David Axelrod doesn’t do encores, as a rule. That’s a boldfaced and underscored imperative. There are other rules--"codes in life"--in his hip pocket that he’ll pull out when the time is right: Don’t welsh on a bet. Can’t fink--ever. Always take the offensive. Those are also imperatives. But the no encores rule doesn’t preclude a “second set,” in jazz parlance--when the personnel are warmed up, when things are getting good, when the magic can really happen.
Back in the day, as a producer and arranger at Capitol Records, Axelrod was a hit machine, the brains and imagination behind a succession of chart climbers by Cannonball Adderley and Lou Rawls, among others. Though he created the first black music division at a major record label, Axelrod could swing effortlessly from one genre, style or setting to another, and was known as much for his versatility as his idiosyncratic work with the Electric Prunes, David McCallum and South African vocalist Letta Mbulu, as well as his own prescient, genre-defying solo projects, “Songs of Innocence,” “Songs of Experience” and “Earth Rot.” He was one of the first artists to fuse elements of jazz, rock and R&B;, evoking spacious expanses with swampy backbeat, dustings of strings, incantatory break beats. And as fast as he ascended, he vanished.
But his sonic imprint didn’t. Forty years later, bars of sorrowful brass, a charging drum break, a lacy keyboard motif here, a slinky bass line there--began to surface in samples like aural ghosts, slipped into bridges of songs, stutter-stepped around choruses of rap and hip-hop hits. What had been ahead of its time, outside or completely uncategorizable was no longer.
Suddenly--again--Axelrod was juggling interviews with journalists around the globe, hanging out in luxe watering holes, doling out feedback to young musicians as if he were still in the booth at Capitol, passing on a pressing’s back story to “diggers” trying to amass his entire catalog, much of it decades out of print. His name--paired with those of DJ Shadow, Lauryn Hill, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Madlib, and pared down to the appropriately sharp “Axe"--became a passkey among a new generation of musical omnivores with an ear for beats and fills and space, who listened as a producer might--to the bones, the structure, to what makes it stand up straight, what makes it move.
For many, upon first listen, it was head-expanding. “It was kind of jazzy and psychedelic all in one,” says Madlib. “Then there’s that funky, hard bass and drum--Carol Kaye and Earl Palmer. It was like world street music. I think it was so out there because, well, he was probably so out there.”
“With David you can love Sun Ra and James Brown and Stockhausen too,” says Eothen “Egon” Alapatt, general manager of Stones Throw Records, who produced “The Edge: David Axelrod at Capitol Records 1966 to 1970.” “He’s the one rogue guy whose picture isn’t on the wall.”
Though it wasn’t the first, a sample from a 1966 Axelrod cut, “The Edge,” from “David McCallum--Music: A Bit More of Me,” was dropped into Dr. Dre’s “The Next Episode,” which became a mega-hit in 1999, giving Axelrod’s dwindling bank account a big boost and provoking a change of heart. After a lifetime of giving musicians work, he’d seen sampling as stealing jobs. “And it is!” he says. “But I can’t be hypocritical about it. I mean, come on. I thought the Lauryn Hill thing was cool, but then came Dre and that made Lauryn Hill look like she wasn’t even selling, which of course is ridiculous. I didn’t give the money away, I didn’t give it back,” he admits, palms up. “My man, Dre!”
The momentum built, much like one of Axelrod’s own big, sweeping, what’s-around-that-blind-corner soundscapes. An old acetate was found; new compositions were written, CDs released--reissues, compilations and new work. All of it culminating in a concert in London in 2004 (his first live performance in 25 years) and, on June 18, a celebratory screening in his hometown, Los Angeles, of a film documenting that concert at the Royal Festival Hall. In an evening of discussion, drinks and, of course, DJs spinning a career-spanning mix of his work in the courtyard of the Egyptian Theatre, Axelrod, at 75, will finally be properly feted.
Back in the golden era--of digging, that is--DJs and beat heads were searching for very particular sounds. “When we were first digging we were looking for drums with good hits with air around them, and strings,” says B+ (Brian Cross), an L.A.-based photographer/filmmaker/DJ who first discovered Axelrod while eyeballing records at a Goodwill in Culver City. There he came upon a copy of “Songs of Innocence” (1968). This was the early- to mid-'90s, the days of “raw digging,” before EBay and other forms of Internet assist. “Somehow I knew that name, Axelrod.”
The music was as enigmatic as the man himself. “There was always a dissonant edge that set it apart. That and extraordinary dynamics,” says B+. “The strings. This big sound. It was like somehow he was summoning the future, that you can project this environment, this moment into the future.” It’s a sense of spaciousness, borderlessness, that feels like a now-gone Los Angeles.
