Monday, June 24, 2013

The Jazz Baroness of Strawberry Drive

Last week, Los Angeles jazz lost one of its most ardent and influential patrons, journalist/historian Mimi Clar Melnick. What follows is a profile The Beast wrote on this amazing woman for a 2007 issue of Los Angeles magazine.

[photo courtesy of Teresa Jenkins]

On a crisp, sun-dappled Sunday afternoon in the Encino hills, a long line of automobiles crowds the curb in front of a grey California contemporary home. People stream up the steep incline: women with kelplike dreads, African-print dresses and tinkling jewelry; men with snow-white beards in dashikis carrying large conga drums; academic types with soul patches and leather jackets; young mothers ushering distracted children. All make their way towards the open front doors, through which one can hear the low sounds of an acoustic bass being tuned, rimshots, sax and bass clarinet runs, laughing, the slap of backs.

The house is built atop a sconce of desert cacti and gazania. The front doorknobs are swirling nautilus shells of molded metal; the welcome mat is in the shape of a city manhole cover. There are more manhole covers inside, framed black-and-white photographs shot with a wide-angle lens hanging around the white-brick interior. In the family room, about 30 metal folding chairs are set up in tight rows, with more along the wall and in the breakfast nook beyond.

It is already standing room only: many sandaled feet shuffle about on the white carpet. The instruments sit in a corner of the room dominated by a pristine brown 1922 Steinway grand piano, holding court before top-to-bottom sliding glass patio doors that unveil the West Valley as a gorgeous Technicolor fresco. But it’s the opposite wall that draws the eye: autographed jazz visages of Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Bud Powell, Dave Brubeck, Ornette Coleman, Buddy Collette, Ahmad Jamal, Percy Heath, Milt Jackson, Hank Jones, Teddy Edwards and Shelly Manne. Many of the inscriptions are dedicated to the tiny lady with the bell-shaped silver bouffant who sits under the skylight by the front door greeting comers with her blue moneybox: ‘To Mimi, Thank you for your kindness and genuine concern for jazz’; ‘Dear Mimi, Great creative energy in your space!’; ‘To MM (Double Em!): You have brought so much pleasure to the music world’. 

Three or four times a year, Mimi Clar Melnick opens her impeccable home for the Double M Jazz Salon, an invite-only concert series she has been running by herself and at her own expense. The first salon was on February 4, 1996 and posed a problem not of logistics but because the talent present looked so hard to top: pianist Horace Tapscott with bassist Roberto Miguel Miranda and drummer Fritz Wise. The concert was advertised on a single pink sheet of Xeroxed paper, like an errant flyer for a school talent show. “We played and that place just exploded,” says Miranda. “That whole day was nothing but L-O-V-E. It’s as though we had our close friends listening to us and supporting us to be as adventurous as we possibly could be. And man, it was just the beginning.”

Motoko Honda & Wadada Leo Smith at the Double M Jazz Salon (May 2011)

Now, as Miranda affirms, Melnick’s home has become an integral part of the Los Angeles jazz scene. The crème of the art form has since passed though to schmooze and give intimate and rollicking musical afternoons: Arthur Blythe, Bobby Bradford, Oscar Brashear, Alex and Nels Cline, Kenny Burrell, Billy Childs, Gerald Clayton, Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, Dr. Art Davis, Tamir Hendelman, John Heard, John Hicks, Billy Higgins, Pete Jolly, Don and Jeff Littleton, Roberto Miguel Miranda, Onaje Murray, Charles Owens, Austin Peralta, Don Preston, Wadada Leo Smith, Horace Tapscott, Nedra Wheeler, Gerald Wiggins. It has even evolved into a rehearsal space where musicians woodshed for upcoming performances in clubs or festivals, calling ahead before they drive up the hill with their gear.

Then there’s the audience, which has grown exponentially from an original mailing list of 50 to currently around 500, requiring Melnick to reluctantly forgo what she calls “the personal touch” of individual flyers to bulk e-mail. Yet the personal touch of experiencing music in such a sublime and informal setting—no microphone hum or cellphone gab, no clattering plates or hovering wait staff—is not lost on the crowd. “Some of the best live music I have ever heard in LA has been in Mimi’s family room,” notes local jazz historian Steven Isoardi, who attended the very first Double M Salon. “There is no other experience I’ve had that comes close to being in that little room with all these great artists who are loving being there and sharing their music with you. It sort of spoiled me in a way. I can’t go to a big venue like Disney Hall now, it feels so alienating. Mimi’s made it harder.”

