Christmas Memories, Part I
It’s no secret my father, Dick Nash, is a great trombonist. But less is known of his and my mother’s roles as civil rights activists. Through their associations with an organization called Operation Bootstrap, my family was introduced to a man who called himself Hakim Jamal (formerly Allen Donaldson). He was a disciple of Malcolm X, and became an active spokesman for the Nation of Islam and of Black Supremacy, groups that would refer to the white man as The Devil. You can read a little about Hakim Jamal here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hakim_Jamal.
In 1967, my parents got to know Jamal from seeing him at various civil rights meetings and fundraisers. When late December arrived, my mother invited Jamal and his family to come to our home and trim the Christmas tree with friends, a ritual very special to us. He said his family wouldn’t be interested. My mother snapped back, “Why don’t you ask them.” “OK, I will” was his response, sure they wouldn’t want to drive all the way from Compton to spend the evening in a white family’s home.
About three days later an envelope arrived in the mail with several letters, all handwritten by the Jamal children, saying “Yes, we want to come trim the tree with you.” My mother called Jamal’s bluff and won.
When the anticipated night finally arrived, my father made the climb up to the loft on a ladder that seemed to stretch upward for miles, a climb that took him to some magical place above the garage we kids were not allowed to go. This is where they kept all the Christmas decorations, and other magical things (we imagined).
When the boxes were brought to the living room, my mother would unpack the contents carefully and dust everything off. In these cartons were items that perhaps because they were only seen once a year, seemed so precious and valuable - glass balls of the most vibrant colors, ornaments handmade in elementary school by my parents, endless strands of lights and tinsel. My dad would ask one of us to help him identify the “duds” along the line of Christmas lights and we would carefully replace them.
Eventually everything would be organized and ready for THIS YEAR’S TREE, which was certainly the best one ever. My mom would continue preparing food and drinks, and we kids would wait impatiently for friends to arrive so we could start trimming.
When the Jamals’ car pulled in the driveway, the headlights swept across the floor-to-ceiling curtains, and our pet Mynah Bird barked like a dog (mimicking Lucky, our miniature poodle). The front door opened, and six people poured at different speeds into the house. There was one person missing: Jamal. He was a very stubborn man, and apparently had no intention of coming in to be part of our Christmas, just brought the family as per their wishes, and in keeping of his promise. He actually stayed out in the car the entire evening. Looking back, I wonder what was going through his head for those hours, while his family was in the “Devil’s” house.
During the months that followed, the Nashes and Jamals got very close, and that summer went on a week-long vacation to the Grand Canyon.
I think that Jamal’s softening happened for a couple reasons. One is that Malcolm X had left the Nation of Islam, disavowing racism, and Jamal followed suit. But I like to think the main reason is that he saw my parents for who there were: caring, giving people that embraced all into their lives. No hidden motives, just love. Once he felt that, he opened up to and trusted us.
To open your home is the true spirit of Christmas. The gifts are pretty nice, too.
• • • • •
Christmas Memories, Part II
Mr. Winter was the name of my junior high school band director, and although his name suggested something cool, he was anything but. He had a temper. And the way he dissipated this temper, which was easily aggravated by a room full of thirteen-year-olds and their benign disrespect, was to leave the band room and smoke a cigarette.
One day in early December we took advantage of his absence by passing a coffee can, collecting funds for his Christmas gift. This action was repeated several times over a week or so. When the clinking sounds of dimes, nickels and pennies hitting other dimes, nickels and pennies came to an end we new it was time to add up the booty. $16.34. Not bad.
My best friend Mike Lane and I were put in charge of acquiring the gift with this fortune. First stop: ask my dad for advice. “Cologne is always nice,” he said without much thought. “You’re not serious?” my mother snapped back, certain there was a more creative idea floating about.
“Hey,” my dad said, after giving it more thought, “why don’t we go down to Bob Stoller’s and see if he has anything lying around.” Bob was our very good friend - a brilliant sculptor, and card-carrying schizophrenic, whose Ventura Blvd. storefront gallery was a couple miles down the road.
We entered the gallery and Bob greeted us. The space was not large, but impressive with welded metal sculptures here and there on dark-stained wooden bases. The storefront was divided into three sections: the gallery, his living space (which was no more than a cot, hot plate, and chest of drawers), and workshop. The latter was the largest of the three sections, and clearly where he spend the most time.
“Hey, Bob, the kids collected some money for a gift for their band director at school and wondered of you had anything.” “Well, let’s see - how much did you collect?” I dumped the money on his desk. “Sixteen dollars and thirty-four cents,” I proudly reported. He looked down at the heap of coins, and back up at me. I figured the blank expression on his face was his attempt at veiling his overwhelming excitement. After a few seconds of thinking he said “Sure, I’ll do it. I’ll make something.” He told us to check back with him the following week.
