Chapter One

If You Don’t Want to Know . . .

Where did the idea of trekking the globe come from? A walk around the world was never my desire. Perhaps, as my friends and family believe, I am crazy? If so, it’s divine madness.

    I have never truly understood where ideas originate, even though I’ve been a creative artist all my life. Sometimes they appear magically, as if they have a Mind of their own. Other times, such as when you have a specific project, you deposit the particulars and parameters into the bio-computer data bank and hope something useful comes spewing forth – preferably in time for your deadline. Desires are something else. They come from the consciousness in direct response to external stimuli. Either you act on them or you don’t. Mystics and psychics believe it has to do with unfulfilled previous life experiences. They may be right.

    God knows I have had a host of desires in my life. And as far as I can recollect, I have acted on and fulfilled all but a few petty ones to the best of my ability. At age four, for example, after seeing my first stage show I was struck with a desire so strong that I decided to become a musician.

    My mother had taken my brother Bill and me to a matinee at the Strand Theater, the luxurious Art-Deco pleasure palace in my hometown of Jonesboro, Arkansas. I forget the film playing that fateful day, but I shall never forget what happened after the intermission. The house lights were dimmed, then after a pregnant pause extinguished. Lush red velvet drapes, blackened by lack of light, whispered slowly apart. A baby blue spot faded in illumining a man’s face. He began to sing:

    "Just Molly and me . . ." As the spotlight slowly widened its circle of light ("And baby makes three . . ."), he was fully revealed ("We’re happy in my . . ."), sitting at an ebony concert grand piano ("Blue Heaven"). It was Gene Austin, singing his number one hit. That sealed my fate. Not only was I going to become a musician, I would learn lighting and stagecraft as well: I loved that baby blue follow-spot.

    While watching the film Golden Boy I decided to become a concert violinist. Alas, that desire was never fulfilled. My family moved to Los Angeles in 1943. Upon entering the beginner strings class in junior high school, I learned that all the school’s violins had already been spoken for. Momentarily I was crushed. Then, filled with youthful resilience I said to myself, Oh well, there’s an instrument just a little larger. I’ll start on that and switch to the violin next semester. In my ignorance I thought it was called the cello. After a week spread-eagle, unhappily sawing away at the oversized protuberance between my legs, I corrected my mistake. Since I was of good size for my age and nobody else was playing one, I switched to the bass fiddle. So ended my brief dream of becoming William Holden, resplendent in my tails, bathing in the glow of the spotlight and the adoration of all the beautiful ladies in the audience. But I’ve never regretted the change. Bass players make out more often than fiddlers.

    I wanted to join the Boy Scouts but mama wouldn’t let me. It wasn’t that she feared for my safety; it was too expensive. Ours was a large family, and even though both my parents worked, there was never money to spare. By the time I started playing music I was no longer interested in joining anyway. So that wish got buried.

    Desires kept coming and I tried to keep pace. I wanted to play country and western, and I did. I wanted to play big band swing, and I swung. Dixieland: "Yowza." Latin: "¡Si Senor!" Classical: BA-BA-BA-BOOM! By the time I reached high school I had discovered Stan Kenton, Diz, Bird and bebop. I thought that modern jazz would be enough. It wasn’t. I wanted to become a composer, an arranger, a conductor, to write musical comedies and ballets, to score films and TV shows, to produce records and write jingles. Later, I longed to live in New York, to have a wife and family, two cars, insurance, a big bank account, a place in the city and the country. And I did it. I had it all. The whole American Dream. But a walk around the world? I sure don’t remember ever having that one.

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Thoughts have a way of becoming desires if you aren’t careful. It was a thought I had at age six – one which must have fermented in my brain somewhere below the immediate desire level – that decades later led me to move out of the country and into a new career. While lying on the floor looking at a Mickey Mouse comic book that featured Pete the Pirate, I thought, Wouldn’t it be fun to have a restaurant somewhere there are pirates? I adored those Erroll Flynn and Tyrone Power pirates movies. I loved food and enjoyed hanging out in the kitchen watching my mother cook, and I liked helping her even more. It took a long time for that idea to grow into a full-fledged desire. Yet forty years later I found myself partner in a cafe in Old San Juan, a place still loaded with pirates.

