Two Jeffs - A memory
Two Jeffs – A memory.
This is a story about two Jeffs – Black Jeff and White Jeff. I am the White Jeff in this story, and the Black Jeff is Jeff Walker, a young clarinetist I started my journey in jazz with in high school, and my best friend. The nicknames “Black Jeff” and “White Jeff” were given to us by the other kids in school, and while these nicknames were just dumb, I didn’t feel at the time that they were meant in any kind of derogatory way towards either one of us. These names were just a kind of recognition of the fact that for a time in 1979, the two of us were inseparably united not only by our names, but more importantly by our shared journey in jazz music. In fact, I think we kind of liked these ridiculous nicknames and we even solidified our “Two Jeffs” identity by purchasing matching “Jeffrey Jackets”, brown corduroy jackets with fuzzy collars (inappropriately warm for Los Angeles winters but they had an kind of east-coastness they we liked) that we purchased at a second hand store together.
Busing, and fast times at Ridgemont High.
This story begins at Palisades High School, in the town of Pacific Palisades, California. The Palisades was, and is a very affluent area of West Los Angeles although when my parents moved there in the 1950’s the Palisades was considered a family neighborhood that they were able to afford on my father’s middle-class salary, even with our family of 7 children. In the 1970’s in Los Angeles there was an active program of voluntary school busing, and our public schools were a mix of kids from the Palisades and those students bused in from other parts of LA including the largely black neighborhoods to the east and south like Inglewood and Compton. Roughly one-third of students at Palisades High were young people of color who endured bus rides to and from school of more than an hour each way or more in order to attend our school by the ocean. They did so willingly, or because their parents wanted them to. Jeff Walker had transferred from his previous high school to “Pali” High because he had met with some bullying and a generally rough environment at Hamilton High school closer to his home. The environment at Pali was casual and fun, in fact it’s the school you see pictured in the film “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and countless other fluffy movies from the 70’s and 80’s set in high schools.
Jeff Walker and I met in the band room , in the 7th period “Stage Band”. The instrumental music teacher at Pali was Joel Lish, and excellent violist and conductor whose passion was the community Mandolin Orchestra he led in the evenings. Mr. Lish had very limited interest in jazz, and pretty much gave over the Stage Band to us to run ourselves, along with a very worldly professional jazz trombonist who had an extended residency in the school through the federal CETA program. Jeff Walker came in as a much more advanced musician than I, already proficient on the clarinet with a good instrument, a nice crystal mouthpiece and well developed technique. I was a saxophonist who was less experienced on the instrument, although I had just started taking lessons with the legendary Marty Krystall whose partnership with bassist Buell Neidlinger led to some of the most memorable music made in Los Angeles during the 1970’s.
“I Don’t want to be just a Benny man…”
Jeff and I made fast friends. We quickly took our growing passion for jazz outside of the bandroom, and we would frequently hang out in my family’s living room after school, listening and playing along with recordings. Jeff’s language on the clarinet was grounded in the swing tradition, though his soloing featured a highly arpeggiated style that harked back to earlier jazz clarinet traditions. He loved Benny Goodman, and while his father wasn’t present in his life, his dad was a trumpet player who had played in Benny Goodman’s trumpet section. Despite this, Jeff always said he “didn’t want to be just a Benny man” and he adored the bebop stylings of Buddy DeFranco who he got to hang out with sometimes in LA, as well as the LA clarinetist Abe Most – Abe and Buddy dug Jeff too, a lot. I was more immersed in the music of Charlie Parker, playing along for hour after hour with the two LP set of “Bird on Dial”, given to me by legendary LA radio broadcaster Chuck Niles when I randomly walked into the studios of KBCA in Westwood while he was on the air. Bird’s melodies and solos wafted in my mind’s ear all day long, and I would attempt to replicate some of them on the Buescher alto sax I had gotten from my cousin Buster. Together, we were on a journey in jazz – two young men getting to know themselves and getting to know each other through the music, and life was really exciting.
