Photo by Debra DiPaolo
What I Saw at the Parisian Room
Lord, the clothes I have seen on jazz musicians. Lord, lord, lord. I have seen collars long and pointy, fit to fly above your yacht. I have seen plaid blazers designed for a bat cave during a lunar eclipse. I have seen beltless slacks crackling with frayed polyester. I have seen iridescent shirts unbuttoned to display ashen pectoral fleece. With medallions. Lord, the medallions.
Wynton Marsalis has logged one important contribution to jazz: He made everyone wear suits. And even the bad suits were an improvement. You’ve heard the expression “Close your eyes and you can hear the angels sing”? Often it shoulda been “Close your eyes and you can hear.”
The clothes said something about the state of jazz when the Weekly began publication in 1978: The rudder had broken clean off. Miles Davis, previously the Brooks Brothers king, had set early-’70s standards of kaleidoscopic pimp regalia that none could match, though many, unfortunately, tried. And Davis, languishing unrecorded in cocaine exile, had left both a musical and a sartorial gap.
Jazz musicians didn’t know what to play. Fusion was dead. The avant-garde was feeble. So they kept playing what they’d been playing. (Usually it was still good.) And they didn’t know what to wear. They weren’t making any money, couldn’t afford new threads. So they kept tapping the wardrobe they’d bought in 1974, long after it was appropriate. If it ever was.
The last 25 years have been an interesting time for jazz, just as the decline of Rome must have been: old systems crumbling, new ones poking through. Sometimes, you could see music, fashion, humor, race relations and history all collapse into one moment.
My friend Jaime aspires to be a boor. Sometimes he even succeeds. He also likes interesting music. So it must have been around 1980 that we went to the Parisian Room, on Washington Boulevard near La Brea Avenue, to hear Elvin Jones’ Jazz Machine. Sliding into the club, you felt as if you’d stepped back 40 years. The interior was dark, with little round tables. The ceiling was scooped out into one of those broad, shallow domes that was supposed to enhance the acoustics. It had a Deco feel. Draperies.
And there was a comic. This was another flashback: In 1980, few spots in the world remained where you could have found a comedian opening for an authentic jazz combo. This guy was of African descent. So was the band. And so were the other 20 patrons, except Jaime and me.
The comic was not funny. This was unsurprising, and so was Jaime’s customary reaction — he snickered and held his nose. But when the comic plunged forward past one especially fragrant gag, Jaime took it as an invitation for audience participation, and got loud: “Baaaad joke!”
I had to figure that the comic had been heckled before, and this occasion hardly rose to the level of heckling, which comics tend to view as an opportunity. But instead of offering one of the standard ripostes — you know, like, “Hey, buddy, do I come to the alley where you work, and heckle your blowjobs?” — the comic stopped dead. He turned toward Jaime: “Guy’s wearin’ a Harvard shirt. Guy’s never even seen the inside of Harvard.” Not only was this not funny, it was true. The man was seething. The place got very quiet. The comic tossed off the rest of his act. People went ha-ha. Ha.
Elvin Jones probably had no inkling of this. He had played several years with John Coltrane in the ’60s, and everybody who knew anything knew that he was one of the greatest drummers in the world — the perfect union of infinity and the human heartbeat. I felt that nothing could ever really trouble him.
Jones certainly wasn’t gonna furrow his brow about what he wore. As the leader of the band, he was practical. He was a drummer. What do drummers do? Drummers sweat. And Jones sweats more than anybody. So he established a tradition that would continue for years: He wore a big, baggy T-shirt that had “ELVIN JONES DRUM MACHINE” stenciled on it in the crudest block letters available. And the whole band wore the same thing. Saxophonist Andrew White, a tall, bookish gentleman known for having transcribed 421 Coltrane solos, stood hanging out of a shirt three sizes too big for him, and blew the most complicated shit you ever heard. Jones was like a storm, timeless and on time. Sooner than most jazz attire, the shirts dissolved from consciousness. And all that was left was music.
I’ve had the opportunity to witness many tensions involving jazz, clubs and duds. In the early ’90s, long-armed pianist Randy Weston, in dashiki and skullcap, conjured ancient Africa in Hollywood’s Catalina’s, which was basically a fern bar. A few years later, earth-tone-vested, jaunty-hatted windman Henry Threadgill brought an ensemble that could not be contained or represented in the digitalized universe of a compact disc — it featured two electric guitars and two tubas — into the accurately named Marla’s Memory Lane in South L.A.; literally and metaphorically, you could see the 1940 walls cracking. Three years ago, black-draped saxist Charles Lloyd channeled Atman in the chilly environs of the high-tech Knitting Factory. Pianist Horace Tapscott was the truest representation of Los Angeles I’ve ever seen — hands swarming beyond the limits of cognitive apprehension. He never looked comfortable anywhere outside of South L.A.