Return To The Mint Jam Session

The bald man didn’t recognize me. In fairness, I did not remember his name, just his head.
He’s the guy who was in charge of the door at this club a decade ago, and he is still here, still shiny.

Oh jazz world. I’m here for you. I’m out in my tight pants and you are being you, starting late. Not even an opening band to warm up the room for the jam session. In fact, it’s 8pm and I’d assumed there would be some earlier bands, but no, the club just opened. Nuthin’ goin’ on. I Lyfted here, and now I’m stuck on Pico Blvd.

So I call Lyft #2 of my night, and roll to a nearby Starbucks at Pico and Robertson, and now I’m sandwiched in a corporate-conglomerate, Ménage à Trois with Walgreens and Radio Shack.

There’s a paunchy dude doing a newspaper crossword.
A lady peeling cellophane off a Starbucks, assembly-line approved, bread product - the mound of starch is the textbook definition of “moist.”

I text my friend, Jeff Hoeppner:
“I’m trying to be #JazzLife and be at a jam session but I forgot jazz is always late. Now at Starbucks having normcore immersion crisis. Venting.”

“LOL. I can utterly sympathize. Where is the jam?”

“The Mint.”

FINALLY AT THE MINT

Lyft #3 drops me off back at the club. I’m here, it’s cool. As long as I get to sing a tune, I’m happy. Anything but “There Is No Greater Love,” because, Jesus Christ, if I sing that song again in my NEXT life, it will be too soon.

Now it’s 9:46, and I’ve sat down at a table next to Tom Meek, renown jazz-knower, reviewer, and walking historian of LA jazz. Tom has Galdalf-The-White shoulder-length hair, and nefarious plans for nitty-gritty conversation. He knows everything about everyone. He’s been coming to my shows since I was in college. He brings up the last time I played The Mint, probably in 2008, for my Telarc album release show.

Tom and I talk a little smack about people we mutually know, then Josh Nelson appears around the side of the stage. He was at my 2008 show…I think. I swear, hitting the jam session scene after a few years away, is like re-joining the dating circuit. Exes everywhere, but they’re all musical relationships, and you can forget who was where and when. Especially with the return of this particular session, which Kevin Kanner ran 10 years ago, before he temporarily relocated to the East Coast. It’s surreal to be back.

Josh spots me, makes the “Mind-blown OMG!” face, and comes over. Hug, he says I look “Like a peach.” So the hair is working tonight. Josh has never been hard on the eyes, himself.
Not flirting, just reporting.

Josh and I talked about being LA lifers. How he’ll be driving through town, and he’ll remember landmarks as he passes old shuttered clubs, and think, “Hey, I unloaded my gear there that one time...” And he’ll have a rush of memories. I tell him, so many evenings I drive through LA, and the visions compile until I enter a fugue state of recollection. Impression upon impression of extended harmonies, fitting and not fitting into my idea of myself.

Life is a text, overwritten. The ink is always on our heels.

Alright, it’s drink time. I weave through college-age dudes with instrument cases, and other faces with shades of familiarity. I find an elbow rest at the bar. I text Jeff, in my mind.

“Dear Jeff,
I don’t know where I am, it’s like a re-run of a night in my 20s that I never had. All the same people are here, but they’re all going gray. Except me. I’m a fuckin’ peach, ask Josh.”

I order a whisky sour, my old standby (from nights with Laura Picarello). $15 minimum? I give over my card. They are conspiring against my fragile maturity.

I’m back at the table with Tom, talking politics. Michael Flynn just resigned as national security adviser. We toast to whatever that means.

I shouldn’t drink too much before I sit in, or I might forget how to jazz.

“Dear Jeff,
It smells like herb in here. Not lemon thyme.”

THE MUSIC

Kevin Kanner counts off the band.
JAZZ STARTS.
(At 10:35, which is jazz for 9pm.)

I don’t know the name of the tune Kevin called - beebop, hard, burning.  According to Tom, Kevin is in the habit now of calling “New York tunes,” which are not standard session cannon for West coast players. These tunes are hectic, ripped, and vascular. There are many notes, and the saxophones (Danny Janklow, and Ralph Moore) are playing all of the notes.

Ok, Josh just struck a match on his tongue and lit the piano on fire. (This is a metaphor, for any readers who are concerned about either the piano or Josh’s face) I haven’t heard him play this ferociously in years. He’s been in his own exploratory projects, subtle, contemplative offerings….this is hard swing. I remember this guy.

The tune is galloping around the stage. Ralph caught it in his teeth, but the motherfucker is really feral. So Graham Dechter caught it with his pinky, but it’s getting flirtatious and spastic up the guitar neck. He’s wrestling it down now, and Kevin is cussing about it on the snare. Solo bounces to Nick Mancini, who narrates it to the masses, he’s good with direct address. Something about the vibraphone tone is hollow and fulfilling. Nick is almost impossible. My earholes are experiencing things my mouth hole cannot explain and my pen hole cannot express in ink. His solo comes to a point, Nick slams it on the 1 and spins, bodily, away from the crowd.
The audience has a small orgasm.

Now Danny Janklow has my heart in his bell. He has clearly played the saxophone before. His tone is just abrasive enough to scratch the “bad boy” itch.
Not flirting, just reporting.

I finish my drink.

“Dear Jeff,
This place got a B rating. Why? Did a bass player drop a bar, and fuck-up a restaurant grader’s mellow? Do the people who grade restaurants prefer electric bass? Fretless?”