Swing n’ Dix
While I was only connected to the music through the recordings and my lessons, Jeff Walker was already out there on the scene in LA – At 16 years old, he had a car and played in a real band as well. The band was a collection of musicians ranging in ages from their teens to some in their late 20’s and was called “The Dixie Kings”. At least, that’s one of the names – they also gigged with the name “Bourbon Street Combo” at times and played a repertoire of both New Orleans music and some Swing repertoire – for that reason we had our own name for the band which we kept to ourselves, “The Swing n’ Dix” ( a name I have since reused for my own group with Kirk Knuffke, Bob Stewart and Matt Wilson ). The repertoire for the band was organized in binders, and included trad tunes like “The Sheik of Araby” along with Benny Goodman chestnuts like “Rosetta”, “Avalon”, and “Soft Winds”. On the more progressive side there was the Gene Krupa feature “Drum Boogie” which our drummer played note for note. The band book had hand-written melodies, and occasionally some chords but not always. I still have my book and think that learning to play jazz from the melodies, not the chords of the tunes is a very valuable experience still.
The “Dix” was a seven piece group (eight after I joined) with clarinet, trombone, piano , banjo, electric bass and drums. Jeff Walker played the clarinet, another Jeff (Jeff Enloe) played the trombone and was somewhat older – as a student at Cal State Northridge’s esteemed jazz program he was already subbing with the Louis Bellson Big Band locally. He played a classic LA bebop trombone style, modeled after Frank Rosolino, Bill Watrous and Carl Fontana and he wore slick polyester leisure wear. When I first met him the first thing he said to me questioned my status as a virgin in a very raw way – a sensitive subject for a high school senior. In fact, Jeff Walker and I already had a bit of an obsession with the idea that we wouldn’t authentically be able to play jazz until we had lost ours. It became quite competitive between us, ultimately Jeffrey Walker won that contest. The banjo player was Jimmy who lived in Hollywood, and whose mother worked for Variety magazine as a publicist and managed the band’s gigs and promotions. The pianist was Randy, an older musician from Orange County who wrote out the lead sheets/small arrangements and the drummer was also from Orange County, a talented Gene Krupa acolyte who played a vintage Slingerland kit. It was a curious collection of musicians to be sure, but it worked and so did the band, playing primarily at the Dixieland “Conventions” throughout the state where the older white crowd, festooned in box ties and ruffles loved this band of young musicians that played trad jazz very well. They especially loved the clarinetist Jeff Walker for his arpeggiated fluency, animated style and because he was a young African American kid playing “Dixieland”, very rare at the time – in fact, non-existent.
Lost Angeles – A divided city
It’s important to frame this weird scene of the “Dixie Kings” in the social context of the late 1970’s in LA, a city that was incredibly divided racially and had endured a long history of racial oppression and conflict that culminated in 1965 in the Watts Riots, later in the 80’s with the Rodney King incident. It’s also important to remember that Los Angeles is a city with it’s own long and storied jazz history, quite apart from the New York hub. It’s where Bird played, and was institutionalized, it’s where the Central Avenue scene fostered a whole scene of West Coast beboppers, it’s where Eric Dolphy and Charles Mingus came of age, it’s where Ornette Coleman’s music first coalesced in his legendary gigs at the Hillside, and it’s where Horace Tapscott formed a seminal black arts collective in Watts. Given all of that, it is at it’s core a racially divided city, one of the most segregated in the country where the lack of an effective public transportation system keeps much of the economic activity and cultural activity confined to the neighborhood and not centralized as it was on New York’s 52nd street scene. The city was divided between the haves and the have-nots and the thing they had, or had not, was a car. The bulk of professional musical activity in Los Angeles centered around the lucrative studio scene where an exclusive group of musicians earned good money making multiple recording sessions per day. This studio scene primarily benefited white musicians, with the rare exception like saxophonists Plas Johnson or Buddy Collette who were able to break in.