During the performances, Melnick rarely sits. She floats around on the edge of the crowd or stays in her small kitchen cutting up gourmet cheeses or peeling cellophane off a Costco cookie platter. She is a soft-spoken woman who exudes elegance even when wearing cowboy boots. When asked about her stress level at having nearly 70 people in and out of her house for two hour-long sets (broken up by an hour break), Melnick whispers, “It’s out of my hands!” as applause erupts in the next room for a 10-minute slap-and-pluck bass solo. “I’m so honored,” she adds with kittenish excitement. “I feel like I’m in their living room!”

Jesse Sharps, Roberto Miranda & Miguel Atwood-Ferguson (March 2012)

Of course, the salons do not come without their pressure points. Melnick labors to ensure maximum capacity so the musicians can get adequate pay for their efforts, musical and otherwise, even as many of the musicians she features play a vanguard style of jazz that many ears might find too abrasive or aggressive (or, in the lingo, “That cat plays way out!”). “It’s the same concern that the club owners have, so I can definitely identify with them on that,” Mimi laughs. But a gig is a gig, as they say, and Melnick tries to keep the price at $20, mainly to encourage young music students to attend. “It was the most amazing thing I’d ever heard,” says bassist Nick Rosen, who first went to a Double M salon when he was 15. “I was so close to the musicians that I could read their music—you don’t get that anywhere. I got hooked and I haven’t missed one since.” Now, at 21, Rosen is a rising talent who plays with Horace Tapscott’s Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra. Last September, Rosen and sixteen members of “the Ark” wedged Tetris-style into Melnick’s 20’ x 25’ family room. “That was the first time we made any money playing with the Ark and it was a great show,” says Rosen. “Musicians need to know that there are others out there who appreciate their music. No matter how much we say it’s ‘creative’ and that we ‘need to do it,’ we also need validation in what we do.”

This was evident last January at a Double M salon featuring the Arthur Blythe Quintet. Blythe, a tender-wise Buddha of a man with deep and inscrutable eyes, soloed sweet notes that cried and wailed—one man in the front row held a digital camera up to his alto saxophone, filming the sounds as they were born. As the group ended their second set to warm and genuine applause, the 66-year-old Arkestra alumnus whispered “Thank you"; a voice from the audience responded, “Thank you.” A lady with a frumpy orange sweater and wild-curly grey hair materialized in the foyer, practically hyperventilating. She stopped bassist Essiet Okun Essiet in the hallway: “I so enjoyed watching you play!” Then she asked him to hold out his hands, and ran hers over his outstretched palms.

The Audience at Mimi's (Note Mike Watt in yellow raincoat)

In the 1920s, Reva Howitt was a striking brunette whose effervescent charisma and dancer’s legs had earned her the nickname “Lollipop” and a centerpiece position on the San Francisco Beauties, California’s first all-female tap troupe. After her husband Charles Clar, a colonial fireplace merchant, died in 1977, Howitt sat down in her Los Feliz home to write her memoirs, in which she recalled her ambivalence about her daughter’s precocious talent for the piano. “When Mimi began at an extremely early age to show musical ability, I ignored it. When she was about four years old and neighbors who had pianos told me that she rang their doorbells to ask to play on their instruments, I was amused. By the time she was seven, I had to acknowledge her needs. From the start I made it clear that she was to play for her own pleasure and not for public performances.”

From the beginning, Melnick says she never really loved the classical music that was de rigueur for serious piano students. The sounds of jazz were loose and liberating for a self-described “conventional girl on the outside, not on the inside.” But her mother's lesson is so ingrained that even today, when asked, Melnick shows a reluctance to play her own Steinway. "My mother had said to me from the time I was a child, 'Do not be a performer, because you are always at the mercy of someone else.' And she knew this from experience." Yet, when prodded, she eases over to her piano and runs through some fluid, dirty boogie-woogie before finishing with a delicate little upper-register note, like a devilish wink. "I don't know what kind of pianist I'd have been if I'd gone ahead and really pursued jazz as a career. I do have some regrets about that," she says. "But it came out in my writing."

In the early 1960s, when she was a Music Major at UCLA, Melnick had the convictions of the youthfully obsessed, even facing down the Los Angeles Times’ formidable music critic Albert Goldberg—not the world’s biggest jazz fan—over an essay she wrote for his class. “He handed it back to me and said, ‘Now let’s see what you can do with something serious.’ So I looked at him and said, ‘Jazz is serious.’” Goldberg must have been impressed: he hired her as a Times music writer, as position she held for seven years. It was during this period that she met and married Robert Melnick, an electronics engineer with a passion for photography.

