisting the bass upward then back for a final volume adjustment.

Unlike Return To Forever which hit with all the force of a category five hurricane, Zawinul and company built their set to a final resolution. Throughout Pastorius glided from one side of the stage to the other displaying a physical presence absent the other front line players. He was all head, hands and heart.

From "Teen Town" to "Birdland" the band played a smoldering brew of fusion inspired instrumentals exactly like their recordings leaving the crowd clamoring for more. At no time did Pastorius display the antics we were led to believe accompanied each performance.

As the years pass rumors of Jaco’s manic episodes began to consume any distant news of further revolutionary advancements to the art form. There were those who believed he had said all he had to say and his departure from Weather Report was further evidence of that.

He assembled Word of Mouth and recorded a brilliant album, "Invitation" quickly establishing himself an arranger and composer of the rarest abilities but there were cracks in the pavement ahead that would eventually derail the juggernaut.

For most fans, the details behind the sporadic solo efforts; the alcohol, drugs and growing depression were no more than private conversations between Jaco and those close to him and corporate types still trying figure out how to cope with a legion of "bad boy" rock messiahs.

When news eventually filtered out concerning Jaco’s declining stature and health he was by then a street urchin; homeless, rejected, addicted and a manic depressive. For many, it was hard to believe anyone with such gifts could so easily fall from grace and descend to such depths. Where was the musician’s union? Where were the public health services? How could this be allowed?

The most disturbing aspect of his decline was the violent ending that awaited. Jaco, was no stranger to confrontation. It was a martial arts blow that quickly shut him down. Within a few days he was removed from life support. Movies often afford a period of redemption; time to reflect, rehab and reassert. For Pastorius the end came quick without compensation or compassion.

When you replay the volume of music Pastorius recorded during his brief tumultuous career you hear none of the pain, conflict or consequence that followed him, instead a joyous reverence for new possibilities, innovation, experiences, and existence, few will encounter in a lifetime. Jaco, we’ll never forget you!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee."

“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee."
(From Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali)

I was captivated by the Mike Tyson documentary a few evenings past. Boxing is a brutal blood sport with millions of game voyeurs, me included. I can point a finger directly back in time to my father who parked his boys and 6’6” frame front of the old Admiral black and white television Friday evenings for the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports – Friday night fights.

Brother Wayne and I didn’t really get much kick back time. There was always a catch to these all male social gatherings – antenna duty. Reception in the late fifties was a constant challenge. No cable or satellite dishes just a crooked pair of rabbit ears. It was all about direction. Keeping the ghosts at bay and pulling in a definable image. This was never easy especially when punches were being thrown in flurries. With baseball you had hours to locate a receptive position. The only drawback – standing around like an under employed mannequin.

Throughout the Tyson documentary I was overcome with sadness. Tyson’s under lit face said so much about the man. From the beginning mercy was never a word in Tyson’s limited vocabulary. He truly wanted to inflict as much pain on his opponents as allowed. The blows came with such force and from a place inside the man - a forbidden zone most men choose not visit but are willing to watch another conjure near the darkest regions of the soul. The crushing impact distorted opponents’ faces. Eyes would sink back in the head and skin fly about as if made from a soft synthetic substance. You never knew if a downed fighter would ever stand again let alone function as the toned individual who entered the ring. As much as Tyson’s fights mesmerized they also sickened.

My first connection with the fight game passed through another local favourite and a man near the top of the welterweight division from Louisville, Kentucky named Rudell Stitch. Stitch had been Kentucky State amateur champion in 1951, 52, 53, 55, and 56. He’d occasionally appear on Friday Night Fights forcing brother Wayne and I into our customary position near the rabbit ears. Oh, how we loathed this gig!

As the months passed and Stitch began to fill out the local sports pages my affection for the man grew. He was a decent person in a nasty sport.

I lived on the Indiana side of the Ohio River. No matter which side you approached the running body of water was treacherous. Dad had a low rent cabin cruiser docked on the Indiana shoreline. It leaked pools of water. Any excursion up or down the Ohio meant brother Wayne and I earned coffee can detail – dipping and scooping water then tossing overboard. Occasionally, we’d get to steer the craft on the return sprint home.

The falls is a tourist draw. We’d bike down as kids and walk amongst the reeds and catch the scent of rotting fish decomposing under a blistering sun. This was the place fisherman inhabit. Below the falls there were connecting boulders where serious fisherman wore hip waders allowing them greater access to the prized fish flopping down from above. These small enclaves formed pools imprisoning some of the fattest game.