It is in this divided scene that the spectacle of Jeffrey Walker playing swing and trad jazz clarinet really takes on a kind of fetishism as an older white swing and trad audience was enthralled with a young African American playing the music. Also remember that in 1979 Wynton Marsalis was just coming on the scene in New York, epitomizing a movement that would come to be called the “Young Lions” – young black musicians holding up the core values of hardbop jazz, and playing the hell out of their horns. Unfortunately, as the Young Lions movement evolved, it took on it’s own neo-conservatism as a kind of backlash to the creative black improvised music of the 1960’s as well as the fusion experiments of the 1970’s. And in the middle of all that are two Jeffs, enthralled with jazz and trying to figure out what had happened in the music in the 1940’s, playing gigs performing the music of the 1920’s and 1930’s, and completely unconcerned about any future directions the music, or their personal futures, may go in. While Wynton and his crew were dressed in neatly tailored 3 piece suits, Jeff and I would don our ruffled shirts, bow ties and suspenders and lived in our own bizarre cultural bubble.
In addition to the gigs, we found other opportunities to hear, and play jazz music. Due to the de-centralized nature of the Los Angeles jazz scene (after the decline of the Central Avenue bebop scene of the 50’s) it wasn’t easy to find jazz activity in the city. There were the slick clubs in the Valley where studio musicians like Pete Cristlieb and the Condoli brothers would play in the evenings after taping the “Tonight Show”, but we kind of knew that scene wasn’t for us – the clubs were expensive and often didn’t admit minors. There was a scene at a club called “Le Omelette” in Pasadena where Los Angeles’ own young lions would gather on Tuesday nights for a jam session including the incredibly talented young bassist Scott Colley, guitarist Larry Koonse, saxophonist Chuck Manning and the drummer Gerry Gibbs, son of vibes legend Terry Gibbs and another close friend to both me and Jeffrey Walker. Gerry and I have our own separate history together – we were more inclined towards the avante-garde and would occasionally put war paint on our faces like the Art Ensemble of Chicago, load up a van full of percussion, and head to Westwood where we played free music on the street until the LA cops would make us leave-usually about half an hour. Gerry says Miles Davis walked by and checked us out one day and dug the scene, I don’t remember that, but I’m sure it happened.
The Other Eddie Davis
Tuesday nights were the special ones. On Tuesday nights Jeff and I would drive down to Anaheim and like most drives in LA, it was a long drive. In Anaheim, there was a jazz club, the name of which escapes me, or I never knew it. It was a black club, that is to say that most of the patrons and musicians were black. This is surprising because despite the legacy of black jazz clubs in LA from the Central Avenue scene, there were very few left in the 1970’s, the last remaining ones on the west side were the Parisian Room and Marla’s Memory Lane owned and operated by the actress who played the maid on the TV show “The Jeffersons”. The club in Anaheim was a little lower tier establishment than those, it was dark and wood paneled and had a generally cozy, but slightly seedy vibe – a place you might take your girlfriend, if you were married.
The house band was run by the saxophonist Eddie Davis. No, not THAT Eddie Davis, another one. While I have found out that the well known tenor player Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis lived in LA at that time, this was another man who was an excellent tenor player who molded himself in the same blues and bebop-drenched language on the horn. One of his signature numbers was “Broadway”, that had been a hit for Lockjaw. On the bandstand with him was a vocalist named Selena, whose interpretations of standards bring to mind a Billie Holiday kind of feeling in my memory, heartfelt and remorseful. Unfortunately, even as kids we somehow knew that Selena was a heroin user as well. The band played a repertoire of standards, blues and a couple of bebop tunes, and was pretty swinging as I remember. We were often in the company of Jeffrey’s mother, Joan Walker who was a wonderfully warm woman and incredibly supportive of her son’s pursuits in the music. The club was 21 and over, and Joan would always greet the doorman with a big smile, exclaiming “I am here with my two sons!” and we would be admitted without hesitation, smiles and laughter all around. Everyone knew the two Jeffs were there on a mission, and we wouldn’t be denied. It was community – No, it was more than community, it was family.
