A jazz mystery unravels

Times Staff Writer

It started as a rumor as wild and out-there as all the others over the last 30 years. There'd been many -- some elaborate, others prosaic -- speculating on the whereabouts of revered jazz bassist Henry Grimes. The stories ran up and down the scales: that Grimes had taken up acting; that he'd assumed another identity; that he died in 1984.

But this latest one had caught a good tailwind as it was yanked about from coast to coast.

Grimes wasn't dead at all. He was right here, in downtown Los Angeles, living in an efficiency hotel on a hardscrabble stretch of Main Street. For three decades he'd been in and out of odd jobs, at times without a permanent address, for a long time without his upright bass.

Soon the hard evidence materialized. In the winter issue of Signal to Noise -- The Journal of Improvised & Experimental Music, a photo of Grimes -- same resolute stare, same down-turned mouth, hair dusted gray -- peered out from the pages. The photos were accompanied by the story of one determined fan, Marshall Marrotte, a social worker, from Athens, Ga., who sifted through all manner of legal records to solve the mystery of Henry Grimes.

Once one of the most sought-after jazz bassists of the post-bop era, Grimes was as well known for his quiet demeanor as his big sound. Classically trained at Juilliard, he had a sense of time and an intricate bowing technique that set him apart from others on the circuit. In the late '50s and well into the '60s, he played frequent club dates, toured and recorded with marquee names and new-music pioneers alike -- among them Benny Goodman and Sonny Rollins, Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor. It seemed the ride wouldn't stop. Until after a gig at the Both/And in San Francisco when Grimes stepped off the bandstand and into middle space.

In the years since, the story served as a knotty mystery that many have spent more time embroidering than untangling -- until now.

"It's all a little overwhelming," Grimes will tell you in a mere rasp of a voice that only underscores the understatement. "Marshall told me that a lot of people thought I was dead. I thought, 'I could really use that plot for a horror film or something like that.' "

To witness the reemergence of Henry Grimes is a bit like glimpsing the missing link. "He was just so creative," says music historian Steve Isoardi, editor of the book "Central Avenue Sounds." "He really seemed to complement the new sounds that were coming from people like Ayler. He is really kind of the connection between the bass players of the last, say, 20, 30 years and the ones in the '50s and '60s. He was one of the greatest artists of that era, and to have him just walk away ... "

Jazz has often lost its heroes early. Its players are seldom tossed a second chance, which is why this is all the more remarkable. Given the myth and rumor, "it's all been appropriately weird," says drummer Alex Cline, who has been jamming with Grimes over the last few weeks. "It's interesting playing with a ghost. One who is quite solid."

Since his "reappearance," there have been requests for lessons, gifts of a bass and CDs of his old recordings. Already he's found a new generation of ears. Even a couple of gigs have floated into view. The first, today and Saturday at the World Stage in Leimert Park, is especially significant because the venue was co-founded by one of his fellow sidemen, the late drummer Billy Higgins.

"I've never had this kind of attention," says Grimes, 68, as bewildered by it as he is amused. "But I never stopped playing. Not in my mind."

An unlikely comeback gig

Reentry, Grimes is finding, isn't as easy as stepping away.

On a cloudy, late-winter morning, he stands before an eager group of about 50 high school students and their teachers at the Oakwood School in North Hollywood, his hands sunk deep in his pockets, his new bass leaning against him. It's an unlikely place for a comeback date, but this assembly will be Grimes' first semi-public performance since 1972. Next to him, also with a bass, stands Nick Rosen, a 17-year-old senior who has picked up the baton on this leg of Grimes' journey.

After warming up with a few CDs featuring Grimes in his prime, the gathering turns to take in the real thing. Grimes' eyes sweep the room. He appears a bit amused by all the fuss. Rosen trolls for questions -- gently nudging them away from the mystery and toward inquires about the music.

Grimes is alternately tentative and whimsical. To the question, "What does it feel like to have worked with all the greats?" he offers, "It kinda interferes with my sleep." He punctuates those one-liners with a teasing, slow-blooming grin.

"Henry, should we play one?" Rosen suggests. Self-contained, somewhat bashful, he has the bearing of a shadow. Until he leans into the instrument, into the first few notes. He stands, stock-still, cradling the bass, plucking and bowing alternately -- then simultaneously. His eyes seem focused on that middle space from which he emerged. In minutes, he is drenched in perspiration -- his forehead glossy, his bow an unraveled mess. Rosen's eyes lock into his new mentor's gaze, picking up cues and clues.

Rosen had been introduced to Grimes by Isoardi, who's an instructor at Oakwood. New to the acoustic bass, the student was moving out of punk and metal and into the wide open spaces of free jazz, obsessed with Ayler. Grimes, then, was the direct line.

