John on Twin Peaks over-looking San Francisco —- August 13, 1977 —- photo by Mark Weber
MEMORIAL FOR A JAZZMAN
REST IN PEACE
July 29, 1952 – January 20, 2020
What makes a jazzman? And how does a jazzman learn about the music? (Especially in a culture where it is hidden.) You could take a college course in jazz history. You could read Martin Williams the way I did (but it took Stanley Crouch to tell me to). But, how does the music take hold and lead you on this life-long quest? Music is a trail of bread crumbs, one crumb leads to the next. My generation grew up on 60s rock & roll and AM radio, and in that, if you listen close, it’s like reading Beowulf, you sense this larger background mythology lurking in the shadows. Stories told late at night around the fire. Stories you hear on late-night radio. Rock & roll implied all this mystery, you sensed something behind it, like, WHERE did it come from? We know now, but we didn’t then. It arose out of Black American cultural musics, and the culture thereof. In segregated America it’s quite a leap for a white boy to jump. They say curiosity is a sign of intelligence and I say the defining characteristic of homo sapiens is cleverness.
My dear friend John Breckow got away from us last Monday (on MLK Day as it were, appropriately). This quest takes determination, you have to search for it, but it’s not a white-knuckle-determination, you’ve had a spell cast over you, all the while you have to sense out what you need from it, personally, and whittle down your preferences. First time I ever heard the name Bucky Pizzarelli was on John’s late-night KPFK Los Angeles radio show, and now all these years later I must own 50 Bucky Pizzarelli records and caught him half dozen times in performance (if he came west more often it would have been more) and I even had him as a guest on my own radio show. But, it was John who pointed the way on that one, and many others. John was born one year before me but he seemed about 3 or 4 years older, he was much further along in the Quest. Consequently, he was usually the leader of our little troupe, it was he who’d often influence our peregrinations around the great city of Los Angeles. Like the time we all gather’d at John’s one Sunday around noon (L.A. being a 9-5 working town has a tradition of Sunday afternoon jazz, to wind down for the coming Monday) the idea was to go see Barney Bigard but John says he’s heard about this Black store-front preacher who plays lap steel & bass drum at the same time he delivers these crazed preachments. This was catnip to John. He had glee over such bizarre things. And it was a giant culture leap for a bunch of white kids from the white suburbs, we knew nothing of the Holiness Church, let alone the AME. (Going straight to the Holiness Church without the tempering effect of the AME first is like jumping from Dixieland straight into the avant-garde, but what did we know?) I’m not even sure this lap player was Holiness, I think he was rogue. He was certainly a character. Well, I had my heart set on catching Duke Ellington’s clarinet player but John was fairly convincing in his curiosity. (I never did catch up with Barney Bigard, alas.) We’d pile into one or two cars and head out into the unknown.
That preacher was Reverend Lonnie Farris. More on that at a later time. Whew.
Back then, John was a devoted reader of Stanley Dance’s great column Lightly & Politely in THE JAZZ JOURNAL. Those columns should be gathered up into a book. Some of them are on-line.
By his teens John was a free-range kid, his parents were indisposed, his father worked as an engineer at Lockheed in Glendale where they lived and in the evenings sat with his bottle and TV.
His mother had been taken to Camarillo State Hospital. He had an older sister who was ensconced in the scene around Sunset Blvd (she dated John Kay of Steppenwolf, for instance). John was on his own. His mother had bought him his first record player, a fold-down turntable with two speakers that opened like doors and were detachable. “That’s when I discovered what stereo was.” And boy could he talk about the wonders of Southern California radio back then. (In later years he always reminded me when I was being critical over boring radio hosts, he’d say how they hadn’t been lucky to grow up in the era when disk jockeys were all wild men and characters and had personalities.) Home was Glendale, which means he was in the same town as Ray Avery’s great record store. But, even Ray Avery was asking John’s advice. When I first met John I thought he was a rich kid. I had to go into the factories while I was still in high school, and John went north to the college town of Isla Vista, I don’t know how enrolled in college he was but he had his first radio show there at UC Santa Barbara, the show called The Masked Clam, blues and jazz. And in those years he was the founder of the blues magazine WHISKY, WOMEN AND. John’s father would give John a twenty almost every day, if I have the story right. And $20 was a lot of bread back then. No wonder he had all the good smoke and so many records. It took me a few years to find out John did not come up with a silver spoon in his mouth. His father also gave him the graduation gift of a trip to England. Of course, John being John he went straight to Ronnie Scott’s and caught Ben Webster! I’m not sure if it was this trip but somewhere along the line he also caught the Tubby Hayes bug (his email address was > jazz.courier@xxxxxx —— the Jazz Couriers being Tubby’s late 50s quintet).