David Axelrod grew up in the Los Angeles of the ‘30s and ‘40s, when jazz was the popular music--on the radio, in the clubs, in the backspace of daily life. Fine music bloomed everywhere just for the picking. He conjures it: Jack’s Basket, the Chicken Shack, the Turban Room (“People always talk about the Club Alabam, but this room was directly below. Small. Intimate.”), the Renaissance Room, the Haig, Shelley’s Manhole; the “beautiful guys” who lived in them, such as Buddy Collette, Harold Land, Red Callendar, Gerald Wiggins; the greats who passed through, such as Bud Powell, Duke Ellington, Carl Perkins, John Coltrane. After some names he knocks wood. “The dead ones. That used to drive Cannonball crazy!” He’s superstitious--about death, about the mysteries of creative process, or anything close to the heart, it seems. Also, he warns, “I digress a lot.” But the side trips are the main road, his story--the hot rods, the drugs du jour, the hip vernacular salted in for verisimilitude.
We sit in the quiet dimness of his North Hollywood apartment on an intensely warm day in May, the blinds closed against the worst of the sun. A huge wall-unit blasts refrigerated air, tousles the wavy mane of white hair that lends him the affect of both up-all-night scientist and rakish conductor--which is close to the inner truth. This apartment, downstairs from the one he shares with his wife, subs as a studio. The space is simple, spartan, giving only grudging clues of a grand and circuitous past. There is a keyboard; a pad of score paper and a stopwatch on a drafting table. Next to that, a rack of LPs on display: Sun Ra, Harold Land, Cannonball Adderley, his own solo work, a boxed set of Schoenberg. (“I always thought the ideal record store would have the whole thing alphabetical instead of broken down into what kind of music it is,” he says. “Why is that necessary? Will you tell me?”) Stacked on low tables are a rhyming dictionary, the collected poems of William Blake.
Axelrod can be flinty, even truculent--then smooth it all with charm, chased with a bawdy story told in a late-night DJ’s voice. His conversational style tends to lead with a disarming salvo (“What high school did you go to? That’s no real school! I went to Dorsey! That’s a real school.”) that puts you just off balance, so he has control of things, can pace them the way he likes.
He’s a former boxer, but most likely his technique comes from years of negotiating shifting territory. Axelrod’s family lived on 30th Street just a few blocks from Crenshaw Boulevard--what is now considered South L.A. but back then was known as the Westside--in a modest, middle-class mixed neighborhood in transition. That curve of Crenshaw as it veers south was one of Axelrod’s favorite streets. “Some nights there would be jazz and some nights there would be rhythm and blues--at the same room. People are always talking about Chicago, but we had that right here,” he says. “And there was this place nearby, on 28th and Crenshaw, on the east side of Crenshaw. I used to play drums there with Gerald Wiggins.” More to the point, “I was Wig’s chauffeur, his bodyguard, his bottle-getter. You name it.” It was just one of his ways into the fold. “I mean, it was crazy. He was Wig, and whatever he wanted done, we did. I punched out a couple of dudes for him!”
Axelrod really wanted to be a writer--had decided so at 13. This music thing, as a vocation, hit him much later. “I’m an omnivorous reader and I got everything from reading, and that’s how I learned music too. From books. Walter Piston’s book on basic harmony.” He learned scales from Wiggins, a pianist, and was taught to sight-read at Mt. Vernon Junior High and later at Dorsey--until he dropped out. “I just didn’t give a damn. Gerald taught me how to read in time, to tempo. I played with him once in a while. He was getting paid for a duo, and he’d keep the money,” Axelrod remembers. “But it was cool because I was getting all the liquor I wanted to drink and I always walked out with chicks. Always. The strangest thing is drummers always get the chicks. It’s something visceral. Even if they can’t play.”
There were card games at Wiggins’ place, a de facto hangout. Or maybe an impromptu cutting session at Red Callendar’s house pitting Carl Perkins and Oscar Peterson against the great Art Tatum. “Tatum went over to the piano and played ‘Little Man You’ve Had a Busy Day.’ [Expletive!] Ran that thing out to dry. Oscar Peterson is sitting there looking like, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ It was just insane. It was so hip. See, those kinds of things were just going on. It was just a great way to grow up. I learned so much.”
It makes every bit of sense that Axelrod would run the streets and interconnected soundscapes of a city as broad and self-defined as Los Angeles--a sound smear of jazz and rhythm and blues, psychedelia and rock ‘n’ roll, tinges of Latin and new music.
