For Dr. Legato, the preeminent saxman, the day begins when it begins; and if that sounds loose and self-indulgent, even at 78, not so. He’s more focused than ever; more tuned, literally and figuratively; and an occasional toke aside, straighter than ever; and yes, more pessimistic, more in search of solace, but genuinely boozeless, and sometimes ageless; altogether kinder, softer, quicker to avoid tenuous attachments; determined to guard his time; to the point that he’s even reluctant to follow news of the Donster-monster. No, the concern now is to stay close to the music and honor a growing revelation: at some point you have to let the ego slide.
Dr. Legato’s real name is Noel Jewkes. Reviewers use both names; “Legato,” because fans regard him as the master of smooth. It was Jewkes himself who came up with the name, an effort to change his musical identity, and at one point his was the Legato Group, sounding like something Robert Mueller must be investigating. Whichever the name, he’s always had a loyal following. The great Bay Area jazz critic, Phil Elwood (1926–2006), once noted, “I don’t know a better contemporary, modern saxman anywhere.”
As one fan puts it, he’s the “ghost of Lester Young.” The irony is that he’s not that well known outside the jazz world. Nevertheless, he has hundreds of fans in social media, particularly on YouTube. He’s the saxman’s saxman, particularly for aficionados of Bebop. Moreover, he’s playing somewhere most nights; at the Seahorse in Sausalito; in the city, at Bird and Beckett in Glen Park, or the Deluxe in the Haight; or the Backroom in Berkeley, or the Sound Room in Oakland.
Jewkes, a slender man with long fingers, plays piano, bass, flute, trombone, trumpet, along with tenor, alto, soprano sax; not to mention ukulele, Chinese flute, and guitar. He studied classical clarinet in Orem Utah, where he grew up, in a Mormon family, the son of a housewife and a cartographer. Two sometime musicians. His father was a jazz aficionado who believed that playing an instrument was “like going to musical home.” Every summer Jewkes’ father took him to a resort by the Great Salt Lake called The Lagoon, an amusement park and pavilion. It was there that Jewkes first heard Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, Earl Garner, and, most memorably, Duke Ellington.
At 20, Jewkes fled to California, following an escape fantasy about the West, and at the same time feeling New York was just too storied, too competitive, the lights too bright, and so he came of age in the dim lights of the Central Valley, an unlikely hot bed of jazz insurrection. He stepped off the California Zephyr in Fresno, in 1961, with only the telephone number of some “shirttail relatives.”
In an autobiography he’s writing, Jewkes describes the moment. “I recall walking up an overpass overlooking the train yards with my tenor saxophone in a big brown case in one hand and a suitcase in the other. At that point, I had a very insecure feeling that I’d done something irreversible and also frightening and adventurous. As I look back at that moment, some 52 years later, I realize that was the crossroads of my life. From that moment on I was committed to survive by my own wits and whatever God given talents I may possess.”
On the Road
And so began the vagabond years, during which Jewkes played with whomever he could, and wherever he could. His career is backlit by the social and music history of San Francisco. In the mid 1960s, he played with Flip Nunez at Bop City; he played in bassist Fred Marshall’s warehouse in Berkeley, located next to a bronze foundry and studio belonging to Peter Voulkos, the great ceramic sculptor. The studio was a venue for a concert that attracted several noteworthy critics who “more or less said in their reviews that we were on a lonely road to nowhere. We took this as encouragement ...”
He played with Bill Ham, who pioneered the psychedelic art events that became known as Light Sound Dimension (LSD). At first, Jewkes was attracted to the new culture if not the music. But gradually he began to reconsider. “Although I was greatly impressed by this new landscape of the mind, I was disturbed that we had abandoned everything familiar in favor of a nihilistic approach not only to art, but life as well. We were drawing big crowds, and this reinforced our belief that we had created something new and important.”
He spent a few months in a USO-like show in Vietnam, along with his common-law wife and then two-year-old son, Brian. Then returned to San Francisco just as the summer of love was blooming, and promptly fell in love with a rocker named Denise, the leader of an all-girl rock ’n’ roll band called the Ace of Cups. They married and settled down in a commune in San Geronimo Valley in Marin. “It was,” notes Jewkes, “a mixture of hippies, derelicts, and drug addicts, plus a few individuals who defied categorization.” It was also the birthplace of his daughter, Tora.
