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Juke Joint Jive 

Jimmie Maddin on the L.A. scene circa the '40s & '50s

Wednesday, Jun 23 1999
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Like its populace, L.A.’s music scene comes from all over the USA and elsewhere, and if you dig a bit, you’ll find that most of the various strands we’re hearing today, from rock and hip-hop to R&B to jazz and country, share intriguing intermusical roots. Pop music in L.A. dates from the heady days following World War II, when an influx of music-crazy, recently discharged veterans migrated here and found hospitable stomping grounds for new ways of hearing and playing the sounds they heard in their heads. At first there were few places to perform, and there was virtually no recording industry, at least not for these restless musical gamblers. But by dint of a lot of hustling (and the potential big bucks to be made), a club scene slowly emerged, radio took notice, and the mainstream enjoyed a wellspring of jazz/blues/pop cross-fertilization (possible only in a relatively unhindered place like L.A.) that argued persuasively that, in music anyway, anything was possible. And to make those possibilities come to pass, musicians who hoped to survive had to know how to play it all.

Incredibly, a lot of these seasoned vets are still around, still playing, and they’re your neighbors, with amazing stories to tell — like this one from longtime sax player, scenester, producer, club owner and promoter Jimmie Maddin, who for over 50 years has kept an active hand in a crazy spectrum of popular music styles that swings from bebop and avant-garde jazz to blues, raunchy R&B, kitschy novelty tunes, surf music, psychedelic garage rock, country & western and mariachi. Along the way he’s befriended some very colorful people, and had a few hit tunes ("Jeannie, Jeannie, Jeannie," "Mashin’ Grapes," "We Love the Dodgers," and the very first rock & roll hit to come out of L.A., 1951’s "Boogie Boo"). A salty bon vivant originally from Sheboygan, Wisconsin, Jimmie, now 71, lives in Silver Lake, drives a very long, copper-toned Caddy and likes to wear shades with his zoot suit. In this conversation, he fills us in on his solid-gold life in the fickle trenches of the music biz back in the day.

You came to L.A. in 1947. Why here?

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There were three places you could go — Chicago, New York and here, where they had good music schools. And my brother was out here, and he was a band leader, so I naturally came here because I knew people.

What was your brother’s name?

Jack. I used to travel with him when I was a kid. He had a "territorial band," they called them in the Middle West; he worked around Detroit a lot. The group was called the Detroiters. And he got unlucky — his number was picked out of the fish bowl and he was drafted. But then he got into the Army and he worked with some famous guys like Bud Freeman, tenor man from Chicago, up in the Aleutian Islands. And then when I came through on the way overseas, I liked L.A. — you know, it’s a nice place, a beautiful place to come to.

You’d already begun studying music back in Wisconsin, right? ç

I started when I was 8 years old, singing at parties around Sheboygan. And then I started listening to Count Basie when I was about 10 or 12, and Jimmy Rushing and the Count Basie Band with Lester Young. I used to hitchhike up to Chicago, 110 miles away, to stand in the hallway and listen to Woody Herman’s "Apple Honey" band. I played the clarinet and saxophone in the high school band. And then when I traveled with my brother’s band, summers, I met a lot of jazz musicians.

During the war, at the Sheboygan Theater they used to have, like, Chico Marx’s band and all these different swing commercial groups, and I’d spend the whole week there listening to my favorite bands, then I’d run backstage and meet all the guys. And that’s when I met Duke Ellington, back around 1942.

By the time you got out here, did you have a decent set of playing chops?

I didn’t feel like I played that good, but I fibbed enough to get jobs. But two weeks after I got here, I started at the Westlake School of Music on Sixth and Alvarado. And I’d bump into so many different great musicians, you know — Britt Woodman, trombone player with Ellington; and Marty Paich, and Art Pepper, Bill Holman.

There was a very famous teacher who had a school on Maple and Jefferson, his name was Lloyd Reese, and Lloyd was a trumpet and saxophone player, and he played with the Art Tatum Trio, with Lionel Hampton on drums. Les Hite — he had a famous band at the Cotton Club in Culver City, it was the best band on the West Coast — he was teaching at Lloyd’s school. Well, I was interviewing teachers I wanted to study with, and this is what Lloyd said he could do for me: He says, What I can do is teach you to make a living at music. When you get done studying with me, you’ll be able to go out and play a gig.

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