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Before they brown into oblivion the scanner has captured the old photographs that were fading on the wall, too close to the sunlight flooding the room, held them in some cloud its sez, stuck in posterity, as long as the power don’t go out again like it did yesterday. Poof – gone, nothing works. The bloke who took them, famous for his pictures of Billie Holiday, Eric Dolphy, Buddy Tate, you name it and he was there, is long ago, back when monochromatic negatives were the order of the day. Tri-X more than likely. Good job we have this digital representation to save us, cuz he’s long gone, passed into the other world, so he’s likely not reachable. I can put the pictures up on the computer screen four at once, or use one as a screen saver and off we go into another time, and back the memories come, flooding in, filling me full.

The twenty-year adventure had started upstairs in a scruffy two-story commercial building just south of Bloor on Yonge, right upstairs from what at that time was a hip clothing store. Two large rooms divided up into office, photographic studio, darkroom and our first record shop. A funky place accessed straight off the busy street by a cimmerian stairway – unlit, scary enough to deter fainthearted punters – to a corridor of padlocked metal doors. A commercial photographer across the hall, next door a wild Hungarian – a make-up artist for the Toronto Opera. His walls were lined with mass-produced abstract art for bank and office block lobbies. Buckets of paint everywhere. A different colour every day!

When I think back on it, all the shops were funky, suitably seedy, causing one of the local jazz hipsters, a black dude married into a family of famous musicians, to constantly advise us to smarten up, more chrome and plastic glitter needed if we were to make our mark on big city commerce. I wonder what happened to him?

Progress, as it was laughingly called, had us moving half-a-mile north to a ramshackle old house, the upstairs floor leading out to a roof that overlooked Rosedale Valley – sit in the sun on a warm day, sup a beer, smoke a joint, relax. Up in the ceiling of the office through an open hole, intended to be covered by a trap door, we were greeted every morning by our resident racoon peering over the edge.

Always being moved on by progress. Downtown to King West a couple of blocks east of Spadina. And the final home of the Jazz & Blues Centre at Dundas and Yonge, all three floors; basement, store and offices. Jack Newman, the landlord of the Imperial Pub next door, one of the last of the downtown neighbourhood pubs, loved jazz and rented the whole building to us for peanuts.


Of the four shops
that me and John Norris owned, rented from foreign investment landlords more like it, the favourite was down there on King Street. Half the first floor; the store out front, through a doorway to an office and dark room, out into a large open space where we produced Coda Magazine, ran-off the sale record lists on an ancient Gestetner, at night rehearsed our bands. Out back an antique furniture renovator. Upstairs, studios occupied by a children’s dance company and an optical illusionist. Perfect really.

Directly across the road a car wash. Next door on one side a copy shop, the other a parking lot, further along a couple of junk stores masquerading as dealers of heirlooms rescued from bygone eras; as always a greasy-spoon, a vendor of store fixtures, all independent commercial enterprises. To the west, just two blocks, the factories of the rag trade lining Spadina Avenue, operated by the lower echelon of society – immigrant labour. To the east University Avenue separating us from the towers of multi-nationals, hustlers abstracting their commodities through the stock markets. Producing nothing. Our store plonked at the division between high rise commerce and factory workers. Now called, so I’ve been informed – The Entertainment District!

We were considered jazz-o-philes, dedicated, a mix of merchandiser and creative entrepreneur, one living in the luxuriant tradition of the music, the other pushing the envelope. A suitable combination. An introduction to the story of two Toronto friends, and the story of “Telegraph Avenue”, the division between Oakland and Berkeley in California.

Finding myself in someone else’s story makes me wonder how Michael Chabon could know so much about our lives? Finding myself walking down similar streets, the noises and smells familiar. Did he have a subscription to Coda Magazine or a relative shopping at one of our stores. How else could he know so much about us, the inside story. Was he one of the teenage Jewish kids hanging around the King Street store, there among the Saturday crowds looking for deals, talking the talk. Hipsters one and all.

I’m so struck by what can only be coincidence that after reading 23 pages I return the book to the library and purchase my own copy from 32 Books in the Ringside. Add another gem to my collection, continue with this peculiar obsession of needing not to simply read a book; it’s a matter of ownership, holding it, smelling it, the heft, the hard cover texture, type styles, illustrations, exaggerated praise by famous authors printed on the book’s dust jacket.

And there it ends, by page 80, sidling into the world of Black Panthers, assassination, an ethnicity beyond my personal experience. An American world that is the history of jazz, predating the academic slickness of Wynton Marsalis. As I read, a recording by his brother – the talented tenorist – a CD (metamorphosen-Marsalis Music) that was purchased for a $1.50 in the Lahaina Sally Ann, is playing a noir soundtrack in the background.