The other Eddie Davis and his crew were always happy to see Black Jeff and White Jeff show up on the scene, and after making us wait for an appropriate amount of time, they would call us up on the stand to play. There was no “calling” of tunes, they would just start playing one, and we would join in if we could. The audience was really supportive – the room was warm, smelled of scotch and cigarettes, and love of the music. The other Eddie Davis has a great flair with stage announcements, and in fact would tell “blue” jokes on the microphone in between songs – he insisted that we stay on stage with him when he told the dirty jokes with our fingers in our ears as part of the routine. We didn’t mind, as long as we could play another tune. I remember that the guitarist in the band found it funny that Jeff Walker was playing in the model of Benny Goodman, a white musician while I was modeling my style after Charlie Parker, a black musician. Aside from that, and Joan Walker’s sly assertion that the two Jeffs were both her sons to gain admittance, no one ever made any reference to race in relationship to the music – it wasn’t a part of our thoughts at that time in any way. And yet, it was a funny part of the narrative in ways that we didn’t think about.
He even brought the Bubble Machine
One of the most memorable gigs the Dixie Kings had was a dinner/dance at the Marriot in Venice Beach, CA, a fundraiser for the local Boys Club of Venice of which my father was active on the Board. Pop loved being a part of this organization that served young people who had less opportunities than our own family and others on the West side of LA. He would dress up as Santa Claus and walk up and down Lincoln Blvd each year for the annual Xmas tree sale. And in the year 1979, Pop was Chair of the Annual Dinner/Dance fundraiser, and he knew a good Dixieland band to play the gig. My mother took me to JC Penny’s in Santa Monica and we bought my first new suit for the occasion, black with pinstripes. Here’s the kicker – my dad reached out to a celebrity to be the Honoree that year who was well known from television but had made his real wealth from savy real estate investments in Santa Monica, Lawrence Welk. Mr. Welk proved to be and excellent guest of honor, no doubt contributing to the event and he attending that evening bringing both his accordion, and the bubble machine.
We knew Lawrence Welk well from TV, and knew that beyond being corny musically, he had a substantial band and probably knew something about music. It was arranged for Mr. Welk to play one number with the band, but nothing had been determined in advance. At the midpoint of the evening, he was announced and approached the stage with his accordion. I’m not sure if we called the tune or if he did, but we agreed upon “Honeysuckle Rose” and launched into the song. Mr. Welk brought a real sparkle to the music, and while his playing didn’t feel like “jazz” to us, it definitely lifted the bandstand up with it’s effervescence. We all played on the tune, and I took a chorus on my alto – at the end of the song Mr. Welk got on the microphone and complimented the band, saying specifically about me that “this young man, reminds me of Johnny Hodges!”. I was floored by the comment – firstly that Lawrence Welk knew who Johnny Hodges was (I only knew who he was because my saxophone teacher Marty Krystall made sure I knew about “Rabbit”), and secondly that he enjoyed my playing. It was many, many years later that I learned about the recording of the Lawrence Welk Orchestra featuring Johnny Hodges, an album that has since become one of my favorites. Of course, Mr. Welk loved Jeffrey Walker’s clarinet, and I was surprised he didn’t invite him to come on the broadcast to play along side his own formidable clarinet soloist Henry Cuesta.
New tires at JC Penny Auto Center
This is a difficult part of the story for me to tell, but it’s important. Again, racial identity or class difference just wasn’t a part of me and Jeffrey’s story – it was a story of true friendship and the excitement we had in our musical journey together. And yet, our families were different, and had different pressures. Jeffrey was a regular presence in our house as we practiced together most afternoons after school. After months of this, my parents made me aware of the fact that my Mom’s credit card had gone missing out of her purse – this wasn’t so remarkable in itself, and they didn’t mention anything about it to the family until a fraudulent charge came in from the JC Penny Auto Center for 4 new tires, with the last name Walker on the billing. This all seems so weird and surreal to me now, and I feel uncomfortable even talking about it to this very day. My parents directly asked Jeffrey about it the next time he was at our house, and after some time he admitted that his brother had encouraged him to take the credit card because he needed new tires on his car and couldn’t afford them. We were all crushed, and I think Jeffrey was too – he explained how pressured he felt by his older brother and was really upset about the whole affair. I was in a state of disbelief for quite a while and couldn’t figure out what felt like a massive violation of trust and friendship. My parents were of course upset as well. And yet, oddly somehow the whole event seemed to kind of fade away in an unspoken way over a period of weeks, and before you knew it Jeff and I were headed to Anaheim to the Tuesday jam sessions, and working out the intro to “Dewey Square” in our living room.
