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When Art And Jazz Were Cool

May 10, 1987|WILLIAM WILSON

Back in the late '40s, hep kids entered the operatic caverns of the Shrine Auditorium to hear Dizzy Gillespie play a trumpet that pointed at the ceiling. He sported a beret, a little satanic goatee and pastel zoot suits. He also danced as he played--or was that Big Jay McNeeley at the Orpheum?

Anyway, it was not clear at the time that this cacophonous music made sense. As far as a slightly precocious scrawny little white kid could tell, be-bop (of which he had never heard) had the same function as Dada (of which he had never heard). Oo-bla-de-skiddle-de-scrag-mop had no translation but it was a little like pig Latin. The idea was to confuse and gross out the Ruling White Grown-ups with a lot of noise while affirming one's solidarity with a large band of exotic outlaws including oneself, all blacks, pachucos, and girls who were bad because they wore lipstick and short skirts and French kissed in the back seat.

Later the idea was to somehow insinuate oneself into the purgatorial chamber-music intimacy of the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach to listen to Cool Jazz played by Howard Rumsey and his All Stars that included Shelley Manne, Jimmy Guiffre and, of course, Shorty Rogers. By this time the scrawny kid had found a friend in a beefy guy named Fred. Fred had a trumpet mouthpiece that he lugged around in a trumpet case. It did not matter that Fred had no trumpet, because he couldn't play.

Nonetheless, the case gave him enough cachet to get the beardless kids past the ID checker and it provided Fred storage room for large numbers of Benzedrine tablets that he peddled in the john unbeknown to his buddy. In those days, Benzedrine was regarded as a serious, hilarious recreational drug.

Lighthouse music made no more sense at the time than be-bop. It, too, was a delicious exercise in anarchy, but it was different. Somehow the musicians seemed to be more thoughtful and their cutting up was nonchalant and understated. Right in the middle of an intricate solo, Shorty Rogers would suddenly insert a lick of "The Stars and Stripes Forever" or Guiffre would stop and stare owlishly into the smoke-filled room and say, "Hey, don't any of you people inhale ?"

We thought it was raucously irreverent. It was a long time before anybody figured out those interruptions were to cover up the musicians' realization that they were running out of breath or that the musical logic of their solos was leading to notes they just couldn't play.

And the point of it all seemed to be changing too. The music was no longer simply a way of mau-mauing the the grown-ups. It was becoming a way of replacing them. It was turning into the cultural Trojan Horse we would ride into Adult City and take over.

(Little did we realize that life would really consist of an endless wave of adolescent rebellions we would leap into like the fountain of youth, becoming Beatniks, Rockers, Hippies and Punks by turns, never growing up.)

Art would make us immortal and show the world how stinking smart we were. Fred, always a resourceful type, pinched an art history book from the school library and the friends discovered there were Great Artists before Milton Caniff and Al Capp: Michelangelo, Van Gogh, Picasso, Paul Klee.

Then Fred turned up breathlessly with an album by a new group led by Dave Brubeck that included a tune called "Fugue on Bop Themes."

"Brubeck studied with Darius Milaud, who is a modern classical composer," Fred announced. "The fugue was invented by Johann Sebastian Bach. That means that all of this stuff is based on classical music so we have to find out about it."

The boys were less interested in the possibility that cool jazz was entering a neoclassical phase than the fact that it seemed important to know about classical art in order to take over the world.

Meantime the boys' mothers were being absolute fishwives about the uselessness of all of their creative endeavors. When are you bums going to get a job? Take out those papers and that trash or you don't get no ready cash.

There was a certain inescapable logic in their reasoning. If one was going to take over the world one ought to be able to earn the minimum wage of 75 cents an hour, but how? The great artists were all famous, dead or starving. How was a young genius to resolve be-bop and Bach and Picasso with Pogo in order to take over the world and earn a really good salary, say $80 a week?

David Stone Martin.

During this epoch, a jazz entrepreneur named Norman Granz produced a series of concerts called Jazz at the Philharmonic, which resulted in albums everybody thought were classics. The boys loved the albums, but what blew them away were jacket and liner drawings by an illustrator named David Stone Martin.

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