John went on to work in record stores all around L.A., the first I remember was the blues specialty store J&S on Lake in Pasadena. Did he ever work at PooBah? (Terry Cannon mentions this on FaceBook). He eventually worked as the jazz buyer for Rhino. And it was for Rhino that he was hired to compile an as-yet-to-be-released comprehensive late-career compilation of Paul Butterfield, of whom he was hoping to be his biographer, but Paul was off & on about the idea.
You pronounce Breckow not with a “cow” but with an O. John Breck-O. His father was several generations back an immigrant from Russia. His mother was of the very last Jewish family that got out of the Polish Bloc before Hitler took over. John was a hipster. He always seemed a character of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. And he was easily in the top ten in the world with jazz history and jazz ears, he had great ears. He loved to do the Blindfold Test just to see where you were. Many is the time he tried to stump me, and many is the time I’d say, listening to some odd trumpet styling more or less baffled, “Well, I can tell you who it isn’t.” That’s how I wiggled out of that one, and stayed in John’s good graces. He was born for radio. He was smart & funny & a true individualist. An audiophile, record producer, art collector (he and Dory’s collection of unknown artists who fell through the cracks is stunning), and a collector of old Ace hardboiled paperbacks. He even has a poster of James Cotton’s first album framed on his wall in his record library, Cotton’s first album was a favorite he often went into raptures about.
In fact, my last emails from him were over this new Paul Butterfield documentary HORN FROM THE HEART. He was still a bluesman.
In all his various rental pads he had we’d hang out all night, grab a couple bags of Bill’s Chicken back when Bill was still there up on Washington in Pasadena. You know, it was John who found the huge 18-inch platters that were the original Tiffany Transcriptions of mid-40s indispensable Bob Wills Texas Playboys. He found them at a swap-meet in Bakersfield! (John for years got up early Sunday mornings to comb the Rose Bowl swap-meet.)
Oh, there’s so much to tell. I hope everyone else who knew John or listened to his radio shows will add their stories to the Comments. Here’s a funny one: We were out for a Sunday afternoon in the late-70s to catch Art Pepper at the John Anson Ford Theater (outdoor amphitheater, amazingly beautiful surroundings in Cahuenga Pass, Hollywood Hills) where the cars are all stack parked. Our gang is walking up the ramp when someone tells us that Art is not well and won’t be there that day, that this band Yellowjackets was filling in. Our hair stood on end. We hated the Yellowjackets, and if we don’t get back to the car in a hurry it’s going to be irretrievable and we’ll be stuck there. There’s nothing else to do around the John Anson Ford, not unless you want to go down and watch the cars on the Hollywood Freeway. Luckily, my brother Brian was with us and between me & him we were popping door locks and pushing cars out of the way. To John this was semi-criminal behavior and he loved it. Saved the day. I forget where we repaired to, I’m sure it was musical.
John didn’t die of anything like heart attack or cancer (at least, it was not overtly apparent, but his white blood cells were elevated and they never figured out why). His body just gave out after almost 3 weeks in hospital. Dory thinks it started back in October, but John wasn’t saying anything. Initially it was prostate issues, then pneumonia, mixed in with low-level diabetes and a few other things, getting his lungs drained, the discovery of A-Fib, etcetera. I saw him the day before and he had the fight still in him. When we left and he held my handshake, looking eye to eye, I said “Don’t go anywhere.” He had a hard time speaking with his lungs so weak, said, “We’re not done.” And I added, “We still have our book to write.” But, by the next day he was assigned a hospice. Health is so tenuous. We’re not done my old friend.
