It began on a summery Sunday morning in 1983 when, for lack of any other emo-tion, I was depressed.
I knew nothing about computers back then. But now, computers rule the entire plan-et with a universal lingo that rolls back across the decades. Once upon a time, being depressed was the default mode of my personal operating system.
Today, I am a fully functional human being. Therefore I google. I google “Nina Simone” and link to the music of a woman who was required listening for genera-tions of jazz singers, amongst other luminaries such as Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, and Martin Luther King.
I will always remember Nina Simone as a thorned pearl.
I was sitting with a group of strangers in the Grandiose Gardens ballroom. We were eating pastries past their prime and day-old bagels. Harry Belafonte calypso bagels:
day old daa aa daa aa old Daylight come and I gotta go eat
The pricey apartment complex was built into the Hollywood Hills in the shadow of the fabled HOLLYWOOD sign. Every Sunday, residents of Grandiose Gardens gathered for a complimentary continental breakfast that should have been served on Saturday. Cultural setting required my tablemates to talk loudly and the subjects ne-ver changed: star-sightings in the fitness room or who passed what audition. I did my best to avoid talking until a white-haired gentleman said something truly bizarre. He was an actor of no renown unless you pay close attention to extras in movie scenes. Between bites of a pumpernickel with cream cheese on his nose, he said
“Nina Simone asked me to drive her to the Safeway at 6 AM this morning.”
Being depressed was the default mode of my operating system but operating sys-tems can be upgraded. That is exactly what happened when I heard an utterly ridi-culous claim that a world-class jazz singer needed to be driven to a supermarket at sunrise.
One click of the comment and depression upgraded to delinquency. I jumped up from my chair.
“Yeah, right. And the Pope is my bowling partner. I introduced John Lennon to Yoko Ono and the other Beatles threatened to kill me. Miles Davis played taps at my funeral but I wasn’t there!”
Next thing I know, chocolate eclairs are flying off the table and being thrown across the room. I fling a cup of orange juice at the piano player, who played horribly off-key and deserved worse. A genuine food fight broke out in the Grandiose ballroom. Good thing the bagels weren’t a week old. Then they would have felt like rocks. Me and all the strangers, including a grand old dame named Lydia Mailbox, were escorted out of the room.
I locked myself in the apartment for forty-eight hours. I get awakened by a key in the door in the middle of the night, so I reached for a knife. The woman’s scream and spew of profanities were very familiar. I knew her from somewhere.
We had been married for four years! How the hell could I forget that I had a wife?
Doreen had been shacking up with a tennis pro and was gone for a week. But I had my way with her horizontally. She apologized between orgasms.
“I love you, Bud. I’ll never do this again. I swear.”
I wanted to believe her but Bud is the name of the tennis pro.
At sunrise, I went out to the Grandiose Gardens jacuzzi with a strawberry daquiri and a wet groin. The first person I saw there was more of a thing than a person. A bag lady in a tattered bathrobe with phone numbers written all over her unlaced shoes. A shabby homeless black thing in an uppity complex where a studio apart-ment rented for $1500 a month.
The year was 1983.
I sank into the hot bubbly jetstream with a strawberry tongue, ignoring the homeless shamble but a teenage couple appeared to be enthralled by whatever she said.
The bathrobe bag lady had a masculine voice and when the aqua massage expired, I heard her mention a name: “Nina Simone…”
Holy shit! Bless my jazzed soul. That is who she is! Awestruck, I loudly point a finger at her from ten feet away with a thousand decibels:
YOU’RE NINA SIMONE!
This alleged thing was truly a legendary singer who played in the White House for three different Presidents. She walked alongside Martin Luther King on the march to Selma and now she’s wearing tattered terrycloth. She never answered my question but responded with one of her own. NO–not quite. I quickly learned that Nina never asked for anything, she Demanded:
GIMME A DIME
Instantly, I became a cartoon character with motorized cycling legs and dashed out of the jacuzzi to the apartment for a dime, a quarter and one of my Nina Simone records. The autograph was worth the thirty-five cents. She wrote across the album jacket in oversized letters:
VIVE LA MUSIQUE
The autograph would have been one-fourth the size if the vinyl record was a compact disc.
