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VERY FIRST PERSON

A Car, a Trumpet, Comedy Icon

"Hey," the Hipster Said, "You Can Give Me a Lift." In a Beat, a Teenage Jazzbo Was Plowing Through Los Angeles' Neon NightCurrents, Taking Orders From a Strange Cat Named Lenny Bruce.

July 18, 1999|JULIO MARTINEZ | Julio Martinez writes about entertainment for Daily Variety and La Opinion and has played guitar professionally with vocalist Al Jarreau and other performers

By 1954, Montebello--the "city of flowers"--had completed its metamorphosis from prewar farming community to postwar baby boom haven. To this 16-year-old, the San Gabriel Valley town's great contribution to civilization was the Montebello High School jazz band, the Esquires. I played fourth-chair trumpet, low man among great senior musicians, who, from my sophomoric view, were sophisticated hipsters. I was particularly in awe of Gary Tavis, first tenor saxophonist, the best soloist in the band. Gary created fabulous melodies with his improvising, not just a lot of disjointed notes like the rest of us callow, would-be beboppers. What astounded me even more was that he befriended me.

One Friday during rehearsal, Gary uttered magical words: "I'm going into Hollywood tonight to hear some jazz. Wanna come along?" That year, we visited every club in the L.A. area, including such now-defunct spots as Jazz City, Zardi's, the Lighthouse, Duffy's Gaiety, the Tiffany Club, Peacock Lounge and the Haig. A style of jazz was developing on the West Coast that was distinctly more relaxed than the hard-driving bop popular on the East Coast. Local cats--including baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and his quartet, Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse All-Stars, trumpeter Shorty Rogers and his Giants, and the Dave Pell Octet--were creating a more organized sound, featuring sophisticated ensemble arrangements and a softer, introspective improvisational style. Their music reverberated to the depths of my soul.

At home, I practiced until I thought my lip would fall off. And midway through that year I had an epiphany: I was going to be a jazz trumpet player. Strengthened by the knowledge that at my age I knew what I was going to do with the rest of my life, I decided one Saturday evening in March 1955 to go to the Topper Club, at Whittier and Norwalk boulevards. A classmate's brother was playing bass that night. I hoped to sit in.

The band featured a dazzling young trumpeter, Jack Sheldon, and an unusual alto saxophonist named Joe Maini, who was zany to the point of being manic. He didn't just play music, he told jokes, did soft-shoe and constantly mugged at the audience. My purist jazz sensibilities were put off by Maini's shenanigans, but I was repulsed by the strange character who kept up a continuing dialogue with him from a corner table. "Shut up, Lenny, we're working here," Maini would yell from time to time. At one point, the whole band, in unison, admonished, "Shut up, Lenny, we're working here!"

I was nursing a Coke when the bass player came up during a break and asked if I had a car. The next thing I knew, this Lenny character was standing over me. "Hey, you're a friend of the band's, right? I've got to get into town. You can give me a lift." It was more of a demand than a question. I shook my head. I was not about to be locked in a car with this maniac. Undeterred, Lenny continued his rapid-fire spiel. He said his name was Lenny Bruce and he needed to get to the Haig to meet someone about a job. It turns out he was an aspiring comedian.

I finally managed to blurt what I thought was a definitive statement: I couldn't drive him because I had to get my father's car back home. Lenny didn't even pause. What was my name? What was my dad's name? Where did I live? What was my phone number? The next thing I knew, he was talking to my dad on the phone in the Topper's back office. Then Lenny handed me the phone, and my dad instructed me to drive safely and get Mr. Bruce to his destination so that he could meet his wife, who had taken ill.

The Haig was a tiny jazz spot behind the Brown Derby on Wilshire, just west of the Ambassador Hotel. I had to travel halfway across town with this creep. I have never been as uncomfortable in the presence of anyone before or since. And to this day, I remember every moment of that car ride. As we drove toward East Los Angeles on Whittier, Lenny kept up an undulating wave of chatter about practically everything he saw. When we passed the decorative chateau faade of Marcel & Jeanne's French Cafe, a Montebello dinner house, he exclaimed, "That place looks great. That's architecture! How's the food? I have got to eat there." By the time we reached Atlantic Boulevard, Lenny's attention had switched to the activity swirling around this lively East Los Angeles intersection. "This place is jumping! Mexican people live here, right?"

I got more concerned as we passed Boyle Avenue, leading to the 6th Street Viaduct that would take us over the Los Angeles River into downtown L.A. This heavily industrialized section of the city had always seemed ominous to me. Lenny was oblivious. "There is no water down there. Why do they call it a river?" When we reached 6th and San Pedro streets, he exclaimed, "Go to 5th Street." I pointed out that this was Los Angeles' skid row. "Absolutely," he said.

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