Gene Gonder and Blues for Scrooge 1958
Oakland High School Christmas Assembly with the Gene Gonder Jazz Quartet
This post is in honor of my first “enlightener” (we’ve all had someone): Gene Gonder.
He was a crossroads that changed my life and impelled me through the years to the present. He was only a half-year older than me, but had been held back a half semester at Oakland High School for a minor pot-bust. While he was serving some time in Juvenile Hall, his mother wanted someone to paint a jazz band on his bedroom wall as a welcoming home present. A classmate girl friend who knew both of us had been telling me I really had to meet him. He was a jazz musician, pianist, and an “amazing person.” She arranged for me to paint the mural, so I went from my upper middle class house in the hills of Oakland to his lower class house downtown (nearer to where I was born, in the Diamond District), and painted a kind of stick-figure image of musicians with drums and trumpets, etc. on his wall (looking back on it, a terrible affair).
One evening at his house not long after his release, we sat in his little breakfast nook, his alcoholic mother passed out in her bedroom, his generally invisible father gassing airplanes at the Oakland airport, and he introduced me to the deeper ways and realities of jazz, to philosophy, poetry — in a cascade of auto didactical ideas, inspirations and explanations I’d never before encountered from anyone. There was conviction in him, authority, he seemed to have the inside info on so many things, from the fact that his heart was there, whole and alive. I left his house that night electrified, truly “switched on,” not with drugs but with the openings he described for me. In fact, he never tried to turn me on to pot, nor anything else, nor did any of his friends. Among them I was really a double outsider, dropping out from my own high school circle of friends, veering off onto my own track, and barely admitted to his circle of alienated genius youths, who knew of life so differently from me, many of whom had already been busted and jailed while still in their teens, and all (that I know of) for minute amounts of marijuana. They were Jazz Musician, as he was, heart-and-soul committed musicians, living in its deep intensity against the twists of their lives, and spent hours practicing runs to Charlie Parker records, figuring out chord changes from Monk, and occasionally playing gigs around town (Gene once complained of one R&B gig, where he had to play those repetitive, simple-minded chords). Gene could also play Bartok, and Bach, demonstrating on his upright piano some of Euterpe’s intricacies.
BLUES FOR SCROOGE
At the same time, I was the Commissioner of Assemblies at Oakland High School (graduating class of ’58), an elected post. Having sat with Gene in his bedroom listening to the Fantasy Record (red transparent vinyl, Poetry Readings in the Cellar, with jazz) of Lawrence Ferlinghetti on one side (“I am leading a quiet life in Mike’s place every day…,” etc., and Kenneth Rexroth on the other (Thou Shalt Not Kill, one of the seminal works for me, with its encyclopedic listing of classic Outsider poets and artists, many who died young, or committed suicide, with Rexroth’s roaring last lines: “You killed him, you in your Goddamn Brooks Brothers Suit, you sonofabitch!” thus attributing their deaths to monstrous society, a fine romantic idea of the time…), it came to me to have Gene and his chosen musicians and me, me reading a poetry version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, for the year-end Christmas Assembly. The narrative poem in the fresh, unadorned and imagistic Beat style of modern American poetics — a Poetry & Jazz version, me on a stool at the mic, his jazz band playing through and behind the reading, with the other student body officers in large abstract cloth costumes doing Kabuki-style pantomime to the side.
I sat in with poem in hand at many of our rehearsals, in Gene’s little Spartan living room, drummer, bassist, wind player (who never spoke more than a couple of sentences the whole time we worked together), and Gene creating the music along with the tonal mode and movement of the script.
The drama teacher came into the auditorium while we were rehearsing, and although himself amazed, said the student body wouldn’t “get it,” and that it would be a total failure. We didn’t care at that point. It was artistically sound and we were bound to it.
The piece lasted for about half an hour. At first, since I’d been doing comedy assemblies each week during the whole semester, people thought it was a comedy, and laughed at it. The pantomime probably underscored that, but so did the poetry.
“Have you ever noticed snow when it falls?
It falls down…”
It was supposed to be not funny, but offbeat and of course, cool. And even very serious, but conversationally so. But after the first few bursts of laughter the auditorium went silent, and they remained quiet to the end, the entire student body, racially mixed, social-class mixed — the compelling jazz, so professionally done, by mysteriously concentrated and humble students, and someone told to me later they’d been hanging on every word. At the end we got a standing ovation. The staunch fidelity to our vision paid off.
AUDIO CLIP OF PERFORMANCE
The audio clip of it in its entirety was recorded at the side of the stage on a reel to reel tape recorder. The sound is wretched and the words are mostly indistinguishable. I’ve looked everywhere for a copy of the script, thinking I’d seen it a few years ago going through my archive boxes, but to no avail. I thought I might be able to record the script anew over the music in the right places and edit them together. As it is, in its raw state, what shines for me is the original compositional structures and improvisations of Gene and his quartet, clear and authoritative after all these years. The traditional melody near the end is “Greensleeves.”
Here’s a photo of the actual performance that appeared in the 1958 yearbook. The caption read: “Shhh… geniuses at work.” The drummer is off to the right.
I lost track of Gene after leaving High School. He was swallowed up again into his world, music, difficulties, drugs and getting clean. I saw him once in Berkeley in the later 60s, a brief and awkward encounter. He struggled with addiction over the years, a friend of his told me more recently, and exhausted by it, shot himself in 1978. May God forgive him withal and bless him and take him into His Light.
(The only photograph of Gene as an adult that a friend had of him)