Near the falls the fishermen were mostly African American. The place was a source of food and good company.

On a late June afternoon in 1960 Stitch was fishing near the falls in his customary hip waders and heard the screams of a distraught voice - a fisherman had fallen into the swirling rapids. Stitch quickly dropped his gear and dove in rescuing the man then struggled to get a grip on the slippery rocks. The weight of the water logged hip waders - filled to the rim - carried him deep below the surface. Stitch drowned that night and so did the hopes for a boxing king from the area. He would go on to be awarded a Carnegie hero.

We usually gauged our commitment to sports heroes through the influential men around us. Dad loved the Boston Celtics with Bob Cousy – Boston Red Sox with Ted Williams –the Yankees with Mickey Mantle. Uncle Bob in Pennsylvania worshiped the Pirates and Steelers - and most everyone around us the Cincinnati Reds. Basketball and baseball are still big local items. Boxing was on the periphery yet it was still a right-of-passage in tenth grade gym class.

I for one wasn’t prepared for this. I could run indefinitely until someone took a plank to my head but protecting it from a well placed fist was a different matter. We’d lace on these oversized boxing gloves and dual it out as part of our grade. I remember getting hit more than plunking my opponent straight on. Plus, I had this tender spot inside that would never allow me embrace a gun or physically bring harm to another. It has got to be genetic. Too many boys around me seemed to delight in bringing the hurt.

By early 1960, a new face was rising in the local sports arena – a young man named Cassius Clay. He’d just won the heavyweight title in Rome and had returned home.

Clay was loud, proud and boisterous.

I was playing organ in a local rhythm and blues band when we got an invite to play at the R.J. Reynolds mansion for a party celebrating the birthday of a young son. The kid must have been around fifteen and out of his skull. We played on the ornate wood veranda and every once in a while I’d catch a glimpse of the drunken teenagers rescue another from drowning in the family pool.

While we’re on break I saw this young black man carrying hedge clippers come nearby. He’d trim a bit and peek around to witness the festivities. The closer he got his distinct shape, form and features were unveiled. Under the soft porch light a familiar face began to shine through. It was Cassius Clay! I wanted to jump the railing and hug the big guy and wish him well and beg him drop in my gym class and beat the snot out of a few choice individuals.

Clay was financed and practically owned by a consortium of high end investors. These were some of the most prominent men in the state of Kentucky.

The civil rights movement was just beginning to challenge the local white temperament. Louisville was a progressive city with a great affinity and respect for the arts. There were sit-ins and banners demanding an end to segregation. Dr. Martin Luther King spoke at a huge rally in Lexington and the serious inspirational tone of his message spread throughout the state. There were restaurants around the city that were still for blacks and whites only.

Clay would find this an affront to his growing popularity and core beliefs. He’d just beat the best athletes in the world and had brought the pride of that victory home for all.

The party ended when Clay was asked to leave a local eatery that refused to serve him. The disgraceful action sent him into battle. We were told he took his Olympic medal center of the bridge connecting Louisville and my home town Jeffersonville and tossed in the rampaging Ohio waters. I remember weeks later riding my bike to the spot where I believed it submerged and stared as if I could spot a reflection of the prized medallion from the river’s bottom floor.

I like so many other young people were beginning to get a feel for American justice, inequities, and the rotting effect of systemic racism.

As Clay began to work his way up the professional ranks beating every opponent along the way with clever footwork and quick hands whites began pleading for his demise. The greater the hatred the more in the face Clay stuck it to them. The poetry – round predictions – the speed at which he delivered blows frustrated his distractors.

Dad, despised and loathe him! He’d recite the garbled poetry and predict the next fight would shut him up. Early on, the fights came fast and ended just as quick. Dad would sit hunched over the radio and give a play by play - round by round narration. “Clay is getting his butt whupped.” Twenty minutes later the fight would be over and the room would still. The big guy now humbled would take the short walk to his bedroom - defeated once again. The silence was more than golden - most welcomed!.

Brother Wayne and I used to pass by Bales Motors car lot on the way to school -the best place to beg for a complete detailed model car. Every once in a while they’d give us a not-so-cool plastic Plymouth. On one occasion we noticed a pink Cadillac in the driveway. We quickly sprinted to the showroom window and noticed a large black man inside and finely dressed man behind the wheel of the Caddy. Wayne starts freaking – “It’s Cassius Clay – it’s him!” That was our cue to pester the champ.

