There was a time when the honking tenor saxophone symbolized the decline of western civilization and Big Jay McNeely helped lead the charge. Before rock and roll introduced teenagers to the devil, a collection of jazzbos were defecting from the cerebral sounds of post-war bebop and aiming for the gut, riling up America's youth with an infectious punch that had yet to be named R&B. Now 86 years-old, McNeely is still blasting his neon saxophone for adoring crowds around the world including a daytime appearance at the Long Beach Bayou and Blues Festival this Saturday.
McNeely started out as a straight-ahead jazzer in post-war Los Angeles. He led a band with jazz legends Sonny Criss and Hampton Hawes backing him up at tiny bars dotted along Central Avenue. "The Last Word. The DownBeat. The Basket Room," McNeely vividly recalls by telephone. "Miles Davis, Charlie Parker. All the cats would jam with us." He was offered a recording opportunity in 1948 and his days playing small bars were traded in for auditoriums.
"Deacon's Hop" was his first single and it topped the Billboard charts in early 1949. At the suggestion of his producer, young Cecil McNeely was transformed into Big Jay McNeely. "Deacon's Hop" is a riotous, stomping jam accented by handclaps and McNeely's freighter-seized bellow. "I just played soul," says McNeely matter-of-factly. "From that day on they called me the 'honkin' screamer.'"
It wasn't just McNeely who was screaming after that. He quickly found himself playing before thousands of suburban teenagers anxious to cut loose. McNeely had a roster of wild stage antics that included blacklights, strobe lights and a highly theatrical way of playing on his back.
In 1951, photographer Bob Willoughby immortalized McNeely's sway over America's youth with his classic shot of the tenor-man mid-solo on his back at the Olympic Auditorium as his feral sound drove the crowd into an uncontrolled state of musical ecstasy, their clenched fists and eyes testifying to the power of McNeely's sound.
And it wasn't just the teenagers who were paying attention. At an early 1950s gig in San Diego, McNeely encountered some less-than-amused law enforcement. "I got locked up in jail for playing my horn in the streets," McNeely chuckles. "At that time I didn't have a wireless microphone so the band couldn't hear me." The band continued to play inside as McNeely was arrested by an off-duty cop outside. After a night in jail he was fined $50 which was immediately suspended but his reputation was getting ahead of him. He was blacklisted from gigs in Los Angeles. He had become too big and eventually no one would grant him a permit to play.
By then the tidal wave of rock n' roll was underway. Singers like Elvis Presley and Bill Haley smoothed the edges and made a killing selling to those same young white teenagers with hi-fis and spending cash. After the release of several other frantic hits like "Nervous Man Nervous" and "3-D," McNeely hung up his horn for over twenty years to focus on starting a family, taking a day job with the post office.
A throwback show in the early 1980s convinced him to get back on stage and he has been gigging regularly since then. The day after his Long Beach appearance he is packing his blacklight and wireless microphone for Milan, Italy to play at a rockabilly festival. The sharp and tireless veteran lives for an audience. "I do all the festivals now. I do rockabilly, blues festivals. I got a mix of things. I love doing the honking and screaming stuff. The key is to get the crowd singing. That's why it works. You have to get the people involved in the music," says McNeely. "I'm 86 plus, man. You gotta come out and see what I'm doing."
Everyone's always saying that jazz is dead -- at least since the fuzz shut down New Orleans' Storyville in 1917 -- but jazz will never die. Musicians on the other hand can, do and have.
And quite a few jazz legends are buried in L.A. In fact, it's pretty surprising how many pivotal stars have their final resting place here, in plots ranging from glistening grassy lawns to dusty disarray.
Ella Fitzgerald (Above) Inglewood Park Cemetery
In 1960, Fitzgerald released an album entitled "Let No Man Write My Epitaph." Hopefully, when she passed away in 1996 years later, she got her wish with the simple plaque emblazoned with a perfect fourth in an odd key. That plaque hangs in a serene second floor hallway in the Inglewood Park mausoleum that pipes in classical music amid the Pine-Sol smeared tiles. (Just down the hall are blues legends Charles Brown and Lowell Fulson.) The "First Lady of Song" lived well in Los Angeles, soaking up the Beverly Hills lifestyle and accepting the adoration bestowed upon her. She died peacefully at age 79.
Art Tatum Angelus Rosedale Cemetery
Art Tatum is recognized as one of the greatest pianists who ever lived. His lightning quick fluidity and bottomless wit have never been matched. After making his name in New York, he spent his final years in Los Angeles. Often with a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon under his arm, he played things on the piano that convinced many musicians to quit entirely.