Having become a well known part of the Southern California trad scene and developed their sound, the “Dixie Kings” were ready for the big time – and the big time in the trad band scene at that time meant auditioning for the most coveted gig of all – Disneyland. Disneyland had a cool music policy that kept a strolling Dixieland band on the permanent staff, along with the rotating big bands in “Carnation Plaza” that included all of the greats from Glenn Miller to Artie Shaw orchestras, mostly “ghost” bands by the 1970’s. The Dixie gig was very prized, it paid grownup money and was full-time, a real job as a musician. Nearing the end of our senior year the word came out to the band through our manager Beverly (the banjo player’s mom) – we had an audition with Disney.
The band prepared hard, and came in blazing at the auditions in a studio near the park. We played our Dixie standards, and then ended with the big “Drum Boogie” closer. We were received warmly and were told that we would hear something in a couple of weeks. Our anticipation was high - this was the big time. After some time the word came through our manager – they loved the band, but couldn’t currently use us at Disneyland. But they offered us the job, at Disneyworld in Florida. This was during the spring of our senior year in high school, and I had applied to a few colleges, and gotten an acceptance at Oberlin College in Ohio which I knew nothing about except that they have both a college and a conservatory of music and another friend from high school was planning on attending. For the others in the band, the offer was a no-brainer. But I was torn between going directly into the life of a professional musician, and going to college as I had always expected I would do. Finally, while considering my choice the universe made it for me – Disney sent word that they normally didn’t have a saxophone in the Dixieland band, and if I was to be a part of the group I would be mostly playing the washboard during the marching parts of the job. Choice made, I was heading to Oberlin.
Until now, this story of two Jeffs has not been a story of race in any way, at least that’s not something that was in our minds at the time. And yet, it’s clear that race is a theme that underlies each aspect of the story in ways big and small. From the beginning, it’s a story of my interest, and then obsession with the African American art form of jazz. Why did the music resonate with me so much? To this day I wish I could answer this question but there isn’t a clear reason why my friends were all cranking surf rock, new wave and punk music in their cars and I couldn’t get the melodies and rhythms of Charlie Parker out of my mind’s ear every waking moment. I remember specifically one lick Bird plays on “KC Blues” that seemed to be a total revelation to me – after hearing it, the whole universe just kind of made sense. I was listening to more than Bird on Dial, there was also the sound of Wayne Shorter on the Weather Report album “Mysterious Traveler”, at once ancient and cutting edge as he created melodies that floated on air – in time, but not defined by it. These sounds meant everything to me, and while I was practicing my skills on the saxophone, I will admit that I would also practice in front of the mirror and imagine myself on the bandstand with some of the legends I knew from recordings and try to figure out what my place in the music might be someday. I knew this was black music, created by black musicians. But this was music not defined just by it’s blackness but reaching to a universalism that seemed to coordinate with the precise orbits of the planets around the sun, it was that important. It was black music, but it also felt like MY music in the way it reached me. I went to Oberlin in the fall of 1979 wearing a “Bird Lives” t-shirt my Mom made for me. There I met Wendell Logan, an academic composer who also ran the Jazz program at the school. Wendell was always at odds with the rest of the Conservatory faculty, and my first year there he moved the jazz program to the basement of the gym and things really started to get interesting. Wendell had a profound impact on my music in many ways, and he sent me down to the library to listen to the Albert Ayler recording “Love Cry” my freshman year. Later, he brought Albert’s brother Donald out to campus for a talk. Between that, and my studies as a Comparative Religion major, I had a pathway forward.