We were both skinny chumps who did more running from fights than holding ground. We cracked the main door and start taunting Clay. “ I can whip you – come on over here.” For a brief period everyone ignored us. So I kept it up , “ Hey Cassius, I can kick your butt – you ain’t fought nobody until you fight us.” Those may not be the exact words but they sure come close. Bam! Clay turns around and runs towards the door and we scatter like a couple of parking lot cockroaches.

“Come back here and say that again,” says Clay. Wayne and I come out of our hiding place shivering as if the man were going to TKO us before we got home. We drift back to the door and slip it open. “ I can whip your butt – everyone knows I can.” Bam! Clay comes at us with wallet in hand. “ I have ten dollars that says you boys won’t step in this room.” He was right. We scattered across the road and found a clear observation locale and watched until the family clock ran out on us - time to go or meet dad in the next three-rounder.

Muhammad Ali was my hero for years to come – he stood against the powers that be and refused induction into the military on religious grounds. He spoke against the Vietnam War. He fought with smarts, class and dignity and celebrated the right causes.

I was thinking about the match-up between Tyson and Ali and know Ali would have beaten Tyson soundly. I’m sure he would have endured some devastating shots but he survived that kind of punishment with the hardest hitter in the ranks – George Foreman and defeated him with intelligence and a brilliant strategy.

I’ve watched those fight films numerous times - Joe Fraizer, Ken Norton, George Foreman - it’s as if I can see the man dodging and slipping punches most would freely collect. Fraizer hurt him and hurt him badly, but somehow Ali recovered and overcame. That big smile – kids all around and a world followed close behind – the planet loved him. Guys like Ali come once in a lifetime. I’m sure glad it happened during mine!

Unlimited Miles

I can’t think of an artist who has had greater influence over jazz the past fifty years than Miles Davis.

For music, style, language and business, Davis was at the top of the game. One to never step aside and let critics dissuade or impede his aspirations, he constantly retooled his band with the brightest most gifted young players of the moment. There are those who will argue that Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Oscar Peterson were equals. But while these artists contributed mightily, Davis took note of what was happening outside the idiom and adapted his music to the world around him. He saw a useful role for electronics. He understood the potential of world rhythms. And he didn’t react like a dilettante to other musical genres. Instead, he embraced rhythm and blues, reggae, funk and hip hop, enhancing the flavor of his own music.

The first live jazz concert I witnessed was a somber evening with the Modern Jazz Quartet in 1962. By all accounts it should have been my last. I’d been listening in earnest to Miles Davis’ “Kind Of Blue’ sinking deeper and deeper into the various nuances and complexities of the music. With each spin came new revelations. Yet there I was, sitting like a prisoner at my first live jazz concert listening to the Modern Jazz Quartet playing a dry sophisticated style of jazz that felt like someone reading from the Yellow Pages. There was no swaggering, no highs or lows - just all the right notes correctly positioned. I wondered if all jazz was as dull as this.

A few months passed, and then Miles came to town (Louisville, Kentucky). Along with him were bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Jimmy Cobb, saxophonist George Coleman and pianist Wynton Kelly. Here was something to get worked up about. I’d been trying desperately to figure out the shifting sequence of chords over the pedal point at the beginning of “Someday My Prince Will Come.” Pianist Wynton Kelly was playing voicings I’d only heard Bill Evans structure. The intro seemed as if it covered the same distance as a normal solo. Kelly kept elevating the tension with each modified harmony. His right hand danced about lyrically, punctuating each tonal shift before segueing into Mile’s muted trumpet. The effect was breathtaking. From that moment it was a play for the heart. The rest of the evening spun through an array of Mile’s collectibles - “So What, Green Dolphin Street, Joshua, All Blues,” and on.

A year or so later Miles returned with an even more delectable unit, this one propelled by drummer Tony Williams. This concert was a sonic blast. People nearby commented on the seemingly radical personnel change and heated interplay. Even tunes like “My Funny Valentine,” had a new-found tension. Herbie Hancock’s keyboard harmonies were darkly dissonant textures that provided Davis with greater options. As the final cymbal crash faded you could sense a feeling of both relief and contentment.

Every band I worked with over the following decade—whether rock, country, pop, rhythm and blues, hippie tie-died, or whatever—the players packed copies of Miles Davis’ most recent recording. When Davis hit with “Miles in the Sky” in 1968, the transformation was underway. Drummer Williams began spinning hard rock rhythms, something unheard of in jazz circles. The next few recordings, “In A Silent Way “ and “Bitches Brew” would permanently alter the course of jazz, opening the gates to more experimental units like Michael White’s Fourth Way, and others. Like nomads in a desert caravan we waited until our point man signalled us forward.