Telegraph Avenue
Michael Chabon
Harper Collins Publisher Limited
ISBN 978-1-55468-207-2

Book One: Dream of Cream
Among the motley cast of characters, which shall be revealed as this story unfolds, is an over-the-hill kung-fu B movie action hero and his on-again off-again squeeze, a con-artist – the father of Archy – who we meet at a collectors convention. He ambles through the story, appearing time and time again, connected in many different ways with all the other characters. Initially through criminal action.

“Why’d I want to go and mess up my good thing driving your murder taxi around West Oakland” he said. “Tell me that? So the Marxist gangsters can roll over the running-dog capitalist gangsters, take over their drugs and cash flow?” (p. 77)

Brokeland Records – “the church of vinyl” – operated by Archy and partner Nat, both dreamers, is threatened by the arrival in their neighbourhood of a megastore, fully stocked with the latest everything, aptly named Dogpile, and owned by Gibson Goode a retired NFL quarterback, an arch enemy of Archy’s father, Luther the kung-fu actor.

Nat’s teenage son, Julie, living in a comic book fantasy world – Master of the Multiverse, who may or may not be gay enters the story: Twenty-five minutes to gay o’clock. Who rolls …through the night-time summer streets of South Berkeley and West Oakland, through the wildly ramifying multiverse of their mutual imagination? (p. 88). towed along behind his friend Titus’s bicycle.

Already you can imagine the cast of characters, the hip Mr. Jones, a funky Hammond B3 organist with his parrot Fifty-Eight perched on his shoulder making asides; a man in wheelchair who communicates through a voice-o-tron and is severely allergic to parrots; Chan Flowers a funeral parlour director with a shady past, all part of a surreal hipness utilising an hilarious collection of references including long-forgotten long-playing record labels, doughnut shapes and flavours, movie stars, clothing styles, exotically named automobile’s, baseball, flamboyant language – though never in excess – ultimately resolving into real enough dialogue. In a nutshell; America.

The first doubt’s about continuing this uphill battle against the megastore enter Archy’s mind: Most of all, he was tired of being a holdout, a sole survivor, the last coconut hanging on the last palm tree on the last little atoll in the path of the great wave of late modern capitalism, waiting to be hammered flat. (p. 108)

Book Two: The Church of Vinyl
Jumps right in, jazz legend Mr. Jones’s Hammond B3 being purchased from Rudy Van Gelder the fantastic recordist of Blue Note and Prestige, his record reviewed by Lennie the Feather, and the pipe he’s always sucking on a gift from saxophonist Archie Shepp, all this information perhaps known only to the jazz intelligentsia, too arcane for a casual reader! Mr. Jones’s parrot, which was won in a poker game, is trained to take care of the legendary pipe: Knock-knockin’ it against the sidewalk. Probably dropping its mess while it was out there. Bird better house-broken than a child of five. A few seconds later, the bird came flustering back to light on Mr. Jones’s shoulder. Passed back the pipe with its freshly emptied bowl (p. 132)

At this point in the story Archy discovers that Titus is his son, just arrived from Texas, a love child from a long-ago sexual union. And I become distracted by another set of parallelisms.

1963: We arrive in Toronto, immigrants from England, both skilled in our particular professions. Indigo’s new position at the Mount Sinai Hospital, guaranteed before leaving old Blighty, is in the paediatrics department where midwifery is not yet the accepted norm, still dominated by doctors determined to control this lucrative branch of medicine, even if the nurses being enticed to immigrate are often more skilled in the birthing of babies. The doctors are a conniving lot, often not in attendance at the moment required, off playing a round of golf with their cronies most likely, having their Cadillacs serviced, enjoying a glass of sherry at the club, leaving the “unqualified” nurses to cover their tracks, more than just assisting.

Both Archy and Nat’s wives are midwives, involved in a complicated home birth that needs the technical apparatus available at the local hospital. Gwen, Archy’s wife, a black woman in her final stages of pregnancy, struggling to overcome the arrogance and racist comments of the hospital’s Jewish paediatrician who has described her midwifery as voodoo, is waiting in the hospital waiting room with Aviva, Nat’s wife, to confront the doctor… the door between the waiting room and the examination area swung open and Dr. A. Paul Lazar, FCOG, came out. He appeared to be in a transitional state between the delivery room and the seat of his bicycle, a green scrub top worn over slick black Lycra shorts and a pair of Nike bike shoes. In this hybrid getup, he looked perfectly suited to his waiting room, which conformed to the general aesthetic of Berkeley doctors’ offices by freely mixing elements of a secondhand furniture showroom, a real estate title company, and the Ministry of Truth from “1984”. (p. 140)

Archy (bass) and Nat (guitar) are musicians. Even though there is the unexpected death of a band member, the cocktail hour for a political fund-raiser must go on. The funky trio groovin’ on an instrumental cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground”.

