Friday, June 8, 2012

Jazz pilgrimage: One fan's journey

I lived in Southern California until graduating from college, at which point I relocated permanently to the northern half of the Golden State. On a random Saturday during the summer between my junior and senior years, I rather cheekily drove into the heart of Los Angeles, with the express purpose of finding Ray Bradbury's house, knocking on his door and ... honestly, I had no idea what might come next. His address, you might be surprised to learn, was listed in the greater Los Angeles phone directory.

I found the house — ironically, on a street just around the corner from a Bradbury Drive — parked in front, walked up the path and nervously rang the bell. His wife answered; I explained my desire to see The Great Man. She smiled far more graciously than I ever would have expected, invited me inside and explained that Ray was taking his afternoon nap, but would wake shortly. I waited on the couch in their living room, eyed with considerable suspicion by their four daughters, not one of whom said a word. When my clumsy efforts at idle conversation met with stony silence, I quit trying and attempted to disappear between the cushions.

Fortunately, the torture lasted only 10 minutes or so. Ray came clomping down the stairs, having been briefed about his unexpected guest. He thrust out his hand, greeted me warmly and escorted me down another flight of stairs, to his basement office. I won't even attempt to describe that Aladdin's den; mere words couldn't do it justice. He chatted with me for slightly more than an hour, then pulled two of his books from the voluminous shelves that surrounded us, autographed them, and sent me on my way.

But not before agreeing to a formal interview a few weeks later, at his downtown Los Angeles office. I was, at that time, a journalist on my college newspaper; it had been the weak excuse that granted me the courage to attempt this crazy excursion. The subsequent interview was dynamite, and I ran every carefully transcribed word — in four lengthy installments — in the college paper. 

And that, boys and girls, marked the start of whatever career I've enjoyed to this point.

I was reminded of that long-ago golden afternoon by Bradbury's death on June 6. It's a crushing blow; he was the first of my childhood icons, certainly the first celebrity I ever met and had the pleasure of interviewing. The compulsion that drove me to attempt that Saturday encounter is an impulse that will be recognized by all fans: We cherish our heroes, and hope for an opportunity to deliver some respectful, in-person admiration.

And when our idols are gone, we seek substitutes. I therefore understand the compulsion that drives acolytes to walk in long-ago footsteps. Music fans constantly take "rock star tours" in Los Angeles. Don Herron has been conducting excellent walking tours of author Dashiell Hammett's San Francisco haunts since 1977; Herron even produced a booklet that allows folks to conduct their own excursions.

Guaraldi's Northern California hangouts are harder to find; most of the long-ago jazz clubs that hosted his various combos are distant memories. In many cases, the buildings themselves are long gone.

I've corresponded with hundreds of people since beginning my book about Guaraldi; I continue to exchange notes and messages with many of them to this day. One fan decided, a few years ago, to seek out the final Menlo Park locales where Guaraldi died that fateful evening on February 6, 1976: Butterfield's, the club where his trio was performing; and the adjacent Red Cottage Inn, where Guaraldi relaxed between sets.

You can read all about this journey here. It's a thoughtful, heartfelt account, complete with numerous photographs ... including the one above, taken shortly after the building that once housed Butterfield's was razed. You'll even get a glimpse of Guaraldi's gravestone.

I've never visited the latter in person; I really should ... even though I'm certain it'll be a sobering experience.

One that will remind me anew of the loss, just as the shattering news of Bradbury's death reminded me of that Saturday afternoon spent in his wonder-filled basement, lo those many decades ago.


Anonymous said...

What a wonderful experience and reminiscence. It adds another facet to the memorials that I've seen online, which paint Bradbury as not only an insightful -- but also a remarkably kind and thoughtful -- man. So, enquiring minds want to know: Is the vintage, four-part interview available online anywhere? And if not, why not? :-)

Thanks also for the links to Stogie's pilgrimage, and the final photos of the former Butterfields.

Derrick Bang said...

Alas, that interview was published back in the Stone Age of traditional newsprint, in a college paper that hasn't yet made its older volumes available via an online archive. The good news is that I have a copy, carefully pasted into a scrapbook; the bad news is that nothing short of a re-type job will grant it additional exposure. And, as I said, it's a long-long-long piece ... and, therefore, not a task I'll be embracing any time soon. :-/

Anonymous said...

Understand completely, though inelegant scans of archaic cut-and-paste jobs have their own charms, too.