RUNNING WITH THE BIG DOGS, PART 2

By Jane Getz

This is part two of a three part series featuring excerpts from pianist Jane Getz’s in-progress memoir. For an introduction and to read RUNNING WITH THE BIG DOGS, (PART 1, click here, PART 3, here)

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When I got to Mingus’s crib, his door was partially open. He was barking orders to his wife, a sweet looking young woman who Charlie told me was a nurse. In those days there were quite a few musicians married to nurses. I wondered what significance this had; did all these Big Dogs need around the clock care? Or more practically did their wives, as working professionals, guarantee a steady cash flow?

A few minutes later the rest of the band straggled in. I met Clifford Jordan (all business) and Danny Richmond who seemed warm and friendly. Danny was looking quite dapper for a guy who had a heavy rep as a junkie. Yeah, this cat was wearing the hippest threads I’d ever seen. Damn, maybe he was a conscientious junkie. In fact, Danny was the first one to see the limo pull up. Before I could grab my suitcase—which was over packed, bulky and unwieldy—Danny grabbed it. In a show of courtliness he put it in the trunk of the limo.

The rest of the guys loaded up and we zoomed out to La Guardia, checked our bags and boarded the big, wide TWA bird. Not having flown such a long distance before, I was pretty nervous. Mingus, noticing my anxiety, motioned me over to sit by him. The dude could be quite intuitive. I sat on the aisle, Mingus sat in the middle and another friend/employee of his (who was there to take care of all Charlie’s needs) sat next to the window. When Charlie barked, this dude rolled over. After take-off, Mingus, who did not like to be restrained in any manner, quickly unbuckled his seat belt. The Big Dog seemed to be in an affable mood.

About two hours into the trip, Mingus showed me something amazing. After asking his dude-in-waiting to hand him his briefcase—kind of a brown leather dossier—he casually opened it. The case contained hundreds of small bottles, each one filled with a different prescription drug. These vials weren’t rattling around randomly. No sir, each bottle was held in place by a taut elastic band stretched horizontally across the length of the briefcase and attached at the sides. Charlie’s Little Helpers were all labeled and completely accessible. I’d never seen anyone with such an organized addiction. Mingus requested a glass of water from the stewardess and in one gulp downed about fifteen little yellow pills. Then he ordered a rare filet mignon. After the bloody repast came, he proceeded, between mouthfuls, to espouse the merits of being a vegetarian. I was trying to look hip and take it all in stride when, for no reason at all, he stopped talking, leaned back in his seat and fell asleep. In five minutes, Mingus was snoring, one satisfied customer.

The plane landed about an hour into Charlie’s nap. After collecting his precious briefcase and saying a few words to Danny, he deplaned. Apparently, he was in a big rush to connect with some lady in Mill Valley. Along with the rest of the band, I went to a second-rate hotel in North Beach. I checked into my room then called my mother in L.A. She had promised me she would fly up to Frisco if circumstances permitted. Of course, what that really meant was if her boyfriend permitted. He was this rich dude who called all the shots and kept her on a short leash. She must have negotiated some kind of deal with the guy, because fifteen minutes later she called back to tell me she’d be up in a couple of hours. I was happy. Having mom here would be a trip.

I glanced around the room. The joint was nothing to crow about. Dirty white walls, narrow twin beds, schlock art, yellowing lace curtains. The dresser and night table were made of cheap particleboard. Of course mom would probably say it was quaint in order to spare my feelings. I lay down to catch a few winks. A few minutes into Dreamland the phone rang.

“Hey, this is Danny. You all right?” I got it.  Danny had assumed the role of my protector and caretaker. “Me and Clifford are going to Carmines for pizza later. I’ll knock on your door, baby. O.K.?”

“Yeah man. Oh…My mom will probably be in town by then. Can I bring her?”

“Sure baby. If she’s your mom, I know she’s cool.”

A few hours later Mom called up from the front desk. She walked in the room looking very nouveau. She was suited up in all black with hoop earrings and a little black lid on her head. She must have been reading the Bohemian handbook again. She almost looked hip, but of course she was still my mom.

“Hey man, what’s shakin’?” I said to her as I opened the door.  At first she looked confused. She eyed me suspiciously.

“Are you on drugs?” Mom demanded.

“I’m high on life.” I said trying to remember what some loopy flute player had once said to me.

She set her suitcase down on one of the beds and opened it.

“Here, I got you something.”

It was a crocheted maroon top with tiny holes in strategic places. I kinda liked it, but I wasn’t into looking femme. Hell, I wanted the cats to forget I was a chick.

“Thanks, man.” I said as I hurriedly put it on the night table.

