© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
During my playing days, I sometimes thought that the only reason there was a tuxedo hanging in my closet was so that I could wear it to the society band gigs I often played at the Cocoanut Grove Super Club in The Ambassador Hotel. [The same holds true for the white dinner jacket that kept the tux company.]
For a while, it seemed I played in those schmaltzy bands at “The Grove” [as it was then called] on a weekly basis. Good thing, too, as the money that I made from playing this corny music came in handy when the rent was due or when I wanted to eat on a regular basis and it also subsidized my Jazz gigs [some of which offered little more than free brews and gas money].
And it wasn’t only me “grinning and bearing it” as I smiled while I Tip-toed Through The Tulips or got bleary-eyed while Smoke Gets In Your Eyes; at one time or another I think I may have played in society bands that were made up of some of the best Jazz and studio musicians in Los Angeles. One night the sax section was Charlie Kennedy on alto, Bob Hardaway and Bob Cooper on tenor and Ronnie Lang on baritone sax! Did I say that the pay for enduring this form of musical torture was good? Well, the company often was, too, even if the music was a drag.
Located on Wilshire Boulevard, only a few miles west of downtown Los Angeles, The Cocoanut Grove was my favorite place to work a society band gig because of its sumptuous decor and the palatial scale of the place. The place was a throwback to Hollywood’s old celebrity days.
The hotel and the super club were set back from the street and had the usual, huge Los Angeles parking lot that acted as a buffer from the noise from the traffic.
Occasionally, during the break between sets, I would stretch my legs by wandering along the driveway until I came to the palm tree-lined sidewalk. Directly across the street at the intersection of Kenmore and Wilshire was a boarded-up hut-like building that was once the home of The Haig, the Jazz club where the famous Gerry Mulligan Quartet featuring trumpeter Chet Baker first played in 1952.
I would look across the street and try to imagine what it must have sounded like to have been at The Haig when, as Ted Gioia recounts in his definitive study on the subject of West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945-1960:
“In the spring of 1952, baritonist Mulligan secured a regular Monday night job at the Haig, a small Los Angeles jazz club on Wilshire Boulevard. From the outside the Haig appeared an unlikely place to launch a major jazz career. This free-standing converted bungalow looked more like a modest residence than a major nightclub. The building was surrounded by a picket fence, shrubbery, and an assortment of palm trees. The only indication that this idyllic hideaway housed a commercial establishment came from the towering sign: "THE HAIG DINNERS COCKTAILS." The club's location, of course, overcame any limitations in its facade: Down the street was the celebrated Brown Derby, a much-touted restaurant where movie stars obligingly came to watch the tourists dine; across the street stood the luxurious Ambassador Hotel, which, sixteen years later, would become infamous as the site of Robert Kennedy's assassination.
In 1952, the Ambassador was better known for housing the Cocoanut Grove, one of Los Angeles's priciest nightclubs. All these landmark establishments are now gone, but in their day they ranked among the most glamorous locations in Southern California. The Haig could boast neither the spaciousness nor ritzy clientele of the Cocoanut Grove or the Derby — its capacity was less than a hundred — but owner John Bennett had developed the club's reputation by featuring some of the finest jazz bands of the day. Even before the Baker-Mulligan success, popular artists such as Red Norvo and Erroll Garner had played the club, and soon, inspired by the new band's rapid rise to fame, the Haig would rank with the Lighthouse as the major springboard for West Coast jazz talent. A list of the groups that would debut at the Haig reads almost like a Who's Who of West Coast jazz in the mid-1950s; it includes, in addition to the Mulligan-Baker ensemble, Shorty Rogers and his Giants, the Laurindo Almeida/Bud Shank Quartet, the Hampton Hawes Trio with Red Mitchell, and the Bud Shank Quartet with Claude Williamson.
Baker had been sitting in with Mulligan's group at the club's regular jam sessions. The much-praised rapport between the two musicians was not immediately apparent, but with each performance their mutual chemistry grew…..
Much of the publicity surrounding the Mulligan Quartet stemmed from the absence of a pianist. The jazz journals frequently referred to it as the "pianoless quartet," as if the group were more noteworthy for what it lacked than for what it did. Today the omission of a harmony instrument does not sound unusual, and other virtues of this group are more salient: its effective use of counterpoint, its understated rhythm section, its melodic clarity, and its willingness to take chances. Not since the days of New Orleans ensemble playing had the individual members of a small combo been so willing to merge their personal sounds into a cohesive whole. These characteristics, rightly or wrongly, became viewed by the jazz public as trademarks of West Coast jazz.” [pp. 172 and 174]
In the modern Jazz era, portable recording equipment found its way into lofts, parties and nightclubs as Jazz fans illicitly preserved the sounds of their favorite artists on what today are known as bootleg recordings.
Gerry and Chet’s appearance at The Haig led to founding of Pacific Jazz Records by Richard Bock and the photographer William Claxton in 1952
But what did you do if you were a fan of the group and no recordings of their work had as yet been issued commercially?
Perhaps, the following the amateur recordings that were made of Jeru and Chettie at The Haig in 1952 would have to tide you over until the real thing came along, that is if you were lucky enough to have them.
The soundtrack for the following video offers two examples of amateur recordings that were made at The Haig in 1952 when bassist Carson Smith and drummer Larry Bunker joined Jeru and Chettie for a typical set at the club. The tunes are Move and My Funny Valentine.