A piece I started before the lockdown… prompted by a PBS documentary.
An escape into my early San Francisco days.
When my two brothers and I were teens, our parents set up what they hoped to be a study room for us in the basement of our new home. We each had an old, hand-me down, rummage sale desk for our supplies and books. They were arranged with enough space in between so we wouldn’t pester each other. That was the idea.
I can’t recall my younger brother ever being down In that damp, dark room. He was more interested in tennis and girls. I however did spend time down there, wrestling with math and algebra in between day dreaming in a big, old easy chair that had moved from the living room of our old house downtown to the basement in our new house in the good neighborhood. That chair had long been my refuge, a favorite spot to think about life and fantasize about boys. I’d slouch down in its worn cushions, drape my legs over one arm and listen my record albums; Joan Baez, Ian and Sylvia, Richard and Mimi Farina, and of course, Bob Dylan – that is, when I could claim access to the record player.
My older brother exercised nearly complete control over the music played down in our basement room. Since our move, he had dropped the “hood” look – shirt collar turned up, skinny white belt, tight blue jeans – for a beatnik persona. He dubbed his corner of our room The Rat’s Nest. When he wasn’t typing out witticisms on our dad’s old Smith Corona and air-planing them over to my desk, where I was really and truly trying to study, he played his music. And his music was jazz: Dave Brubeck, Jimmy Smith, Don Shirley, Ramsey Lewis, Miles Davis.
We were never what I would call a music family. As kids, we played 45s, in the basement of our old house, in a room we shared with a big huffing furnace and shelves of my mom’s canned pickles and apple sauce. My older brother was always the most interested in music. He still is. We played rock and roll, and Disney movie music but my education in jazz began in The Rat’s Nest and like folk music and Bob Dylan, it all became the soundtrack of my adolescence.
When I went away to the University of Iowa, the first concert I went to was Dave Brubeck at the Iowa Memorial Union. Perhaps that music made me less homesick, having lost my mother, gotten a new stepmother, another new house and a whole new, different life in the short span of a few years. The familiarity of the music helped smooth the way of so many changes. But in those same years, along came the Stones and the Beatles and more folk music. I learned to love blues and old-time country and all that amazing psychedelic music.
By the time I moved to San Francisco, popular music was dominated by heavy metal, guys in pants too tight and hair too big and Punk hadn’t come along quite yet shatter the disco ball. In San Francisco at that time was a station that played jazz exclusively. It was all those sounds I’d heard emanating from my brother’s Rat Nest. Listening to that station was like a graduate course in American Music and it rekindled my interest in and my fondness for this free-flowing, adventurous genre – something that was still with me from those days of studying and day dreaming down in the basement with my brother grooving along to his latest LP.
My first job in San Francisco was at the Cannery on Fisherman’s Wharf. I was living in the Mission in a flat with three other women so getting to work on Muni put me on the 30 Stockton bus through Chinatown and North Beach. In that neighborhood, right next to the *cop* *shop* as we called it, was the Keystone Korner, a nightclub featuring jazz exclusively. I could see the marquee from the bus window and when I saw that Miles Davis was going to be at Keystone, I knew I had to go.
My roommates and I frequented 99 cent movies at the Times Theatre on Stockton Street. Often we would wander over to Keystone and stand in the doorway listening to the band, but they were not necessarily jazz fans, they really didn’t get it. I not sure I did either but I know I liked it, and the whole jazz scene was so cool but
I had no cool boyfriend at the time that I could cajole into going to a jazz show. Still I was determined not to miss this opportunity to see and hear probably the most famous jazz musician in the world.
That night I dressed in the hippest all black outfit I could cobble together and set out on my own. After fortifying myself with a cappuccino at the Trieste, I headed over to Keystone Korner.
The club was surprisingly small and very dark. Small round cocktail tables jammed the floor with barely enough room for the waitress to maneuver through with drinks. The crowd was older, lots of academic looking men in sport coats with elbow patches, woman is dark clothing wearing dramatic ethnic jewelry, and a big contingent of black men that I assumed were ardent fans and likely aspiring musicians. I briefly had a table to myself but the place was filling up fast. Soon I was approached by a tall, dark haired, older woman. She asked, in a deep accent, if she might join me. I was relieved and felt shielded, being a young woman alone in this nightclub, from any uncomfortable attention. I remember her name, Elizabeth Black. She was German, she told me, and a fan of jazz and especially of Miles Davis. To me, she seemed wildly sophisticated, being from Europe and all. Then she told me she had lived in San Francisco for years. Her American husband had no interest in jazz but she most certainly did and like me felt, that she was not* going to miss Miles Davis.
The club’s small room made for close proximity to the performers. Todd Barkan introduced Miles Davis and out he came. With him was a very young black man, boyish and slight and nearly naked m, with a tall standing drum. Miles was in meticulous hip attire as always, but the young drummer was barely dressed at all in a wrap around his waist and a headband, like someone in a National Geographic photograph. I don’t even remember the band, I was so mesmerized by the two performers practically right in front of me. The music was thrilling-loose, bending, swelling, going off in unexpected directions. Elizabeth and I gasped and applauded. We were awed, deeply affected, emotionally moved by this music, by this experience. I was so exhilarated, I wanted to do it all over again so I arranged to go to the next performance that following night.
It could not have been more different. My elegant friend from the night before was not there and Miles looked carelessly put together, almost sloppy. I don’t recall if the drummer was back with him, I was so fixated on the drastic change in Miles. I felt disappointment and pity. I was embarrassed for him as he wandered aimlessly about the small stage, sometimes stopping unpredictably. I kept trying to assume this was his idiosyncratic way of working but to me it just seemed sad.
That night I learned that genius was no more protected from the fragility of life than the rest of us, even though we fully expect it to be. The music on Sketches of Spain is very different from his sterling first night club performance, but it remains my favorite Miles Davis album. It’s the one I remember most from those days when my brother was educating me from his post at The Rat’s Nest. I’ve had some copy of that recording since those days, first in LP form, then CD and now in my iTunes. I wasn’t able to duplicate the thrill of our first night but I do not regret any of my time with Miles in that crowded North Beach night club, a long time ago now, because I got to see him soar.
I was there to witness it.
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