At dinner Danny won my mom over. Polite and intelligent, he actually seemed concerned about her well-being. Danny might have been a bad boy at times, but he was quite functional in polite society. He had an amazing talent for smoothing things out. When mom complained about her soup being too cold, Danny silently motioned to the waiter and took care of the problem without a lot of hoopla. Voila! Steaming clam chowder—so hot you had to blow on it.

By eight thirty, we had all socialized and eaten. After some quibbling over who would pay the tab, Danny gallantly picked up the check. It was almost gig time.

The Jazz Workshop was a big barnlike place with rows of chairs in the front and middle of the room and tables in back. At the time, it was considered an important jazz venue. I made sure mom got a good seat, then I went over to the piano to try it out. A Steinway B. Far out. After running a few scales, I walked over to talk to Danny who was setting up his drums. We were rapping when Mingus exploded through the door in a dramatic flurry. He walked over to the piano, plunked his charts down and started tuning his bass, all in one grandiose motion. I started to say “hey,” then I decided perhaps it would be better to speak only when spoken to. The cat seemed preoccupied.

Finally, he acknowledged me. “Do you remember that seven/four tune, Meditations?”

I nodded.

He grunted. You never really knew where you stood with this dude.

Mingus futzed with the mikes and tinkered with the knobs on the mixing board. Finally, we were ready to hit.

The first tune was easy. I thought I was handily holding my part down until I looked up and saw Mingus scowling, then setting his bass down. Clifford Jordan was burnin’ and Danny Richmond was taking care of business, but Mingus had something on his mind. He was heading toward the piano yelling something at me. He leaned in close.

“Man those aren’t the right voicings. Think Duke Ellington. Ellington baby.” He stood in back of me shouting orders, then reached over my shoulders to demonstrate. I could feel the Big Dog’s hot, alcohol-laced breath on my neck as he pounded out what he thought were the definitive chord voicings. I glanced up at Danny. He averted my gaze. A few bars later, Mingus walked back, picked up his bass and started playing again. I was all bent out of shape. The next few tunes he looked at me and yelled again. Mercifully he didn’t bother to put down his bass. Shit, my mom was in the audience.

Then we came to Meditations. It was one of those esoteric jazz suites with different movements, weird time signatures, and numerous key and tempo changes—a show dog’s centerpiece. When we came to the piano/bass solo, Mingus put his bass down again. This time, instead of just reaching over my shoulders, he forcibly nudged me off the piano bench with his hip.  I felt really stupid as he demonstrated what I should have been playing. I just passively stood there, feeling dumb, arms dangling at my sides, wishing I were invisible.

On the break, I went over to talk to mom, pretending nothing had happened.

We played one more set, Mingus gesticulating and yelling at me. Then, mercifully, the evening was over. I was too depressed to even say goodnight to the guys. I collected mom and we headed back to the hotel.

“You know dolly,” mom said on the ride back, “why don’t we go and listen to some Duke Ellington records tomorrow. Don’t be so damn stubborn. You might get some ideas.”

I held my tongue. Why couldn’t I play the stuff like I wanted to play it? I had kind of a Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner spin on it. What was wrong with that? I was in a complete state of angst as I turned off the light. The hard-assed bed wasn’t helping either. I was longing for my old Salvation Army mattress.

Next morning mom was buzzing around the room full of good cheer. She had that stupid chirping sound in her voice that set my teeth on edge.

“I think we’ll go out and find a cute little breakfast place…” She artfully paused, “Then we’ll stop by–I wonder if they have anything like Wallach’s Music City up here?”

Mom had made up her mind that I was going to listen to the Duke today. Soon we were in some big record store sampling a bunch of Duke Ellington LPs. After digging the sounds for a few hours, I got the idea. Lots of flat fives and nines. Groovy.

Mom and I spent the rest of the afternoon shopping. Her financier, the dude on the other end of the leash, had given her some extra bread for the trip, so she bought me a far out pair of high lace-up boots. Over coffee I tried to paint a picture of the hip new life I was leading in the Big Apple. I described my apartment, explaining that the lack of furniture was simply due to my non-attachment to material things. As far as my friends, they all were hipper (and sometimes higher) than God. As for the job opportunities—well check it out; wasn’t I playing with one of the greats? I was hoping I’d gotten through to her. We sat there a few minutes in the silence until mom finally spoke. “You sure you’re not on drugs?”