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    I got there in a roundabout way. I had been coaching a singer named Madeleine Brown. Just when it seemed we might be achieving a small amount of success, she left for Puerto Rico to become manager of the Butterfly People, an upscale shop that sold butterfly boxes (arrays of dead butterflies displayed in Plexiglas caskets). A couple of months after leaving New York, Madeleine called me. The Palm Court Cafe, an extension of the Butterfly People, needed a chef. Would I be interested? At the time, I was going through a traumatic separation from my wife, Maxine. For the past seventeen years I had worked in a very high-pressure profession, the last eleven writing jingles for Madison Avenue's advertising madmen. So I was suffering from a bad case of, if not burnout, at the very least severe brownout.  Yes, I was interested.

    A few days later I hopped a plane down to the Caribbean to meet with Drakir, the owner, and to check out the plant. The cafe was lovely. But the kitchen, which consisted of a two-burner hot plate, a microwave, a crepe maker, a refrigerator, a freezer and a Gaggia espresso machine, was seriously lacking. It was definitely not the sort of place where epicurean dreams come true. Drakir and I came to a suitable agreement, which included building a whole new kitchen, and I found myself embarking on a career that would fulfill the last of my remaining desires. Or so I thought at the time.

    After nine months of working sixteen-hour days just to serve lunch (though I was simultaneously designing and building not only the one kitchen but another, upstairs), then discovering that I had all the work plus all the responsibility (though none of the authority), and noticing that although I had gotten great reviews and we were always packed there were never any profits (fifty-percent of which were to have been mine), my partner and I parted company. There may have actually been a profit, but Drakir, a Harvard MBA, had a unique bookkeeping system. He'd put a one here . . . and a two or three over there . . . followed – sometimes – by a . . . seven or nine somewhere else. There were never any dollar signs or pluses or minuses, just single-digit numbers, meaningless to everyone but him.

    During my tenure at the butterfly cemetery, I found myself in need of an apartment and a dance studio for Cynthia, my live-in life-mate. We looked around and found a loft on the second floor of an adjacent building that suited our needs perfectly. Besides a large space for an apartment and a larger space, complete with hardwood floors, for a dance studio, there was an even larger space that had previously been a theater. It came complete with lights, a large proscenium stage with red drapes, seating for 120, and a partially stocked bar. (I had to build the barre.) Cynthia's dance studio.jpg (1712 bytes)

    We had no intention of doing anything with the theater. Drakir had wanted to knock down the wall separating it from his main gallery to make a humongous mariposa mausoleum. The negotiations over the space were another reason we went our separate ways. He thought $450 per month for 5,000 square feet was too much. But what can you expect from a flake the locals jokingly referred to as "mariposa" (butterfly or gay), and who spells his name backwards?

    With Drakir out of the way, Cynthia and I decided to keep the whole place anyway. Our major problem was, now that I no longer had gainful employment, and had child support and alimony to pay, how were we going to afford it? Cynthia’s dance classes were going well, yet they were way too small to pay all the bills.

    Hey! I have an idea! You could almost hear Mickey Rooney as Andy Hardy. Why don’t we open a nightclub and put on a show? Which brings me to the truly last desire – though the desire to open a nightclub was not really mine, it was wished on me by someone in the journalism department in junior high. In the yearbook, that someone predicted I would someday lead my own band: as I eventually did; and own my own nightclub: which up to this point I hadn’t, and never had wanted to. After all, I worked in joints for many years and never saw a nightclub owner driving a Rolls-Royce. We musicians always wondered how they could afford to pay the band. But now, because of that prediction, thirty years later I was actually considering taking such a foolhardy action. What other choice did I have? It beat working for a living. Besides, it might help me clear up an old karmic debt to an early supporter.

    From the time I entered high school until I dropped out of Los Angeles City College to go on the road, I used to spend all my spare time at a small beer and wine joint near my home. Long since gone, it was on the corner of Florence and Avalon in South Central L.A. A bass player called "Dingbod" Kesterson and his wife Bonnie owned the place. The club was, appropriately enough, called Ding’s. There were jam sessions every night and all day on Saturdays and Sundays. It was a boy bass player’s dream-come-true.

    A drummer/vibraphonist named Joe Dillard and a piano player named Jim – I don’t recall his last name – were always present. They stayed with Ding and Bonnie in a house trailer out back of the club, so there was always at least a rhythm section. If Ding was busy tending bar (as he usually was) and if no other bass players were around (which there usually weren’t), I was allowed to play. It was the best schooling a fledgling jazzman could have.