His physical self-destrucitiveness never got in the way of his art, but the largely blind virtuoso died of kidney failure at the age of 47. He was buried near downtown at Angelus Rosedale but was moved in 1991 by his widow to Forest Lawn Glendale. His stone remains at Angelus Rosedale and is adorned with a snippet of a Gershwin melody. Despite the empty grave, this is one of the better kept markers in an otherwise dusty cemetery dotted with empty beer bottles.
Eric Dolphy Angelus Rosedale Cemetery
Multi-reedist Eric Dolphy was born in Los Angeles and developed his horn skills here, after which he headed to New York, joining up with a childhood friend, bassist Charles Mingus. Dolphy went on to pioneer his free jazz horn lines, eventually joining John Coltrane's seminal ensemble and helping push Coltrane's experimental leanings into the stratosphere. Stories abound about Dolphy's strange diet; he slipped into a diabetic coma while on tour with Mingus in Berlin and never recovered. He was engaged, at the top of his game and less than two weeks past his 36th birthday. His modest stone is located next to his father's on a flat expanse near Washington Boulevard.
Kid Ory Holy Cross Cemetery
Not far from the modest stones of Bing Crosby and Bela Lugosi, trombonist Kid Ory lies with his wife on a hill in Culver City. As his stone notes, Ory was one of the pioneering musicians during the birth of jazz in New Orleans in the early 20th century. When things slowed down in the South, he moved West but had difficulty finding work. He became a janitor for years before being rediscovered and enjoying a late life renaissance. Unlike many other musicians of his time, Ory had a good run, dying at the age of 86 in Honolulu.
Jelly Roll Morton Calvary Cemetery
Pianist/composer/arranger Jelly Roll Morton claims to have invented jazz, and he's certainly as good a source to blame as any other. Morton made his name in New Orleans, eventually working his way around America. He spent time in Los Angeles in the late '10s and early '20s before moving on. By the 1940s he had fallen out of popularity but was was planning a comeback in Los Angeles when he died of respiratory failure at age 50. A hot jazz society attempted to buy a stone for his unmarked grave but his wife insisted she'd do it herself; it took years before a stone was erected in the enormous East Los Angeles cemetery overlooking downtown.
Drummer Jack Mouse's credits are a mile long, and the breadth of styles he has played is just as wide. Many of those styles are on display on his debut album as a leader. The album opens with a crisp ting-a-ling from Mouse's cymbal in homage to multi-reedist John LaPorta. His eight measures of unapologetic swing set the tone for much of the album. Tenor saxophonist Scott Robinson takes a breathless solo over guitarist John McLean's chordal support while trumpeter Art Davis introduces himself with a brief blast. Without benefit of piano, McLean's guitar is a constant presence and unfortunately so is his tone. He applies a chorus effect that can be an immense distraction to an otherwise organic sound from the rest of the band. "Hip Check," Mouse's homage to hockey great Bobby Orr, indulges McLean's spacey effects to maddening consequence, while "Manne-rism" is the most devoid of foot-driven guitar work. Mouse sets the pace with a little brushwork before the horns dance on a quick line.
Long Beach's Pine Avenue has had its ups and downs over the last few decades. After a determined rebirth in the 1990s, a tide of prosperity rolled into the time-worn neighborhood with a bustling night life scene. That tide receded with newer developments elsewhere around town, and Pine Avenue fell into an awkward state of transition as it struggled to compete with amenities such as a Ferris wheel and a world class aquarium.
However, the newly opened Federal Bar aims to bring revelers back to Pine Avenue by offering a restaurant and a music venue in the cavernous yet elegant Security Pacific National Bank building.
Much like downtown Los Angeles' sprawling Last Bookstore, Federal Bar has taken the shell of a monument to pre-Depression wealth and transformed it into something the original architects never would have imagined. The three-story ceilings are adorned with delicate frescoes framed by impossibly long windows and ornate wood fixtures that combine for a unique dining space that can accommodate nearly 300 place settings while a long bar at the front competes with another, low-lit bar in the back.
The Madison steakhouse occupied the space for more than a decade but closed last December. "I came down to Long Beach and hoped I wouldn't love the building," says Knitting Factory Entertainment CEO Morgan Margolis. "Unfortunately for the stress level, I fell in love with the building and the street that it was on. I did everything to step away from it." Instead, he signed the lease in March and opened the Federal Bar less than two months later.
Knitting Factory Entertainment started in the 1980s as a fringe music club in Lower Manhattan that gradually expanded to include several venues, including a record label, tour management company and a now-closed club on Hollywood Boulevard. Only in the last few years has the company branched into restaurants, a move that began in part with the arrival of Margolis, who joined the company in 2000.
