Mentor of Cool

By Richard LeBlond

October 9, 2017

Mentor of Cool

There were Beatniks and wannabes like me in 1959 Portland coffeehouses. We sipped espressos and listened to cool jazz, whatever that was. Too young and inexperienced to distinguish authentic from pretentious, I tried, impossibly, to be cool.

Then cool came to me. My dad had candy machines at several scattered locations around the city, including a record store in the heart of Albina, the ironically-named black neighborhood in North Portland. For a while during my senior year of high school I serviced the machines for him.

The odor of marijuana smoke saturated the record store, and the owner always had a smile beneath his Duke Ellington mustache. He asked me if I ever listened to jazz. I said Dad had an album of Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing,” but that was about it, except for whatever was going on  in the coffeehouses. He said, “Listen to this,” and played me something by the Ramsey Lewis Trio. He moved his hands gracefully in the music, as if it were a fluid. He was guiding me, teaching me how to listen. And then I heard it.

He sold me the album at discount, and introduced me to another each time I serviced the candy machines. He never pressured me to buy, but when I did, it was always at discount. I was sure no white boy in North Portland had more Ramsey Lewis and Ahmad Jamal albums than I did. I like to think my mentor of cool prized a white boy convert, a stone he had thrown to make ripples.

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