I began learning jazz improvisation when I was 15, studying under a vibes player named Charlie Shoemake. I had studied classical piano since the age of 7 and although I had accomplished quite a bit in that span of time, I had become frustrated and disenchanted with my playing. In fact, I had stopped practicing.
When I began learning jazz it felt like a great weight had been lifted. Technically it seemed less demanding than classical music. Aside from a little trouble reading the syncopated rhythms, I found it to be much easier than Bartok and Bach. Later on, when I realized that I had to get my ideas across at breakneck tempos with drum and bass accompaniment, I would find it much more challenging.
After I had been studying for a year Charlie suggested that I hear some live music. There was a club not far from where I lived called Donte’s which was a long-standing San Fernando Valley hot spot located in North Hollywood, about five miles from where I grew up in Van Nuys. Underaged people such as myself could attend Donte’s owing to the fact that they served food which removed it from having a “bar” status.
One spring night my dad drove my friend Daryl (a sax player) and I to Donte’s to hear my teacher’s band. Many great Los Angeles musicians played there, as well as east coast cats passing through on tour. I was lucky to catch the last quarter of its 23 year existence before it finally closed in the late ’80s. I saw Cedar Walton play there with teh saxophonist Bob Berg. I saw the Harold Land and Blue Mitchell group, Bobby Shew, Ted Curson, Art Pepper, Warne Marsh, Lew Tabackin, and many more.
Donte’s was close to where I lived and not too expensive. It was a heady experience to be a teenager and hanging out at a jazz club. It felt like I was a member of a private club in which the rest of the world knew next to nothing about. Come to think of it, 30 years later it still feels that way; especially when you take into consideration the empty seats!
I still remember the personnel in the band I saw that first night. Pete Christlieb was the tenor player: a fiery, yet melodic musician who played in the Tonight Show Band. He also played one of the most famous sax solos ever on a rock record on Steely Dan’s Deacon Blues.
Terry Trotter was the pianist. After high school I went back to studying classical music, this time with Terry. He had a relaxed, holistic apporach to his teaching and he was nothing less than inspiring, both as a teacher and a pianist.
Andy Simpkins was the bassist, and Dick Berk was on drums. A few years later Dick and I would become very close friends playing dozens, if not hundreds of gigs in L.A. I was the first pianist in his band, The Jazz Adoption Agency. I was also the pianist at his wedding where I managed to screw up the changes to Easy To Love, which was the song that he and his wife marched down the aisle to. How embarrassing. Dick, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry!
Everything about Donte’s seemed cool to me. From the dark lighting, to the leather booths, to the haze of the cigarette smoke. The best part was the proximity of the audience to the bandstand. We were literally on top if the band in our front row table and you could hear the musicians joke to one another in a loose, nonchalant way. Of course we couldn’t understand what they were talking about but that didn’t matter to us. We loved that the musicians would interact with us; they would acknowledge our presence. They seemed like stars to us, yet here they were talking to us and even joking around or teasing us.
The sound of it. I hadn’t thought it would be loud, but it was. We sat mere feet from the band and the music came at us with an urgency and vibrancy that, to my 16-year-old ears, had been lacking from my stereo. It wasn’t the ear-splitting cacophony of arena rock, but it wasn’t chamber music either. It felt substantial; like it had meat on its bones.
About a year later I would sit in with Charlie and the alto player Ted Nash. Ted was Charlie’s best student and somebody I looked up to and he has gone on to have a great career in New York City. I remember that even though sitting at the piano was only a few feet from my front row table, the sound and feel were completely different. Between the bright presence of the sax, the cymbals, and the amplified bass, it felt like being in the middle of a tornado and it was difficult to get comfortable. It was an entirely different feeling than practicing in my den or playing duets in Charlie’s studio. Yet it was thrilling. I’m sure that I overplayed and was every bit the callow 16 year old, but it didn’t matter. I had gotten my feeet wet.
Seeing Ted, as well as his pianist, Randy Kerber, who were both a year older than I, made me feel like with a lot of hard work I could be playing gigs as well. At that time music seemed flush with possibility.
Those first gigs that I attended probably had as much to do with my becoming serious about jazz than anything else. I had the right teacher and now I had a place where I could hear and see the music performed, and occasionally sit in with the band. The music was accessible, and soon it would be attainable.