In 1983, I was a gainfully unemployed ne’er-do-well with a well-endowed daddy. I didn’t live in the Hollywood Hills to pass auditions, I lived there to pass the time. But the next day I officially became Nina Simone’s “Slash Man.” I was her roadie, go-fer, personal secretary, therapist, travel agent and shoeshine boy. I had a van and she had a two-week engagement at the Roxy Theater on Sunset Boulevard.
The first day of work, Nina called me at 5AM. Doreen picked up the phone.
“Tell him to get his white ass over to the swimming pool. Pronto!”
I was also Ms. Simone’s swimming partner.
What a satisfying sight to see jealousy oozing out of my wife as she hurled the phone at me. I didn’t think she cared but this was the favorite memory of Slash Man employment that involved Doreen. It was superior to stagefront seats with my wife for Nina’a last performance at the Roxy. We shared a table with Herbie Hancock and Wynton Marsalis. Bill Cosby joined us later on. I think Doreen went home with one of them. Nina ended the show with a poem:
I play it cool and dig all jive
That’s the reason
I stay alive
As I live and learn
Is dig and be dug in return.
Those are the words of Langston Hughes, Harlem Renaissance poet and long gone drinking buddy of Nina Simone.
I also had an album of Langston reciting his poetry to the jazz of Charlie Mingus. My boss wanted a copy but I was paid boopkus as her Slash Man.
“Nina, I’ll make you a tape for six dollars.”
She agreed but only had one dollar bill with the number one hundred on it and Benjamin Franklin’s knowing grin. Since Daddy’s check was overdue, I didn’t have the kind of dough to make change so we walked all around Grandiose Gardens and see above>>>>>
Nina never asked for anything. She demanded–from six different people.
“Gimme change for a hundred, goddam it. What the fuck do you mean you don’t have any money?”
I’m in the background, waving my hands at these people–all of whom were white and very nervous about this black lady in a tattered terrycloth robe with untied shoe-laces. She’s Nina Simone and a classic jazz singer. She won’t hurt you.
Slash Man was also a public defender.
We went to a liquor store and Nina bought a fifth of Jack Daniels. I got the six bucks and heard stories about her performance at the White House in 1964 when President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. I had known about this perfomance but wasn’t aware that after the show, Nina got humped by Lyndon Johnson on the White House lawn.
Try it some time–I mean get loaded with a celebrity and let ‘em tell you a few up close and degenerate stories. You’ll have something to tell the grandchildren. If you don’t know any celebrities, just pretend. The grandkids will love you for it.
I bought Nina new shoelaces and laced them up myself. She sang songs from Porgy & Bess while we sat at a bus stop but weren’t waiting for a bus. We were just guzzling away at the bottle in a brown bag when cops pulled over and pointed their guns at us. But one of the cops was black. He didn’t have to be told that the tattered terrycloth lady–Nina wore that stupid fucking bathrobe all over town–was indeed the living embodiment of Billy Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sara Vaughn and Dinah Wash-ington. He shot his gun into the air out of pleasure at meeting the “Jazz Priestess.”
The composer of Mississippi Goddam was also known as a “Jazz Freedom Fight-er.” His white partner took a big slug of JD.
The bus stop was in front of Warner Brothers film studio on Barham Boulevard in Burbank. A complex the size of a small city that is the kingdom of Just Pretend.
No, you don’t have to pretend ever, or have any kind of imagination. Warner Brothers and it’s Burbank kin–Universal Studios and Disney–will do all the pre-tending for you as long as you keep turning the turnstiles at your neighborhod cineplex.
While Nina sang at the bus stop, I Louie Armstronged the part about Bess, You is my Woman but when she heard me sing, she poured half the bottle over my head. I got the kind of singing voice that explains why there’s such a thing as “justifiable homicide” in the police code. But the Priestess merely baptized me. I felt born-again.
Nina Simone’s first Los Angeles appearance in twenty years was given national television coverage. Johnny Carson had Nina sing two songs on the Tonight Show but she refused to sit for an interview. A 60 Minutes segment dovetailed concert video with vintage interview clips. A Sunset Strip billboard had a profile of Nina looking like an Egyptian goddess. At Grandiose Gardens, Ms. Simone occupied a suite that rented for $8000. The month she was there, her record company picked up the tab. In addition to the Roxy gig, she was performing in Hermosa Beach for three nights.
She was put up in a corner suite with two spectacular views of “what makes Gus proud to be a creator.” Nina was on a first-name basis with God.
“Gus is a three-letter word that begins with G.”
