The Ballad Of Tommy LiPuma: The End Of The Road

Tommy LiPuma

The life of Tommy LiPuma perfectly fits the definition of the American Dream. Born the son of a barber in the throes of the Great Depression and a sickly childhood, one might not have assumed that the young man from Ohio would amount to much. But his life was one long journey of happenstance, luck, and charm, and young Tommy would grow up to be one of the music industry’s true giants, a man who worked with a list of notables way too long to mention here. Author Ben Sidran examines this unique and inspiring life in his latest work, The Ballad Of Tommy LiPuma.

In this excerpt, we’re given a glance into the last big shindig of LiPuma’s life, his eightieth birthday party.


Purchase The Life Of Tommy LiPumaAmazon

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It had been clear for more than a decade that the record business, and particularly the jazz business, was not doing well. Everybody saw it coming—the revenue streams and the creative juices had been running dry for some time—but nobody could have predicted how quickly it would all go south. And while there were still brilliant young musicians arriving every year, terrific singers and instrumentalists fresh out of jazz programs from around the world, there was not the kind of cultural infrastructure—steady work, dedicated bands, common repertoire—that helped musicians develop an original voice.

And so, while there were many great players, there were few great artists. In fact, it seemed the faster the education system cranked out new musicians, the quicker the underlying musical life was slipping away. Jazz, in Tommy’s words, had become a “was” business. It seemed possible that in a few years it might become a luxury avail- able only to those middle-class kids who could afford the tuition at jazz schools.

Over the past several years, he had been honored with retrospectives and tributes, and he felt it to be a double-edged sword. “It’s like,” he said, “are they trying to tell me something? Here’s your hat, what’s your hurry?” Nonetheless, when the Tri-C jazz festival pro- posed an all-star “Tommy LiPuma Birthday Bash” featuring Diana Krall, Dr. John, Al Jarreau, Leon Russell, and the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, Tommy agreed to do it.

Scheduled for June 23, 2016, it would be more than a homecoming; it was going to be a communion. It would be held at the Palace Theater in Playhouse Square, a beautiful two-thousand-seat hall built in the early 1920s by men exactly like Tommy’s father, if not Sam himself, and it was located in the Keith Building, literally a hundred feet from where his barbershop had been sixty years before.

To make matters more interesting, the day before the “Birthday Bash,” the day of rehearsals, was also the day that a million basketball fans gathered in Cleveland to blow horns and welcome LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers back as NBA champions. It was a beautiful spring morning, sunny and 75 degrees, and up in a clear blue sky, high above the Keith Building, the Goodyear Blimp was frozen in space; Cleveland had turned into one gigantic picnic to honor its native sons, and one couldn’t be blamed for thinking that today, Tommy was among the returnees being honored.

By noon the off-ramps of Interstate 90 were parking lots: people just pulled off the highway, left their cars by the side of the road and walked into town. It was turning into a massive civic party. Swarms of people were all heading downtown, a parade of happy moms and dads, young and old, white and black, a rainbow of humanity. Sitting in stalled traffic watching waves of people stream past, one heard the voice of Donald Trump on the car radio and was reminded that he, too, was on his way to Cleveland in a few days for his coronation at the Republican Convention. Cleveland felt like ground zero for a very strange version of the American Dream.

Inside the cavernous space of the Palace Theater, the past was alive and kicking. Eighteen of LA’s best jazz musicians, the Clayton- Hamilton big band, rehearsed new arrangements for the next day’s gig, and, sitting in an otherwise empty theater, Tommy seemed bemused and a little off balance. “It’s really weird to be here,” he says. “This is the theater where I first saw Harry James when I was nine. It blew my mind.” He, too, was at ground zero, but his dream was per- sonal: the ex-sandlot-ball-player, ex-barber, ex-bebop-tenor-player, ex-record-executive was deeply feeling the passage of time.

That night, at a dinner for musicians at a nearby restaurant, Tommy was back in his element. He had airlifted two cases of exquisite wine from his personal collection and was busy decanting it for friends. Filling glasses, laughing, telling jokes, he and his pals were clearly enjoying themselves. The conversation around the table was like the retelling of old war stories by grateful survivors, amazed to still be in the here and now. For working musicians, it wasn’t ever about the notes; it was always about the spaces between the notes: it was about the hang.

Tommy is a man who did not have a lot of luck in school as a boy who now had a school named after him. There are some educations you just can’t buy; you have to live them. And even though today it appeared he had traveled only a few hundred yards in the past fifty years—from the barbershop on the seventh floor to this theater in the basement—his journey was proof that if you can transform your mind, you can change your world. And in the process, you can change the world around you.

The next night, the twenty-third of June, 2016, the Palace Theater was filled with two thousand folks in formal wear. Every kind of everybody was there: the jazz fans, the Italian community, the Tri-C cohort, the family, the cousins, even the barber who’d worked in the chair next to him back in the day. Tommy and Gill and their two girls sat in the second row. The Clayton-Hamilton band played two swinging numbers and then Dr. John strolled out to the piano wearing a lime-green suit and draped in the usual array of beads, mojos, and feathers. He was using a walking stick and was helped onstage by a personal assistant; he sat down and sang the blues, called Tommy’s name a few times, and, after three songs, strolled off, with help.

After a few video testimonials—one from Barbra Streisand (holding a bobblehead doll of Tommy, saying how much fun she had working with him), another from Paul McCartney (who shouted out his name, “Tommy! Tommy!” into the camera)—singer Al Jarreau took the stage; he, too, suffering from a long-standing bout with back problems, needed assistance getting on and off the stage.

After Al’s set, more tributes. Then Leon Russell arrived to perform “This Masquerade,” the song he had written that launched Tommy’s string of platinum records and Grammy Awards. That night, Leon, too, appeared fragile, and was also using a cane to walk the few feet to the piano.

The evening had become a cavalcade of walking sticks, a deep irony both as a metaphor for an aging record business and a tip of the cosmic hat to Tommy, who had been using a walking stick his whole life.

Finally, Diana Krall, in a simple black dress, performed several elegant numbers, and then a five-foot birthday cake was rolled out onto the stage and Tommy cut the first piece. But words failed him. He had a paper in his hand with the speech he had written the night before, but he put it down on the lectern and said, simply, “I can’t read what I wrote.” He was choked. All he could say was “Thank you,” and left the stage; later he would call each of the people he had intended to thank in his speech and tell them personally how much they meant to him.

At the afterparty, an open-bar celebration where Tommy was both the rabbi and the bar mitzvah boy, he was surrounded by friends and family and entertained by four tenor saxophone players who roamed the hall and created tuneful chaos playing variations on a jazz theme. Tommy worked the crowd, smiling but clearly ready to leave.

Turning eighty is enough to give anyone pause, but the fact that the music business was gone raised interesting questions: With the structure, the artifice, the ladder, the airfoil, the old folks, the old ways, all gone, pure gossamer, who was he now? What was he going to do? Was it all just one big afterparty?

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