Lovers keep on lovin’
Believers keep on believin’
Sleepers just stop sleepin’
Cause it won’t be too long

The rhythm section consisted of a gray-haired older man in a white turtleneck, who had that deceptive stillness of the rock-solid drummer, whaling away and at the same time immobile as a gecko on a rock. A big dude in a preposterous suit, a younger man, played bass through a huge wooden organ amplifier that was the size of an oven. It acoustically lent a fat, muddy, molasses-black grandeur to the bass line. Off to one side, a grim countenanced stick figure of a white guy coiled up the notes in high jazzy meringues on top of the heavy, heavy bottom of the tune, a personal favorite of the state senator. He lingered there in the doorway, his hostess getting a tiny bit antsy. Obama tapping his foot, bobbing his close cropped head. (p.159)

I must be cautious to not tell you too much, it is, after all, Mister Chabon’s story, but the rhythm insists even as Julie’s mum Aviva cooks a pancake and bacon breakfast for her son’s new found friend Titus. Dancing about characters interweaving stories as complex as a Charles Mingus big band arrangement, soloists emerging unexpectedly. Multiple sources of information regarding pregnancy coming to fruition, details emotional and technical – that many might not have been aware. A dance between Negroes and Jews, not such an unusual combination in jazz music.

Chan Flowers, not a pseudonymous Bird, director of the funeral parlour and a local councilman of dubious character appearing as the enemy, a whole family of death including being on the run for a murder committed years previously, using the death of a local jazz legend, the request and burial preordained, to influence Archy into joining Dogpile. Failing miserably despite his offer of future economic security for Archy’s upcoming fatherhood. Join the Dogpile family!

In the cool penumbra of Chan Flowers’s office, Archy dropped into a wingback chair. It was big and soft as a grandmother, trellised cream chintz overwhelmed with pink roses. A chair for swooning in, for surrendering one’s dignity to, safe within the air-conditioned preserve of sympathy where, installed behind his desk, Chan Flowers received death’s custom with magisterial detachment, a gamekeeper crouched and watchful in a blind. Sweat cooled in cobwebs on Archy’s arms and forehead. (p204)

All the insiders, beneficiaries of the corporate move, attempting to persuade Archy to abandon his principles, of which there’s not too many, join the Dogpile “team”, even G Bad, Dogpile’s owner, the retired football star, inviting him to lunch in the company blimp. A zeppelin of black polymer, glossy as a vinyl record named the Minnie Ripperton. Adventures in Paradise.

“I already have a record store. A whole store that’s my own, half mine, not just a department in somebody else’s chain outlet, with bar codes and inventory software and probably a little badge with my name on it.” (p. 232)

Book Three: A Bird of Wide Experience
Just ten pages of family detail interwoven with the flight to freedom of the released parrot, a joiner gathering together the multiple stories so far revealed.

Book Four: Return to Forever
Do what you gotta do and stay fly. The message resounds as the disintegration attempts to revive, as I consider that Luther Stallings is the main thread to which everything is attached, by relation (family), fame (kung-fu films), crime (Black Panthers), reaching page 299 before this realisation, that Michael Chabon has not wandered too far from his love of comic books,. Fantasy figures abound.

I will end this review at the wake of Cochise Jones, the funky Hammond B3-er, held in the cleared out space of Brokeland Records, the open coffin set up behind the glass counter. A homage to more than a local musician.

The leisure suit that Cochise Jones had prescribed for his internment was nothing so common as loud, ugly, or intensely plaid. The gem of his collection, it was profound and magical in its excess. White, piped with burnt orange, it had a rhinestone-cowboy feel to it, except at the yoke and at the cuffs of its sleeves and trousers, where it flamed into wild psuedo-Aztec embroidery, abstract patterns suggesting pink flowers, green succulents, bloodred hearts.

Book Five: Brokeland
That’s enough from me. I don’t read books about jazz, they are for the most part filed alphabetically on the shelves, useful as reference. This however is not a book about jazz, more a jazz book. Seek it out; from your library, the local second-hand book shop, or if your budget runs to it, do as I did. A slow dense read through a delight of complex language (as is jazz music) conjuring up a time of individuality before…

Store exterior: Photographer unknown.
Store interior: Photographer Paul Hoeffler
Back row: David Lee, George Hornaday, Dan Allen
Front left to right: John Norris, Bill Smith