    At Ding’s I had the opportunity to play with several of the best jazz players in the world. Jack Sheldon was in the club almost every weekend he could get away from his duties in the Air Force. Great players like Eddie Shu, Teddy Kotick, Gene Roland and Jimmy Knepper would drop by when they were in town. I even jammed with Charlie Parker and Lester Young there. Ding had worked with them both, so whenever they were around they came in to say hello. L.A. clubs weren’t integrated then. It wasn’t a law, but it might as well have been. Black musicians even had to have their own union at that time; they weren’t allowed in Local 47. So Bird and Prez were the only black musicians who ever came in. . . .

    I take that back. One Sunday afternoon a couple of uninvited black cats did drop in. I was up on the stand playing when the door to the small, dimly lit club opened very slowly. A shaft of harsh sunlight silhouetted two young guys about my age. They stuck their heads in and cautiously looked around. I thought I recognized the first one, a tall skinny kid carrying a brown paper bag shaped vaguely like a trumpet under his arm. He edged over to the piano player and asked if he could sit in. The other, who was toting an old beat-up sax case, moved off to the back of the room.

    "Well . . . OK," the piano player grumbled, annoyed at the effrontery of this Young Turk. "Wait'll we finish this tune and you can sit in on the next one." Of course, it would have been cool if it were Clifford, Miles or Diz.

    The young man moved to the back edge of the bandstand and waited. People in the audience and the musicians on the stage looked at him with disdain: He'd damn well better be good! Disdain turned to derisive laughter when he opened his brown paper bag and took out a Civil War era pocket trumpet. It looked like one of those olive drab plastic Boy Scout bugles that sold at Woolworths for thirty-nine cents.

    We finished the tune and launched into the next one, a mile-a-minute blues. The kid didn't play the head (the melody) with everyone else. He waited patiently for the half dozen other horn players to finish their overblown solos. When it came his turn, he slowly came from the back of the bandstand where he'd held his ax (or in his case "hatchet") at right-shoulder arms, head down, quietly listening, and ambled to the front. He let a few bars pass before he lifted his horn to his lips, then closed his eyes and waited a few more. By now everyone was wondering if he knew how to play at all, much less on that ridiculous toy. Suddenly, the notes started coming, coming in a stream that seemed impossible from so small a horn. It was pure magic. None of us had ever heard anything quite like it before. But it was definitely jazz. And it was most assuredly good. Good, hell! It was great!

    He played only a couple of choruses, but that was enough. He finished to spontaneous, overwhelming applause, put the instrument back in the paper bag, motioned to his friend to follow, and split out the door before we had finished the tune. There was a strong sense of the Lone Ranger cliché among the people there that day: "Who was that masked man?"

    I knew. We lived next door to each other when we were kids and he had just moved from Tennessee to L.A. It was Don Cherry. And the sax player who didn't bother to take his horn out of the case would become a legend in the jazz world: Ornette Coleman. I ran into them again several years later in New York. I was working at Birdland with Chris Connor when Don was there with Sonny Rollins. Ornette and I met at the apartment of Novella Nelson. We had set some of her poetry to music for an album Richard Davis was producing.

   . . . Ding had been my mentor and my friend. More than anyone else, he showed me what jazz bass playing was about. Before I could afford one of my own, he would let me use his bass when I had a gig and couldn’t borrow one from school. Although I rarely had a dime to buy a Coke to help pay the rent, he never said anything. I always felt I owed him. So, on November 24, 1979, Cynthia and I opened The Place. No matter how long it takes, I like to pay my debts.

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Paying that debt wasn’t easy. Jazz clubs for the most part have not been a profitable business since WWII, which is a gross understatement. Owning one is a great hobby if you can afford it and enjoy the pain and suffering it brings – which we did – but it definitely wasn’t a moneymaker. There were other benefits, though. Life was one long continuous party where the finest musicians entertained us. Arturo Sandoval, Dave Valentin, David Sanchez, Eddie Higgins, Eddie and Charlie Palmieri, Rob Mullins, Noel Pointer, Irikeri, Batacumbele, Papo Vasquez, and Jerry Gonzalez' Fort Apache Band were just a few of the great musicians who played The Place. We also did plays, poetry readings, dance recitals and comedy, as well as wedding, birthday and anniversary celebrations. Players from Russia, Poland, Germany, England, France, Spain, Italy, Japan, North, South and Central America, and all over the Caribbean came in to jam during the week.