Film director Stanley Kubrick occupied that suite in 1966. By looking out one of the windows, he got a tremendous futuristic insight. The monolith that opens 2001– A Space Odyssey was modeled from the sixty-foot H of the HOLLYWOOD sign– taller and mightier than any geographical sign in the universe. Before looking out the other window, I must first drop a bunch of names, (as if I hadn’t dropped e-nough names already).
Think of a VanGogh sunset or a Monet sunset or any Impressionist, Expressionist, Abstract or Naturalist eye-watering rendition of that noble moment. When the big yellow ball does the goodbye thing, you got natural art of the first order but Van Gogh would have cut off his nose if he ever saw a sunset in the polluted Los Angeles basin.
Popularly known as smog, Nina called it “Sunset Helper.” Infusing the reddened sky with “the pastels of the Big Boss Man.”
We were passing a joint around her teakwood dining table. Twenty-five scented candles were burning throughout the suite with bells chiming everywhere around a table of five. Nina, me, percussionist Rasta Rona (short for Rastafarian Ronaldo), bassist Robert Hurst (heard nightly by millions on the Tonight Show after Jay Leno replaced Johnny Carson), and an otherworldly guitarist–and lost human being– Benny Gaston.
I loved Benny’s jelly-smooth diminished chords. Listening to him talk was like a layer of rhyming silk on your skin. He would soon commit suicide before fame could have accomplished the same results. He was in Dolly Penwood’s band for a dozen years.
In that suite, Nina shed the demanding whothefuckareyou attitude. She had wit, wis-dom and some more unique presidential trivia. She was sassy, sexy, and visionary.
Think of Southern California as a bunch of Tupperware bowls called Valleys. Put a lid on them. Besmack them shut without burping after storing a million cars under the lids. What you get is smog poison-ing the air but rewarding the eyes when the sun goes down.
Then the smog highlights the sky with heavenly shades of red. The Los Angeles basin with octopus freeways can be as environmentally cruel as an oil slick. But with Sunset Helper, it can be as visually as blessed as The Big Boss Man.
The octopus consists of the Harbor Freeway, leglocked with the Santa Monica Freeway and pouring into the nightmarish north/south interstate–the 405. We call it the San Diego Freeway but it doesn’t go to San Diego. The southern end is San Juan Capistrano of Orange County where you need a cool billion to stay alive. Rich-ard Nixon, whose anatomical shortcomings were tossed across the teakwood table, had lived there.
“The defrocked President–number 37 of the ultimate Leading Men of America–had a five o’clock shadow of paranoia. Nixon had a dick you needed a microscope to measure. ”
“Did you supply the microscope, Nina?” Benny asked.
“I plead the executive privilege of secrecy, constitutionally guaranteed anyone enter-ing the same room as a President of the USA, Your question, I can answer not, my Gaston boy, oh Benny Love, my Gaston boy.”
“Benny’s lips are still milk wet from gigging with Dolly,” said Robert Hurst.
“Maan, can we be get me some this foliyage for the Jamaica homefront?” Rasta Rona asked me. “Myyy homeboys will kiss of my feet.”
“It’s do-able, Brother Ro,” Slash Man answered but felt dirty and cheap discussing a drug deal in the sacred aura of the inner Simone kingdom.
“Rolando, only boys will kiss your feet cuz the girls are too busy kissing the rest of you.”
“Dat be trooof, MamaNina!”
“White girls go gaga over black meat.”
“I beg your pardon, MamaNina,” interjects the Gaston boy, oh Benny love. “The chiquitas lick my white bones without fail–some young enough to get me jailed. They grease me. They crease me. They caress me. They digress me as they undress me. They get under my skin as we sing with sin.”
“Benny dude, if you are as good with them as you were with ME last night, then your Johnson meets the black seal of approval. Dolly told me your tongue owns her nipples.”
“I just borrowed them occasionally.”
“Like I borrowed the Pope’s mercy,” threw in Slash Man without having any fuck-ing idea of what I was saying.
“Slash, call the Rodeo Drive furball.”
The furball was Frenchy Flambeau, furrier to the stars. A mink stole was a stage-worthy replacement for the terrycloth robe.
“I represent Nina Simone, sir, and we need to dress her right for her appearance at the Roxy Theater. You may have seen it advertised on the Sunset Strip. Her Egyp-tian profile is presently pasted over the Marlboro Man.”
