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NEW NON-FICTION: A Cough at the College of the Pacific

March 12, 2006

This is one of those tales that began out of curiosity and took on a life of its own. Sometimes writing is like that. If you've never listened to the Dave Brubeck Quartet's Jazz at the College of the Pacific, I highly recommend it. It's a dazzling piece of improvisational jazz, and a lot more...

How long is too long? When does mild curiosity become obsession?

As I stood and knocked at the front door of 724 Sands Avenue on a sunny winter’s afternoon in Vegas, I thought about these questions. The heavy oak storm door creaked slowly open and an elderly woman peered at me through the mesh of the screen door.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
“Mrs. Dupre?” I asked.
She was a small woman, all of five-feet tall, dressed in yellow polyester slacks and an orange pullover blouse. Her jet-black hair belied her age, and I reminded myself that I was, after all, in Vegas. I told her my name and rattled off the same story I’d been rattling off for nearly three years. Five minutes into my explanation she cut me off.
“I’m sorry, but John’s dead.”
I paused. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard this and I probably wouldn’t be the last.
“My deepest sympathies, Mrs. Dupre. When did he pass on?”
“Oh, it’s coming up on thirteen years now. Sudden myocardial infarction just two days after his sixty-fifth birthday.”
“How sad. Mrs. Dupre, what do you remember about that evening—not the evening of your husband’s death, I mean, the evening of the concert?”
“That was a long time ago. I’m afraid I don’t recall much about it aside from the flowers.”
“Yes, from John. He’d given them to me just before we walked to the auditorium. Beautiful lilacs. I still have them.”
“You do?”
She pointed a hand toward the wall behind where she stood. I pressed my face close to the screen and peered in at the hanging picture frame, beneath which held captive lilacs that had been preserved for over half a century.
“Very pretty,” I offered.
“Yes,” she smiled. “John bought me flowers often, but those were the first.”
“But what about the concert itself?”
“I’m sorry. It’s been too long.”
She wished me well and said goodbye. Another door closed. Another puzzle piece unfilled.
I removed and unfolded the sheet of notebook paper from my wallet. The list was growing shorter—down to three names from the original seventy-nine. I uncapped the pen from my shirt pocket and scratched off the name of John Dupre. I looked at the next name on the list and memorized the address. It was hundreds of miles distant, and the afternoon was already fading into evening. The name, and my investigation, would have to keep until morning.

I slumped my body into the driver’s seat of the ’98 Forester wagon and switched over the ignition. It was going to be a long drive back to LA. As I sped away from Sands Avenue and turned onto I-15 South, I switched on the car stereo, pulled Jazz From the College of the Pacific from the CD visor and dropped it into the player. The familiar, up-tempo sounds of Track 1, All the Things You Are, fronted by Paul Desmond’s flawless and improvisational alto sax playing engulfed the interior of the wagon through quadraphonic speakers. Dave Brubeck’s piano added to the uniqueness of the tune, and his solo built from a J. S. Bach-style design into a powerful and vivid climax of sound. The music has often been called “West Coast jazz” but I find something almost New England autumn in the quartet’s sound. Nine minutes and twelve seconds later the tune slows to its inevitable end amidst overwhelming audience’s applause.

Track 2, the ballad Laura, begins with its slow romantic cascade of piano keystrokes that seem to glide, harp-like, against Joe Dodge’s soft brushwork. I turn onto I-215 West at fifty-nine seconds into the track, knowing what’s coming next. Despite my best efforts to do otherwise, I find myself counting down the seconds—all twenty-five of them—to the inevitable moment, the moment that’s become my life’s obsession. It occurs, as it always does, at exactly eighty-four seconds into the track. Atop Brubeck’s piano playing, Dodge’s brushing, and Ron Crotty’s bass, a penetrating cough erupts from the audience. A damning, careless cough that permanently smears this otherwise flawless, masterful recording of jazz improvisation.

I walked into a dark apartment and switch on the light. Once, a long time ago, O’Brien would have greeted me at the door, his soft body rubbing against my ankles while he purred gently. But O’Brien no longer lived here; he’d escaped on a rainy evening ages ago after I’d carelessly forgotten to fully close the kitchen window atop which he often sat. It’s funny, but I always thought cats hated to get wet, which would have meant that they hated to be rained on. Either I was wrong or O’Brien differed from the rest of his species. He’d split, leaving behind a water bowl, a food dish, a litter box, a half-dozen toy mice, and a despondent owner.