More than a week had passed. It was now December 23rd, and my father decided it was time to call Bob. Bob had completely forgotten about the project, but promised he would have something by the next day and hung up. My father, sensing my disappointment, assured me Bob would pull it together.
Christmas Eve arrived. My father, brother and I were rehearsing the Christmas carols my dad cleverly arranged for our little trio, which possessed a range of strengths and weakness (mostly weaknesses). On this night, for the past couple years, we hopped around to households of various friends and neighbors. An important and well-anticipated stop on this year’s agenda was the house of none other than the hot-tempered Mr. Winter.
Bob Stoller called and said he would be right over - he had something for us. Bob also happened to be our flashlight holder when we performed our carols. He had originated and mastered a technique of holding three flashlights at the same time, equally illuminating the music on the metal folding music stands.
When Bob entered the house he looked stressed, excited and relieved all at the same time. With bags under his eyes, and a slight sweat covering his gray face, he produced his commission. Our jaws dropped and we gasped. Bob was holding the most beautiful creation: a conductor, complete with tails, in the throws of a passionate gesture. He had apparently been working all night on it, and was looking at us with a big grin, happy he didn’t disappoint us.
Later that night we quietly parked our car two houses down from Mr. Winter’s modest Valley ranch home and quickly set up our music stands. With the flashlights masterly focused, we began playing our first carol. After no more than ten seconds Mr. Winter and his wife opened the door and came out onto the porch, and listened intently to our concert. When we finished, they invited us into the house for a quick hot toddy. That’s when we made our presentation. I set the awkwardly wrapped package on his coffee table. “What is THIS?” he asked. “It’s a gift from the band,” I replied. “Open it.” “Now? In front of everybody?” He hesitated, and then just decided to go for it. Mr. Winter stared in disbelief upon seeing the art piece, and his eyes filled with water. In the three years I had been in the concert band, I had seen many of his expressions, but not the one we were witnessing at that moment.
About thirty years later, Bob Stoller was dying of cancer. I went to visit him at his little house (he had lost his gallery years before). He was in his bed, by himself, with the shades all pulled down. The air was stuffy, and smelled like cigarettes. We talked about art. I gave him a book I had put together of my young kids’ drawings. He looked at each very carefully. He then told me he was always looking for a childlike quality in his artwork.
“Hey Bob,” I said at a quiet moment. “Do you remember the time we came over and gave you sixteen dollars and thirty four cents, and you made that incredible sculpture for Mr. Winter? Well, that was was one of the most generous things I have ever seen.” Bob just laughed and said “Hell, you kidding - I needed the money.”
• • • • •
Christmas Memories, Part III
When I was six my father had the brilliant idea of introducing me to music by teaching me to play the trombone. I think this action may technically qualify as child abuse. I survived, but not without an incident that traumatized me for life.
Now, if any of you know how a trombone works (I had to be reminded of this once by sacbut specialist Ron Westray, but that’s another story) you will be cognizant of the fact that at age six there is no way to reach the bottom positions - sixth and seventh - without either being a contortionist, or letting go of the slide. This restriction made it difficult, but not impossible to play a few melodies, and with this knowledge my father prepared me for my first concert. This took place on Christmas Eve. The repertoire: the perennial classic “Jingle Bells.”
My dad had me practicing for several days leading up to the concert. When the big night finally arrived, the extended Nash family, the Persoffs, and several other close friends were spread around the living room on our eclectic collection of chairs and floor pillows. An announcement was made and I entered from the dining room. There was no opening act, no fanfare. (True art needs no ornamentation). The applause became more enthusiastic as the group caught sight of the skinny little blond kid trying to carry this awkward assemblage of pipes. Even though I was nervous, I am sure I had the intuitive understanding that no matter what I played they would like it. But this didn’t stop me from taking this concert very seriously, from grabbing it full on, from giving it my all.
I got right to it. I remembered the first seven notes were the same, an A, and I had to put the slide down a little from the top - “second position” in my newly acquired vernacular. After that I faltered: the next note was supposed to a C, but sounded more like a B. Then I lost confidence and clammed a note. From there it was down hill. I think what I eventually played sounded more like “Dradle, Dradle, Dradle” than “Jingle Bells.”
When the song was over and the last note finally petered out, my performance was greeted by a thunderous ovation. My intuitive understanding also told me they were probably all faking it, and I ran back to the dining room crying. My father caught up with me seconds before the trombone was to have found a new home on the grass, on the other side of the window (in a pool of broken glass). “That was great! Perfect!” he assured me.
Once my whimpers had subsided, and my shoulders had made their last up and down spasm, I braved the family and friends again and did my best to receive their accolades (whether authentic or not) and had some egg nog.