Thursday, December 2, 2010

Dave Brubeck-New Documentary and Joe Bananas-Old Hipster

The Sweetest of Hipsters
It would seem the above should not mix. One has leaped the boundaries of time and imagination and gives me music that makes me smile and tap my foot. The other is a guy who entered my life armed with misery, self loathing and a love of things addictive

Joe Bananas isn't actually his real name. "Joe" is.......but his last name only rhymes with that long yellow fruit.

I met him while serving Uncle Sam in Ft. Bliss near El Paso Texas on or about the summer of 1962. The '60s have become the decade where odd plants began to grow in my life. To coin a phrase, it was a seminal time in which I lived..

I'm not sure how Joe and I got together.  Maybe it was when I was doing a noon dj gig at the base radio station; playing some old jazz discs. Pops, Bix a little Benny and some Gramercy Five.  I think they were "V Disc" 78's from back in the forties. Talk about a seminal decade.

So we hooked up over bottles of codeine (Robitussin AC - "The Champagne of Bottled Cough Syrup"....we really called it that!) and funny little cigarettes.

He introduced me to all that stuff and I, of course, tipped my hat to all that stuff and said "Well. How do you do!"

But with Bananas came another thing. His love of jazz.

Especially be-bop. Not "swing". BEE-BOP.

Joe was appalled at my choice of music. He would call me "Jit", short for jitterbug, and laugh (the kind of laugh that involved just rocking back on his heels with a slightly open mouth, but not making a sound.) 

Joe Bananas knew all the players....Gene Ammonds, ("Jug" he called him.) the great tenor saxophonist and one of the founders of the Chicago School of jazz sax along with Von Freeman, Sonny Stitt and Dexter Gordon.  Joe introduced me to the sound of Charlie Parker. He would tilt his head slightly and adjust his shades (he always wore sunglasses) and say in that cool quiet voice he had....."Jit!  Dig it, man. "Bird" lives".  And then that silent laugh.

He said that a short time after Bird passed, his friends played a benefit concert someplace in NYC and just as the curtain opened and before the first note, a large, white feather floated down from the ceiling above the seats and the cry arose. "Bird lives!"

Well.....who knows? 

I came to know Lester Young ("Prez"), "Miles" and "Diz".  They all  seemed like personal friends of  Joes, although it was never verified.

Joe came from Hartford and told me story's of sex and scandal involving himself and family members and nights on the fire-escape. And drugs. He also possessed the ability to grow a five-o'clock shadow less then 20 seconds after he shaved. He always looked bristly and unkempt.  He treated life like a cruel joke played by the Almighty with gloom proceeding his foot steps and pent up anger bubbling quietly below the surface.

Joe Bananas as Remembered by Yours Truly
He had a gimmick in which we would eat at a restaurant and, after being presented with a bill, he would slap the offensive piece of paper and declare in a loud stage whisper.

"That's outrageous. I won't pay!"  But, of course, he always did. And he always left a big tip. I have adopted this mock exhibition of deep insult and, to this day, I mutter the same words after being presented with the bill for remuneration at any and all places that deal with food or drink.

Ask my wife or kids.

A few years later, I, and Brian M. (one of perhaps the 2 or 3 people I have ever known in my life who I would consider a true friend.) bought a 1953 Studebaker Lark with a V8 mill that had so much torque that when you revved the motor, the front end of the car would twist violently and we drove it almost half way across the country. That's another story, but our first stop was in Hartford. I blindly looked for Joe's number out of a 100 year old phone book in a dingy booth and actually found him. He took us both home to his parents house, where he still lived and treated Bri and I like kings. We even went out that night to a local jazz club.

Years before, in Fort Bliss, Bananas and I would get weekend passes and always checked into a room at the McCoy Hotel in El Paso.  We hung around with another guy; a short squat Jewish gnome from New York city with the name of Al Cohen and the three of us would wander across the "Bridge of the Americas" into Ciudad Juarez, once known as El Paso del Norte; there to indulge our young mens pleasures and passions; checking out jazz clubs and hang-outs where musicians played.

A Must for Your Jazz Library
Juarez was not as it is now, with a murder every day. Back then it was a warm, lovely town of "mariachis" and silver belt buckles with turquoise inlay; dark eyed women and the thrum of "guitarones" where all things were available, or at least, there were people would make you believe it so.

It was from a jazz club record machine in a cavernous, cool dark dance hall called the "El Presidente" where I first heard the Brubeck quartet with the famous single "Take Five"  with Dave, Joe Morello (drummer), Paul Desmond (alto sax and composer of the song) and Eugene Wright (double bass).  It was in 5/4 time and after I dropped a few more dimes in the juke-box, (yes it was a dime back then)  I also heard "Blue Rondo A-La Turk" in 9/8 time, which really twisted my head and "Pick Up Sticks" in which Morello famously drops his drum sticks at the end of the cut.

Joe Bananas barely moved his head; and yet, with tiny snaps of his bearded chin, he kept perfect time. Cohen grinned from ear to ear in that knowing way. Al had spent several years in a kibbutz right outside Tel Aviv. Armed with sub-machine guns, he and other kibbutznik's would work in the fields
. He had left Israel before he could serve time in the IDS. When he got back to New York, he was drafted.

God has his little jokes.

I'm telling you all this because Dave Brubecks birthday is coming up. He will be 90. Yes, he is still among us. And still playing. He just finished up a gig in Worcester, Mass. on November 19th.  His birthday is December 6th, a day before me. I always felt a kinship with him, in that sense.

It also just so happens that the Turner Classic Movie Channel is presenting a new documentary, Dave Brubeck: In His Own Sweet Way this Sunday, December 5th. The executive producer is Clint Eastwood (a composer and good pianist in his own right) and it's directed by Bruce Ricker, who has previously collaborated with Clint on tributes to Johnny Mercer and Tony Bennett. The footage sculpts a loving image of the man and is a fitting tribute to a legend who wears his fame, and his ageless talent, lightly.

I don't know if Joe Bananas is still around. But, if so, he is probably smiling from under is shades and nodding....ever so slightly.

© 2010 George Locke

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