Melnick is a preservationist as well as an enthusiast—besides her jazz salons, she co-written two pioneering and endearingly quirky books on Art Deco-era city manhole covers with her late husband. Many of the iron sentinels they documented were ornate and beautifully embossed antiques by obsolete foundries and utility companies, pieces that the Melnicks saw as irreplaceable examples of industrial art—literally, historical records buried in the street. “We called ourselves, ‘urban archaeologists,’” she smiles. “When we did it in the early 1970s it was a very strange thing to be involved in. A lot of people thought we were nuts, they thought it was so humorous. But everybody responded to it one way or another. We really felt like explorers.”

In a way, this love for the handcrafted quotidian was how the Melnicks expressed their unconventionality in the confines of Nixon-era suburbia. After publishing Manhole Covers of Los Angeles in 1974, the Melnicks embarked on a cross-country drainspotting journey, photographing nearly 300 disks over the next ten years. At the end of the project, Robert Melnick—a lifelong nonsmoker—was diagnosed with lung cancer. After he died in 1984, she she unearthed his proof sheets; Manhole Covers—her words, his photos—was published by MIT Press in 1994. A year after that, Melnick successfully petitioned the city council to preserve sixteen manhole covers as historical artifacts, making Los Angeles the first U.S. city to do so.

After her mother died in 1997, Mimi discovered the memoirs she had written 20 years earlier; it was published in 2002. Lollipop: Vaudeville Turns with a Fanchon and Marco Dancer documents the life of Reva Howitt and the underreported history of the California vaudeville circuit of the 1920s. [Watch a 2003 interview with Melnick about the book here.] But after finishing these projects, she finally turned to something she could truly call her own—sort of. Melnick says that her idea for a series of house concerts had actually been seeded in the 1970s when she attended an afternoon of Indian music in the Los Feliz home of a woman named Jan Steward. “It was such an intimate and casual atmosphere that I thought, ‘I have to do this for jazz,’” she recalls. “After Bob died, I got to know many of the musicians on the avant-garde scene in Los Angeles, and at that time there were not that many venues for them to really stretch out and play.” Theirs was a local lineage graced by the towering presences of Taspcott, Ornette Coleman, Bobby Bradford and John Carter.

Arguably, things have gotten worse in recent years—when a rubric like "Smooth Jazz" not only outsells every other kind but has its own television show. But Melnick points out that Azar Lawrence—he of the epic fractal sax solos with minimal pauses for breath—has recently been playing shows at "straight-ahead" jazz venues, like Charlie O's in Van Nuys and Vibrato in Bel-Air. "The relationship between the avant-garde and the local jazz clubs has actually gotten better over the years," she maintains. "Because if Azar can play those places—Huh? Hello? Azar? That's not dinner music! —something must be opening up."

What connects manhole covers and jazz musicians, of dancer mothers and creative partners, it is that none of them can be replaced once they are gone. Take the bootleg videotape of a March 1997 Double M salon still making its rounds through the underground tributaries of the Southern California jazz community [see above]. It features an elite ensemble: Horace Tapscott and Roberto Miranda with saxophonist Michael Session, percussionist/trumpeter Juno Lewis and drummer Billy Higgins. Lewis, a Leimert Park renaissance man who built his own instruments and collaborated with John Coltrane, kicks things off with a hand-drum solo. As the applause dies down, Miranda’s bass seems to bleed out of the walls like bog sweat as he saws an intensely personal, Jimi Hendrix-flavored solo turn on “Amazing Grace.” Tapscott falls over sideways on his piano bench, laughing in amazement. Then a feisty Higgins drum showcase leads into John Coltrane’s “Impressions,” and Tapscott unleashes a protean five minute and forty-four second piano solo. Session steps up with his soprano sax and blows lacerating and furious runs until perspiration rolls down his cheeks. Then poet Kamau Daa’ood reads his verse over the music, an incantation dedicated to Charles “Yardbird” Parker but somehow apropos to this fleeting moment:

messages from a higher realm descend
here at the center of the universe…
men entwined with their instruments like lovers
and in the air
passion and feathers

On such afternoons—and on the ones since Tapscott, Higgins and Lewis all passed away—Double M feels like some sort of return to jazz’s pre-historical tidepools, to a time when it flourished in private homes and public spaces, places out of the hands of the critics and moneymen and organized by the musicians and the fans. It produces the endorphin rush that comes from the realization: In this city, where so much is determined for us, here we manage to get away with something. Here we share something secret and precious.

The sentiments on the musicians’ side of the equation are best echoed by the formidable Arkestra saxophonist/flautist Kafi Roberts: "Man, anybody in the world says anything bad about Mimi, they'd better duck." When she is told this later, Melnick blushes.

Reprinted from Los Angeles Magazine (August 2007)

[photo courtesy of Don Edmondson]

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