Miles arrived at the now defunct Colonial Tavern in Toronto during the early seventies with a new band and a new sound: Jack DeJonette, Chick Corea, Miroslav Vitous and company. The band played fierce, unrelenting fusion as Davis looked on from off-stage. Towards the set’s conclusion Miles came forward, blew a few notes and retreated. All in a days work.

Miles never retreated musically. “Star People, Decoy, Your Under Arrest, Amandla, Doo Bop,” brought new faces and new sounds. During live performances, Davis began to sink into the background, giving players like John Scofield and Kenny Garrett greater latitude.

The last Davis concert I witnessed was in Toronto at Roy Thomson Hall. Scofield, Robert Irving, Rodney Jones, Bob Berg and a percussionist whose name I can’t recall were present. Davis, dressed in Zorro black attire, tucked himself in a crevice between the main stage speaker cabinets and the stage curtains. He’d occasionally bounce a few select notes from amplified trumpet into the brick wall. Most the evening he stayed buried in the shadows.

Near the end of the set Miles arrives center stage to an outpouring of crowd adulation. The band continues pumping a mesmerizing back beat interrupted at odd intervals by Irving’s synthesizer. Davis was on the prowl. First, he replaces Irving behind the synthesizer for a few stabs at the keyboard. Then he crossed in front of the band. He belched a few notes, paused, and then looked at Berg. Berg received the eye contact as a cue to solo. As soon as Berg unleashed a sheaf of notes Davis places a forearm on his mid-section, silencing the horn. It wasn’t a hard chop but rather, notice to remain in position until otherwise notified.

As if that move wasn’t strange enough, Davis then proceeded to lounge around the percussionist. The fellow sported a broad smile. Davis looked on approvingly then extended a hand in “low-five” position. The player kept smiling. Davis didn’t flinch. Once again he leveled the hand in front of the man. This time the guy accepts the bait. As the fellow goes to slap Mile’s palm, Davis grabbed and locked it in, leaving him to play one-handed. The one hand solo went on an eternity until Davis decided to release it. The scene was weird, but for Davis, nothing out of the ordinary.

Miles Davis’ music is just as popular in 2009 as it was forty years ago. With all of the advancements and innovations he brought to the idiom not much has changed since his departure. For the moment the Neo-cons rule.

How would Miles view the current state of jazz? I don’t think he’d be too approving. Gone are the “techno” experiments he forged with Marcus Miller, back are the post- bebop days of the early sixties. But then again, he may have warmed to the adventuresome duo of Dave Douglas and Joe Lovano. With him, anything was possible.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Lights Out At The El Mocambo

As one of the first musicians to work the upstairs room, I have mixed feelings about the demise of the venerated night-spot The El Mocambo .

I first played the ‘Elmo’ in 1971 under my own name with a seven-piece fusion jazz/funk aggregate. I'd just released my first side with Capitol Records, "Goodbye Superdad." Who the hell knows what I was thinking with that title. I actually had people come up to me inquiring if it was a soundtrack recording for a Disney movie. The band played a hard-edge funk/jazz style with screaming guitar and bruising B-3 at the forefront. Our paycheck for the week was $2,400, a considerable sum in those early days. As the months passed and the prominence of the club escalated, the upstairs became an international showcase. We eventually slipped downstairs for the next four years--and steady work. The pay never matched the featured performance slot, fluctuating between $1200-1400 a week. Instead of performing for the usual industry and media types we played for college students, friends and neighborhood regulars. There was nothing humbling about that; in fact it was the perfect situation for introducing new bands, players and material.

Over the next couple years I abandoned fusion and introduced reggae music to the club. As usual, the patrons were receptive to change although some of the staff remained uncertain, to the point of bordering on racism.

Two personalities dominated the venue; Reggie Bovaird, the amiable bouncer/doorman/manager and Pat Joyce the crusty yet caring bartender. A third, Keith McCullough bridged the gaps between the more eccentric personalities, bringing a sense of normality.

One situation the El Mocambo had in common with other age-restricted Toronto venues was the depth of its unrepentantly hostile bouncers. A body-toss down the stairs wasn't out of character for some of the beef brains that stood watch over the club. More than a few of these thick-necks faced the courts on assault charges. It was Reggie who kept things under control and in perspective.

Reggie had come over from the Nickelodeon. Everybody knew and respected him - his love and devotion not only for the music but also the musicians. Whether it was Dylan or Zappa, Reggie held court and kept the social thing upbeat and integrated. Pat on the other hand divvied out rare compliments, usually coming only late evening after a full house and fat till.

