Saturday, March 21, 2009

Swinging with Billy Mitchell at The Culver Club

These are drawings my daughter did last night while we were listening to the first set at The Culver Club and visiting with our neighbors at the table.

I was pushing for her to get started on volume two of her vacation journal. Volume one had seemed to concentrate a bit too much on her fast food adventures. I was anxious for her to get to the beaches and the carnivals on the piers.

She said no, she would draw her favorite things to do when she is home in St. Louis. I liked that, a survivor's knack. You don't get to stay in L.A., so you set your mind to what you like about where you are going: back home.

I couldn't possible be any more pleased with the portrait of me in the second panel, a spitting image for Charles Chaplin in his Tramp character, which I adore as much as I adore anything. (Favorite film: City Lights.)

I almost pulled a stunt from a classic silent film comedy. The skirt on the tablecloth at our table was just the right length to get tucked under my hams when I sat down. Just before we were served food and drinks, it got tucked under me, and I gave the tablecloth a spirited yank that would have made a depressing mess five minutes later, when the table was piled with steak frites, a tall glass of ale, and flat bread pizza.

You can see Leyla Fern starting to get into the rhythm of the evening in the third panel, which departs from meditations on home to embrace the atomosphere of the evening in The Culver Club. It's a straight-ahead jazz venue in the lobby of our hotel, which takes its name from the town where it is located, Culver City in L.A. County, on the edge of the city.

Billy Mitchell was leading a pentet on piano and the occasional party vocal. On the trapset: an African-American elder like the leader himself, intent and natty in a beret. The percussionist looked cut from a similar cloth, though dressed in square office attire, looking more middle manager than bongo player.

The bassist and guitarist were younger Asian guys, evidently easy in their skins. The guitar player looked like a Polynesian hipster in a porkpie hat. The bassist had a broad, handsome, expressive face that looked Japanese.

When Billy introduced the bassist (as Nori Iji), Billy said he "just flew in from Tokyo." Nori Iji lifted his hands from his instrument to flap his arms, then bowed at the leader. Billy rose from the piano, touched his palms together, and bowed back.

These theatrical touches, and the satisfying swing of the music - colored by Yu Ooka's bright and pristine guitar tonality, swept along by Nori Iji's grasp of funk and groove - must have got to Leyla. She drew a piano, a guitar, a drumset, and a musician.

She also wrote on the panel. The pictures get bigger if you click it, so you can see for yourself Leyla's improvised spellings, but this (she told me) is what she was trying to say: "A band can be named Fireworks. For a band, you would need people and instruments."

Her imaginary band name was a response to events onstage. The bassist was having a hard time with his amplifier, which kept making sonic-mishap-from-hell sounds. One of these screeches, I was sure, was accompanied by a flash from the amp, which scared the daylights out of me - enough to call our waiter and suggest they stop the show before the curtain behind the bandstand went up in an electrical fire.

Before we got immolated - or trampled, in a large crowd of jazz lovers trying to exit a burning club - the band took their scheduled set break. Leyla and I excused ourselves from our lovely table neighbors and wormed our way between the cramped tables to meet the musicians.

The percussionst, Dr. Roland Holmes, was nowhere to be found, but we greeted everyone else, even a nettled Nori Iji, contending with the fried amp. The trapset drummer, Quentin Dennard, was the most animated. He jived and danced and cut up with Leyla, defying this tiny five-year-old to take her music seriously, to practice devotedly, to live it and breathe it.

The leader was more distracted, more called upon and fragmented, which is the fate of the bandleader. He still paused and connected with the child. "So, do you want to be a musician?" Billy Mitchell asked.

Leyla held up four fingers and said something that Billy, distracted in a crowded club of people who came to see him, didn't catch.

"So, you're four?" he said.

"No," Leyla said. "I am going to have four jobs when I grow up."

"You don't have time for that conversation," I said to Billy, who looked quietly grateful to be freed from the outgoing little girl so he could mingle with his people.

Leyla finished her story to the next woman who stopped her. Every African-American mother of a certain age in the entire club made an effort to to adore this child.

Leyla said, "I am going to be a movie star, a model, a singer, and a comedian," counting off the four jobs

The mother adored her. "Are you going to sing for us tonight?" she asked, petting Leyla's shoulder.

No, Mother, not last night. Maybe someday. Who knows?

Though, when we got back up into the hotel room, Leyla did insist that we start her a blog. So, we started her a blog.

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