“Hoooooooo, nooooooo. Don’t shit me. Let me talk direct…”
I hand the phone to the boss who began every phone conversation with a baritone disclaimer.
“My name is Nina Simone and I am not a man. Is this the Rodeo Drive furrier?”
We can’t hear the other voice until she mentioned her soul sister–Josephine Baker. A shriek pierced the phone and Nina dropped it to to the floor.
Josephine Baker was a dancer costumed with fruit bowls and said by France–in the Nineteen Thirties–to be the most exotic export in American history. Denied as a black entertainer in the United States, Josephine frenched up her ecdysiast talents, meaning she was a stripper for the frogs. She threw bananas and peaches into the tongue-licking, hooting, howling testosterone audiences, revealing the most scrump-tious fruit of all–her demonically delicious milk-chocolate naked body. Scrump-tiously nutritious milk chocolate empowered with the vitamin of fantasy. For one year of the Depression, she made more money than Rockefeller but died penniless.
Frenchy Flambeau was reacting as American queers do to Judy Garland, only loud-er. You could have heard him screaming in Utah.
“Nina, honey,” he says, now at a civilized decibel but it was me on the phone, “Take your time and I will be here for you.”
It was 6PM on a Wednesday. The furball had some waiting to do. A straight run from Grandiose Gardens to Beverly Hills is twenty minutes but LA commuter mad-ness doesn’t require a freeway for rush hour to be crush hour. Snails move faster than cars through Laurel Canyon. A wind-blown leaf moves faster than the snail.
Nina, Rola, Benny and me arrived at the fur store at 7:30. (Robert Hurst had a gig in Pasadena.) The sign on the door said CLOSED but the door was open.
Flambeau was wearing pink tights and a shirt embroidered with grapes. The place reeked of reefer. So did we. It was a rare moment when Ms. Simone was not wear-ing terrycloth. She had on a trenchcoat that would make a flasher want to steal it. When she removed the coat, a switchblade fell to the floor. Furball said
Twenty minutes later, She walked out of Flambeau Fur wearing a $17,000 lynx jacket. I carried out the trenchcoat while Rasta Rola had the blade between his teeth. Benny was reciting a poem:
I always shop on Rodeo Drive.
I need ‘superiority’ to keep me alive.
“Of course, the furball is gay. What kind of man do you expect to find in a town whose first name is Beverly?”
Nina never presented any cash or check or credit card but Frenchy got his jolly’s worth because she gave him an autographed nude 8×11 glossy photograph of Jo-sephine Baker, lying on a bed of sliced watermelon. The autograph was still wet be-cause Rasta Rola signed it in my old Fred Flintstone Ford Econoline Van while we spent 1.5 hours crawling 1.5 miles across Laurel Canyon.
The question might spring to your mind as to whether the lynx was ever returned to the furrier. Here is the answer:
A year later, I received a sincere articulate letter of gratitude from Switzerland, where Nina has a villa. A picture was enclosed of Nina Simone on a ski lift in the Swiss Alps. She was wearing nothing but the lynx stole. Her authenticated autograph was on a $5000 check made out to Michael “Slash Man” Rockiperio.
I couldn’t recall Nina having ever said Thank You for any of the services I provided as her Slash Man but some gestures speak so much louder than words. I had one more service to provide: a second check, for the amount of $18, 700, was made out to the furrier. The Bank of America, when given the account number, confirmed that there were sufficient funds to cover both checks.
In 1984, I had a job as a dishwasher in a Beverly Hills restaurant within walking distance of Flambeau Fur. I showed Frenchy the photograph of The Lady with the Lynx.
“This picture alone would have been worth the price of the stole but it was thought-ful of her to add on ten percent interest.”
I kept the original photo and had a copy made in perfect glossy color at Kinko’s for the furball. He gave me some ganga. That night, I got fired from the dishbin. No problem, thanks to Nina’s generosity. I sent her a thank you card with an fyi: it was possible for a heterosexual male to get hired and fired in Beverly Hills.
I never had sex with the Jazz Priestess though I gladly let Doreen believe otherwise. But Ms. Simone inspired me to put the kibbosh on my wife’s Budding affair.
During a break at a Hermosa Beach concert, Nina suggested I tell Doreen that Bud was hitting on me with more than a tennis racket. My bitchwife was appalled at the idea of bonehunting with a queer. After that, she loved me two times for every one that I hated her.
