Thursday, July 21, 2005

James Doohan: Scotty the jazz fan

I suppose I might as well weigh in with my James Doohan moment, now that he has left us. (No, I won't use the obvious clich├ęd catch phrase that everyone else is using.) In the 80s we lived in a house in Reseda, a Los Angeles suburb in The Valley, that had an unusually large and high ceilinged living room, easily accommodating our concert grand piano. It was perfect for big parties.

L.A. then was home to quite a few retired New Orleans jazz musicians. On a few unforgettable occasions, we hosted parties for these guys and their friends and families, with a lot of our friends squeezed in, parties that were massive jam sessions of musicians who had known each other for decades but rarely got a chance to get together and blow. People like Leo Dejan, Herbert Permillion, Sammy Lee, Floyd Turnham, Alton Purnell, Joe Darensbourg, Andrew Blakeney. To indicate the caliber of these guys, when Louis Armstrong left the King Oliver band in 1924, Oliver picked Blakeney to replace him. Decades later Darensbourg toured the world with Armstrong as a member of the All Stars. And Purnell was the pianist with the legendary bands of Bunk Johnson and George Lewis.

On one of these grand occasions we had a friend visiting from New Orleans who knew Doohan through her work in theater. She knew what we didn't, that he loved jazz, and we were delighted to extend an invitation through her. So on the big night, with the music in full swing, the doorbell rang and I opened the front door to a man in a blue blazer with a very familiar face who was thrusting his hand forward with a smile, saying, "James Doohan!"

I've been a Star Trek fan since I was about ten, so I knew that. I welcomed him in to the glorious cacophony, as we must have had about seventy guests there, with up to a dozen musicians playing at any one time. Some of our guests recognized him, including one young fellow who was quietly going "Oh my god!! Oh my god!!" in the corner. But most didn't, I think. Elderly black jazz musicians are not the typical Star Trek audience demographic, and they had no idea who he was. He was just another guest. I imagine he rather liked that.

With an actor's sure sense for center stage, he spotted an empty chair directly in front of the band and planted himself in it. There he sat for number after number, sopping it up, grinning happily, and cheering wildly after each tune. Eventually the dinner break was called, and all lined up to help themselves to some hearty New Orleans fare, a buffet of red beans and rice with a green salad. I exercised host's prerogative to sit down next to Mr. Doohan and chat with him during dinner, and he was utterly charming to talk to. I remember him telling me that he'd been having trouble getting his kids to eat their carrots, so he'd taken to grating them up and adding them to spaghetti sauce, sort of sneaking them past in disguise. I privately suspected that a lot of the nutrients that are the point of feeding kids carrots were probably lost with all that overcooking, but I wasn't about to correct him.

He was also very happy to talk to other guests about himself and his career, at least when the music wasn't playing. He particularly liked talking about Jackie Gleason, whom he clearly admired as the consummate showbiz professional. He told wonderful stories about working with Gleason, told them with great gusto, and I dearly wish I could remember some of them.

In all it was a joy to have him over to share in one of these events, which are among the best memories I have of those days in Reseda, listening to all those wonderful old musicians just having fun together. I'm happy to say that I know Jimmy Doohan himself had a ball. In fact, he told us that if he'd known how much fun this party would be, he would have called up Nichelle Nichols (Uhura) to suggest that she come. Oh, she would have had a great time singing in front of a band like that, and I'd give anything to have heard it.

And incidentally, yes, Jimmy Doohan himself, not just Scotty, was very partial to very fine scotch.