What really made the El Mocambo such an attraction was the diversity of artists who filled the upstairs. Lord, if I only had a camera then! Mingus, Sonny Rollins, Buddy Guy, Asleep At The Wheel, Roomful of Blues, Ramsey Lewis, The New York Dolls, Howlin' Wolf, Downchild Blues Band; jazz, blues, bluegrass, country-you name it. In fact, I even worked the joint to an ecstatic house with comic Robert Klein. Speaking of comics, how about National Lampoon with Bill Murray, John Belushi, and Gilda Radner doing her best Patty Hearst?

By 1976, I left Toronto for pastures south. When I returned in late 1979, the Elmo had been christened a national shrine. An appearance by the Rolling Stones elevated the reputation of the club to that of a sacred institution.

The music policy had also changed. Jazz and blues were out. Power rock was in while aspiring punks hid in the crevices. Other than a few bright reggae moments and Stevie Ray Vaughan's memorable appearance in 1983, the place began to smell corporate.

It wasn't until I was part of China ( Kearney, King & McBride), a band born on the bottom floor of the club in 1980, that I learned an obscene lesson in booking policy. To play upstairs, bands were now required to pay a fee. CBS doled out $600 for our performance, to be deducted from future recording royalties. When word spread amongst the band members it was met with resentment and anger. We eventually played to a full house but walked away penniless from the gig. The Elmo cleaned up.

The following year I played a couple more weeks down stairs with my ska/reggae unit but the luster had all but faded. The pay in 1982? $1,200! Sound system rental, $750. Some things never change.

As the years advanced the names of bands became less significant. I'd pass the marquee and ask myself who the hell Zoo Flem, Butt Monkey, Violent Spoon, The Nauseous Snake, Toilet Boys, Duck Butter and the Pancakes and the likes were. Gone were tall names like Grover Washington Jr., George Benson, Freddie Hubbard, Little Feat, Bobby "Blue" Bland, and Tom Waits.

While sifting through a box of old cassettes I came across tapes of Kearney, King, McBride and LeBarge recorded downstairs in 1980 and transferred them to Sound Forge then over to CD. The energy and sounds in the room brought back wonderful memories of sweat- and smoke-filled evenings. There were few pickers locally who could match the guitar wizardry of Danny McBride and Bernie Lebarge back then or the cracking rhythms of Paul Delong and Gene Falbo.

One day in 1998, I thought for a moment about sticking my head in the grimy bar for one last sniff at infamy, remembering five wild fun-filled New Year's Eve's rocking the basement crowds. I made the usual right turn into the musty stench and recognized that the room in much the same condition it had always been. What struck me was how far I had come. I could no longer suffer the gruesome dour of stale beer or the sight of the soiled walls. There was little nostalgia here. It made me realize that to a musician, a gig is a gig. Few places ever truly capture the imagination. The Elmo came closest in Toronto solely because of the great musicians who'd preceded the latter day juvenile, inarticulate drones who rendered the institution laughable. Dance on!

Monday, September 21, 2009

JIMI HENDRIX (Deconstructing the Blues)

The spring of 1967 we rode the rails from Toronto arriving in Penn Station late afternoon. The trip had been a sobering affair after three months of playing such American landmarks as - Flagstaff, Arizona - Des Moines, Iowa - Minneapolis, Minnesota - Amarillo, Texas and Montreal, Michigan. The band, The Great Western Exhibit was about to face the same issues most impromptu acts encounter after weeks of highs then slow descent into group depression. Three out of four of the members discovered the band absent a heartbeat then bolted abandoning me just after an excruciating set at the Café Wha located at the epicenter of Greenwich Village.

In fact, a photograph of that fifteen-year-old chanteuse from Queens named Barbara Streisand stared back at all comers descending the stairway to the inner sanctum. It was here I would encounter Andre, “ The Singing Street Hustler.”

Andre was privy to everything going on up and down Bleecker and McDougall Streets. He knew the bands, shared the women, accompanied the hangers on and fleeced the hopeful. Andre would drag me through unknown night haunts into uncommon situations.