John Breckow at the KPFK controls January 14, 1977 —- photo by Mark Weber
May 27, 1979 was a Sunday but I think this is extremely late on a Saturday night —- John’s radio show Smoke Rings on KPFK during a live broadcast with Dave Frishberg, a frequent guest on his show —- Los Angeles —- photo by Mark Weber —- Donte’s was just down the street and around the corner from KPFK so if I happen’d to be at Donte’s I’d jump over to John’s show, I remember this night was Prez Conference at Donte’s —– Dave played magnificently, and had his own joints that were rolled with papers that were unconventionally much longer than the standard Zig Zags and it was his own homegrown he called Ventura Silver <grin>
Bobby Bradford being interviewed by Paul Vangelisti and John Breckow —- KPFK January 14, 1977 —- photo by Mark Weber
As long as we were driving up (from L.A.) to see the San Francisco Blues Festival John scored a little job from NPR to interview the musicians (you see he’s holding a mike) — That’s him with Albert Collins when the Festival used to be held in the magnificent hilltop classical amphitheater in McLaren Park —- August 14, 1977 photo by MW
You can’t talk about John Breckow and not talk about his love of Warne Marsh in the 70s, we bonded over Warne Marsh and checked him out around town as much as possible ———- That’s Monty Budwig (bass) and Art Pepper and Warne at Donte’s January 26, 1977 photo by Mark Weber ————- John used to call Art “Lightening in a bottle”
Blues guitarist Mississippi Smokey Wilson and John Breckow —— It was John that heard rumors of this club down on Vermont & 88th Street in South Central LA, of this amazing post-war electric blues happening there, so we investigated, and returned many times thereafter ———– photo by Mark Weber January 4, 1978
The Bobby Bradford Extet live broadcast on John Breckow’s KPFK Friday night radio show Goodbye Porkpie Hat April 2, 1977 released in 2008 as MIDNIGHT PACIFIC AIRWAVES (Entropy Records, Detroit) —– James Newton(flute), BB(flugelhorn, which is odd, this shot must have been at soundcheck as Bobby played cornet throughout the broadcast), Richard Rehwald(bass), George Goldsmith(drums & percussion) —- photo by Mark Weber
Of course, leave it to John to know who Bob Geddins was (I didn’t) and to buttonhole him for an interview at the San Francisco Blues Festival August 13 & 14, 1977 —– Geddins was an Oakland auto mechanic who started his own record label releasing blues 45s of locals for the jukebox market, only now has his accomplishments been recognized —————– photo by Mark Weber
John would get a laugh out of this —- Zaven Jambazian’s van parked out front of the duplex he shared with John (they had separate units) on Sierra Madre Blvd, Pasadena ————- Zaven was an Armenian, of whom many reside in L.A. area, and a blues harmonica player —- photo by Mark Weber January 1978
John doing the monster crawl mugging for the camera on his Friday afternoon radio show at KUNM with guests Kazzrie Jaxen and Virg Dzurinko —- a great informative interview discussing Lennie Tristano and their own music, too — May 6, 2o16 Albuquerque —- photo by Mark Weber
That’s the tip of Bill Payne talking with Charley Krachy with John staring at the camera here at 725, a little party we had for the visiting New Yorkers and Las Vegans May 4, 2016 —– Everybody in town for the INTERLACE concerts at Outpost I produced and John was an assist & advisor – photo by Mark Weber
Dory & John created a good life for themselves in the little New Mexico village of Corrales —– That’s the casita in the rear of their ranch house where John’s unbelievable stereo system was and his record collection, and that’s his beloved dog Laddie, a border collie —— We’d have listening sessions that always blew my gourd, and John had such a love of music, he turned me around one day playing me the REAL recordings of Silvestre Revueltas, of which up till then I’d been getting milquetoast versions: check out conductor Carlos Surinach’s run in the 50s with this amazing music ——— photo by Mark Weber February 11, 2015 —— They moved from Valley Village, San Fernando Valley, to Corrales in July 2o13
John’s audiophile system —- December 25, 2016 ——- photo by MW
After I got back on my feet after hernia surgery John took me out to lunch at his favorite steak house Monte Carlo, hard by the Rio Grande on Central —– April 2, 2019 Albuquerque —- We couldn’t resist this tableau for a photo
John Breckow & Mark Weber —- April 2, 2o19 Albuquerque USA snapped by Janet on our patio