The red light on the Tokyo-made answering machine was flashing. I pressed play while kicking off my sandals. It was Monica. It was always Monica.

“You really have got to change that message. I mean, Huey Lewis and the News? Anyway, just wondering if you’re up for doing something tomorrow or if you’re gonna dedicate the day to chasing Moby Dick. Gimmie a call if you feel like being normal.”

I erased the message and grabbed a Firestone from the fridge before retreating into the living room. After five minutes of news I switch off the tube and switch on the CD carousel, hitting the random shuffle key before falling onto the sofa. The carousel contained five disc slots. Each slot contained a copy of Jazz at the College of the Pacific. As the album contains six tracks, if I played the entire shuffle I’d hear Laura five times. And I’d hear that offensive cough five times as well. Depending on random chance, it was possible I’d hear it five consecutive times, though that’s never happened before in more than two years time.

As Desmond’s gentle sax on For All We Know filled the air, I stopped to ponder what the world might have been like had Dave Brubeck followed his initial career path and become a veterinarian rather than switching his major to music in 1939 while attending the College of the Pacific. I’ve no doubt he’d have been a terrific vet, and might even have treated an ancestor two of O’Brien. But I think the world is much more enriched by his decision to continue to develop his musical acumen even though he was already playing jazz professionally at the age of fifteen. I shuddered while contemplating a world that didn’t include Brubeck/Desmond collaborations.

A quick Yahoo search verified the addresses of the final three names on my list. I already had the addresses, but I double-checked just to be sure so I don’t waste hours driving on the 101 and 405. After confirming the locales, I decided to review my notes about the recorded Jazz at the College of the Pacificwhich, sadly, were extremely limited:

  • Brubeck met alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, and in 1953 they recorded the album with musicians Ron Crotty on bass and Joe Dodge on drums.
  • The Laura cough occurs at 1:24 (eighty-four seconds) of the 3:12 track.
  • The cough is deep and masculine and undeniably male.
  • Of the seventy-nine persons whom I’ve been able to confirm were in attendance during the recording, I’ve interviewed (or attempted to interview) seventy-six. While some attendees offered fond recollections of the evening, none could recall hearing the notorious cougher.
  • Shortly after recording the album, Brubeck shipped out to Europe to serve in the Korean War.

Random, mostly unimportant notes. I heaved a heavy sigh and closed the book. It seemed likely that my quest will end unanswered, though really, all I was seeking were a few answers. I guess I just wanted to know why. As in, why didn’t the cougher excuse himself from his seat and walk to an area away from the microphones that were capturing the session? Couldn’t he have just held it in, or borrowed a mint from a neighboring concertgoer? I just wanted to know, is all. Like Jim Garrison, I just needed a bit of closure in this troubling mystery.
I stared at the map hanging on the wall in my living room. My search for answers had taken me twenty-eight states. I’d placed a colored pushpin on each of the cities I’d visited. The final three would be easy. They were all, like me, in Southern California.

The following morning I sped along I-10 heading toward Pasadena. The cell rang and, to my lamentation, I answered without first ID’ing the caller.
“You’re driving, aren’t you?”
“Good morning, Monica. A bit early, isn’t it?”
“I’m still in my PJs. You’re no doubt dressed and off to another interview.”
“You’ll be pleased to know I’m down to the last three names.”
“Thank God for small miracles. This obsession of yours might actually be over soon.”
“Look, you know I hate to talk and drive. Lemme give you a call later this afternoon.”
“You know where I’ll be. Try not to take too long.”
The first two leads were a bust. Maria Chesney, age 87, had been a permanent resident of the Robert B. Anderson Advanced Healthcare Centre north of Silverlake. She can seldom remember her name, much less the events of a years-old concert venue. Harold Greenspan, a retired fireman living on the top floor of a condo in Thousand Oaks, smiled at the memory of the concert but was otherwise useless. I striked the two names from the list and realized that my hopes now hinged on one man.