After a couple of years, unhappy with both life and music, Jewkes drifted back to San Francisco. He fell in league with two Chinese twin sisters, Betty and Shirley Wong, two pianists, and refugees from the San Francisco Symphony. They were putting together a group called The Flowing Stream Ensemble, a group of eastern and western musicians to play ancient Chinese music. They invited Jewkes, who learned to play the te-tzu, a traditional bamboo flute.
Throughout his professional life Jewkes has found himself in that inescapable artistic vortex, caught between the need to experiment and the need to live, enduring “selling-out periods” along the way, playing for bands on the hotel and country club circuit; and all the while watching the end of big bands and the advent of small ensembles.
These days Noel Jewkes’s daily schedule is fixed: Handle your business, make peace where you can. And then there’s the need to get new gigs and deal with singers; then lunch, nap, sit down, and write something, maybe a recollection for your autobiography, or more likely a song.
And as the afternoon goes by, if you’re lucky, maybe Kay, the very sweetest salt of the earth and your lead vocalist for the last five years, maybe she’ll come over on a whim and take away your laundry. Or maybe the two of you will get an idea for some new lyrics or a new album. Or else you’ll tell her your most recent dream, which is always full of musical spirits that have passed.
Or else, maybe you’ll just go the afternoon alone, and let your mind run because increasingly you’re thinking philosophically. It’s implicit in titles like “Cubist Blues,” “Tango in Blaque,” and “Viol Blues.” Your true north is Ellington, and sometimes you get there, even beyond.
Asked what he’s learned as a musician in his life in jazz, Noel told us, “It’s taught me to embrace a lot of different moods and looks in life that I was not aware of. The introduction to impressionistic music, exotic influences. Asian music, for example. I’ve also come to like writing descriptive music. Ellington is a good example, and I still consider him my main jazz hero. He loved to write music that served as portraits of his friends.”
In his notes for an autobiography, he writes, “I have learned through experience that there is a moment for everything and one of my musical duties is to find the music that fits a particular moment! (I like to play the weather sometimes because it’s so way beyond my control, that I feel like it is playing me. A good way to sublimate your ego!)”
Riding the A Train
Kay Kostopoulos lectures on organizational behavior in the Stanford Graduate School of Business. She also teaches acting in the Drama Department; she’s a graduate of ACT. By night she’s a chanteuse and lyricist who found a mentor in Noel. They’ve collaborated on four albums. In some ways, Kay has also become his protector and buffer.
It was at Kay’s house in Marin where we interviewed him. She tells this anecdote: “He does not suffer fools gladly, especially musicians. A wilting look from him can crush any self-satisfied amateur — I experienced it myself one night shortly after we met. Jazz musicians almost always end tunes spontaneously, by directing the band with arm motions or a nod. I neglected to motion the end of a song and it came to a bumpy ending. I sheepishly turned to him and said, ‘I guess I let that fall off.’ He stared back at me, stone faced, and said, in that distinctive baritone, ‘Yes, you did.’ I was crushed.”
The End of Jazz as We Know It
Sam Rudin plays piano, sometimes looking like a man in the throes of electroshock therapy. He also runs the Back Room on Bonita Avenue in Berkeley. Sofas, a kitchen, and a red brick wall. The performance calendar includes the likes of Clara and the Broken Barrel String Band; Faye Carol; and occasionally the Noel Jewkes quartet. “Yeah, Noel’s a real bebopper,” Rudin told us recently. He sits in with Noel from time to time.
My style is less modern, more bluesier, a more Fatswaller-ish approach. On the night we played, at the last minute, he switched to clarinet and wailed on the clarinet. I didn’t realize he had that in his repertoire. I joined in to play old standards, “A Train,” more commercial stuff. He’s really more focused on his own arrangements, which have a different kind of intentionality.
Rudin is a bit of a jazz intellectual — Kay calls him the Philip Roth of jazz. He’s come to believe that jazz has reached the “legacy” stage. Very much, he says, like classical music. He argues that the only people keeping traditional jazz going now are “aggregators” like Wynton Marsalis. He adds that we’re moving into the “end times” for traditional instruments because the area where music is most in ascendancy is in hip-hop and electronic dance music.
“What I’m saying,” he told us, “is that less and less music, whatever the genre, will be products of real time; it will be made in production studios.” He added, “the entire sweep of music history, all of it, all the way back to ancient folk music, all the way through European classical music along with jazz, blues and other kinds of folk music, all of it is to hip-hop as painting is to photography. Think of that.”
