Even though time has passed since that fateful night, and this weary old world has since moved on—I'm still puzzled. Why did I ever agree, right in the middle of several crucial business meetings, to accompany two of my managerial flunkies to the old Jazz Club that evening?
After all this time—I think I finally figured it out... , somehow, the two Senior Managers, James Sheffield and Robert Bell—must have discovered I liked Jazz and Swing music.
Like anyone in authority knows, when you have people who work for you, especially in the higher managerial positions, they are always looking for that opening. That elusive gateway into the Boss' inter circle.
For instance, if the Boss starts smoking a pipe—presto, you guessed it—by that weeks end there will be three or four lower Managers walking around trying to look cool as that little thing stuck in their mouth belches out smoke.
Okay... , I know you may think I'm callous and cruel to refer to my people as flunkies—but hey... —I never really wanted to be in this life in the first place. Through my jaded eyes, the world is basically a very uncool place.
You know how that old saying goes, He had greatness thrust upon him. Well... , that's sort of how it went. I know... , it's crazy as hell, but once I started being successful, one thing led to another. Whatta you going to do?
I wake up one morning and I'm suddenly the freaking Boss. And, what's worse, there's all these Managerial types circling my damned desk like a bunch of Indians circling a Wagon Train. (Being part Cherokee - pardon me, if I don't apologize to the Indians.)
Sitting in the corner suite of a high-rise office building, I have often scolded myself by saying... , Someone remind me... ! Anybody remind me... ! why I left the life for this... !
Anyway, being back in my beloved City, San Francisco—maybe I just wanted to try to recapture some of the magic—try to gain access to some old memories from those wonderful times.
It was a short limo trip out to this place the boys had discovered. We're riding along; I'm half listening to these two guys conversing with each other. They're trying mightily to impress me, so I make an effort to try to look impressed every now and again.
"What's the name of this Joint," I ask them.
They fall all over themselves to be the first to inform me. They end up both contributing information.
"Well, Boss, I read in the Chronicle, it's an old Jazz Club that went out of business some time ago—they're trying to reopen it again," Mr. Bell tells me.
"Yeah, I think it's called, On The Levee," Mr. Sheffield chimes in. "I guess it was quite the place years ago. I don't know much about it."
Yeah right, I thought, you don't know anything about it. I could tell you—I once heard the great Kid Ory play there, but you wouldn't even know who the hell he was. Jeezzz!
Leaning forward I pushed the intercom button.
"Roger... , do you know where this place is located?"
"Yeah Boss, we're almost there." A moment later, "We're here. I'll let you guys out right in front."
Stepping out of the limo even from the street we could hear the Group was in full swing. "Let's listen for just a few moments before we go in," I said, feeling that sweet old familiar feeling of anticipation building.
Then from inside, the sound of a horn come soaring out over the top of the rest of that Group that started chills running down my spine. I felt my scalp start to tingle. I know that sound, I thought, there's only one man alive that plays like that.
"Jesus, what kind of horn is that?" Mr. Sheffield said. To his credit... , he managed to look properly amazed.
"May be a trumpet," Mr. Bell said, careful to cover his ass with the may be disclaimer.
"What kind of horn do you think it is, Boss?" they asked.
Well, hell... , I knew what kind of horn it was. I could have told them it was a clarinet... ! But... , I didn't. It was sort of a pearls before swine type of feeling.
Instead, I just clapped both of them on the shoulder.
"Come on," I said, "Let's go in and find out."
On The Levee...
Strangely enough, the old place looked much the same. Just a bunch of folding chairs on a bare floor, a few tables scattered around, with the Band Platform up front. For me, it was like stepping back in time. Since the place had not filled up yet we were able to snag three chairs in the third row.
Looking at my two Senior Manager I thought, I am going to learn more about you two guys by watching your reactions in this next hour than either of you would ever want me to know.
"This place is sort of a dump," Mr. Bell said, firing his opening salvo.
"Yeah Boss, if you'd rather go, we can leave right now," Mr. Sheffield said, "I just saw Roger come in. He must have found parking nearby."
However, what was an undesirable dump to my two young corporate ladder-climbers was a sweet bit of heaven to me. I felt that old time feeling of warmth and happiness start to take control of my senses.
"Hey," I said, gently reproaching the two of them. "I thought you guys told me you liked Jazz and Swing? I'd really like to stay a while and listen if you guys wouldn't mind."
The two of them fell all over themselves assuring me they didn't mind. They didn't mind at all.
Even from outside the club, I knew at least one of the guys that would be sitting up there on that Band Stand. Then as I stepped inside the dimly lit club, I saw him. I don't know why I expected him to still look young. Instead, he looked older, more beaten down. I felt a strange melancholy sadness grip my heart.
Although he was dressed in a more modest fashion than the other members of the group, there sat The Man—the greatest clarinet player I had ever known—the great John Stratford.
My thoughts were suddenly interrupted by John Bell's snide voice.
"The clarinet player looks more like someone who just wandered in off the street," he said, laughing at what he thought was a clever comment. "I'm surprised they would even let him get up there," he added.
Like the corporate herd animal he was, I heard James Sheffield laughing right along with his fellow Manager. "Yeah, they must be hard up for a clarinet player to let a guy dressed like that get on the Stand," he said.
Then before I could hardly get comfortable, the Group swung into the old timeworn standard, "When You're Smiling..." When it came time for John's solo, my eyes teared up with a mixture of happiness and a degree of sadness to see the man I had idolized so long ago now looking so old.
Then I looked at him again, more closely. By then he was nearing the apex of his solo. Soaring now above all the other guys, as I listened—once more I heard the John Stratford of old—riding the wild crest of the musical wave, soaring through his magical world of notes—notes that roared like the ocean at high tide—other times the sweet notes rose and fell like a gentle rain on a warm Spring morning.
As I listened enraptured, I was young again once more. I couldn't help remembering how I had loved listening to John and his group, the Dixie Irregulars, back in the old days.
I smiled in fond remembrance as my mind floated back to a bright sunny day down in the old Cannery on the Wharf. While John and his boys were taking a little break between sets, I had strolled over, picked up the Guitar Player's guitar and was working my way though the old jazz classic, "Don't Get Around Much Anymore."
Suddenly I saw a pair of shiny black shoes standing in front of me.
I looked up. It was John Stratford. He listened for a few moments. Then he smiled and said in that gravel voice, as if to confirm what he had suspected all along, " ... A Jazzbo... !"
Such is the respect and admiration I have held for him, down through the long years since, I have never forgotten that simple compliment. His simple honest assessment of my sparse musical abilities is one I shall always treasure.