Still Bopping After All These Years
Jimmy Lyons has tales to tell. On the bandstand, he’s a sound explorer who can deconstruct standards like a mad scientist with a scalpel and a pot of glue. He’s honed jazz poetry recitation into a high-wire performance art, delivering his impressionistic lyric riffs with the rhythmic dexterity of a bebop saxophonist.
While his sensibility was forged in Greenwich Village by listening to jazz giants like Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis and John Coltrane in the late 1950s, he’s completely at home on the Internet, where he’s posted a burgeoning library of performance videos on YouTube (www.youtube.com/jimmylyons07).
“All the things I’m about were created by that experience and that time in the Village in the evolution of the music,” says Lyons, who has called Alameda home for the past two decades. “Charlie Mingus had a real understanding of how to work with poets. Interestingly, the most enjoyable musicians I’ve worked with are guys who had the spirit. They weren’t necessarily great players.”
Lyons is the first to acknowledge that his performances aren’t to everyone’s taste. What’s indisputable is that his life is a work of art, a bohemian adventure encompassing a breathtaking array of cultural history. Raised in Oakland, he took off for New York City in the mid-1950s and quickly threw himself into Gotham’s heady mix. A friend to jazz geniuses Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor, he wrote plays for the Actors Studio, collaborating with such young unknowns as Bobby DeNiro, Al Pacino and Christopher Walken, who starred in Lyons’ jazz musical Eclipse of the Blues. A muse to poets, photographers and filmmakers, he always seemed to be where the action was thickest, providing the creative spark of a Zen trickster.
“Jimmy was always a few feet above the ground,” says Oscar-winning filmmaker Bill Jersey, who recalls Lyons contributing to the classic 1966 documentary A Time for Burning. “He was a positive force with a light touch, somebody who fills the room quietly with gaiety.”
Alamedans in the know had the opportunity to catch Lyons musical gaiety for several years while he was the house performance-poet at Kelly’s of Alameda. Pianist Kelly Park eventually gave up the struggle of running a music venue, but while it lasted the club provided some of the finest musicians in the region with a casual hang, which is the ideal atmosphere for a wizard like Lyons to conjure his musical spells.
“A lot of musicians don’t really listen, but Kelly is one of the best listening musicians I ever worked with,” Lyons says. “I looked all over America for a club like that.”
To listen to Jimmy Lyons, visit www.myspace.com/jimmylyons07.
—By Andrew Gilbert
—Photography by Craig Merrill
Games Italians Play
Alameda’s Bocce Tradition Is Alive and Kissing
Quit while you’re ahead. A good rule for casinos—and for bocce if you happen to play for the first time, roll your bocce (the game is named for the ball) everywhere except where you want it to go, until suddenly it kisses the little white marker ball (the pallino) and you win the game for your team.
“Shall we play another?” one of the losers suggests. And yes, gung-ho reigns. You forget your time constraints. Now you’ll really show them. But—you quickly realize you should have bowed out when the going was good. Game 2 rapidly relegates you from 30-second hero to flash-in-the-pan has-been.
Luckily, members of the Island’s Italian American League bocce group that meets Tuesday mornings at Lincoln Park, except when they’re rained out in the winter, don’t mind if you flub it. “Come again anytime. You’re always welcome,” says John Ratto, the energetic and cavalier 83-year-old for whom the courts are named. Paul and Babe and Sal and the others you’ve been playing with concur. And you think you might. Eavesdropping on the congenial chatter, you learn the best way to cook zucchini the Italian way (steamed then sprinkled with Parmesan and grilled); a lot about the history of Italians on the Island (John Ratto’s dad was one of several Rattos who farmed vegetables—and played bocce—here almost a century ago); and you’ve listened to about 90 minutes of affirmation as just about every shot by anyone is greeted with a “That’s a good one!” or an “Almost made it,” no matter how far off track.
Bocce, closely related to boules and pétanque, and with Roman Empire roots, developed into its present-day form in Italy and came to California with the early Italian immigrants. Ratto remembers a time in Alameda when there were two courts near the beach and several in people’s yards where Italian families would congregate and play at weekends.
The Lincoln Park courts first opened in 1964 but fell into disrepair. At Ratto’s urging, the city’s Recreation and Park Department replaced them, and the three new courts, named for Ratto, opened in 1995. The retired Pacific Telephone employee, married for 62 years to Mary Ratto, who also plays, has taken it upon himself to maintain the courts, wetting down, raking and dragging the crushed oyster shell surface before each week’s game. Seniors meet mornings. Younger members of Alameda’s Italian America League meet Tuesday evenings after work when the weather is warm to picnic with their families and play.