A CHANGE OF PACE

Kevin gets on the mic, informs everyone “We’re going to change it up a bit, slow it down.”
Melissa Morgan gets up to sing “Love You Madly.” Kevin takes a sublime solo on this tune.
You see, he starts with some chatter, some rhythmic variations to let us all know he’s going somewhere, then…he plays time.

He just plays time. Brushes.

The club is holy for a moment.
He does some imitation of echo on the snare, something like a delay effect. It’s not an affect, it’s a meditation – intentional and internal. Kevin is no longer the 18-year-old I met when I was 18, callous, and hot to the touch. He has gravity now. He has time in his body. The entire club is wrapped in the sizzle and patter, unified in hush.

Melissa stayed on for another tune, Mood Indigo. The piece starts intimate, and rises to rollick. The jank, upright piano shakes with Josh’s impression upon conceptual impression, then sideways in blue. In the circa 15 years since I met Josh at a party at Nadir Jeevanjee’s house, he has found his gravity too. He’s always had the dexterity, but the weight of identity is under his fingers now, there is a “self” in his playing which is open-hearted, yet unapologetic.

Oh God, we were all children together, and here we are now.
Almost all of us.
The last time I was at The Mint I saw Zane Musa.
It was the last time I saw Zane.
I take a deep breath in, and breathe him out into the sound.

THE JAM PART OF THE JAM SESSION

“Dear Jeff,
I went into the bathroom to take bathroom selfies - because it is this time in human history - and there was a lady sitting on the sink looking at her phone. That was an hour ago, I’m going back to see if she is still there.”

“Dear Jeff,
She is.”

Bathroom selfie. Very serious.

Bathroom selfie. Very serious.

 

The band has come off stage, and I’m not sure how the jam session works itself out here anymore. I’m kind of depending on my “vested jazz-person-ness” to get me on stage. I find Kevin behind the bar. He says he’ll call me up, second tune. This is good because although I am a WORLD-BEATING-NIGHT-RAGING-FUCKING-SCENESTER, mommy needs her sleep.

Jam tune #1. Forgot the name.
Eric Reed on piano YES! So excited to play with him! Ok tune is over. Kevin talks into the mic,
“Ok I’d like to bring up to the stage, Raya Yarbrough!”
During the break, Nick and I talked about doing a tune, we settled on My Funny Valentine…now where’s Nick?...Eric?…wait…Kevin’s switching out the band. Hey, I don’t know any of these cats. These dudes look really young. They are really young. Kevin asks what I want to do.

“My Funny Valentine with…” Kevin makes a queasy face.
“Could you do something up-tempo? I got a lotta guys who need to blow. A ballad is…”
more queasy face.
“You want something… up?”
“Yeah.”
“ *sigh*. . .‘There Is No Greater Love?’”
“Yeah! That’s perfect. Hey man, thanks.”
“Sure.”

I turn to the band. College-age dudes. Probably good, but not my homies.
“There Is No Greater Love, in F.  Cool?”
Everyone nods. I turn to the bass player.
“You and me, first A-section, walking. Everyone in on second time through the head.”
Bass player’s got it. “Cool.”
“Give me your first note.”

He plucks the tonic. I count, I sing. The tempo and road map seem to be in play for a few bars, but everyone comes around. I want to focus on the audience, but with a new ensemble I’m in band-maintenance mode, like I have a rein on each instrument, and I have to make sure everyone is coming along. Playing behind a singer is a different skill than playing instrumental music, and I remember how long it took my contemporaries to nail it. These guys are at the beginning of that path.

Solos pass between instruments like complicated handshakes everyone’s still trying to remember. Not like the solos from the first set, those were passed like an ice-cube at Rocky Horror. I trade 4s with the drummer, everyone trades 4s with the drummer. Everybody got some? Everybody good? I feel like a beginning sex-instructor. Ok, head out. I signal the band to tag the ending a few times. I trade with the sax player, starting to have some fun. Me and sax dude copy each other, riff off each other, mimic colors, play over each other, scales, quotes, good sounds. Then it’s enough. I toss up my hand to cue end of the tune, and we all hit the finish line together. Not a bad run. Audience applauds. Nodding, waving. Hopping off stage.

Me, apparently saying "ooooooo."

Me, apparently saying "ooooooo."

 

RIFF AND RUN

Holy Crap it’s 12:30. It’s tomorrow.

Eric Reed was in the audience for the whole thing. I had SO wanted to sing something really cool with him. Wanted to slowly murder ‘Round Midnight. Wanted to lean into it and ring out all the dark notes. Nope, not tonight. Still, I walk over to Eric, catch up for a second. Let alone being a baddass musician, he’s just a fantastic human.

Sitting back down next to Tom to collect my things, the next band assembles on stage, another count-off starts. Goodbye to Tom, hug for Kevin and I book it to the door. Chat with Josh just inside the entrance, more “Holy shit! The years!” and we part.

Back out onto Pico blvd., into the cold tease of LA February.
Waiting alone, completing the circle of the evening.

Lyft #4 is here.

I leave tonight with a sentimental heart, but also a renewed heart, full of pride about the incredible musicians I came up with, and the new cats out there. I leave with a song in my head, liquor in my body, inspiration for the future, and minus one credit card.

Because I totally left it at the bar.

 

It’s still there.

 

 

Raya Yarbrough

Singer, Composer, writer of absurd stories about LA, chanteuse on Outlander, BSG, DaVinci's Demons, & I used to date Dick Grayson.