Except for the last concert, I was backstage at the Roxy for every show but the first one was the worst one. Nina Simone stunned the house because she refused to sing any jazz standards or originals like “I Want a Little Sugar in my Bowl.” Her entire reportoire consisted of African percussion and chants. Benny Gaston missed the premier. In his place was a second Rastafarian drummer, whom Nina twice berated in midsong. Each song ended with Nina demanding applause. The audience reluc-tantly obliged. The most favorable response occurred when she invited a woman to dance on stage. The woman did such a magnificent job, Nina–obviously feeling upstaged–violently shoved her off the stage. The woman hit her head on the floor, immediately got up and continued dancing with the audience going absolutely crazy. Nina stopped the band, engulfing the house in stone silence.
Luckily, the Los Angeles Times didn’t review opening night. The following night through the end of the engagement, Nina–prodded with an obscenity-laced threat-filled harangue from the Slash Man–sang beautiful, soulful, and hot jazz with a lot of her own piano-playing. As we say in the Hollywood ‘hood, She killed ‘em.
Ms. Simone shrouded her baritone voice with divine ivory grace. Her return to a Los Angeles stage was a tremendous twenty year dividend.
-Raymond Dugan, L A Times
After Nina left town, life became a long gray cinder wall. My father was arrested for tax evasion and sent me no more booty. The Beverly Hills dishwashing job was the last of ten thankless jobs that came and went. Being with Doreen was not much dif-ferent from being without Doreen but she did have to have one good idea in her head.
“You used to be a teacher. Why don’t you take the CBEST.”
That is the California Basic Educational Skills Test, a mandated exam for public school teachers in the Golden State.
So I applied for the test, got a a review book and looked at the questions but only for a minute. I knew that shit in grade school. I had a Bachelor of Arts degree from Pitstop University in Iowa, graduating with honors in 1971. I majored in Cultural History with a minor in Avoiding Viet Nam. Then there was some substitute teach-ing at Cornfield High School, until they got to know the real me, whoever that was.
The CBEST results arrived on November 24, 1984: the day before Thanksgiving. I achieved a perfect score on the verbal portion with ninety-two percent on the math. My essay–on Johnny Carson’s supremacy in Hollywood–was “119%.” The high-est grade ever given an applicant.
I interviewed at a school in South-Central Los Angeles where gangs and graffiti go hand-in-hand. I signed a contract that afternoon for a full-time job to begin after Christmas break. (Because of the stellar CBEST grades, no questions were asked a-bout washing dishes in Beverly Hills.)
“Finally!” said Doreen, “We truly have something to be grateful for.”
Jefferson High School was where Dexter Gordon attended. Do you know who he is? Probably yes because he was nominated for an Academy Award for his per-formance in Round Midnight, the story of an expatriate jazz musician living in Paris. Long Tall Dexter was the fourth most important tenor saxophonist of the twentieth century, whose first half was dominated by Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, and Ben Webster. Dexter Gordon fused them together and invented the extended sax solo. In an interview with Downbeat Magazine, John Coltrane said that his most important influence was Dexter Gordon. Therefore, Trane was an indirect student of Jefferson High School.
It has been said that Charlie Mingus also attended Jeff.
Yes & No.
Mingus was not an enrolled student but the magnificence of a music teacher, Samuel Rodney Browne, lured Mingus to ditch class from neighboring Jordan High School and hop the fence to get into Mr. Browne’s class. So did Eric Dolphy, regarded as Coltrane’s favorite horn accompaniest and fellow heroin addict. So did Buddy Collette, the first black musician to appear in a television show’s house band–You Bet Your Life with Groucho Marx. Buddy–not to be confused with Bud, the tennis whore–debuted on Groucho’s quiz show in 1951, the year Robert Hurst was born.
Mr. Browne, who moonlighted as a piano tutor for the likes of Maureen Reagan (daughter of Ronald Reagan & Jane Wyman) staged numerous concerts for the school. The performers included Nat King Cole, Lena Horne, and countless others, including a sixteen year-old Nina Simone. A grandiose gallery of ghosts haunted the stage of the auditorium. As often as possible, I would get a key from the janitor, sit down at the piano alongside of Duke Ellington. After all these years, he smelled funny.
Some delicious dame called Destiny steered me to that high school. “Triskai-dekaphobia” means fear of the number thirteen. A word learned at an early age be-cause of its melodic sound, I am living proof of its’ antonym. I love the number because thirteen years after obtaining a college diploma, I finally had a full-time job I could sink my teeth into.
