Small World, Big Music, Old Friends
Nappy’s in town, ostensibly to help me out while recuperating from the now-postponed surgery that was schedule to take place on Thursday. When one door closes, another opens… I get to spend a week out in the world with an old friend instead of trapped in my dark studio recovering. One unexpected pleasure was scoring last minute tickets to see World Saxophone Quartet (WSQ) play Hendrix at the Great American Music Hall, San Francisco’s “oldest and grandest nightclub.”
I think I may have known about the show, but the date slipped my mind since I should have been in the hospital that night. By the time we had all our ducks in a row, even the tickets that were still available on the web despite “sold out” status for the 7:30pm show were gone. I didn’t relish the idea of a 10pm show, but I would have gone for it if all else failed.
Fortunately, the night was nothing but success-laden. Nappy came down to the Embarcadero and we caught the 38 to the ‘loin, hopping out right in front of the infamous Mitchell Brothers, where Behind the Green Door was made. We had a good laugh about my ridiculous evening there with Shan’s hubby, when he came to town last year—but that’s another story. Nappy and I headed to the box office to be told that we should try back later. This was an hour short of show time on what was a blustery sort of day, too cold to wait long in any sort of line. We decided to pop into the martini bar Olive for a spell.
While there, we reminisced about our first visit to San Francisco, back in the day. We stayed at the youth hostel in the Tenderloin, one of the city’s more notorious neighborhoods. The thing is, we didn’t realize it was supposed to be a bad neighborhood and coming from Detroit, it was a bit of a walk in the park. We thought the front staff were joking when they warned us to be careful going out our first night there. “This is a bad neighborhood? This?” We instantly fell in love with the city. Later we were serenaded at 4a.m. by a drunkard in the alley outside our window, two or three stories down. It seemed to be an Irish drinking song with a repetitive chorus punctuated by angry neighbors yelling “shut up” every time the song began again. It was about the fifth or sixth time that we realized that the Irish drinking song was actually Roberta Flack’s Killing Me Softly, slurred in a thick ale-laden brogue.
A few years later, when I had been ensconced in the city for a while, my friend Vani was dating the Ron, who lived at Leavenworth & O’Farrell while I was dating someone who lived at Hyde & O’Farrell, the upshot of which is that the much maligned Tenderloin holds a dear place in my heart, and I was happy, on the night of the concert, to be hanging there with an old friend. A chocolate martini (Nappy had a mojito) and appetizer plate later we went back to the box office where the security woman winked and gave us a thumbs up, pointing to a spot on the sidewalk where we should wait. We stood next to a young guy who struck up an odd but charming conversation that began with his embarrassment over having inadvertently matched his shoes and shirt and ended with his removing one of the said shoes to show me a scar on his foot. I found out he works at Golden Gate Park and I was immediately jealous until he said, “yah, everyone is but the pay is pretty low, and I don’t have health insurance.”
Our new friend, Thomas, had been first in line but his friends had pulled up, and he was throwing his backpack into the trunk when the ticket agent approached us. Then came a little bit of Abbott & Costello "Who’s on First," when the woman came and asked who needed tickets.
Me: Us (pointing to me and Nappy)
Nappy: Us two (speaking simultaneously)
Me: … and that guy
Thomas: (from the street) I need one
Ticket woman: You need two (to me)
Me: Three (including Thomas)
Thomas: Me too
Nappy: Us three (said while looking at the person in line behind her)
Me: We (pointing to Nappy). I mean one each
Thomas: Two (including me)
Ticket Agent: Two or too?
After a few moments we got it all straightened out. Thomas disappeared ahead of us, and Nappy and I patrolled the layout determining that we might have gotten tickets but general admission meant that we appeared to be shit out of luck. We couldn’t find any seats that offered a view of the stage—until we saw Thomas waving us over. He’d managed to save two seats for us as well as seats for his friends. That’s why I love SF. The guy was definitely off-kilter, but he was good off-kilter, the perfect prelude to the free funk extravaganza about to unfold.
