Pasadena was a bust.
Lynden Ellwood could neither see nor hear us. His caregiver, an uptight, wafer-thin personal assistant named Alejandra, explained that he’d lost both senses following a massive stroke two years earlier. She refused to let us in and promptly closed the door.
“I guess it actually is easy to shut a door in someone’s face,” I said, and dropped down onto the sidewalk in defeat.
I was too depressed to drive, so Lien took the wheel. We were twenty minutes from Lowry’s, heading west on Beverly Boulevard. I had no appetite but a deal was a deal.
“Look,” Lien said, “you tried. Tried harder than most people try at things. This might be a good time to wrap up your film project. Closure, you know?”
I nodded and we traveled in silence for a few minutes.
“Why are you pulling over?” I asked, as we crossed Normandie.
“When I’m upset, I shop. You try it.”
“I don’t wanna shop. Anyway, where would I shop? Nothing around here but restaurants and convenience stores.”
Lien pointed to the left. “Just saw the sign: grand opening.”
“Smokescreen Vinyl.” Great. Another shitty used record store in a city where shitty used record stores were plentiful. I sighed, knowing that Lien wasn’t going to take no for an answer. “Keep it running. I’ll be back in two minutes. Maybe less.”
I dashed across the boulevard darting between moving cars. It was a tiny shop, first floor of a split-level mid-century modern in disrepair. I considered turning back, but the approaching sound of John Coltrane’s alto sax flowing from quad speakers mounted on the exterior walls of the shop lured me in.
Very quickly I realized that the store had been aptly named. Nothing about the exterior prepared me for the jazz and blues vinyl treasures within its four walls. Bill Evens, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Sonny Rollins, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Oscar Peterson. I glanced at the “cash only” sign near the register, thought about the pittance of money in my wallet, and wondered if Lien might be willing to offer me a short-term loan.
Through a tedious and time-consuming process of elimination I narrowed my selections down to five albums, all gems. The shining star, a pristine copy of the 1968 Japanese reissue of Jazz at the College of the Pacific. Pressed on 200-gram heavyweight vinyl, it reflected one of only two albums released on the short-lived Cherry Red label. At five bucks, the asking price was staggeringly low. I approached the cash register where an older man, large frame, dark complexion, sporting a white linen shirt and khaki pants, stood reading a copy of DownBeat.
“This shop is amazing,” I said. “I can’t believe I’m your only customer.”
“I’m pleased that you like it,” he said in a voice that was both low and cool, and extended a hand. “Niles Hannaford Washington. You can call me Niles. We only just opened this week. Anyway, not a lot of interest in vinyl these days, but we’ll do okay with mail order. Big international customer base.” He sorted through my selections, nodding in approval, then smiled.
“Maiden Voyage. Great recording. I was supposed to engineer this record but had other commitments at the time with Cheshire Records, so Alfred Loin handled production. I suppose he did okay.” Niles chuckled to himself, an in-joke kind of laugh that was beyond my understanding.
“I knew I’d seen your name before. Are you still in the business, Niles?” I asked, feeling equal parts anxious and awkward.
“No. Not for a few years. Last studio work I did was Weather Report’s Night Passage. Five, six years ago. You play?”
“Only records. My parents raised me on jazz.”
“Good jazz or bad jazz?”
“Bebop. Gypsy. Cool.”
“That’s good to hear. Your folks could have done a lot worse by you.”
I didn’t want to ask the question, because I was afraid of the answer. But we were already talking so I blurted it out. “You ever work with Dave Brubeck?”
“Oh, not so much, no. Teo Macero produced a lot of Dave’s work. Nice guy, Teo. We called him the producer’s producer.” He glanced again at my selections and held up Jazz at the College of the Pacific. “It surprises me that someone like you, someone raised on cool jazz, wouldn’t already own this record.”
“I own several copies, but I’ve never seen this pressing before.”
“Excellent pressing. I actually worked on this record. Second engineer. Uncredited of course, but good money nonetheless. Sound board was a relic from the Stone Age, but you work with what you’ve got.”
I pointed my index finger at the album cover. “You were at the recording of this show, December 14, 1953?”
“I’ve seen Brubeck live more times than you’ve gotten laid, far back as the early Blackhawk gigs. That’s where he got his big break. No one was playing jazz like that nowhere. It shook up the city, I can tell ya that much. San Francisco was swing and big band until Dave came along and woke the sleepers. I remember seeing a thirteen-minute variation of ‘Varsity Rag’ that blew the roof off the joint. Pure magic. And yes, like I said, I assisted on the recording of this album and as such was present on the evening of the show.”
“Then you know about the cough.”
Niles paused. “Of course I do. We used to refer to this record as A Cough at the College of the Pacific.
NEXT: Our story continues.