Satin Dolls

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

Last July, I attended a tribute to the Gerry Mulligan Quartet at the Lighthouse nightclub in Hermosa Beach. Since my stepdad, Bob, had been Gerry Mulligan's original bassist, the Los Angeles Jazz Institute invited him and his family to hear a couple of concerts featuring works by Mulligan and some Stan Kenton. Bob was honored and said a few words about what it was like back then.

People talked about the Balboa Pavilion and Rendezvous Ballroom, the Newport Beach dance halls that featured Kenton's band as well as those led by Artie Shaw, Ozzie Nelson, Benny Goodman, Guy Lombardo and Tommy Dorsey. They talked about the birth of Pacific Jazz Records, a catalyst that spread the West Coast jazz movement. William Claxton, the famous jazz photographer for the record label whose distinct images surged the movement, was there as was a fan from the old days who approached my stepdad holding an album cover with a picture of four very hip guys with pencil mustaches and big attitudes. He told Bob that when he saw that picture and heard the music, it changed his life. It was wonderful, doubly so when they played Kenton's music since my own father, Jack Lynde, a drummer who played the Southern California club scene, had toured with the legendary bandleader.

Everything was lovely until I went to the bar for a drink and a man in his late 30s asked me what I was doing there and if I really even liked this kind of music. I wouldn't have minded if it weren't for his highbrow attitude and look that assumed I was some bimbo off the beach who happened to wander into the wrong members-only function. I arched my eyebrow and told him about my dad and stepdad. That's how I fit in.

I could have told him more, that long before we were 10 years old, my sisters and I were the princesses of the Orange County nightclub scene, dolled-up in our fanciest dresses, our hair brushed into spun gold.

Our dad chauffeured us to various smoky clubs, where our reserved booth always waited. The bartenders knew us by name—Leslie and Laura and Leta—and they knew our drinks without asking: Shirley Temples, straight up. They also knew we were lousy tippers, but they didn't mind because we always had a good excuse: our allowance money was in our dad's pocket, and he couldn't be bothered to give it up. He was busy playing the drums for the paying customers.

Long before anybody ever dreamed up Take Your Daughter to Work Day, our jazz-drummer dad picked out special weekend nights—mostly the nights the babysitter flaked—and took us to work with him. The occasions were rare, probably less than 20 times total, but these strange and special evenings were among the best of my childhood, beginning with the fact we got to stay up past midnight.



Of course, band rehearsals and late-night jam sessions in our Los Feliz living room were common. Everyone—players, wives, friends—smoked, and I recall being amazed at how long an ash could get before falling into a guitarist's lap. All that mattered during those rehearsals was getting the sound right. My parents were the first in their crowd to have kids, and all the musicians played with us endlessly. Guitarist Bobby Redfield, one of their best friends, would tickle us and give us guitar picks to play with. I don't think there was a time growing up when there wasn't a great horn or piano player hanging around the house.

My parents' marriage didn't last. By 1970, they'd split up. But even as they went their separate ways, the music never stopped. Each found love with other musicians—my dad with a singer and my mom with a bass player. We went to live in Hollywood with mom and our new stepfather, Bob Whitlock, who in the 1950s had played bass alongside the likes of Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker and Sarah Vaughan. Again, we lived our lives to the highs and lows of a live jazz soundtrack. Also to its chord changes. One of those swept us into Orange County a couple of years later, when my dad remarried. He and his singer wife, Susan, bought a house in Huntington Beach with room for my sisters.

By then, we knew all about gold lamé, where to find the best Shirley Temple and which cocktail waitresses were generous with the Maraschino cherries. We inhaled second-hand smoke and tossed around the names of Dizzy, Sarah, Ella, Chet, Charlie, Miles, Stan, Billie and Louis. Among our Barbies were drum sticks, horns and microphones. And we knew good jazz when we heard it. We heard it all the time.

The Stuft Shirt was a bayfront restaurant on Pacific Coast Highway in Newport Beach. In its heyday, the Stuft Shirt was a busy restaurant, a spot where the valets parked the fanciest cars—the Eldorados, Rolls Royces and Excaliburs—up front and where distinguished-looking men would flip the maitre d' some cash to be seated quickly.

It was one of the places my dad took us when he said, "Daddy is taking you to work," and it was one of our favorites. There was also Boon Docks, located in Newport Beach a little north on Pacific Coast Highway, that, despite being located in a bank building, had a much more casual feel. With its bamboo barstools and palm trees, it attracted a younger and hipper crowd than the Stuft Shirt. And then there was the Crown House in Dana Point where we ordered crêpes Suzette and bananas Foster.

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.

If we went to work with Susan, it was usually at the Crown House, where Susan sang alongside a pianist named Buzz Watson, a portly guy with a red face and short, spiky hair that almost looked military. There could be no two people more physically opposite, but they worked well together onstage.

When the crowd at the Crown House found out we were the singer's daughters, they'd tell us how pretty we were and how much we looked like our "mom." We'd glance at one another's blue and green eyes and blond hair then look at our stepmom's dark hair and eyes, politely nod our heads, then whisper among ourselves that these women were insane.