During his brief career, Hendrix relied increasingly on open-ended improv, a form that lends itself well to the blowout excursions characteristic of avant-garde jazz. Upon the release of WSQ’s Experience, All about Jazz interviewed David Murray (tenor sax) , who voiced his opinion that, “If there weren't so many people pulling on [Hendrix], I'm sure he would have certainly been some kind of jazz musician. His thing just attracted so many different styles of people that it was obvious that he had to be a rock musician during that time because he had all the ingredients. Jimi could have dropped in any era. If he came ten years from now and landed on our planet, this guy would be on the biggest stage, with the brightest light because he was the best guitar player. I think Jimi Hendrix could have played with anybody. I heard he was doing some stuff with Miles Davis up at Woodstock. He could have played with the Sun Ra Arkestra if he wanted to.” It was with that attitude of respect and reverence that the WSQ took the stage—but they weren’t afraid to make the music their own as Hendrix did with everything he touched.
They began by playing a “Freedom,” a funky little ditty that nobody in the audience seemed to recognize, though it was good and received ample applause. “If it’s Hendrix, I didn’t recognize it,” I told Nappy. She nodded; then Thomas leaned to me and said, “I feel dumb, but I’m not hearing the Hendrix.” So it was unanimous. They also played “Hear My Train A Comin’” before David Murray grabbed the mike and explained that 29 years ago, he and the other members of the New York Saxophone Quartet received a cease & desist letter from another group calling itself the New York Saxophone Quartet. Oliver Lake (alto and soprano sax) chimed in, “We gave them New York and became the World,” then launched into “Little Wing,” which we all picked up on. Their rendition reminded me somewhat of Sting’s version and a little less of Stevie Ray Vaughn’s. It’s a song that I like but have liked less and less over the years because it is easily rendered bombastic. While I appreciated their arrangement, I felt Lee Pearson’s drumming was overwhelming. Nappy laughed when I said, “He’s playing like he’s in Led Zeppelin.” Next came a dynamite version of “Hey Joe,” in fact, the best I’ve heard aside from the original. Since the departure and subsequent death of Julius Hemphill, the second alto chair has been a revolving door, but Bruce Williams, who plays on the album, was really jammin’ during the lurid tale of Joe’s crime passion. He’s a big guy in whose hand the alto and soprano saxophones looked like toys, but he was shakin’ like he was fornicating that sax. It was really spectacular. Hamiet Bluiett, baritone sax, really shined on “Machine Gun,” letting lose a cascade of startling soprano-pitched squonks, and “If 6 was 9” was a fantastic showcase for electric bassist Matthew Garrison, the son of long-time Coltrane bassist, Jimmy Garrison; they closed with a beautiful rendition of “The Wind Cries Mary” that began with a drone-like dirge, the melody carried Craig Harris, clad in a long skirt and mudcloth vest, on trombone.
Mid-show Garrison had played a beautiful six-string-like intro, and Pearson had redeemed himself to my ears and eyes by throwing down an exciting, hypersonic solo starting with mallets in both hands, and then with no interruptions or breaks in the rhythm, he successively went to playing his kit with both hands, one stick in the right hand, switching the stick to his left hand, grabbing the other stick and playing all parts of the kit and the floor with both sticks. When he was done there was a split-second of stunned quiet from the audience before someone seated near us uttered a spellbound “gosh!” That one syllable cracked up everyone in the vicinity.
It was a totally great night. Nappy and I said goodbye to Thomas and his pals, who I believe were staying for the second show. Nappy wore a grin the entire way home and said she’d never seen anything quite like it. I was glad to have treated my pal to something that she’ll always remember. It was a nice homage to a friendship that back in the day included a lot of sharing of Hendrix's music: it was from her collection that I first heard Axis: Bold as Love. The next day, as I described the night to a coworker who had earlier disbelieved that anyone my age would have grown up with and appreciated the music of Hendrix, she determined that our friend Thomas is her brother. Small world made smaller by music. Right on!