It was like nothing else in my life up to now.
Raymond Carver, “Cathedral”
Pilgrimage Play Theatre, original facade
Nestled in a chaparral-adorned nook in the Cahuenga Pass, the Ford Amphitheatre has had a quintessentially L.A. genesis and lifetime. Originally known as the Pilgrimage Play Theatre, it was built in 1920 by a Philly arts patron specifically for performances of her self-penned religious drama and was used as a site for religious performances for the next 44 years, a run interrupted only by (what else?) a fire and World War II.
Anson Amphitheatre, present day
In the 1960s and 70s, as the property deteriorated and attendance dwindled, L.A. County put on intermittent Shakespeare plays, dance recitals and musical performances. Among them was “Jazz at the Pilgrimage,” a series of free Sunday concerts presented via the Local 47 musician's trust fund. JATP became a destination for a murderers' row of Left Coast jazz artists, including Art Pepper, Mundell Lowe, Frank Rosolino (with Frank Severino on drums), Chico Hamilton, Henry Franklin’s band with Oscar Brashear, Charles Owens, Kemang Sunduza/Bill Henderson and Sonship Theus (plus a rotating spate of guests like Al Hall Jr., Kirk Lightsey, Dwight Dickerson and Kenny Climax), Harold Land (with his son Harold Jr.), Buddy Collette, Carl Burnett, Barney Kessel, Shelly Manne, Don Ellis and George Bohannon.
Many -- if not all -- of these concerts were attended by young musicians who would make up the next generation of LA's creative jazz scene, including two blonde twin teens named Alex and Nels Cline and their high school friends Lee Kaplan (who would later curate the series of memorable concerts at the Century City Playhouse in the late 70s and early 80s) and Michael Preussner (later the drummer for the Nels Cline Trio). “We often bought very powerful Ya-Sin Bazaar incense outside the theater after the concerts from two lovely local young African-American gentlemen who also turned out to be jazz musicians -- excellent ones at that -- Shams U-Din (Ray Straughter) and his brother Hamid (Ernest Straughter)! " recalls Alex Cline today. "We actually at one point wound up visiting the little back house/shed behind their parents' home in Watts where they made the incense themselves.”
Alex Cline [photo courtesy of Peak]
In many ways, when Alex Cline returns with his Band of the Moment to the Theatre Formerly Known as the Pilgrimage next week for the Angel City Jazz Festival, it will be a spiritual homecoming of sorts. Thirty-five years later, many of the same musicians who made their own pilgrimages to the jazz concerts as young teens now return to a revivified, rustic oasis to pay tribute to those summer days as well as the music they discovered during this particular time in their lives, to practice the fruits of a religious experience that had nothing to do with religion but with that first rush of musical transcendence that can galvanize the awkwardness and manic displaced energy of a difficult adolescence.
The Band of the Moment was formed, in Cline’s words, “as what I originally imagined would be a flexible unit potentially able to perform with a variety of lineups in diverse settings. Instead, its personnel has remained largely consistent, its members being mostly old friends, musicians with whom I’ve been playing for decades. Each one is an accomplished and distinguished bandleader/composer in his own right, and it’s a great privilege to be able to make music collectively with each one.”
The Powerhouse: John Fumo
The Fearless Leader: Jeff Gauthier
The BOTM members – trumpeter John Fumo, violinist Jeff Gauthier, keyboardists Wayne Peet and David Witham, contrabassist Steuart Liebig – plus Cline on his cornucopia of percussion instruments will feature music by three musician/composers who in Cline's words "has had a deep and lasting impact on me going back to when I first heard their work, when I was in high school here in Los Angeles: Finnish percussionist Edward Vesala, British bass guitarist Hugh Hopper, and Austrian keyboardist Joe Zawinul. Coincidentally, all three of these artists hail from across the Atlantic, and sadly, all three of them also have in common the fact that they passed away during the last few years."
The Fusionist: David Witham
The Wizard: Wayne Peet
"Upon learning of Hopper’s death just a couple of months ago, I resolved to use this performance as an opportunity to remember and honor these influential musicians by playing some of their music (infused at times, admittedly, with some of my own ideas and material), all pieces I had recently been toying with the idea of someday performing.”
The Caucasian Brainiac: Steuart Liebig
The Pilgrim: Alex Cline, with traps
The last section of the BOTM"s set is dedicated to the maverick drummer Sonship Theus, whose firery performances with Henry "The Skipper" Franklin's band would become a huge influence on young Cline's own playing. Thankfully, Mr. Theus is still with us and still at his eccentric best.
What a better way to honor one's heroes?
“Alex Cline: Free-Spirited Drummer” (R.J. DeLuke, All About Jazz, 3/09/09)
“Alex Cline’s Blended Vocabularies” (Kirk Silsbee, L.A. Citybeat, 3/02/07)
Greg Burk profiles Alex Cline (L.A. Weekly, 4/14/99)
Review of Alex Cline/Oguri/Carol Kim/Dan Clucas at the NOW Festival (L.A. Times, 7/31/09)
Greg Burk reviews Alex Cline/Myra Melford show at REDCAT (April 2009)
Soundslope reviews Alex Cline’s Continuation
The Clines profiled on NPR’s Weekend Edition
Nels and Alex Cline live in San Diego (1/19/09)
Jie Ma, Vinny Golia & Alex Cline live at Eagle Rock Center for the Arts (2/03/09)
Jie Ma & Alex Cline duo at Eagle Rock Center for the Arts (2/03/09)
Greg Bendian, Nels Cline & Alex Cline live performance