A cultural history degree found a jewel box of musical history. With certitude, I can state that Nina Simone never shoved anyone off the stage at Jefferson High School–
neither when she was a teenage singer nor when I produced the last concert of her life. At that show, her only demand was for the applause to slow down. I feel her vibrations whenever I am in that hallowed auditorium, whether or not I am there with the Duke or with students or with my fellow teachers for some stupid in-service designed to make us love children and educate them more better.
In 1986, Doreen Megan McCarthy was divorced by Michael Aegis Rockiperio, whose students call him Rocky.
The collective IQ of the current students on the campus in South-Central Los Angel-es can be compared to a fingernail. Most of them qualify as what is commonly known as “illegal aliens.” Very few were born in this country. There are no more black students attending the alma mater of Dexter Gordon, faux alma mater of Mingus, faux Collette, faux Dolphy.
All of the students are Latino. Many still have splinters from the fruit truck that smuggled them and their families across the Mexican border into the promised land. But ALL of my students can tell you which Jefferson graduate wrote the most recorded song in the history of music. They also know the birthplace of the all-time smooch classic–Earth Angel. Jessie Belvin & Curtis Williams, who wrote the song, are pictured in a 1950 Monticellan yearbook the library gave me. Jessie and Curtis are shown singing in the school cafeteria. Along with the Penguins, the Plat-ters, the Coasters, and the Vibrations (who sang the original Hang on Sloopy), you have the second generation of Sam Browne’s legacy.
Richard Berry, class of ‘54, wrote Louie Louie. Because of all the controversy about the lyrics in the Kingsmen’s version, the song was immortalized. Because of the simple chord structure of Louie, Louie, the song was recorded ad infinitum.
Thirty years after Richard graduated Jefferson High School, I arrived on campus and I love donuts almost as much as I love music. What I teach is a diversified cur-riculum that falls under the vast umbrella of things–Social Studies, with a personal emphasis on musical history. A sample lesson involves a variation of the Six De-grees of Seperation:
Cleve Duncan, the original lead singer of Earth Angel, has the same name as-> Duncan Hines, maker of chocolate brownie mix-> Duncan Hines is owned by Proctor & Gamble, who also sells toothpaste-> Any girl present with sparkling Latino Teeth->who can bake perfect brownies->might become the next Earth Angel.
Is that a sexist lesson? Of course. Color me guilty but there is a treasure trove of cultural information (aka Social Studies knowledge) in the above paragraph. With Italian body language, subtitles, and a piece of chalk, the lesson can be taught to students with limited English skills. Actor Kevin Bacon originated the Six Degrees of Separation.
Nina Simone was a master name-dropper. I am a master name-juggler. I like brown-ies but I love donuts so much I became a donut hustler, more politely known as a fundraiser.
Samuel Rodney Browne is the Statue of Liberty that guided me to the Freedom of Choice as a teacher. He was hired in 1936 as the first black music teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District, which has educated over twenty million students. The hiring principal told Mr. Browne that he would have to be as good as three teachers if he wanted to survive and earn the administrator’s respect. On my best days as a teacher, I qualify to shine his shoes, something I had considerable exper-ience at, having learned that craft at the feet of Nina Simone. Actually, I had shined her telephone shoes twice after writing down all the phone numbers but very few were accompanined by names.
Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Humphrey Bogart and Howard Hughes paid large sums of money to party in South-Central Los Angeles at a time when crime was non-existent there but jazz and debauchery were alive and plentiful. The Central Avenue music venues can best be imagined as a three-mile long Cotton Club.
Hollywood’s glitter and the world’s richest man hung in the ‘hood during the World War II era to hear black musicians at a time when black people could not drive cars into Hollywood.
Jefferson High School was two blocks south of Central Avenue and Duke Ellington called it his ‘most best rehearsal hall.’ Count Basie said the same thing. They once had a fistfight in the school parking lot. Recently, Mr. Browne’s widow showed me pictures of it because it inspired a student melee.
Did Sam earn the respect of his principal?
Who the fuck cares?
Did Sam give his principal headaches and nightmares?
Absolutely YES because he harbored truant students and repeatedly staged unan-nounced Koncerts for Kids.
Here’s a simple proof:
Mr. Browne is the greatest teacher in the history of this vast metropolis because it is not what the teacher knows that measures the worth but what the students do with what they learn from that teacher.