Jeffrey Walker felt the same passion as I did for the music, and he was better than me at it. He had a fluidity on the clarinet and a harmonic knowledge that made his arpeggiated runs through the chord changes seem easy. He had a style based on Benny, but reaching for Buddy (DeFranco) – oddly, there weren’t any Black clarinetists to act as role models for him at the time. Jeff wasn’t a “trad” guy, and the wealth of New Orleans clarinetist from Barney Bigard to Buster Bailey and Johnny Dodds was not really part of his world. His father was a professional musician who he barely knew, his mother was a passionate jazz listener, and jazz socialite. Jeff created his own world as much as I did, it wasn’t handed to him as a young black musician. He did his homework, he practiced hard, and he had an abiding curiosity to always learn more and get better.
‘I’m going to Disneyworld”
As I was discovering Wittgenstein and Ayler at Oberlin, the Dixie Kings were settling into Orlando, Florida as the steady trad band at Disneyworld. Disney is a very structured work environment and while the steadiness of the gig was great, there was a lot that came along with it. Employees (including performers or “cast members”) had hair styles that were specifically prescribed, all costumes were provided and had to be worn at all times in the park, and every aspect of life was scripted to in detail whether the cast members were working or at home in the Disney-supplied housing. Needless to say every aspect of the musical performance was also scripted, but at first I think the Dixie Kings fit right in and enjoyed the thrill of having a steady, grownup job.
But as time wore on, the regimented life that seems so at odds with our ideas of how jazz works started to wear them down. In reaction to this hyper-structure and the daily interactions with both guests and staff at Disney, many of the members, including Jeffrey Walker, turned to various ways to cope with the routine, some of them unhealthy. This is a very common scenario, and if my brief experiences in that kind of structured gig ( on a cruise ship) are any indication, it is all too easy to fall into patterns of drinking and drugging to maintain an emotional balance, or the appearance of one. Jeffrey had never been a drinker in high school at all, but things change – it was around this time that I really lost touch with Jeff Walker on a steady basis – our paths had diverged.
After about a two year run at Disney, the band kind of splintered apart, and at some point Jeff left the gig. At this point, it’s not clear to me if he went back to LA for some time, but shortly after that he found his way to New Orleans, which of course would be a good place for a talented young black clarinetist to be. I have no idea what really happened there, but I have heard that his patterns of drinking and drugging that had begun at Disney increased, and the gigging he was doing there was mostly unfulfilling commercial “Dixieland” gigs that probably felt a lot like the way he was paraded around the Dixieland Conventions in California.
I do know that while I was at Oberlin, he did come and visit my parents at our house in Pacific Palisades a number of times. The strange thing about that was that each time he was dressed in a different professional attire, and had a new job – He showed up in an ambulance once wearing his paramedic outfit, another time wearing all white and driving an ice-cream truck. According to our mutual friend Gerry Gibbs, Jeff had a firearm and claimed to be working as an undercover narcotics officer at that time. It’s all very mysterious and I’m not sure we will ever really know what he was doing, but it’s clear he had gotten off of that focused and brilliant track he had been on in high school as a jazz clarinetist.
Around 1985 I got word through Gerry Gibbs that Jeff Walker had passed of complications from the AIDS virus. – I had not been in touch with Jeff for a long time- I wasn’t in Los Angeles, and I’m not clear if there was a memorial service for him or not. I did reach out to his mother Joan Walker on an old phone number and we got to speak briefly about Jeff and I sent her some flowers. Now, occasionally I speak with Gerry about him and his life, but he’s the only one I know who also knew Jeff. He was in some ways an unknowable person who left as mysteriously as he came.
Young Black Clarinetists
I have been very fortunate to have made a life in the music, and to have had a long and ongoing career playing and teaching jazz. I have had a number of talented young students, and when I have been able to teach a young African American clarinetist, I have to admit that I am always somehow feel an extra sense of responsibility in encouraging for them to stick with the clarinet rather than turning primarily towards the saxophone. The clarinet has such an amazing lineage with African-American players who have pushed the instrument to be more than it’s creators ever imagined it could be. Yet there is a overriding feeling that it is an instrument of jazz history, not the present. The clarinet was re-invented in New Orleans by masters such as Johnny Dodds, Buster Bailey, Edmund Hall and Sidney Bechet into an instrument of tremendously flexibility, able to express an endless variety of nuanced timbres and phrases that connected this European instrument of the military and orchestral tradition to an African-diaspora sense of sound.
