Satin Dolls

Growing up during the last days of the West Coast jazz scene

The Stuft Shirt was glamorous, with its long, red-carpeted entrance steps leading to huge front doors. Inside, I was mesmerized by the tall tropical palms and the plush red-velvet curtains that dressed the floor-to-ceiling windows opening onto the bay. The ladies all seemed so tall with Barbie hair, wearing the most sparkly and silky clothes. The men always had on busy-looking shirts, jackets and slacks with shiny belt buckles. Some men had big glasses with gold frames and oversized lenses à la Elvis.

My sisters and I were strategically placed in one of the red-leather booths in the corner, so our dad could keep an eye on us from the bandstand and where we'd be out of the way of the clubgoers. But we were hardly inconspicuous. The waitresses and the regular patrons would lay big kisses on our cheeks, leaving us to rub the red lipstick from our faces all night. They wore Danskin or gold lamé and smelled like a soup of cigarettes, industrial-strength Estee Lauder perfume and booze. (Back then, people didn't belly up to the bar to order beer and wine; they drank mixed drinks—martinis, rum and Cokes, scotch and waters—while they seemed to have smokes in both hands.)



The women at the Stuft Shirt were nice, but they weren't as elegant as the 40- and 50-year-old ladies at the Crown House and their well-established husbands. They weren't as cool as the women at the Boon Docks who always seemed upbeat in their low-rider pants, gauchos, miniskirts and hot pants with midriff shirts that tied just under their boobs—some of them didn't wear bras! They had lots of hair, light-blue eye shadow, and long fake eyelashes. I could look at those women all day—they were Barbie, and their hair was just like my Crissy doll's tresses.

The ladies at the Stuft Shirt invariably looked at us with a nostalgic kind of melancholy. Next to them were middle-aged men with their shirts half-unbuttoned and curly chest hair wrapped around gold chains. My sisters and I vowed we would never marry.

We rarely left the booth, except to go to the bathroom, and we treasured these expeditions. Sometimes we took extra time to cruise the restaurant and club, checking out what was happening. We would hide between the red curtains and the windows and look out to the bay or listen to what the adults were saying and laughing about as they dined.

My dad was the bandleader, or the boss, which made us proud—as did the inside jokes we shared through the course of an evening. We would giggle like crazy when my dad would sing "Satin Doll" because he would insert "dog" for "doll" because we had a little cockapoo named Miles whose black hair was so smooth we called him our "Satin Dog."

Other times, when my dad sang "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" and reached the line in the song about a "girl named Doris," he would substitute one of our names—Leslie or Laura or Leta—for Doris, and we would be thrilled.

We loved it when our dad would sing "Big Jim Walker" and "Goin' to Kansas City," and we would clap like crazy when he would play a solo or have a magnificent drum roll. We loved it when he would break a stick while playing; we would ask for the broken pieces as souvenirs—proof that our dad was working harder than anyone in the whole wide world.

Sometimes my sisters and I would make it to last call, but most of the time, the three of us would end up asleep in the booths, our faces stuck against the red leather. After banging the skins all night, our dad would carry us to the car carefully, protecting not just us but also his hands. A drummer's hands are sacred, even a drummer with three kids. So we would massage my dad's hands before he went to work and gave him a wide berth when he cooked since a cut could be disastrous. For the same reason, you didn't mess around when dad was hammering a nail. Then again, dad's hand-eye coordination was so acute that we never had a fly swatter in the house. He caught the flies out of the air.

My dad played at the Boon Docks with the Jimmy Vann Band, a trio that featured Jimmy on piano; my dad on drums; and our stepmother, Susan, singing. They played all the jazz standards and some Top 40 crowd-pleasers. They even cut an album, which was always displayed prominently on the piano next to a giant tip jar that people stuffed dollars into. Jimmy had lots of blond hair, and the ladies seemed to like him. There were always stories of Jimmy shagging this chick or that. I didn't see the magic everyone else did with Jimmy, maybe because he was 25 years older than me.

Susan had a beautiful, deep voice, and she was tall and thin with enormous eyes and dark hair. She got really tan in the summertime, and people thought she was Cher. She left for work in long, sparkly gowns, her face expertly made up, her hair in a glamorous 'do. My sisters and I though she was so beautiful.

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