On one such occasion street cleaners were just finishing a morning sweep through the Village and I’d been up most the night starved of sleep - broke and homeless. From around the corner comes Andre dressed like one of those Carnaby Street window mannequins you’d see in a British Mod clothing storefront. With little else to do I match him stride for stride down McDougall ignoring narcissistic rumination and absorbing local gossip. As we turn on to Bleecker Street Andre suddenly pauses, spots this figure attached to two women moving slowly up the street. “Do you who know who that is?” he asks. I inspect in silence. “That’s Jimi James- I mean Jimi Hendrix now, the next big thing in rock and roll. He’s just finished his first album in London and it’s going to be a monster.” I knew nothing of the man other than he sported two fine looking women one on each arm.

Hendrix was dressed in what appeared to be crushed velvet, ornate military jacket, a loosely knotted scarf around the neck and wind-blown Afro. The girls looked as if they’d survived a vigorous shopping spree, every item seemingly purchased at some upscale Manhattan boutique.

Andre glances back and signals me to hang close while he approaches Hendrix. A few choice words pass between them before he summons me. “Bill, this is the man, the next great rock super star, Jimi Hendrix.” I shake ‘The Man’s’ hand and quickly direct my eyes towards the two attractive vixens then start the slow march up Bleecker. Andre asks Hendrix where he’s headed then invites the both of us along. A few minutes later we end up behind a large round oak table in an upstairs café called the Tin Angel next to the Bitter End nightclub. Andre banters on about the recording and release date - his own aspirations to perform while delivering a few sweet words to one of Hendrix’s entourage when a waitress arrives with scratch pad to book orders. This was my cue to exit. Let’s face it. I couldn’t even afford a cube of butter let alone a cut of bread, so I politely excuse myself.

A few weeks pass and I find myself living in a flat at 533 E. Sixth Street and playing organ nightly in the village at a psychedelic coffee house called the Underground. I was hauling down fifteen to twenty-five dollars a night and paying twenty-five a month in rent. “Are You Experienced” hit the streets in May of 1967 like a speeding asteroid with advance orders approaching a million. Everywhere I gaze Hendrix’s face stares back at me. “Purple Haze” and “Foxy Lady” blare from basement record stores, radio and stereos from street level to tenement roofs. Andre was right, Hendrix would not only quickly impact the Flower and Peace generation but every young rock and roll lover across North America.

A year or so would pass and I find myself back in New York after a stint in California. I land a job with a band called the Chicago Loop which had a regional hit with a song of no consequence. The lead singer, Bob Slawson was a frequent visitor to Steve Paul’s Scene an uptown night spot where anyone who was anyone in the music business hung out - in great contrast to the chic patrons at Max’s Kansas City where Warhol and his gang of art warriors bunked.

After a featured band performed a formulated set the all night jam sessions kicked in. I dropped by a few times and sat in on Hammond B-3 organ - once with the New York Rock and Roll Ensemble - another night with a list of dreaded unknowns.

I happen to slip in one night when the Buddy Miles Express was winding down. Miles was a member of the Electric Flag eventually moving into Hendrix’s Band of Gypsies after drummer Mitch Mitchell’s departure. Miles had Mitchell playing alongside this night adding an extra degree of thunder to an already rampaging band. I waited until the group took a break and slipped in close proximity of the Hammond B-3 organ. Herb Rich, Mile’s organist had first crack at the drawn out jam session leaving me drooling in anticipation. Once Rich departed I began my slide onto the bench when I was abruptly met by Miles - who then shuffled me aside. By this time the front line unit was led by singer guitarist Terry Reid and guitarists Larry Coryell and Ron Wood. I waited patiently as Miles clung to the only two chords he knew before he relented.

With the door of opportunity open I lit up every groove with my best sonic licks. I twisted and bent notes then pumped out the ritual backing patterns all organist learn when playing roots rhythm & blues. With little fanfare a changing of the guard occurs just in back of me. Suddenly, a dangling frilly cuff from what looks to be some Edwardian garment brushes past my face. I quickly spin my head around for a glimpse. As if struck by an errant lightening bolt I do an instant double take. It was “The Man” himself, Jimi Hendrix about to play the same kind of probing bass lines he did on his own recordings. I couldn’t help notice Hendrix holding the bass upside down, strings facing the opposite way. Over the next twenty minutes or so I ride the pulse tossing in a few modal chords just to shift the tonal center. Coryell and Wood try one-upping each other even going as far as tossing in a few lines from Freddy King’s blues anthem, “Hideaway “. For one long exhilarating stretch it’s Larry Coryell, Mitch Mitchell, Hendrix and me deconstructing the blues.

The night ends with a few hand slaps and Buddy Miles offering to hook me up with a rhythm & blues band in San Diego, one he once propelled. For me the night would never end. Even after falling into the dark embrace of sleep I replayed each note and every missed opportunity until dawn intercedes wiping away all evidence I had shimmered during the night of stars.

