I was chatting with a friend recently about jazz when I said that Charles Mingus is my favorite, and he nodded and said something like, "Ah yes, that west coast sound."
I'd never really thought of Mingus that way, as an artist that's somehow rooted in a particular place. I've always liked him because his music is a totally unique blend of a symmetrical 1950s avant garde jazz and thoroughly structured and catchy big band tunes. A Mingus number is usually an exercise in falling apart and coming back together again.
Well, to test the West Coast label, I decided to listen to my favorite mingus album, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, as I walked the mile or so from the hotel to the restaurant where I was to have an orientation meeting for the thing I'm in town to observe.
Most of the walk was along Hollywood Boulevard, from Highland to just past Vine, along the sidewalks full of stars, most whose names I couldn't recognize for the life of me. A lot of the stars were cracked. Close to Highland, right outside the wax museum I swear I visited on my first trip to LA, in 1977, when I was nine, the crowds were unnervingly dense and slow moving, in a tourist shuffle sort of way. The store fronts were dominated by souvenir shops, tattoo parlors and sexy costume boutiques, with an odd restaurant thrown in here and there. For several blocks I kept pace with an Asian man pushing a very old white man along in a wheel chair. And there was an art gallery, with really edgy contemporary Latino art, including a piece called Mambo, which was a row of snare drums that had chrome spinner rims instead of drums. The closed stores had murals of vintage stars on the metal garage doors they pull down to protect the glass windows. There was no order to the architecture. Some buildings appeared to come right out of Brooklyn, some were modernist, some old west OK Corall style, some Japanese, Chinese, Mexican, Spanish, even Eqyptian, all in a phony California way, all crowded in around this sidewalk full of stars. Every other block there was a filthy man sleeping on a filthy sleeping bag. People walking by wore polo shirts and khaki shorts with bootie bags, and low cut jeans bearing tattoos in the small of their backs, and big baggy hockey jerseys, and evening gowns, and suits and ties, and sandals, and sneakers, and high heeled pumps, and army boots, and T-shirts that say things in Spanish, and T-shirts that say things in English, and T-shirts with pictures of dogs and rock stars and sports stars and food and Hollywood itself. Trees grew out of the sidewalk, some palm trees, some tree trees. And hundreds and hundreds of cars drove by, small ones with dents in their bumper, gigantic SUVs sailing smooth as cruiseliners, rusty Hondas, hybrids. People paused here and there to take pictures. It was sunny, of course. I say the famous, round Capital Records building. Every block or so I caught glimpses of the Hollywood hills. Or, to the south, I saw busy streets stretching for miles, suggesting that the near chaos I was walking through extended, in varying ways, far, far beyond the horizon. And all the while Mingus's orchestra blared, and I knew what my friend meant about West Coast style.