The Grateful Dread
Dr. Legato has no comment on the future of jazz. In the words of a friend, he “listens to his heart and musical voices. Movements and trends mean little to him.” Nevertheless, he’s well aware that the world for musicians like him is precarious, and always has been. He’s spent an entire life trying to escape musical and material bonds, now more than ever, looking for chords with “a nebulous kind of unresolved character” that he can tie into bits and snips of other composers: a paraphrase, a reference, which gives the audience something familiar. “It’s a message I want to share,” he told us. “The point is, I’m trying to get away from trends, but I also don’t want to alienate. I’m trying to teach, not change people.”
He admits that even as he feels more creative, can see more facets of an abstraction, he’s become more negative lately. Friends say he’s becoming more “otherworldly.” The appearance is partly his dark nature; his penchant for solitude, and also perhaps being unable to forget the idea of surgeons excavating his heart valves in 2007.
And then there’s the constant barrage of memory, the older the more vivid. Memories of Fresno, for example, where it all began, in a small room, inside a fake windmill at the Town and Country Lodge along Route 99. He joined a six-member black band and performed in places like the Palm Olive Bar in Fresno and a lounge in Sacramento called the Los Robles Motel.
It was also during that tenuous beginning in Fresno that he fell in love with Fay, his first real love, who became for him the personification of jazz, and for a while all the jazz spots in the central valley seemed like the land of Fay. She was the local Billie Holiday, in her svelte black dress, with two small children, a nurse’s aid by day, and the daughter of a popular jazz bassist. Her family warmly received Jewkes, couldn’t have been kinder, and he responded by helping to raise Fay’s boys, one of whom grew up to become a professor of black history.
But then there was the matter of his parents — this was 1962. They were shocked at the news of his new life, and their reaction worked against the relationship. It all might have ended there, once and for all, in their break-up-make-up rhythm, but 25 years later they found each other still again, and for a moment it was all just as they had first imagined. The note still carried. “Fated to be mated” they told each other, got married in Reno, and found a house in Richmond. But then in the next moment, the breath ran out, his ’round midnight occupation wore her down. She became lonely and depressed, and increasingly withdrawn. She also became ill, eventually retreated to Fresno, and, within a year, died.
Such is the anxiety hanging in the background, and then there’s his daily dread: the very thought of going to a gig. After so many gigs, after all these years, the energy and focus it takes — but then evening sets in, the audience awaits, and Dr. Legato, dressed elegantly, in black shirt and trousers, with porkpie hat and heavy, black-rimmed glasses, a specter from the 1940s and ’50s, drives off from his studio in Larkspur to the night’s gig.
In the end, it’s nearly always a nightful of answered prayers, as he winds through a room to the stage; nimbly moving among the music stands, settling in his chair, undoing his top collar button, tucking the short end of his tie into the label of the long end — a Jimmy Stewart moment, the unassuming everyman turned distinguished saxman — ready to do what’s he’s always wanted to, was meant to do really, taking up his instrument, tasting his mouthpiece, and then finally the first notes of the evening. At that point, he’s the first to admit, dread dispelled — “the music saves me.”
Sometimes during the day, if deep space is required, Dr. Legato indulges his longing to travel and sits down before his desktop monitor, closes out of Finale, his notation software, and climbs into his flight simulation program. He’ll take the left seat in a DC-3, that twin-engine workhorse from 1935, the plane that you could shoot to smithereens and still it would fly; the plane that seeded thousands of allied paratroopers behind German lines on D-Day. He lifts off out of SFO, propellers up to Hamilton field, north of San Rafael, at 200 mph, then over to Oakland, and back across the bay, maybe dropping down at Moffett, or San Jose and then home — all in real time. The correlation between flying and writing music is the need for absolute precision, paying strict attention to all the instruments, but the correlation between Dr. Legato and the DC-3 also holds: They’re both steady and sturdy, iconic and quirky, and above all, both were designed to escape gravity and then hold it.
The Noel Jewkes Septet includes regulars such as Charlie McCarthy/Nora Stanley - alto; Keith Saunders/Laura Klein - piano; Dave Bendigkeit - trumpet; Rob Ewing/Max Perkoff - trombone; Chris Amberger/Adam Gay - bass; Mark Lee/Bob Blankenship - drums; and Kay Kostopoulos - featured vocalist.
Upcoming gigs include:
March 31 | Chez Hanny | 4 p.m.
1300 Silver Avenue, San Francisco