I played a lot of Ellington voicings that night. Mingus looked up and nodded a few times. I was also more familiar with the tunes, so I decided to take a few more liberties. It was the middle of the second set. Mingus seemed like he was digging my playing more, when all of a sudden he put the bass down and stormed into the dressing room. It was directly in back of the bandstand, so even though the rest of the band was still playing I could hear the him crashing around in there. Danny looked up and rolled his eyes. Clifford Jordan finished his solo as if nothing unusual had happened. I guess in Mingus’s band the unusual was ordinary. When it came to my solo, which was sans bass, I faintly heard what I thought were tearing sounds coming from the dressing room. What the hell was going on?

I tried to ignore the distraction coming from the dressing room but it was hard to tune out all the thumping and ripping. What was the guy doing? Despite the distraction, I wrapped up my solo. Then Danny launched into a long drum cadenza due to the fact that there was no bass, and therefore no bass solo. Toward the end of the drum solo, Mingus emerged from the dressing room carrying what looked like long strips of terrycloth. Mingus had torn up a towel. For what? He stepped up on the bandstand heading for me, long terrycloth strips draped over his arm. Wordlessly, he made his move.

“What the…?” Shit, Once again, Mingus pushed me off the piano bench, but this time it was for the purpose of getting under the piano. He wanted access to the pedals. Good God! The Big Dog was fucking tying up my pedals! He was draping the terrycloth strips around all three pedals, tying them together so tightly that I wouldn’t be able to depress them. Finishing the job, he tested them a few times with his hands. Satisfied that the pedals were completely unusable, he strode back to his bass. Before picking it up he leveled his eyes at me.

“You use the pedal too much.” Mingus seethed, mopping his brow with a spare piece of scavenged terrycloth. “It doesn’t make you blow any better, man. Chicks use too damn much pedal anyway. I don’t want to hear my stuff with all that fucking pedal!”

Now I was really humiliated. Bummer. I tried to sit down on the piano bench, but my body wouldn’t obey me. I turned toward the Big Dog. The next thing that came out of my mouth surprised even me, “Fuck you man,” I whispered, animatedly mouthing the words, “You can’t treat me that way.”

Then I did something really weird. I got off the bandstand and went and sat in the audience, staring at him. Wow, I’d done some outside things before, but I had never tried to roll a Big Dog. In my heart, I knew I was just a pup. But I guess I was so pumped up full of adrenalin that I was ready to scrap, even if my opponent was ten times bigger than me. Mingus gave me an icy stare, and went back to playing his axe. Since the incident happened on the second to last tune of the night, I continued to sit in the audience until the gig ended. Mingus ignored me as he packed up, but Danny motioned me over as he covered his drums.

“Man, that cat’s out.” Danny said. “Listen, get your mom and we’ll go out for some coffee. I got something I want you to check out.”

Mom was all bent out of shape over my scrap with Mingus, so she decided to cab it back to the hotel. Danny and I wandered around until we found an all-night coffee shop in North Beach. “Listen, baby,” Danny said as we put down our menus. “I don’t know if you’re gonna dig this or not, but I know how you can change the vibe. I know this lady, a spiritualist. She’s real good people, and she can do some work on this situation. I mean I’ve seen her completely turn things around. She’s heavy man. I’d be happy to call her. I’m sure she’d love to see you…” Danny paused. “Wanna check it out?”

The guy was offering me hope. Hell, what could I lose? I mean, I most definitely believed that there was some great cosmic force motivating things.

“I won’t leave my room ’til you call.”

For the next few hours, I drank about five cups of coffee as Danny proceeded to regale me with tales about Mingus. Listening to the Mingus Chronicles gave me an entirely different perspective. Yeah, it wasn’t me, the cat was just wigged out of his fucking skull. Danny called and gave me his friends phone number. Her name was Rose. She lived in Sausalito. I called and made an appointment with her. I was all frazzled when I got there. Besides arguing with Mom about the advisability of seeing this lady, Rose’s place was hell to find. She lived on the very top of a hill in a small cottage, hidden in back of a big house. As I knocked on her door, I could hear wind chimes faintly in the background. In fact, everything seemed to be tinkling, like there were a hundred invisible, barely audible bells quietly chiming in my inner ear. This was a magical place.

When she opened the door I knew that the vibe was right. This was no ordinary place and Rose was no ordinary woman. Though she was physically tiny, her essence seemed to fill the entire space. And when she looked at you, you felt she was looking deep inside. From the lines in her face I figured she was probably in her mid-sixties, but there was something about her that was neither young nor old. Danny was right, this lady was authentic; the real thing, baby.

Rose sat me down on her couch (an off-white overstuffed job) and went to fetch some herb tea. I looked around the room. It was filled with religious artifacts. I recognized a statue of the Goddess Kali, the six-armed destroyer, and a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe. I liked that stuff. I was trying to read some of the titles from her bookcase across the room when she came back with my tea.