Rosen devoured the magazine piece, then left a week's worth of messages at Grimes' hotel, hoping that he was open to taking on a pupil. Their initial meeting, over a meal at the Pantry, turned into a three-hour discussion of music. "He was excited" about the prospect of playing improvisationally, says Rosen. "He told me that he wanted to play free."

Since that moment, Rosen has been bent on making that happen, working the phones, assembling the first jam session early last month. Then when poet and World Stage co-founder Kamau Daaood got wind of the plan and offered his venue, Rosen stepped up his efforts, securing a lineup -- guitarist Nels Cline and his brother Alex, Dan Clucas on trumpet and cornet, and Charles Owens and Chris Heenan on woodwinds.

All were honored to get the call.

"Here was someone who we thought hadn't survived 'the jazz life,' " says Clucas. But he did survive -- because he walked away. "In a lot of ways he's forgotten the person he was. But it's coming back, [and] now there are two people competing inside of him."

Places fade but not music

Grimes' memory is indeed sticky, faded in places, an old photo album where the snapshot has slipped away, the clear recollection momentarily misplaced or just out of reach. He's that way about years and cities, musicians he's traveled and played with.

"It's a strange thing. Like an effect of battle," says Grimes. "Listening to these records I made with all these guys, I couldn't remember the place or how I got there playing. But I remember every note of the music. I mean every note."

Born in Philadelphia, Grimes started out on violin. The bass came later. His studies at Juilliard in the 1950s gave him a perk over other musicians, he says over lunch at a cafe a few blocks away from his hotel on a refurbished block of Main. "They liked the way I played. A lot of young guys never had the kind of thing I had."

He was fiercely busy and happy to be so. But it was with Arnett Cobb and Willis Jackson that Grimes really learned how to play. "Guys like that, they show you something. These guys would complain, 'I can't hear you! Play harder!' So, you're pulling the strings harder," Grimes remembers. "Then, I used to play with Buddy Rich. He played so loud and hard ... four beats on the bass drum ... it was like trying to survive in the jungle."

He moved from straight-ahead gigs to more abstract ensembles with ease. "The music was a feeling. And if you understand that feeling," says Grimes, "it goes right through you."

Until it took its toll. While working with Sonny Rollins' band in the 1960s, Grimes recalls, "it just kind of hit me. I don't know where it came from. It was a strange thing. I remember it all accumulating. I started a scuffle with one of the musicians. Wasn't like me at all. And after that I was kind of embarrassed. I had to get out of there." Henry Grimes was having a nervous breakdown.

For seven years he was hospitalized, treated for what would now be diagnosed as bipolar disorder. It was also during that period that he lost both his parents in quick succession, then drifted from contact with his sister and twin brother.

There were gigs here and there afterward, but the night Grimes walked off that bandstand in San Francisco, he knew it was time to step away. Sometime in the 1970s, he moved to L.A., where there were occasional sightings.

Bassist Roberto Miranda caught a glimpse of Grimes at a jam session near Loyola Marymount University. "It was about 30 years ago at someone's house: seven bass players, four or five drummers and thousands of horn players. I ended up standing right next to Henry.... In the middle of all this, Henry stops playing, sets his bass down, walks to the couch [and] immediately falls asleep. I thought to myself, 'Wow.' That was the last time I saw him until a week and a half ago."

Shortly after the move, Grimes sold his bass and made ends meet with janitorial jobs and construction.

"Physical work," he says, "releases some of the tensions." Even the far-out rumor about his turn at acting was true: "I did take a workshop. I've been writing some poetry too. It's the same place of expression. It's the way I like to do it. Everything coming through me."

Until Marrotte called and upended everything, Grimes had become accustomed to his new tempo of life. "I missed playing," he admits, "but I wasn't thinking about it. It wasn't that I didn't want to. It was like a concentration exercise. I would just reinvert the energy. Instead of worrying about 'I don't have a bass,' I just sort of got ahead of it."

Gazing into the distance

Second set, one Sunday night, Rosen's parents' living room: a modified version of the Henry Grimes Group thunders through its last rehearsal before the World Stage gig. The band travels through tones and colors, ride the waves and angles, Grimes' unreadable, intense gaze set on some distant elsewhere.

As the set curls into its close, Heenan suggests one more. "A ballad?" drummer Cline jokes, taking the plugs out of his ears. "I'm all for quieter."

"What would you like to do, Henry?" Clucas defers. There's no countdown. No direction. The players watch for the flicker, sail in, then dovetail.

Henry leans in. Feet planted firmly. Except for his busy hands, he barely moves an inch. His gaze is set to that middle space, his body covered in sweat. All of it -- again -- coming through him.


The Henry Grimes Group

Where: The World Stage, 4344 Degnan Blvd., L.A.

When: Today and Saturday, 9 and 10:30 p.m.

Price: $15

Contact: (323) 293-2451

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