“Dave knows no color,” says his friend, producer and arranger H.B. Barnum, who just happened upon Axelrod one night in Leimert Park only minutes after Axelrod had been stabbed in the stomach, jumped by a carload of cruising Mexicans from the Eastside. “Who knows why he was there? Probably he was going to hear some music, probably out having a smoke. Then all of a sudden there’s a fight.” But Barnum got him to the hospital. They talked sports--not music--on the way back, exchanged numbers. It was the beginning of a prolific working relationship. “He had such a vast knowledge of jazz,” Barnum says. “Knew the history. Knew how to get in touch with people. He was like a history book walking. Gerald Wiggins was like the godfather, and Dave would get this daily interaction--Hampton Hawes, Monk, Tatum, Sweets--all the legends sitting around playing pinochle.”
“Not everyone could hang with Wig,” says saxophonist, clarinetist and flutist Buddy Collette, “but he loved the way Wig played. That was his inspiration. And Dave was always promoting stuff, putting together record dates, wanting to put on a show, getting guys work. He could get people excited. Dave could make people believe him. His face and his smile: It was like a work of art the way he would do it. If he’d ask for something, he’d lean in, move his shoulders. You had to go with him.”
It was a journey in form as well. Much later, when Axelrod started writing, musicians took leaps of faith. “It seemed like he liked everything. That was before all that labeling,” says Collette. “He had a basic idea and a lot of creativity. It was always a little unusual and different. It had its own feeling. Since he didn’t have the whole schooling approach, if he had an idea he got it down the best way he could, just figured it had to work this way.”
And it was seldom music of the cultural moment, says Barnum. “He studies and listens. He’s remembering and experiencing, and he might be crossing Muddy Waters with Stravinsky. The trick is to convey that to me or the engineer--with everybody watching.”
For all of the influences, why did jazz and rhythm and blues take hold of him the way they did? “Why? I could never explain it,” says Axelrod, edging toward testy. “And I don’t want to. And when I hear people do, I know they’re lying. Do you think I know what I’m doing here?” He gestures toward the keyboard, the score paper. “What I mean by that is when it’s happening I don’t know why, which is why I get nervous before I hear it. I still feel like throwing up before record dates. The thing is that other people go back through [their work]. I never do. When I finish this score page, I set it here and start on the next score page,” he says, making an imaginary stack that grows and grows, “until it’s over. I write ‘Finis!’ then pack it up and call the copyist. I have to trust that it’s going to be right. And guess what"--he pauses, knocks wood--"it usually is.”
His first producing job was a traditional jazz date, an album he can’t recall, for Motif Records. “There was a studio called Audio Arts, I think on Melrose, and a guy named George Fields, who was a brilliant harmonica player who could play everything from jazz to Bach, he was the engineer as well and he owned it. He started teaching me about the [mixing] board. And we had something in common--we liked reefer.”
Axelrod began to pick up tricks, ins-and-outs, producing numerous jazz albums. Moving through clubs and record dates, he freelanced with bluesman Jimmy Witherspoon and worked with exotica vibraphonist Arthur Lyman (on “Taboo Vol. 2") at Hi Fi Records and, most notably, Harold Land on the seminal “The Fox” for Hi Fi Jazz--which put the lie to the term “West Coast Cool.” But, Axelrod says, “I still, always I had this thought that I was going to become an author.” Then one day he “just wandered over to Harry Harrington’s house, this 6-foot-6 black dude,” a friend of Wig’s, of course. “It was 1960, I guess, I think I’d left Hi Fi Records because nothing was going on there. I just split. So we lit a reefer and I laid down on his couch and he said, ‘I’m going to play something for you.’ And what he put on was ‘Birth of the Cool,’ and my brain turned to mush. I made him play that thing three times--and then I got up and said, ‘I’m going.’ He says, ‘Where are you going?’ ‘I’m going to Wallach’s.’ The biggest music store in the city. And I went over there and bought the record. That record changed my life. I said: ‘This is what I gotta do.’”
Axelrod’s imprint--Adderley’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy!,” Lou Rawls’ “Love Is a Hurtin’ Thing” and other LPs and singles--was an essential part of the backspace of the day, after-the-fireworks music or a dimmer-switch for a quiet Thursday night. This was conversational rhythm and blues/soul music/soul jazz, full of sweetness and lust and longing, love and hope. And those records--those songs--were everywhere.