Chuck Berry Scares Me!

I’d been hanging around the musicians local in Hollywood in 1968 looking for a gig or gigs when this guy named “Scooby,” if you can believe that, mentions Chuck Berry was in need of players for a concert at the L.A. Exhibition center.

“Scooby” was this older than most hippies guy who couldn’t get a handle on the love generation but liked the perks. He played saxophone and did a few pit gigs the most memorable being hired to play behind the Temptations. In fact, he was the only horn facing a fully orchestrated score calling for eight to ten horns. He professed it to be the scariest night of his life. “Just play the parts mofuck…” He’d been awarded this non job with the union to bring the rock guys back to camp union. Many could care less about being members.

Anyway, I wandered in hoping to find any kind of work – shoot pool–chat it up with the employed studio musicians who hung around between session calls and pretended to be in the middle of things. Scooby intervened announcing – Chuck Berry was in need of a band and Scoob was hiring.

I quickly got on the vine and called the players I’d been rehearsing with who were to be the foundation of Linda Ronstadt’s new band, me being the music director - that in itself another story. In short – Linda went to the beach a lot and I looked on like a mute smitten with Cinderella. Man was she a beauty!

I get the band to commit and show up ready to roar for Chucky. First band up, the original edition of Fleetwood Mac with Peter Green, second – the Chambers Brothers. Forty minutes into the Chambers Brothers set I was ready to rip the throbbing cowbell out of the front man’s hand and scream “Time” ….is Up!” It may have been a cool song for a minute or three but a heavy dose of "Time" was more than this vagrant piano man could withstand.

Here comes Chuck! Give it up.

Now, you must keep in mind Chuck didn’t rehearse or spring a set list on you. So I stood back and watched the roadies haul his psychedelic stained Fender Dual Showman on stage in front of ten thousand screaming reefer-sucking teenagers.

Soon, an old upright piano is rolled in placed. I looked on and thought, “That must be for me. I asked myself if one could actually hear this thing beyond your mother’s living room. I scanned the crowd for sweet faces, something as gorgeous as Ronstadt.

Chuck shows side stage wearing this magnetic looking blue Nehru shirt. Now, I’d owned a dozen custom made Nehru’s with clean ribbon design – cut nicely for me from the Mercury Gift Shop in the East Village in lower Manhattan. Chuck had one that could have only come from the B.F. Goodyear Thrift Shop next door to Uncle Phil’s Process Parlor. Berry could have lit the heavens on this occasion with that shirt.

Just as we were about to climb into position pianist Barry Goldberg and drummer Eddie Hoh emerge. Goldberg cuts me off and announces he’s replacing me on orders from Chuck. This catches me off guard. I think for a minute then tell Goldberg to bring Chuck over and we’d work things out. Goldberg fires back, “Look man, Eddie and I played with Chuck last night in Chicago and flew all the way out here to play with him.” Another pause then I ask, “ How much is he paying you?” Goldberg shoots back, “ We’re here because we want to be and Chuck wants us.” I respond, “We’re here because we’ve been hired, get lost.” Case closed!

Goldberg sniffs around Chuck trying to draw him into the line of fire. Chuck looks back and says, “I don’t care who’s on the stage just long as they play the shit right.”

Goldberg loses it starts telling me how he’d make sure I’d be forever out of work in L.A. Hell, I didn’t even know anyone who had a job. Who could he tell, the folks at the Spot Dog Diner, the home of the ten-cent corndog - my favorite hangout? Eventually, Goldberg backs off and fades away.

Chuck kicks things off louder than a rampaging diesel. Berry’s amp was so distorted it was difficult separating chords through what must have been a busted speaker cone.

The next fifty minutes we hit nirvana. Every song had a piano solo and an approving nod from above. I can’t express how elated I was. The crowd stomped, hooted, rocked and rolled. Berry finished the dynamic set with “My Ding-A-Ling.”

I left the stage feeling like I’d conquered the west coast - from here, second keyboard with the Doors?

As we patiently wait to get paid a hundred crisp greenbacks I thought maybe conversation with Chuck would be appropriate. Three words in. No response.

Chuck continues counting “Four thousand one hundred and seventy, four thousand one hundred and eighty, four thousand one hundred and ninety. “Wait a minute, you shorted me ten dollars.” The ordeal repeats itself. Promoter A recounts the stacks to the dollar. Chuck counts his own way and comes up ten short. After an hour of haggling Promoter B says, who gives a shit - give the cheapskate another ten.

