I have an image of him in the late ’50s: Still underage, he sneaks through the curtains at the front door of the hungry i, the Keystone Korner, or the Purple Onion, slinks into one of the seats in back, and gets lost in music.
He must’ve told me of the nights as a teenager, he went to hear Dave Brubeck, Gil Evans, Gerry Mulligan, and the Mastersounds, with Wes Montgomery. But it wasn’t until he died that I understood what it meant to be there in North Beach, San Francisco, Saturday night, 1958 or ’59: The Beats had arrived, and Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg passed through, but my dad was from across town—the Sunset, Ocean Beach, a Catholic boy—and the cleanest cut kid in the joint. Lenny Bruce worked in the area and would’ve called him “Jim,” the comedian’s nickname for a stiff-necked straight, but my father was no square: I like to imagine the neighborhood regulars welcoming him, an innocent among hipsters for the night.
As a child, I didn’t grasp that my dad was a jazz fan, though his stack of interesting looking records were his only possessions I ever admired. I realize now that his was a modest-sized collection, though it was very tidy, very specific and very, very cool. It was Cool Jazz, also known as West Coast, that he favored and he had every recording by the Modern Jazz Quartet featuring Milt Jackson. I guess he liked Jackson’s vibraphone because Cal Tjader’s records were also well represented, along with MJQ sound-a-likes the Mastersounds with Buddy Montgomery on vibes, and his brother Monk on bass, and sometimes Wes on guitar. Piano jazz also rated on his scale–Brubeck was a hero, as was iconoclast Ahmad Jamal. And there were even stranger sounding names to this kid–Joao Gilberto, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Laurindo Almeida–with their pronunciations that confounded me, and their breezy bossa nova guitars that captured the scene at Ipanema Beach. And then there were the Stans: Getz and Kenton, alongside tenor sax man, Rahsaan Roland Kirk (who was still just Roland back then). Flipping through the stacks, I felt like I knew these jazzmen, in a way others tell me they’ve known Frank Sinatra, James Brown, Bob Dylan and Jerry Garcia; they were like fathers, a part of the family.
It was the colorful, modern art-inspired album covers on the Verve, Prestige, Argo, and Fantasy labels that first drew me in, long before I knew anything about musical shapes, colors or subtleties, and all the shades they could throw. I think of putting one of those records on the turntable now, pouring over the liner notes and getting lost myself, while holding an actual Blue Note or Impulse! sleeve, instead of a reissued imitation. Sure, I could pick up a copy of one or two at a vintage vinyl store but it’s my dad’s records I really want, caked with his energy, accompanied by the stories of their purchase, and a recounting of the historic gigs where the songs came alive for him. I also want his approval and enthusiasm for my taste in the avant-garde and for own small, tidy, and very cool stack of Alice Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra. But even if he were here to sit with me, I don’t know that he’d be all that interested in talking jazz. Somewhere along the way, he left behind his passion for it.
By the mid ‘60s, more and more fans of Cool Jazz had turned to hard bop and rock’n’roll. Times changed, and the City, as we call it, had been psychedelicized. My dad was a young suburban family man, a periodic drinker who put down the bottle long enough to regain his vision and become a health food nut, a jogger and a tennis bum, long before those things helped define leisure styles in the laidback ‘70s. “Over-committed,” is how he referred to the house, the yard, the two kids and three cars— and his life between jobs just outside San Francisco. Music didn’t figure into that picture. There was no nightlife to pursue there and no trips to town to hear the jams; most all the old clubs had gone dark though North Beach was becoming home to the next generation of outsiders, the art students and punk rockers of my generation. Not yet 40 years old, a suspended driver’s license kept my dad unemployable and housebound, his wife at work on the swing shift. By day, he slept in the hammock or sat at the kitchen table, pouring filtered coffee through a cone. He stayed occupied, typing mysterious reports and letters on the Royal and watering the lawn, but he never reached for the stack of vinyl or the phonograph, adjacent to the patio, just on the other side of the sliding glass door, in the family room of our California ranch-style home. It was as if getting up, the simple act of putting a needle to a record, was just too much for him: He had entered the no-jazz zone.
Though occasionally he’d ignite the old flame: He took me to see Cal Tjader locally, though teenage me couldn’t understand why a so-called legend should be playing at St. Francis High School. I heard he rousted my brother and took him to see Milt Jackson at the grand opening of the Mayfield Mall. Other times, if ever he dug the music in the air, he’d partake of that jazzer’s strange custom, finger-clicking (shoulders hunched). And sometimes while driving, he’d tune into the jazz spot and bop to the radio, occasionally gesturing with an air-cymbal crash. These efforts were simultaneously embarrassing and ethereal for me: Jazz made life bearable, if only for a moment, as we floated off to another land, returning refreshed, for a couple of bars or beats.
When my dad moved out of the house at the end of the ’70s, my mom gave his records to a young jazz enthusiast, a boy she thought would appreciate them. I moved back to San Francisco, and I’d heard so did my dad, after he’d done some rambling. Eventually we got together for lunch, often at St. Francis Creamery in the Mission, and other times at Mama’s or Vanessi’s in North Beach; on those days he was feeling more flush and would spread the wealth. We never spoke of the past—it wasn’t in our repertoire—but the memory of his LPs, their covers, their vibraphone, horn and piano sounds, and their spiraling liner notes occupied a large space in my heart, lighting a space in the darkness of the holy here and now. I wonder, had he lived, if we’d ever get back to jazz, if he would’ve rediscovered his passion for it, or if he would share mine for Mingus and Monk. If only it had occurred to me to have played some Louis Armstrong at his funeral. What if he’d lived to see his 50s? Would he have succumbed to the Quiet Storm or held strong? For sure we’d agree Duke is king, and we most certainly would’ve gone to see Ahmad Jamal at his most recent appearance in town. But would he still put on that ridiculous posture as he be-bopped down the hall, and would I still reflexively roll my eyes at him? I will never know, though whatever his style and taste in his 70s and whether we agreed wouldn’t matter, if only he was here, right now. Because what I really need to ask him, what I really want to know, is if he can remember the moment he stopped listening.
Filed under: Arts and Culture, California, Jazz, North Beach, video, Ahmad Jamal, Cal Tjader, Cool Jazz, memoir, Modern Jazz Quartet, Rahsaan Roland Kirk