Oh yes they were, remembers Axelrod. "[Capitol distribution executive] Stan Gortikov leaned into my office one day at Capitol and said, ‘You have a smash hit record.’ And I go, ‘What’s that?’ He went, ‘Lou Rawls’ “Live!” ’ He said, ‘We got an order from Chicago and they want 120,000,’ and at that time no one was thinking in terms of platinum, which you have to do today. It was just crazy. It was like one of those great streaks of our time.”
When Axelrod arrived at Capitol in 1964 it was like hitting the bull’s-eye. “That’s where I was aiming at. It was the only major out here,” he says. The studio was his laboratory--and what he wanted would always lean just left of convention. “See, I love the bass. The first I usually put down on the score pad is the bass line. Then I work from there,” he explains. “I just started changing the accents during the rhythms when I started listening to Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Especially Igor! Igor really messed with rhythm. ‘The Rite of Spring’ turned everybody around.”
“I think he was one of the last of the creative people taking real chances,” says Collette. “He might have been a little ahead of his time, doing what he was doing right out of his head. Things were happening right on the spot because that’s the way he did it. And play it back 20, 30 years later, listen to it again a few more times--the magic is still there because you hear different things later.”
“His writing was very, very strange and abstract. So you had to really concentrate,” says drummer Earl Palmer. “There were these strange chords, and he’d put them in what seemed to be strange places, until you heard them.”
Axelrod could afford to step out some creatively--Adderley was hitting big, and eventually, he says, “everything Lou was doing was crossing over. [Artist & Repertoire Vice President] Voyle Gilmore calls me and says, ‘Let’s have lunch,’ so we go down to the Record Room at the Brown Derby. I hate to discuss business and eat, I tell him, ‘So let’s do it right now.’ So Gilmore says, ‘I’ll give you--' Then he mentioned a figure that was so insane to me, so wacky to me that I couldn’t believe making this kind of money. And I just looked at him. He took that for a no. Then he upped it. Then he threw in a car. ‘Any car you want!’”
There was a Lincoln. And later he bought a ’65 Mustang. “I’d get in drag races on Van Nuys Boulevard. I never lost a race. Then I sold it. Got tired of it. That toy went out the window. That’s what kept happening. I just had so much money. It was absurd. And what do you do with it? You spend it! I didn’t pay attention to it. It was just something to have. That was the end of that [expletive]. Very strange. But it was fun.”
Often there isn’t one particular thread that makes the tapestry unravel. After Alan Livingston, Capitol’s president, left, Axelrod parted ways with Capitol to produce his own projects. The business was becoming less about the music and more about the bottom line. Not long after, he lost a son, Scott, then his ace, Cannonball, to a stroke, and then his wife, Terry, was in a near-fatal car accident. The hits just kept coming: “That was a terrible period of time. We don’t want to talk about that.” Knock-knock.
When B+ got his copy of “Songs of Innocence” home, he kicked back for a listen. “I liked that it wasn’t jazz or soundtrack--that it didn’t quite fit into a category. It sounded like what Portishead or Shadow were trying to do.”
He started digging for more. As were others--this Axelrod thing became proprietary, gathered steam. “People were like, ‘Hey, how’d you find out about him?’” says B+.
The royalty checks started to wend their way to Axelrod, who by now had moved out of his trophy home in Encino--first to a “tar shack” in Tarzana, where he nursed Terry back to health, and later to this complex in North Hollywood, which H.B. Barnum paid first and last and security on, saving his life again. “They don’t make ‘em better than H.,” Axelrod says. “He’s my brother.”
This is where B+ first met him on an assignment for the British style magazine Dazed & Confused, photographing him for an issue on hip-hop’s “trendsetters.” Axelrod had been nominated by James Lavelle, founder of the Mo’ Wax label, which would later release “David Axelrod” (2001), featuring tracks from a “lost” project recorded in 1967.
When the acetate of those sketches surfaced, B+ was one of the first people Axelrod called. “It was about the heaviest record you could find,” B+ says. “It was like finding an unfinished piece of art and it was at the moment when his work was most sampled. In terms of digging, the idea is to find the one most super-obscure thing that didn’t get out. So this was super, super-heavy holy grail.” It’s what set everything in motion--the Mo’ Wax album, the London performance and, now, the DVD release of the concert film “David Axelrod Live.”
The checks are still arriving, as well as journalists and DJs and musicians with requests and questions. And when they ask him about the present and past, specifics about time and place, Axelrod bristles. “When you see dates, just put a question mark next to them. Dates, times when something happened or occurred, they’ve become unimportant,” he says, leaning in, using his shoulder. “Why are they important? I don’t care. I’m here now.”
For information on the June 18 screening of “David Axelrod Live,” contact the American Cinematheque at (323) 466-3456.