It’s no surprise, given the Italian flavor of the game, that Ratto has seen passions flare and bets lost at bocce games around the Bay Area. “But we don’t allow arguing or gambling here,” he laughs. Besides that, there are few rules other than you come, play and have a good time. “And,” Ratto says teasingly when I ask about dress code, “we do insist that players wear clothes.”
To find out more about the Alameda Italian American League, call (510) 814-6901; to book the bocce courts for your own game, contact the Alameda Recreation and Park Department, (510) 747-7529.
—Photography by Craig Merrill
TAKEFIVE With Jack Buckley
1 Peet’s Coffee
Like Christopher Columbus and Marco Polo, Alfred Peet in 1966 discovered a fantastic world he never dreamed of—the best coffee on Earth. I am a longtime, loyal Peet’s follower from way back. I regularly get a morning jolt (and often an afternoon one) at the Alameda store, which is like my office annex. I work and meet people there all the time and love that I never know who I’ll run into—the whole experience is a pleasure for me.
2 Pappo Restaurant
I’m a foodie at heart and therefore I am absolutely crazy about what John Thiel, the master chef at Pappo, creates. Everything he makes is top shelf. And it is a real treat being able to sit outside and people-watch while dining. My idea of the perfect dessert is having a cafe Americano at the bar while having entertaining conversation with the bartender.
3 Mariner Square Athletic Club
I’ve been a member of this club even before I was a pastor in Alameda. Racquetball court No. 4 is where I can be found five days a week. I’m proud to say that after years of playing racquetball I have reached a high level of mediocrity. Not only do I think the club itself is fabulous, but I really like the people that I meet there. I’ve gotten some great sermon material from the locker room chatter.
4 Sitting In Our Church Sanctuary
One of my favorite things to do is to sit alone in our church sanctuary as the evening light, with its golden glow, travels through the windows. I find moments like that to be very peaceful and centering. As I sit there taking in the serenity of it all, I can feel past generations in different parts of the room. The rich history of our church and its members is beautiful to me. And our windows are nothing short of splendid.
5 Curbside on the 4th of July
My first day on the job in Alameda was on July 1, 1993. Just three days later I experienced Alameda’s 4th of July parade. I recall thinking that that was quite a welcome for me! Seeing the marching bands, the civic leaders in the classic cars, the Cub Scouts, the hula dancers, the storeowners … gave me a big clue that Alameda is a special place. And hearing my friend Bruce Johnson orchestrate his kazoo band as they played patriotic songs only endeared me more.
—Photography by Craig Merrill
The Myth of My Dumb Friends
The Truth Behind Jim Morrison’s Alameda Legacy
If you love the story of Jim Morrison of The Doors placing a marker in Jackson Park in memory of his “dumb friends” at Alameda High School, maybe you shouldn’t read any further.
The truth is he didn’t do it. Yes, Morrison lived in Alameda. And yes, he attended Alameda High. He may have even hung out in Jackson Park with his friends. But the real story of the marker is a whole lot more ordinary—albeit pretty amusing and kind of weird, too—than the legend that surrounds it.
In 1920, 37 years before Morrison arrived in Alameda, Isabelle Clark, an old-time resident of the neighborhood, had the marker and a giant, curved concrete bench built at the south end of Jackson Park. According to Woodruff Minor’s book Alameda at Play, the marker was placed by Clark in honor of her late husband. It reads, “In Memory of My Dumb Friends.” A slight? Not at all. “Mrs. Clark loved animals, hence the inscription,” Minor writes. A drinking trough—presumably for her beloved but speechless animals—was originally part of the Clark Memorial but has since been removed.
Over the years, the urban myth arose that Jim Morrison, who was 13 when his family moved to Alameda for two years in 1957, came back and placed the “Dumb Friends” marker to remember his high school buddies. The year Morrison moved to Alameda, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road was newly published. “Fud” Ford, who met Morrison during the first weeks of ninth grade at Alameda High, remembered the time well.
“We wanted to be beatniks like the characters in On the Road,” Ford recounts in Frank Lisciandro’s A Feast of Friends. “We’d put on sweatshirts and Levis and wear sandals and go over to San Francisco, to North Beach and hang out … in front of the coffeehouses, or go in and listen to the poetry sometimes.”
When his family left for Virginia, Morrison didn’t leave much behind in Alameda, other than his friends’ fond memories. “We wanted to get on the road and travel and go taste beer in Mexico and see if we could pick up women in France,” Ford told Lisciandro. “Just mostly fantasies: what turned out to be fantasies for me, reality for him.”
—Photography by Craig Merrill
Charlotte Green Designs
Every piece of jewelry should be a conversation piece, and that’s what Alamedan Charlotte Green creates with her earrings, necklaces and bracelets.
