Rose Gales grew up around music. She took piano lessons as a child and played for the junior choir at church as a teenager in Houston.
Then she moved to Los Angeles in 1960 and fell in love with jazz.
The music was bold, creative, freewheeling. “I had never heard nothing like that before. I said, ‘What is this?’” she told me. “I started taking lessons and hanging around.”
Back then, the Crenshaw area was a hub of avant-garde culture and brimming with jazz clubs. Rose was hanging around the popular It Club on Washington Boulevard when she caught the eye of Larry Gales, the bass player for jazz legend Thelonious Monk.
A few years later, she married Gales and they began hosting jam sessions at a Hyde Park coffeehouse and in their West Adams home. “It was mostly Larry’s friends,” she said. “I’d play with them once in a while, but I wasn’t in their league.”
Maybe not — her friends say Rose Gales is in a league of her own.
Her husband died of leukemia 19 years ago, but the music didn’t stop. In fact, Gales has been hosting weekly jam sessions for jazz musicians for almost 40 years now.
She’s gone from sidekick to matriarch of a close-knit community of jazz musicians.
“I don’t know anyone else who’s done what she has done,” said vocalist Dwight Trible. “She’s got to be in her 80s, but there she is, every week, keeping the tradition going. She’s inspired so many people over the years.”
For that, she was honored Sunday night during her jam session at the World Stage in Leimert Park.
Gales isn’t much for honors. She doesn’t want to be a role model or consider herself an icon. She somehow manages to be crotchety and gracious at the same time.
She wouldn’t tell me how old she is; musicians don’t feel comfortable talking about age, she said. “Somebody might hear a number and think you’re getting too old to play.”
This from an octogenarian (give or take a few years) whose jam sessions might not start until 10 p.m. and don’t end until after midnight.
She also isn’t comfortable being fawned over. “I just love music; I love it,” Gales said. “I just see this as I’m enjoying what I’m doing. I come over and we play and I come back home and that’s it.”
On Sunday night, she listened to the speeches, accepted the flowers and posed for photos with a resolution from the Los Angeles City Council. Then she was ready to slide back onto her cushioned bench behind her piano.
“I wasn’t really that excited,” she admitted to me later. She loves to be on stage but likes to stay out of the limelight.
Her jam sessions at the World Stage began in 1999. Admission is still $5 and often includes a serving of Gales’ home-cooked chicken wings, pasta or turkey meatballs. Proceeds go to the Sisters of Jazz, a nonprofit that supports struggling musicians faced with medical challenges.
The venue is small; on Sunday about 50 people showed up and that packed the house. “Fifteen years ago, this was so popular, we’d have to set up three rows of seats on the sidewalk for people who couldn’t get in,” said Bili Redd, a bass player and nephew of the late great drummer Billy Higgins, a co-founder of the World Stage.
If they set up chairs outside these days, the jazz would have to compete with rap music blasted by young men rolling by in tricked-out cars and reggae blaring from boomboxes at the park down the block.
A lot has changed in the two generations since Rose Gales first took the stage. Then, women were allowed to sing — which Gales also does — while men made music with their instruments.
“I was a female playing the piano. And I’d be playing with guys who didn’t want me there,” she said. “The guys treated me so badly, they’d go off on the break and wouldn’t come back on time.” The club managers would blame her and she would go home crying.
She laughs now as she recalls her husband’s tough-love response: “If you can’t handle your band, then you need to stay home.”
Gales has obviously toughened up since then: “It’s my band,” she said, with a broad grin. “I’m the band leader.” Bass player Donell Lambert and drummer Steve Foster? “They have to listen to me.”
I heard testimonials Sunday from several people Gales has helped. Like jazz historian Jeffrey Winston, a “struggling, self-taught drummer” who began sitting in at her jam sessions three years ago.
Gales is apt to call him out on stage if he makes a mistake: “When I screw up the tempo, Rose yells, ‘Where’s one?’” — meaning someone has missed a beat. “But I’m grateful for the experience and the chance to develop,” he said.
“Rose gave me the confidence to jam with the cats, even though I didn’t start [playing] until I was 62.”
Gales tends to brush off praise like that. “I’ve been playing a very long time,” she said. “I don’t know if I helped anybody or not. I was struggling myself sometimes.
“I just show up every week and open the door,” she said. “And people who love the music, they just keep coming.”