After a quick lunch I headed further west, taking the scenic route on the PCH and arriving in Carpenteria at 3:15 p.m. I spent the next hour talking jazz with Louie Patterson, a retired production designer for Universal Studios who, in 1953 was a sophomore at the College of the Pacific. Charlie was a large man. Not fat, but big, standing nearly seven-feet tall. We talked outside from his porch, which overlooked the Pacific Ocean.
“I used to play a little alto sax. You a musician?” he asks.
“No, just a fan.”
“What’cha like?”
“Lots of stuff. Duke Ellington. Stan Kenton. Benny Goodman. Woody Herman. Willie Smith. Art Tatem. Vince Guraldi. And Brubeck. Especially Brubeck.”
“First time I saw the Brubeck Quartet they were playing gigs at the Blackhawk. That’s really where they’d gotten their first big break. No one was playing jazz like that nowhere. It shook up San Francisco I can tell ya that much. SF was pretty much old school, New York-style jazz until he came along. I remember them doing a thirteen-minute improv of Varsity Rag one night that blew the roof off the joint. I mean, it was magic.”
My heart was racing. After all this time I’d finally found someone who might actually offer a bit of useful information.
“What do you remember about the 1953 show—the one at the College of the Pacific that was released on the Fantasy-OJC label?”
“That was an interesting evening. Beautiful sky that night. New moon, I think. There was a whole jazz program that evening, but everyone who showed up was there to see the Brubeck Quartet.”
“This is going to sound silly,” I cautioned, “but do you remember a man coughing during Laura?”
“A man coughing?” Louie Patterson asked, removing his thick black eyeglasses and rubbing his fingers over his eyelids.
“Yeah,” I said, and for elaboration, adding, “it happened right in the middle of the number.”
“You’re talking about Charlie Rose.”
“Charlie Rose?” I asked, clueless.
“Yup. We were school chums at the time, Charlie and me.”
“And you have a recollection of what happened that night?”
“Recollection? Hell, I remember it like it was yesterday, man. Charlie sitting right in front of me, bobbing his head and tapping his feet on the floor. I was dating Karen Ann Bolkey back then. She had the most gorgeous red hair you’ve ever seen on a woman. Always thought we’d marry, Karen and me, but,” he paused, “she went and dumped me for a Navy man a year later.”
“Hmmm. What else, um, can you recall about that night?”
“It was a horrible night, man. I mean, Charlie coughing like he did during the performance and all. Embarrassing. ’Cause we all knew it was being recorded. But none of us really knew, if you know what I’m saying.”
“I’m afraid you lost me, Mr. Patterson. ‘Knew’ what?”
“About Charlie Rose. He just sat there through the rest of the show. I didn’t know. Hell, I don’t think no one did. ‘Course, once the house lights were brought up and Charlie continued to just sit there, well, it quickly became apparent that something weren’t right.”
“Was he okay? What had happened?”
“Wasn’t okay. He was gone! He’d had an aneurism; that boy been dead during most of the performance but no one knew. Finally, after all the applause for the band had ended, his body just fell forward to the ground like a marionette without a handler.”
“Christ. That’s awful.”
“Damn shame it was. Kid was only seventeen.”
Louie pulled a pack of smokes from his shirt pocket and lit a cigarette.
“Lucky Strike?”
“Thanks, that’s okay.”
“Anyway,” he asked, “why are you so goddamn curious about what happened to Louie Patterson in 1953?”
“Um,” I paused, ready to explain what had brought me out here and to the homes of dozens of strangers of the last few years, but it all seemed suddenly unimportant. My head was reeling. I’d been angry and had been consumed in a quest for a man who’d died before the concert hall had even emptied out that evening. I’d spent months and months of time and effort in pursuit of something a man who hadn’t existed since before I was even born.
“It’s really not important,” I said, finally. “Thank you for your time, Mr. Patterson.”
Louie Patterson dragged deeply on the cigarette and kept a curious, skeptical eye on me as I walked toward the Forester. He was still watching me as I drove away.

I phoned Monica.
“Well, it’s over.”
“Did you find the answers you were looking for?” she asked.
“No,” I lied.
“I’m sorry. Maybe…maybe some questions weren’t meant to be answered.”
“I guess.”
We made plans for the following weekend. My weekend schedule had suddenly become wide open.

When I returned home that evening I nearly stumbled over the food and water bowls that had lay empty upon the floor far too long. O’Brien was gone. I’d been so consumed chasing the ghost of Charlie Rose that I’d never thought to save one who was alive and in need of saving. I ran up to the market and purchased a few cans of wet food, placed an open can on the kitchen window seal, and opened the window. Every night I kept the kitchen window open with a can of food on the seal in hopes that one day I’d again see my long-lost friend.

And one day, I did.

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