While enjoying a beer and a bite in the Federal Bar, the restaurant's connection with such a prominent independent music brand isn't immediately apparent, apart from the rock 'n' roll unobtrusively emanating from the speakers. Somewhat counterintuitively, Margolis says the company is moving into the realm of hospitality while trying to avoid piggybacking on its reputation.
"I equate it to when you go to a movie. You aren't necessarily paying attention to the producer. I want it to be known but I don't want it to be pounded into people's heads. I want the Federal brand to have its own legs," Margolis says. "I'm not going to the Troubadour for a beer, you know? I wanted to build a neighborhood bar and restaurant with the music as part of it."
The Long Beach nightspot is not Knitting Factory's first move into this new realm. In early 2011, the first Federal Bar opened in a former 1920s bank in North Hollywood, offering up dozens of draft beers and a mid-size, second floor performance space. The strongest indication of the Knitting Factory brand lies in its calendar, which features DJs, indie rock groups and the occasional big band.
Pine Avenue's Federal Bar features 26 beers on tap and a menu as sprawling as its floor space. Generous portions of short-rib poutine take comfort food to a new level, and the juicy lamb chops have a snap of fennel and garlic that could satisfy power lunchers and curious tourists, depending on the time of day. For now, the space is primarily operating as a restaurant but the Knitting Factory stamp will be all over the downstairs.
The nighttime demographic on Pine Avenue currently skews young, but Margolis is looking to attract a more mature scene in the Federal Bar's basement with a blend of local jazz acts and touring rock bands to reverberate amid the giant vault doors embedded in the walls. If that isn't enough, a suitable nod to the building's mid-1920s roots is also in the works — a speak-easy featuring an expansive list of quality cocktails and classic technique with the hopes of garnishing their first gimlet before the end of the summer.
"I'd like to bring a tremendous product to Long Beach," Margolis says. "[The Federal is] very food-oriented but we want to bring an entertainment element to it. We're not coming as the shining savior of the neighborhood. We're just trying to bring a place where people can get away from their work environment and enjoy themselves."
Bassist Stephen "Thundercat" Bruner can be a charming dude. He is quick with a goofy joke and has an enviable love of mischief. As a frontman, not all of that goofiness comes across, which is too bad but forgivable. His new Brainfeeder album, Apocalypse, is due out on Tuesday and is loaded with a summer's worth of party jams.
It also has a fair amount of grief. Partner-in-crime and keyboardist Austin Peralta passed away late last November, leaving a large hole both spiritually and musically for those who had the fortune of hearing him. Peralta's spirit was a presence throughout Thundercat's homecoming/record release party Saturday night.
Dressed in his intergalactic cowboy garb with a poncho draped over gold reptilian chainmail, Thundercat was the eccentric virtuoso of his billing. He opened his set singing in a falsetto while wielding his sitar-sized electric bass. He let that instrument do most of the talking, often segueing between tunes without a pause. Backed by sprightly keyboardist Dennis Hamm and the freight train thump of drummer Thomas Pridgen, the trio offered a lot of intense instrumental noodling that occasionally found the audience's attention drifting.
On more than one tune, during solo performances, Thundercat throttled the neck of his immense electric bass for a display of mastery. He pounded his instrument with a rapid-fire thrust. Who else could get away with working Bach licks and jolting "Freedom Jazz Dance" riffs seconds apart? Who else could riff on the opening notes of the Star Trek theme while flanked by two roaring instrumentalists? Thundercat is scoring the light saber battles of his mind.
Many in the audience stood in disbelief at his presentation, grappling with his blend of bedroom funk, Eddie Hazel-style freakouts and crushing band interplay. Even after we'd been promised two more tunes, the powers that be tapped their watch, leaving Thundercat unable to play the lead single from his new work, "Oh Sheit, It's X." It should've been the tune to tie all of Thundercat's strengths into one crowd-friendly jam: tight grooves, falsetto hooks and a lyrical homage to a spinal-fluid draining party favor. Oh well.
Dressed in a bulky military jacket, producer/laptop manipulator Flying Lotus hit the stage with less than an hour and a half before the club was going to kick the crowd onto the Sunset Strip. Backpack-wearing Berkeley kids spastically grooved, and would have benefited from pairs of juggling sticks. Crying girls and South Boston jabronies fought for floor space and clear sightlines while summer flings were initiated near to the sound man.
The visual component that accompanies Flying Lotus' set is, for lack of a better phrase, mind-blowing. Placed between two projection screens, Lotus mans his table appearing like he's riding on a shadowy roller coaster through spiraling fractals and intergalactic air conditioning ducts.