“I hope you like clover honey,” Rose said setting the steaming hot beverage down, “’cause that’s all I’ve got today. I hear from Danny that you’re a very talented young lady.” She smiled, the lines in her face deepening. “He told me a little bit about your situation, but I need to ask you a few things.”

I began at the beginning and ended at the point where I told Mingus to fuck himself. “I wonder,” I asked, “If you tell someone to fuck themselves does that mean you’re automatically fired, or does it mean you’re just pissed off?”

Rose smiled. “Jane, I think you’re jumping to conclusions. You’re not fired ’til you’re fired. Know what I mean?”

I thought for a second. I did have a habit of picturing outcomes and filling in the blanks for other people.

“The first thing I’m going to have you do,” Rose said, “is close your eyes. Then, I want you to visualize the person you’re having problems with. When you have a good image of him in your mind, I want you to put a white light around him and see him as well, happy, peaceful, and calm. When you’ve accomplished that, then visualize him as doing the right thing as far as your particular situation is concerned. Don’t tell him what to do, just know he’s going to do the right thing.”

As she was speaking, I could see her going into a trance-like state herself. Her eyes half-mast. My first thought was, “How could this possibly work?” But I ignored it, closed my eyes and proceeded to follow her instructions. As I started to picture Mingus getting calm, I found myself cooling out as well. A wave of peace started to roll over me. The wind chimes seemed to be getting louder. I wasn’t sure if the sounds were external or internal.

I don’t know how long Rose and I sat there, but when I opened my eyes, I felt clarity about things. Rose smiled at me like she knew. The vibe was so cool I wanted to hang out all afternoon. But it was time to get back to the hotel so I thanked her, gave her twenty-five beans and split.

Back in my room, the message light on my phone was blinking.

“A Mr. Mingus called three times,” the desk clerk informed me, “But he didn’t leave a number. He just said to meet him at the gig.”

Ordinarily, I would have been freaked out, needing to know what he wanted, and if I was still on the gig. But today I put down the phone. Whatever happens is going to happen when it happens. I looked out the window and watched a few fluffy white clouds roll by and read. That afternoon, mom checked out. The fat cat was tugging on her chain.  I decided to lay down for about an hour then get dressed for the gig. I was in such a peaceful state I can’t really say whether I fell asleep or not. All I know is I was feeling confident that whatever happened musically or otherwise would be in my best interest.

I floated through dinner, which was at another pizza joint, then cabbed it to the gig. I arrived about fifteen minutes before we hit and spotted Mingus on the bandstand. As I walked toward the bandstand, Mingus looked up, smiled, then motioned me over. Yes sir, the Big Dog was beckoning me. By the time I had reached the bandstand his smile had turned into a huge grin. He reached inside a shopping bag and handed me a smaller brown paper bag.

“These are for you,” he said.

Inside the bag were two boxes of strawberries, a bright red lipstick and one pair of panty hose, size small.

Huh? Far out.

“Well thank you,” I said.

“We’re recording tonight,” Mingus boomed, “and I want you on the record.”

I went to the dressing room to hang up my coat and stash the Big Dog’s peace offering. The vibe had indeed changed; Danny was right. But the most amazing thing about the whole episode was I wasn’t trying to control anything anymore. Whatever the outcome was would have been all right with me. The rest of the night just rolled along. John Handy came in from Oakland to fill in some of the horn parts. He was burning. Danny and Clifford were kickin’ ass as usual and I was playing like I always played. But Mingus seemed to dig it. He still put his bass down and ran to the piano to play certain passages, but it didn’t bother me.  Mingus was being Mingus.

That night, I went back to my room, put on the red lipstick and ate the strawberries. As for the pantyhose, well that was another matter. Wearing pantyhose has always been a scary concept to me so I pretty much left them alone. It’s the thought that counts.

Mingus and I were on good terms when we returned to New York. I knew I’d probably work with him again in the future when his regular piano player Jaki Byard couldn’t make it. But in the meantime, I still had rent to pay.  I could see, just from the short time I was in the Big Apple, that the name of the game was hustling; calling people, making yourself known. All the cats had short memories, so you’d better show your face or give them a holler once in a while. Time to get on the stick. Ring up Booker, Carmel, Pony…Oh yeah, that cat had a lot of shit happening.

*****

Read another excerpt from Jane Getz’s memoir here next week.

1 Comment

  1. Los Angeles lofts Said,

    August 13, 2010 @ 11:39 pm

    This is such a great blog series. I can’t wait to read more. I took a Jazz appreciation class in college and it was one of the highlights of my college experience. Thansk for bringing back that great memory.