Friday, January 4, 2019

Glad To Be Unhappy

Cool And Blue

While on the bus down to the Embarcadero, heading for the Place 'O Witless Labor, I remembered how easy it once was to find a sense of San Francisco in the Fifties, a feeling in the air or something found around a corner.

I had come here on and off for years before making The City home, and that 50's feeling had always been here. It was a button-down, 'Mad Men' kind of vibe -- as if a redhead in a pearl-grey Coco Chanel suit and expensive perfume had walked through a room, leaving that fragrance behind, lingering. It was Herb Caen and Charles McCabe's columns in the Chronicle; it was summers at Lake Tahoe; 'Gold Coast' old money (San Francisco was the only city west of Denver with a Social Register).

It was women wearing white gloves to Sunday services at Saints Peter and Paul, or Grace Cathedral; it was Democratic machine politics and Longshoremen. The navy had a shipyard in The City, bases around the Bay; there was a famous prison just offshore and one of the world's greatest suspension bridges across the Golden Gate.

Even into the 1970's, you could find echoes of all that -- the whole Tony Bennett, terribly-alone-and-forgotten-in-Manhattan thing; cable cars rumbling along foggy night streets; Caucasian men with Sta-Pressed hair who wore suits by Botany 500 with a handkerchief in their breast pocket, leaving their offices in the Financial District for drinks at House Of Shields, the St. Francis or Mark Hopkins' lower bar, the Starlight Room at the Sir Francis Drake -- or, if they were a little adventurous, the Black Hawk Night Club down in the Tenderloin.

I'm not forgetting that this was the Leave It To Beaver 50's and 60's. The repressed psyches, institutionalized racism, sexism and homophobia; Might Makes Right against a monolithic Commie enemy, and Capitalism Consumerism was fully in control. We had faced off against those Commies in Korea less than a decade before, and were revving up for A Land War In Southeast Asia. Believe me: Television and film haven't managed to capture how good, and how bad, we had it back in the Day.

There were foghorns on the Bay (the original ones, replaced in the mid-eighties, had been there for fifty years; I lived in North Beach and went to sleep by them), and late-night dinners in Chinatown. And you could find more poignant reverberations of the 50's in jazz being played in small clubs across the City; a few of them lasted into the early Eighties. They were intense, smoky dives, often loud -- and while there are more jazz clubs in the Bay Area now than ever before, they're polite showcases by comparison.

When I do hear any jazz, I immediately think of a saxophone -- specifically, an Alto sax, whether one is present or not (I played Reeds, back in The Day, and this may be the reason why). I do listen to the Sax action of Mr. Charles Parker, and Mssrs. Coltraine, Getz, Lateef ,and others (here's a list of over 50 jazz saxophonists, with clips of their styles for comparison; check them out).

But, for me, only one Sax player truly does it: Paul Desmond. The cool, grey-blue images he painted are part of the soundtrack of a San Francisco that I still see, hiding in memory most of my adult life.

Some recent critics have noted that the 'Blue' jazz played by musicians like Desmond (as opposed to the hotter, 'Red' jazz interpretations by Parker, or Coltraine) in the early 50's to mid-60's reflected that America's look-the-other-way, don't-spoil-the-party Bourgeois culture. It was cool, intellectual, detached music -- playing as issues and passions were slowly coming to a boil, demanding change, involvement, commitment. I think there's truth in that -- interpretation in art doesn't grow out of a vacuum, and Desmond had said he was trying to create the equivalent in sound of "a dry Martini" -- but his music is also just damn good. 

Obligatory Cute Small Animal Photo In Middle Of Blog Culture Thing
(Sasha Arutyunova / New York Times)

Desmond was a local boy; after forty years in The City, I've occasionally met people who Knew Him When. San Francisco is where Dave Brubeck, another local kid and a pianist acquaintance of Desmond's in the music scene, had already been playing around the Bay Area since the late 1940's. He had even hired Brubeck at one point to play backup piano for him at various gigs, then replaced him.

Brubeck eventually developed an eight-person band, then a trio. He had brought Desmond into the Octet, but in forming the Trio, Brubeck didn't bring him along. Desmond was not happy about it, not shy about telling Brubeck off, and left the Bay Area for New York. For roughly a year, he played his alto sax as part of a 'big band' orchestra led by Jack Fina (whose most famous composition was "Bumble Boogie" [1946]).

Desmond did make some connections with other jazz artists in New York, but wasn't the City By The Bay where he had most of his contacts. Meanwhile, back in Frisco, Brubeck and his Trio had signed a contract with a local label, and were selling thousands of records. Out in The Big Apple, Desmond heard their music played on a local radio station and was impressed; it may have reminded him of a lost opportunity, back in his home town.

In 1951, Brubeck suffered a serious spinal injury while diving in Hawaii. He recovered, but performing intricate fingering on the piano that required more dexterity caused him physical pain. From that point forward, he began writing songs based around chords, played with the whole hand, with individual notes kept to a minimum. This became a recognizable signature in Brubeck's music (at least, it's always seemed that way to me; I'm not a music historian or critic).

Meanwhile, Desmond decided to return to the Bay Area specifically to ask Brubeck to join his group -- which took some doing, given how they'd parted a year before. Brubeck was skeptical, but relented, and Desmond joined a new Dave Brubeck Quartet, along with Bob Bates (Double Bass) and Joe Dodge (Drums). A piano player I was acquainted with once told me he had seen their first public performance at the old Black Hawk in the fall of 1951 -- the nightclub became home base for the group when not on tour.

Through the 1950s and 60s, Desmond (per notes on the Fresh Sounds Records website) "had one of the sweetest gigs in jazz history". For at least a quarter-century, Brubeck's Quartet was one of the most commercially successful, marketed and widely known jazz ensembles in America. And as its single horn player, Desmond's "supremely lyrical, sublimely melodic playing... [became] a defining sound of the era."

The actual Quartet only remained as a regular group for roughly fifteen years, until 1967. By then, Brubeck and Desmond, individually, were well-established and in-demand musicians. The Quartet resurfaced periodically from the mid-70's on, performing in reunion tours and spot appearances -- in part, I think, just to give Brubeck and himself the opportunity to play together. Desmond's involvement with the Quartet lasted until his death in 1977.

Desmond's work with Brubeck (specifically the iconic track they co-wrote, Take Five) is how most people recognize him, but Desmond's Wikipedia page lists over 70 albums issued between 1950 and 1976 on which he either contributed, or was the featured performer.

His music seems a good way to find a path into the New Year: Try these.


(1962; Includes an orchestral string section as backup on most tracks)


(1956; This is a 1975 live recording in Toronto. Composer: Gerry Mulligan)


MEHR, MIT HUNDE:  And then there is this:  Ah, San Francisco -- One Big Campus, One Big Dorm; Land of Rich Kiddies.

Mentioning this to a friend in my Curmudgeonly Dog way, I barked that Come The Recession the Trust-Fund-Tech-Bros-and-Broettes will all have to go home to live with Mommy and Daddy. My friend replied, "Look up there -- see that, the 'Salesforce Tower'? It means 'They' are here to stay, man; and the City wants them. Screw the homeless and you 'n me; bring on the rich, rich, rich." 

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