Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Forrest Westbrook: "A True Artist"

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Jazz 'toons There was always music in Forrest Westbrook's house
By Robert Bush, The San Diego Reader, July 8, 2015

When local jazz pianist Forrest Westbrook passed away last year, his daughters Leslie and Yvonne had to clean out his City Heights apartment.

“We had the daunting task of clearing out 10,000 LPs, 4000 CDs, 33 speakers (hooked up!), and other audio equipment scattered about,” Leslie Westbrook informed The Reader via email. She also came across a potential treasure: “I did not know the tapes existed. Among the detritus of a lifetime, we came across...several boxes of reel-to-reels.”

The tapes included a never-released session led by Kansas City musician Carmell Jones (best known as the trumpeter on Horace Silver’s “Song for my Father”) with her father and bassist Gary Peacock.

“The process of releasing it [started with] finding a way to listen to the tapes to begin with. I didn’t know if they were still any good or how they would sound. My father had left his music to his best friend Jim West who lives in San Diego. Jim very kindly gave the tapes to me and my sister so we could try to get the music out to the world.”

Wall Street Journal writer Marc Myers put Leslie Westbrook in touch with Jordi Pujol, the founder of the Spanish record label Fresh Sound and an avid West Coast jazz fan. “So we met and talked about how we might do this. First we had to hear them! We took the tapes to an engineer in the San Fernando Valley — had a listen and went Wow! Then Jordi went about the arduous task of listening to the tapes and deciding if there was enough for a CD. There turned out to be enough for two or three.”

The mystery tapes were recorded in L.A. in 1960 and have been released on Fresh Sound as Carmell Jones: Previously Unreleased Los Angeles Session.

I asked Leslie Westbrook what she remembered about her dad the jazz musician. “Everything! I was breast-fed on jazz. I met Count Basie (and got his autograph) when my pop was working with June Christy. My father practiced his piano every day, and when I was a kid when I asked if I could watch TV, he said ‘Sure — with the volume turned off.’ So, I had a jazz soundtrack to my cartoons!

“My father was very modest, never promoted himself, and was very reluctant to record. [But] there was always music in the house.”

One often hears a lot about the vicissitudes of Life: how it moves in circles; exists in parallel universes; is always in the present because the past is a memory and the future hasn’t happened, yet.

But then, someone reaches out to you, in this case via the Jazz Journalists Association, and the next thing you know, Life is reconnecting with previous social circles and bringing past associations into the present.

I know this sounds philosophical, let alone confusing, but perhaps it will all become less so when I add a few more details about the sequence of events.

The “reaching out” was done by Leslie Westbrook, a journalist based in Carpinteria, CA [a coastal community located a few miles south of Santa Barbara].

It seems Nanette Evans, the wife of the late, iconic Jazz pianist, Bill Evans, had sent Leslie a link to my blog posting about one of Gene Lees’ Jazzletter Bill Evans essays. Gene and Bill were close friends for over twenty years [Bill died in 1980 at the age of fifty-one.]

Leslie was friends with Gene [who died in 2010] and Gene’s wife Janet who passed away in 2013.

Per the original contact message concerning Gene’s essay on Bill, I shared with Leslie that Gene had allowed me copyright permission to post a number of his Jazzletter essays on my blog as a way of experimenting with a digital format for his writings.

Leslie wrote in return that her father was pianist Forrest Westbrook and she also sent me a link to the Robert Bush San Diego Reader article on Forrest that forms the lead-in to this posting.

After I read Mr. Bush’s piece with its reference to the Fresh Sound Carmell Jones Quartet CD [FSR 867] on which her Dad, Forrest, appears with Gary Peacock on bass and Bill Schwemmer on drums, I asked her if a preview copy was available.

She graciously wrote back and indicated that she would ask Jordi to send one along.

Here’s where the small world part comes in.