Now came our pay check. Chuck, without looking up lays four hundred dollar bills aside and begins scooping his personal stash. Like a fool I think the time is ripe to get acquainted so I say, “ So, I guess you’re taking the band out for steaks.” Berry gives me a look I’ll never forget to this day. Let me put it in words. “ Get lost loser before I torch your head - shrink wrap it in my vinyl Nehru shirt - and feed to starving pit bulls. Excuse me, I have a plane to catch.”

Suddenly, a gig panhandling seemed more realistic.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Thoughts on James Brown

James Brown can take his rightful place alongside Coltrane, Miles, Ellington, the Beatles, Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles, Otis and the giants. The guy had a remarkable music and business mind - a one of a kind way of hearing.

I first caught Brown live back in 1964 with cape - three drummers and two bass players. I was playing a prom at the coliseum in Louisville, Kentucky in a side room while Brown inhabited center stage in the sports arena. What a spectacle - the place burned with female shrieks and thundering rhythm. I'd never heard a band play with such precision outside the Basie band.

That summer we followed Brown into Club Cherry in Lebanon, Kentucky with the Shadows - a cover band playing mostly rhythm and blues classics of the day. Club Cherry was this black music venue residing next to a long stretch of railroad tracks. The decor was all things dim and walls sticky with tobacco stains and evaporating body sweat. Upon entry, one of the first sightings was two large glass canisters - one with three or four left behind pickled pigs feet submerged in what appeared to be pond water and the other showcasing a preserved pig snout in proximnity of the cashier. Posters of Arthur Prysock, Count Basie, Lowell Fulsom, Cab Calloway graced the walls. Bands shared dressing quarters with the owner who on this occasion failed to sweep away a recently spent condom. Soiled clothing and the smell of fresh pomade challenged the nasal passages.

The stage where Brown worked his magic was not at all the dimensions you'd expect, leaving one to believe floor space down front served that purpose. On this night two fights broke out that were swift and memorable. One guy took a solid shot to the backside from a kitchen chair and kick to the head. Justice served. I remember thinking how unruly and bizarre the week must have been with Brown in attendance.

The local white clubs were jammed with beer swilling teenagers more intent on inviting a ruptured liver than a shot of music. Club Cherry was all about sex and music. In which order depended on how magnificent the hair doo shaped up and smooth delivery. Over at Club 69 the white boys were like vultures hovering over potential sex meat waiting until the last chick fell unconscious after drowning in a vat of near beer.

Fast-forward to the mid-nineties when Brown was booked into the Masonic Temple in Toronto. The late Toronto impresario Gino Empry was Brown's PR man for the occasion. My wife Kristine and I jumped all over the offer to attend the press conference with cameras in hand. The place was dominated by television crews so we decided to split up and shoot from opposing sides.

Brown eventually held court. I snapped a few shots when suddenly Brown singles me out, "Who says you can be taking pictures of me ...did I ask you?" At first, I was startled by the remark then ignored him. He then turns to Kristine and says ." Pretty thing you can shoot as many pictures as you want." Needless to say - I copped as many indiscreet shots as I could.

Nothing matched the concert images. The room was a suffocating hundred degrees and hundred per cent humidity. Both Kristine and I shot from down front but the cramped surroundings sent me into near panic for air. We relocated upstairs and caught some wonderful concert frames and enjoyed one of the best concerts ever. The foundation shook.

The ensuing years I have found myself buying early Brown sides reacquainting myself with the complex rhythm patterns - the inside horn lines that are at the core of his sound. Brown camped on the offbeat's a most unusual place to inject a clever twist of a phrase. We used to play many of the ‘Live at the Apollo’ tracks in the sixties in various bands but few musicians ever played the arrangements note for note.
Prince is the grandest disciple of Brown. He uses the same measured techniques building from the bottom up.

It's funny how we collectively say - we will truly miss the man - but in reality he'll never be gone. Like Ray Charles the music will linger an eternity. Brown was crazy as hell and did some wild ass things but it's still the music not the silliness that was his strong suit. That's how powerful his impact on all of us has been.

I met several players around Los Angles in the 60's and 70's who worked as sideman for Brown. This was no picnic. The gig was demanding and paid a paltry sum. Brown carved out minuscule stage real estate for each band member. If one strayed outside allotted territory one could expect a fine and tongue lashing - the same for wrong notes, miscues and stage wear. The man ruled a tight kingdom and kept his bands in prime shape. He was never less than perfection.

JB dance in peace! Bill King -