Famous Ellington Step-Son

You can’t call a man a friend till you’ve eaten a barrel of salt with him.

How we got here is another story and, trust me, I’ll tell it one day but for now Dale and I are walking from Banff, where we’d spent the night in jail. Don’t get the wrong romantically sinister idea – we asked to spend the night in jail. We had nowhere else to stay. Now we’re heading to Vancouver, a place neither of us had been to but, going west, there was nowhere else to go. It was the end of the road, which had a nice ring to it. Also, we didn’t plan to walk it. There were just no rides. Dale kept saying it was because he was black but I argued that it was because I was a jew. He kept muttering the one yiddish word he knew. “Rachmones“. I looked at the asphalt and muttered “Feets, do yo thing!” We walked all day. Dawn to dusk. One day I’ll look at a map and try to remember where we walked to but it wasn’t really all the way to Vancouver. After popping for a motel room for the night we eventually got rides the next day.

The most interesting fact about Dale was that his step-father was a famous Ellington sideman. Dale hated jazz. He wasn’t too crazy about black culture, generally. He had a wallet full of pictures of white girls all of whom he claimed were his girlfriends back home in Teaneck, New Jersey. It’s only now, forty-two years later, that I decide he lied about every goddam one of those cutie-pies. For me, the only culture of any interest whatsoever was black culture so we bickered endlessly, but good naturedly, about this. We had some fun, anyway.

We made it to Vancouver finally. Hung out a week or two and went our separate ways. I got my uncle in New York to pick up a paycheck I had coming and mail me the cash. When it arrived I took the bus to San Francisco. I was too paranoid about hitchhiking in the states.

A week later I’d found a place to stay in an abandoned Nob Hill mansion with a guy who grew marijuana in the conservatory out back. He left me there to stay and water his plants, and to smoke as much as I liked while he took off to rescue his buddy in jail in Sacramento. (More about him later, too.) I’d never had any marijuana till then. God, I loved San Francisco. Then guess who I run into in North Beach? Dale! I say I’ve got a place to stay and invite him back. It’s a mansion, after all. Lots of room. I get him high and he promptly vomits. Eventually he gets the hang of it and we proceed to have a ball in S.F., high the whole time. One night, it had to be 3 or 4 a.m., at least, the streets are empty and a cable car comes clanging down the street. The conductor – or whatever you call them – is playing a crazy syncopated riff on the bells as the car whips by. It was beautiful. “See, man. Black people are the hippest!” Bud ponders a second and agrees, finally. “Yeah, man. I guess you’re right!”

Meanwhile he’s been telling me about his dad and this great home they have back in New Jersey and how great jazz musicians hang out there and J J Johnson lives next door and they all jam into the night in their living room. “You gotta come visit. Stay at my place and hang out – have a great time.” I can’t wait.

I had a great time hanging out with Dale but – I have to say this – he was a coward in the end. He goes to the Traveler’s Aid and gets a bus ticket home and disappears. Little does he know I’m ready to go anywhere for a party. A month later I call him from a Grand Central payphone. “I’m here, baby! Give me directions to your place. Let’s go!” Dale does a song and dance on the phone, big sob story, I don’t know what. His fourteen sisters are all back home and pregnant. The maid has scurvy. The roof exploded. I can’t remember. Long story short – I’m not welcome in Teaneck. I had a hunch being white was a factor but who knows. He wouldn’t even come to New York to hang out. Goodbye, my friend.

Years later I run into him again. He’s back in Vancouver and – get this – he’s a jazz deejay on a local FM station. I don’t hold a grudge. I get his address and visit. Waste of time. Barely spoke to me. Eventually he gets a gig at an all jazz station in Tacoma and a few years after that disappears entirely off the face of my planet.


Dale Bundrant died Nov 9, 2013.

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