In the introduction to my blog posting on Kenny Clarke I had written that Bill Schwemmer gave me one of my earliest drum lessons. The lesson contained some important points about how to play a ride cymbal beat and Bill used a recording on which Kenny Clarke plays to demonstrate this “feeling.” It was a lesson that I never forgot.

That lesson probably occurred in the summer of 1960 around the time that Forrest Westbrook along with Bill and Gary were recording with trumpeter Carmell Jones who had recently arrived in Los Angeles [August, 1960].

It also turns out that I had met her Dad, “back-in-the-day,” which I shared with her, but I didn’t tell her the context because I wanted to save it for this piece.

Sometime during the early 1960’s, Forrest Westbrook appeared at the Starlight Club with Wilfred Meadowbrooks on bass and Foreststorn Hamilton on drums.

Located at the corner of Moorpark and Tujunga in Studio City, CA, The Starlight Club is one of the many small, neighborhood bars that populate the San Fernando Valley, an area north of Los Angeles that became the home of many of the Jazz and Studio musicians based in southern California due to the surge of newly created affordable housing that filled out the Valley in the 1950s and 60s.

Off night and weekend Jazz gigs in these neighborhood cabarets abounded for the Valley-based musicians whose “day gig” often consisted of working in the Hollywood movie, TV and recording studios. [Oh, for the good old days when one could actually make a living as a musician.]

Of course, Foreststorn is better known by his nickname “Chico” and it was at this point in career that he was transitioning from “The Original Chico Hamilton Quintet” format with its woodwinds-guitar-cello front line to the quintet that he led from about 1963-66 that featured Charles Lloyd on tenor saxophone and flute, George Bohanon on trombone, Gabor Szabo on guitar and Al “Sparky” Stinson on bass.

I knew about Chico’s gig at The Starlight Room because I was friends with Sparky Stinson and we checked out the group when Sparky was talking with Chico about becoming a member of the soon-to-be-unveiled “New” Chico Hamilton Quintet.

Sparky would call and and ask me if I wanted to go with him and listen to the “Forest Meadow Forest Trio,”his take on Forrest [Westbrook], Meadow[brooks] and Forest[storn]. [Did I mention that musicians sometimes have very weird senses of humor?]

I had heard Wilfred and Chico before, but Forrest Westbrook’s piano playing was new to me and it just knocked me out. He reminded me of a cross-between Lennie Tristano and Wynton Kelly because he’d get these low rumbling riffs going on the bass keys ala Tristano while sprinkling blues-inflected single-notes phrases in the middle and higher registers of the piano; shades of Kelly at his best.

Well, one thing led to another, and Sparky and I sat in with Forrest for a portion of a last set on two, separate occasions.

It’s one thing to listen to another musician from a place in the audience, but quite another to “feel” their music from the drum chair as it is being played. Forrest really explored the piano the way that Lennie Tristano, Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor explored the instrument: the words free, adventurous, and unexpected come to mind. And when he went out on these forays, he expected the drummer to “stay-at-home” so as to become a beacon for his “return home” [i.e.: to more conventional playing].

You have to keep in mind that Forrest was doing this stuff years before the “Free Movement” came into vogue. In actuality it was more rhythmic displacement [where the motif is moved to different beats in a bar, keeping the motif's rhythmic structure intact.] than “Free Jazz” and some of his contemporaries including pianists Bill Evans, Paul Bley, and some of Dave Brubeck’s wild rides before he got into the odd time signatures also display this approach.

Discipline and a great awareness of where you are in the music are essential when taking liberties with Jazz structures and Forrest was absolutely masterful at this in a very non-ostentatious way. He wasn’t showing off; but he wasn’t playing it safe, either. It’s just how he heard the music. One minute he’s laying down this far out stuff and the next he’s popping single-note blues phrases that cook the time along like Count Basie, Red Garland or Wynton Kelly.