Green, 55, combines gold and silver with semiprecious and precious stones, stringing together strands that sparkle and shine with lavender tourmaline, aquamarine, andulucite, pearls, sapphires, citrine, quartz, turquoise and other gems. She nests them against polished or unpolished silver and gold for varying effect. Her fair-trade materials come from Africa, Thailand, India and beyond, and being a lifelong admirer of fine art, she seeks out a bit of antiquity—an old bauble, bead or coin-like medallion, for instance—to accent her modern designs. She pays equal attention to her necklace clasps, eye-appealing ornamental additions meant to be worn in front or behind, depending on the whimsy of the wearer.
Initially entranced by textiles and beads, Green was crafting lovely Moorish-influenced bookmarks that friends remarked reminded them of jewelry. So Green, a graduate of the California College of the Arts, took the jewelry-making plunge, starting with earrings and then matched earring and necklace sets. She now adds an occasional slip-on bracelet to the mix and identifies her line as Charlotte Green Designs.
“My designs keep changing and evolving,” she says, crediting inspiration, mood and material as design-driving forces.
She learned metalworking at Pleasant Hill’s Diablo Valley College, where she continues to tinker, and from The Crucible in Oakland. Thanks to knowing Aann Golemac at Whales & Friends (2060 Lincoln Ave., 510-769-8500), Green’s designs have made their way to the gift shop’s showcase, where pieces range from roughly $50 to $1,200.
Green creates from a corner space in her neat-as-a-pin apartment, where tidy rows of half-finished projects beckon from a worktable equipped with a giant overhead magnifying glass. Wearing pink coral and pearl earrings as the sole accent to black pants, a gray top and stylish wedges, she fawns over the materials for her next project—nutshells, silver loops, pearls among them—and wonders aloud where her imagination will take her.
“I have a never-ending fascination with the material,” she says. “You never know how this is going to evolve.”
—Judith M. Gallman
—Photography by Craig Merrill
The Secret’s Out
New Perspectives on Alameda at the Frank Bette Gallery at Towne Centre
In June 2008, the first exhibits went up in a spacious new art gallery on the south side of town. Occupying a vacant storefront on the west side of Alameda Towne Centre, near Anna’s Linens and Beverly’s Fabric and Craft, the gallery is a project of the Frank Bette Center and a welcome addition to the FBC’s limited exhibition space. Towne Centre’s developer, Harsch Investment Properties, under the coordination of Michael Corbitt, donates the space. The gallery allows the installation of moveable museum walls and has ample room to put sculptures on display. Evidence of its appeal can be found in the stunning new exhibits that go up this month.
On one of his bicycle rides around Alameda, Peter Solmssen had discovered the Frank Bette Center on Paru Street, where he struck up an acquaintance with the center’s executive director, Debra Owen. Before long, the retired diplomat was taking hundreds of photographs of the FBC’s annual Plein Air Paint-out, adding those shots to his huge portfolio of Alameda photos. On a later bike ride, Solmssen coasted through Towne Centre and noticed the nascent art space. Working with FBC board president Michael Sheppard, Solmssen and his wife, Kathleen, are taking advantage of the Towne Center gallery’s capaciousness with simultaneous exhibitions: his “Discovering Alameda,” a selection of images of the Island city, and her “Love to Death,” a collection of deliberately unromantic photographs of dolls “as found” at the Alameda Antiques and Collectibles Faire.
The tandem show represents the fruits of the Solmssens’ post-career passions. Peter Solmssen, a former U.S. Navy officer, worked as a photographer for Life magazine, practiced law, served in the U.S. State Department as deputy ambassador-at-large for cultural affairs and is president emeritus of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. His retirement to Palo Alto was brief, as Kathleen, a former jewelry designer, found a house on Bay Farm Island, and the couple fell instantly in love with Alameda.
“I have lived all over the world,” says Peter Solmssen, who estimates he moved 33 times as an ambassador. “And I think Rio [de Janeiro] and Alameda are the two nicest places I’ve ever been.”
“People keep saying, ‘Alameda’s a secret, don’t let the secret out!’” Kathleen Solmssen interjects. “Well, I want to call part of this show ‘the secret’s out.’ Let’s not keep Alameda a secret.”
“Discovering Alameda” and “Love to Death” open with a public reception 7 p.m.–9 p.m. Dec. 15 at the Frank Bette Gallery, Building D, Alameda Towne Centre. For gallery hours, call (510) 523-6957 or visit www.frankbettecenter.org. To preview Peter and Kathleen Solmssen’s photographs, visit psphoto.smugmug.com.