If you have any doubts about this, re-read the above paragraphs. Better yet, google into cyberspace for confirmation of the information. I recommend “Uncle Marvy’s Notebook” or anything written by Steve Propes, Steve Isoardi, or Jim Dawson. As a bonus, shell out a few bucks for Dave Marsh’s Louie Louie. The four authors are my musical history professors. In 1984, telephonic graduate school was an absolute gas.
I could not let the spirit of Samuel Rodney Browne die so torchbearer Me became a donut hustler. I drive into the ‘hood of South-Central Los Angeles at 6AM with hundreds of dollars for thousands of donuts carrying more school keys than every-one but the head custodian. I did that one week before the Los Angeles Riots and one week after. Virtually every Thursday between February 1985 and June 2004. Though rampant crime spikes the FEAR of the ‘hood, I have never had–or seen–a speck of trouble.
The Torch-bearing, fundraising, eternal Slash Man also likes to ineptly juggle emo-tions. The one called Fear I let smash to the ground.
Crips, Bloods and Latino street hoodlums are plentiful on Thursday mornings in Sou’ Central but all I get from them is horn-honking, loudmouthed, “Yo Rocky!” or “Go get ‘em, Guinea Gangsta!”
A vicious punk who may just commiy a felony–possibly murder–will hold open the door of the donut shop while I load up the trunk of my car.
$20,000 is a numerical number and not the proper way to initiate a sentence but that is how much money I have generated for Jefferson High School. Donuts have been sold on campus because they need a little sugar in their bowl. To the delight of La-tino students and the Jefferson faculty, I’ve staged salsa, jazz, and oldies concerts by groups with glamorous websites and world-wide fan bases. With two eminent ex-ception, every band was contractually obligated to perform Earth Angel or Louie Louie.
For the first exception, a contractual obligation would have been redundant. More than thirty years after graduating high school, Richard Berry performed at his alma mater.
An in-house concert featured a vice-principal on maracas and a P.E. teacher, who had toured with the Four Tops, on bass. The saxophonist was our music teacher, Randall Willis–good enough to make Sam Browne applaud in his grave. The drum-mer was a student named Timmy Logano, who has marched in three Rose Bowl Parades. One of my students, Maria Amezcua, stole the show with her rendition of Angel Baby. The Jefferson cheerleaders kicked up a storm for Santana’s Evil Ways, as masterfully sung and played by the bandleader, Johnny Ray Scott–the school’s gardener who sounded like he had twenty fingers. Johnny Ray also played both an-thems. Timmy, who shared a dressing room with the cheerleaders, sang lead on Earth Angel. Someday, I want to write his memoirs. For comic relief, I sang a rap version of Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues. For audience-appropriateness, the verse “Twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift” became “Twenty years of schooling and you can own the day shift!” Man, you should have heard Randall Willis blow his thick and juicy tenor to Mr. Dylan’s corrupted classic!
After the show, all of us required hand surgery from receiving too many high-fives. We didn’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows but the best was yet to come.
$4,000 is what it cost to fly Nina Simone from Switzerland to South-Central Los Angeles for a one show engagement in 2003. One grand was for her private nurse because Nina’s health was failing. The band was straight outta Jay Leno: Robert Hurst on bass, Tain Watts on drums, Chuck Findlay and Sal Marquez on horns with Kenny Kirkland on piano when Nina wasn’t playing it. Their pay was the honor of sharing a stage with the Jazz Priestess but they sure ate a lot of donuts.
Latino boys and girls were enthralled by my old boss as Nina belted out Mississippi Damn, Put a Little Sugar in my Bowl, Black is the Color of my True Love’s Hair, Love is the Answer (So Stop Asking Questions) and, by student request, she encored with House of the Rising Sun. That song was recorded by Nina Simone in 1961–a year before some kid named Bob Dylan covered it; two years before the classic folk-rock version by Eric Burdon and the Animals (who also covered Nina’s Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.)
A Google search will easily confirm the Rising Sun connections and if you search hard enough, you should be able to download a live version by Elvis Presley.
Nina Simone died a month after appearing on the stage of Jefferson High School, making God the happiest man on earth cuz now she would sit at his teak table.
With certitude, I can state that the Big Boss Man always carried change for a hun-dred dollar bill. I can hear Nina saying “Thank you, Gus. Let’s party!”
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