He can control a crowd like few others, dropping in whirring feedback and rumbling explosions, summoning an entranced wave from the crowd. Rhythm and momentum push the sound into a heaving mass just shy of a panic attack. That momentum was only halted when Lotus attempted to walk around those screens to rap, taking a dozen steps in shadow to appear and disappear. The first time he did it, he offered up a capella rhymes that may have harshed a few mellows. By the time he was wrapping up his set with an appearance as his rap persona Captain Murphy, he was ebbing and flowing with his propulsive creation to deliver sinister verses.
Much like Thundercat's performance, Flying Lotus got the hook just as he was getting going. Many in the audience could've danced til dawn. Just as many could've used a bottle of water and a healthy dose of fresh air.
Personal Bias: Even fifteen years ago it was pretty clear Stephen Bruner was going to do some cool stuff.
The Crowd:Youthful, sweaty, unblinking.
Random Notebook Dump:How can someone pogo while taking video and enjoy either of those experiences? Lots of convincing arguments at the show for creating cellphones with less storage capacity.
Guitarist Gilad Hekselman pulls out all the stops for
this multi-layered project. With assistance from bassist
Joe Martin and drummer Marcus Gilmore, Hekselman
has created a propulsive band sound that is interspersed
with galactic interstitials to help mold a long-form
statement. As the title implies, Hekselman is dictating
the news, aiming for the here and now, but his
technique is ageless, precise and unique and pleasantly
unafraid to get a little dirty when necessary.
Saxophonist Mark Turner joins the trio for three
tunes including the title track. The band quickly segues
from synthetic noodling into a spacious, bass-driven
vibe, which eventually makes way for Hekselman’s
jagged edge, punctuating his lithe lines with a rough
strum. Turner jumps into float over the roiling band,
effortlessly moving through the horn’s register.
“March of the Sad” is a trio tune haunted by the
ghosts of a gently prodding second-line feel.
Hekselman stretches out, riding over Martin’s sturdy
bassline. The guitarist’s sound arrives so simply yet
assuredly and he displays a great willingness to relax
yet still maintain a sense of motion.
Hekselman indulges Don Grolnick’s standard
“Nothing Personal” with a creeping apprehension.
Turner offers short fleet-fingered runs through the
slow-moving tune, interspersed with the leader’s
simmering retorts. Gilmore offers up a solo of his own
that hums with an equally contained ferocity. The other
non-original, the Alan Parsons Project’s radio hit “Eye
in the Sky”, moves at a modest pace, making for a
surprisingly comfortable jazz interpretation. Martin’s
syncopated backdrop combined with Gilmore’s
controlled cymbal creates a perfect launching pad for
Hekselman has an appealing buzz to his sound
and this polished product is just the right balance of
production and spontaneity. He can think fast but can
also compose a complex idea, evident in the brief
closing track “This Just Out”. The band jumps through
jagged hoops while maintaining a propulsive groove.
This is a confident statement from an agile six-stringer.
Vibraphonist Joe Locke has released over a dozen
albums under his name in the last ten years. This most
recent release was recorded in a single day last October
with help from pianist Ryan Cohan, bassist David
Finck and drummer Jaimeo Brown. The blues and
ballads theme is a long running one with a wide range
of implied settings. From Lonnie Johnson’s pass-the-hat
Bluesville releases to McCoy Tyner’s simmering
standards, the theme has broad potential. This version
is pretty direct. The quartet tackles a handful of tunes
that are more blues-implied than strict 12-bar workouts,
with some radio-friendly ballads scattered throughout.
Vol. 1 suggests more to come. Considering Locke’s
work ethic, he could produce another 364 this year.
“Ain’t No Sunshine” opens the record with a
punctual solo from Locke over the stop-start groove of
the band. On a similarly well-worn adult contemporary
standard, Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me”,
the band approaches at a similar clip as the original. In
fact, Locke’s band could be interchangeable, with a
similarly unobtrusive piano part but with a marginally
brighter pulse from Brown’s kit.
The nicest aspect of the record is Locke’s tone. He
gets a warm sound from his vibraphone, which can
occasionally get hypnotic with its oscillating hum
lulling on the long notes. But the band can pick up the
tempo too. The quartet digs into a brisk blues on Sam
Jones’ “Bittersweet”, Locke roaring into a rapid solo
while Finck gets a chance to swing in the spotlight,
offering a healthy dose of melody and technique.
A pair of tunes from the Great American Songbook
closes out the album: “Makin’ Whoopee” is transformed
into a swaggering triple meter stride while “Dedicated
to You” is a languid duet between vibes and piano.
Like the rest of the album, it’s a gentle track that can
hover somewhere without being distracting. The band
is crisp and clean throughout but it wouldn’t hurt to
throw a little dirt on Volume 2.