    Ours was a place for the cruise ship and local musicians to come and immerse themselves in the music they really loved. Nobody told them what, when or how to play. If they didn’t have money for a drink, that was all right. If they played, they stayed. We were, in all senses of the word, an institution. Yet after eight years struggling to find groups and getting them to show up, finding audiences and getting them to show up, running the sound and lighting and building stage sets, doing the cleaning, maintenance, photography and publicity, tending bar and keeping it stocked, finding a staff and keeping them from stealing you blind, making constant repairs, teaching classes, and dealing with all the various government bureaucrats, Cynthia and I were ready for an institution. Although we weren’t in serious debt – just a small note to Cynthia’s mother – we were barely scraping by. So, tired of worrying about where our next rice and beans were coming from, we decided to sell the business.

    Shortly after deciding to unload, I had to make a trip to New York. While I was there I went to see my old friend Pete Ceci, the owner of Al Buon Gusto, a restaurant on West 72nd Street. Over a bottle of wine, I sang the blues to Pete and told him we were thinking of selling The Place. We’d had enough.

    "‘Ey! a’Bob," he said jovially in his warm, southern Italian accent. "You plant a tree. You gonna sell it when it starts giving fruit? Nah! You gonna stay in business and buy the building with the profits!" With a conspiratorial wink and a nudge he added, "Then you can charge you’self what rent you like. That’s what I did!"

    I returned to Old San Juan and related to Cynthia what Pete had said. She agreed that it made perfect sense. We decided to give it another three years . . . then sell!

The notion of a trek around the globe started creeping in sometime during the eleven years Cynthia and I owned The Place. Like so many uninvited, unimportant thoughts that clutter the conscious mind, I let it proceed unimpeded. So I’m not certain of the date, yet I do remember the exact moment the thought finally grabbed my attention and firmly stuck.

    A year after our decision to give up the business, I was sitting in the lotus position in the dance studio musing about what to do with the rest of my life. It was another typical twilight in Paradise, and having just completed my meditation I was in a blissful state. Suddenly, my serenity shattered. The thought intruded like a telemarketer.

    Hello? Anybody home?

    I tried to ignore it. It persisted.

    How about a nice little walk around the world?

    The very idea made my feet ache. Yet I couldn’t disregard it; I had asked a question. My guru had taught me a problem-solving technique. If something has been troubling you, pose a question immediately before beginning meditation. The response usually comes right away. This time I had reversed the process and the reply came as an afterclap. That didn’t matter. Like it or not, I had my answer.

    What do you think of the idea? asked Robert.

    Sounds interesting to me, Bob replied.

    I don’t know, Robert protested. We don’t know the first thing about navigation, survival in the wilderness, first-aid, snakebite remedy, equip-

    We can learn! Bob cut him off. Besides, it might be fun. And the voice said we had to do it!

    Did not.

    Did too!

    Before this goes any further I should explain: I am a Gemini. Now, I don’t know if anybody from the other signs of the Zodiac is bothered by this sort of BS, but it’s a constant occurrence for me. It’s my birthright – or birth wrong as the case may be. As my friend Graham Seidman used to say to me, "You’ll never be normal." But then, who wants to be? My mind may be a playground for constant debate between Bob and Robert, but so long as they don’t invite too many friends or get me into trouble with the authorities, I say let the monkeys play.

    Robert is a practical, nuts-and-bolts sort of guy. He takes care of business. He prefers the classics and haute cuisine. Watch out, though, when he uses his middle initial: Robert C is how he signs checks and contracts. Bob, on the other hand (or head), is an adventurous, wisecracking bebopper who prefers ethnic food and the comics. He helps keep life interesting and makes it more bearable. They are why I meditate. It keeps the playing field of my mind empty long enough for me to accomplish some serious non-thinking and find out what is truly going on.

    Well, like it or not, I had just found out: We were going on a walk. Although I didn’t really want to, it was something I knew I had to do. Not a desire. Not a wish. Not a whim. It was a command! I’d leave it up to them to decide the details.

    If all this sounds crazy to you, can you imagine how it sounded to a relatively sane, serious individual like me? But twice before in this lifetime I had been given important assignments by the voice. I had blown them off both times. Now I had been given one more chance, so I definitely wasn’t going to blow it this time. Where would we be today if Jonah, Jesus and Joan hadn’t listened to their voices and heeded them? They had been skeptical too, but they did their duty. Of course, look at what happened to them.

    Still dubious about why I had been chosen for this deed – or what the purpose was in doing it – I acquiesced and vowed to give it my best shot. I only hoped that somewhere along the way that figure of speech wouldn't backfire.

Chapter 2                                                        HOME

© Copyright 1999 Robert Bowers

This page was last modified  April 12, 2001