The clarinet, while essential in the New Orleans tradition, came into it’s own as the music travelled to Chicago where young white players heard that sound and took it into the next generation– players like Benny Goodman who became truly the first music celebrity of the radio era playing black music by black arrangers with his own virtuosic sound on the instrument that blended the New Orleans and Kansas City traditions with his own Eastern European sensibilities. Goodman’s radio broadcasts from the Palomar Ballroom in 1937 created the first modern media musical superstar, and more clarinetists including the sublime and mysterious Artie Shaw followed. But Black musicians saw their clarinet innovations parlayed into commercial success by others and had already started to move on to the next major innovation in the bebop sound. The clarinet had faded from prominence as a primary instrument of black expression, giving way to the saxophone in the hands of Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Don Byas and Lester Young among many others. The clarinet had morphed into, for lack of a more refined description, a “white” instrument. Of course that’s far too broad of a point, as significant black clarinetists continued to play and record and we see a resurgence of the clarinet as an instrument of primary importance with the Chicago “free jazz” players of the 1960’s such as Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell and others. In Los Angeles, the clarinetist John Carter picked up this movement and fully developed his very personal contemporary language for the instrument. I myself was fortunate to have studied with Mr. Carter for one summer at a storefront music school formed by Carter, Bobby Bradford, Red Callendar and James Newton called the “College of Winds”, but that’s another story. To my knowledge, Jeffrey Walker never met John Carter in Los Angeles, but if they had I can’t help but feel that this story might have had a completely different ending.
Jeffrey as a clarinetist both thrived in, and was contained by strong cultural stereotypes around “Dixieland Jazz”. As a young black clarinetist, for older white fans of the music he represented a savior of the music - a reaffirmation that there was life and relevance in this musical form. But at the same time, he represented an artist that had been contained in the box of antiquated cultural expectations. Expectations that he wear the bow tie, ruffled shirt and suspenders, expectations that he play in the arpeggiated style he so badly wanted to break free from and explore linear bebop lines, and expectations that he confirm that status of the music, while Black in its roots, was ultimately controlled by whites in its presentation.
For me, music always has a level of individual expression, but also has a level of cultural expression. What are the values of “Dixieland” music that are expressed on the cultural/social/political level? You don’t have to look any farther than the name of the music to see who is in control of the power structures which is why no one I know, especially New Orleans musicians like Wynton Marsalis, would ever refer to the music by that name instead using the term “New Orleans music”, or “trad jazz”. When Jeff was swinging away at the Dixieland conventions in Riverside or Sacramento to the audience of older white males he was a caged tiger, truly loved and admired for his energy and power but only when it was clothed in the proper attire. As a young white saxophonist enamored with the music of Charlie Parker I never experienced this kind of level of expectation – no one really cared that much what I was doing and there were starting to be the little structures of jazz education such as Jamey Abersold play-a-long records that would assist me and validate my interests.
In the end, Jeffrey Walker never did break free of that cage of expectation; despite his moderate level of success he wasn’t able to further his bebop expressions on the instrument. He never recorded to my knowledge. He never was mentioned in a Downbeat poll on clarinet, which I now regularly am and each time it irks me a little because the name Jeff Walker should be up there, not Jeff Lederer. But it is White Jeff, not Black Jeff who survived this journey, and I am left with survivor’s guilt.
The work I do in my teaching, whether for privileged suburban jazz kids, or with the Visionary Youth Orchestra students who sometimes have less given to them, is informed by a sense of responsibility that these students should have the opportunity to be able to find the fullest expression of themselves, in music and beyond. This was an opportunity that was not given to Jeff Walker.
I don’t have any conclusions, or moral imperative that emerge from this story. I only wanted to tell my story of how jazz came to me and my friend and how that played out, informed not only by our passions and dreams, but by our worlds that were both defined for us, and we defined for ourselves as best as we could. In the end, when I think of Jeff and I practicing together I see bubbles in the air, as real as the ones that came out of Lawrence Welk’s bubble machine that night in Venice in 1979.