Susan was the main event for my sisters and I, but the Crown House featured a sideshow for us, too: Stevie, the tall, thin cocktail waitress with a gigantic platinum afro. We used to call her the human Q-Tip. She had a raspy voice, two-inch nails and never wore more than a half-yard of fabric on her body. Stevie always had a cigarette burning in an ashtray at the bar, and she would take long drags while waiting for the bartender to fill the drink orders. We supposed she didn't have kids because she always looked at us like we were aliens, which was probably the way we looked at her, too.

 

By the time I became a teenager, Orange County's club scene changed. Disco and disc jockeys replaced many of the live music clubs, thanks to such movies as Saturday Night Fever. This mutation of the nightclub scene changed the lives of musicians. That meant life changed for my parents—both of them got day jobs—and that meant life began to change for me.

But my dad continued to play at night. When I was 14 and 15, my dad began to allow his daughters to bring friends along when we went to work with him. In fact, there were a few friends in my group that would jockey for a chance to accompany us to Alisio's South, a club in Costa Mesa on the corner of Newport Boulevard and 17th Street.

Alisio's had great food but was more casual than some of the other clubs my dad played. The Vegas-style crowd didn't hang out here, just people wanting a big steak, a dark room and some good music. Straight-ahead jazz wasn't in demand at many of the clubs anymore, so the bands made concessions to play more popular music and Top 40 tunes.

For me, getting out of Huntington Beach on a Friday or Saturday night before I could drive gave my friends and I something to talk about for a week. At the club, we could also sneak a smoke without being suspected since everyone else smelled like smoke. Sneaking alcohol was nearly impossible, and I was further dissuaded by my dad's life-and-death threats about the consequences of the ABC—Alcohol Beverage Control board. I didn't dare try to drink because I didn't want the guilt on my conscience of shutting my dad's club.

I loved taking friends to work with my dad so they could see why my life was so different from theirs. My parents worked at night and dressed in tuxedos and gowns; their parents worked during the day and wore business suits. Their parents always seemed so normal.

When my dad would pick up me and my surfer girlfriends from the beach before we could drive, or if he was shuttling us to the mall, he would have the old jazz station, KKGO, blasting on 10 . . . with hip teenagers riding along looking at one another in bewilderment. He'd beat his fingers on the steering wheel when a particularly good riff would pop up.

At 2:30 a.m., when my parents got home from work, it felt was like 6 p.m. to them. My dad would often be keyed-up and looking for a quiet household chore to do, so he would water the lawn. It seemed like a normal thing for him to do after work, but more than one neighbor in our Huntington Beach tract thought it was odd to see him out at 3 a.m. watering the lawn—in his tuxedo.

I'm now in my 30s, the age of the ladies who used to watch my dad play, and I must admit, I might think it a bit odd to see a man watering the lawn in a tuxedo.

The Boon Docks is now Bistro 201, and Crown House is known as the Salt Creek Grill. Alisio's South is an Outback Steakhouse. The Stuft Shirt has undergone a dozen name changes since those days—most recently, it was called Cano's—but the white-arched monstrosity has sat vacant for a couple of years.

Obviously, I've undergone some changes, too. It's been more than 15 years since I turned 21 and could have patronized the club without my dad, but I never wanted to spoil the memory. I was always afraid it would be smaller and cheaper than I remembered.

I still listen to jazz—the old stuff—and I like when artists such as Iggy Pop, Elvis Costello and Debbie Harry do covers of the old standards—though I'm just as likely to listen to the latest by David Bowie, Chris Isaak or Nick Cave. Actually, I'm just as likely to listen to the stuff my kids are into: Pink and Britney Spears and Barney.

Still, I've written articles about some of the jazz players I grew up with, including Jack Sheldon, who still cracks me up, and Bobby Redfield, who tickled me as baby. When I've interviewed them, they've asked about my folks.

Dad and Susan divorced more than 15 years ago. Susan remarried and works as a hotel executive. Dad got cancer of the mouth, probably a result of first-, second- and third-hand smoke in all those foggy clubs. He had successful surgery and has recovered, but he doesn't play the clubs anymore. He teaches drums to kids, mostly, kids who usually don't know about Stan Kenton, though sometimes their parents do.

Bob had a successful computer business, then retired. He doesn't play anymore but he does find himself on the occasional panel talking about jazz while also advising jazz writers who need information about the old days. And though she hasn't been mentioned, I feel I should mention my mom, who has been married to Bob for more than 30 years now—after being married to my father for 16. She still listens to jazz, loves jazz, and understands it and the men who play it.

Me? From time to time, I go to something like the Mulligan tribute, where I meet not only people from the old days but thirtysomething know-it-alls who ask you if you even like this kind of music without knowing you lived it. You know, that guy at the bar turned out to be nice enough, an avid jazz fan and member of the LA Jazz Institute. He nearly fell off his barstool when he heard of my lineage. He told me that he spent a year trying to get in touch with my father because he was working on his second book about Stan Kenton. And he wanted oh-so-much to be introduced to my stepdad to tell him how great he thought he was and that he wanted his autograph.

I smiled as I listened, pleased to hear that my father and stepfather still have such an effect on people. I told him I'd be happy to facilitate an introduction, and the adult in me ushered him back to meet my stepdad, Bob . . . though the little girl in me stuck my tongue out at him behind his back.

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