In addition to the more direct reconnections with my past associations with Forrest Westbrook and Bill Schwemmer, there was also a six-degrees-of-separations connection with bassist Gary Peacock and trumpeter Carmell Jones as I heard both of them perform at the Drift Inn, a combination seafood restaurant and Jazz Club, as members of alto saxophonist Bud Shank’s quintet which also featured Dennis Budimir on guitar and Frankie Butler on drums. Located in Malibu, California, its bamboo decor with tiki-heads popping out everywhere was very reminiscent of the early years of another beach town Jazz club - The Lighthouse Cafe - which was located further south in Hermosa Beach, Ca.

Gary and drummer Gene Stone were members of one of pianist Claire Fischer’s earliest trio and bassist Harvey Newmark and I spent a glorious afternoon auditioning with Claire at his beautiful Laurel Canyon home in the San Fernando Valley foothills when Gary went to New York and Gene joined another band.

With the exception of my reference to Bill Schwemmer’s drum lesson in the introduction to my blog posting about Kenny Clarke, all of these memories lay dormant for many, many years.

The arrival of Leslie’s note and Jordi Pujol’s kindness in sending along a preview copy of Carmell Jones Quartet CD [Fresh Sound FSR 867] shook these recollections free from my subconscious.

Here’s more about Forrest’s career from Jodi’s insert notes to the CD:

“Another rewarding thing about these early Carmell Jones recordings is to discover a pianist as highly talented as Forrest Westbrook. It is hard to understand how he remained so overlooked for so long, and that no record producer offered him a record date until years later. These recordings, found only a year ago, make the neglect of such a fine artist a matter for great regret.

Forrest, a second generation Californian, was born in Los Angeles, California on August 29, 1927. He grew up in the small town of Nuevo, California where he attended Nuevo Elementary School and Perris Valley High School. He studied piano from the age of seven and had a natural musical talent inherited from his mother, Flossie Jolly Westbrook, who played the piano and sang in church choirs.

In the 1950s, he was part of the West Coast jazz movement in Los Angeles, playing clubs, even burlesque houses, and jamming with friends at home, which always required large living rooms to accommodate his piano and audio equipment.

In July 1954, Forrest Westbrook played The Tiffany Club with the Art Pepper-Jack Montrose Quintet that included his good friend Bob Whitlock on bass, and Billy Schneider on drums. They alternated sets with the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet.

While jazz was trying to survive in a rock and roll world, Westbrook worked jazz clubs, toured with jazz singer June Christy, appearing at an NAACP benefit with Count Basie and with Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse All Stars in 1963, among other gigs and occasional studio dates. Although reluctant to record — he felt that improvisational jazz was an art that should be left to its time and space — he did record two albums. He played Electar on the first album of electronic jazz on Verve records titled: "Gil Melle Tome VI, the Jazz Electronauts". His lasting musical legacy is what he considered his real music — preserved for posterity in the album "This Is Their Time, Oh Yes!" on Bill Hardy's Revelation label.”

The following video features Forrest on Willow Weep for Me from the Carmell Jones Quartet CD [Fresh Sound FSR 867].


  1. Wowza! Thanks so much for this wonderful, informative blog Steve and for saving the surprise! Grateful to connect via Nenette Evans! Passing this along to one and all - and i have posted on Facebook page i created for my father as well. Leslie Westbrook

  2. All that is left is to find out what happened to Bill Schwemmer. I expect to see Gene Stone tonight. Talk about degrees of separation!

    Very interesting, Steve. Thanks.

  3. Hi David - - hope you see this - - Bill Schemmer and his wife Yvonne live in Fresno - - send me an email LeslieAWestbrook@gmail.com if you like- - and i will put you in touch with them!

  4. Found this page after purchasing the Jones CD, and of course being struck by the piano work. What a shame this fascinating player was so adverse to recording. He was a real original!

    1. thanks 2300skiddoo - there is a second CD also on Fresh Sound, the Remarkable Forrest Westbrook - - and hopefully a 3rd one will come out in the future! So glad you discovered my dad's recording! Leslie


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