Julius Brooks, the world and the horn1/6/2016
It was unexpected to be sure. The plunk of the piano wound its way back through the narrow hallway to the furthest alcove in the back room and drifted above the chile rellenos and the enchiladas and the taco salad. Distant. Muted. Fading in and out, but certainly there. A pleasant surprise coming from the front of the house on a Thursday night at El Patio Mexican Restaurant. Was it live music or the radio? But then a different sound floated under the last piano note. Low, seductive, mournful at the edges. A sax player. An old man, as it turns out. Accompanying Max Wellman on the piano. A pied piper for late-night diners. The old man eventually gave way to Wellman’s voice, but he continued to finger the keys, playing along in silence.
“I’m 88 years old. The most fun thing I do is play music. It is my life. The more I play, the better I feel. It keeps me young.”
With one foot up on the brace of the stool, Julius Brooks sat nearly standing, his left shoulder turned inward, his right arm cradling the sax. Immovable. Silent. An old lion in repose.
Two nights later, at Chuck’s Restaurant. Chuck’s Trio with Gina Severino-Gedler is performing in the back. They are tight and focused. A $50-performance for the price of your pizza. The old man is a presence. He has donned a Santa Claus hat, not out of good cheer it seems, but to offset his eyes that definitely sparkle with naughtiness this night. Severino-Gedler and the trio treat him as royalty. They defer, they joke, and they direct the applause his way.
“The great Julius Brooks. An inductee into the Des Moines Community Jazz Center Hall of Fame in 2004. Has played with all the greats,” the bass player announces, as he ticks off all the jazz players and singers Brooks has played with over the years.
“I was born in Inverness, Florida. My mother died when I was 5, my father died when I was 7. My grandparents raised me. I left Inverness because of the school. I only got to eighth grade. I eventually left town and went to Jacksonville and started high school at Edward Waters College.”
While at Edward Waters, Julius Brooks was enticed into the band room. There he discovered the saxophone. Soon, he was playing in nightclubs in Jacksonville. It was a heady experience for a young man. When he lost his scholarship to Edward Waters because he was making too much money playing at night, he dropped out of school and played music full-time.
“I got a room for $7 a week, and I continued playing. I decided it was going to be me and the world and the horn.”
After a while, Brooks thought he needed to go to California to play in the big leagues. So he saved up, took the bus and showed up in Los Angeles with his sax and a suitcase. After a couple of years playing at clubs, teaching the saxophone and working at a day job, he got a call.
“I was sitting in my apartment, and the phone rang. ‘This is Louis Jordan. You know ‘Caldonia’ don’t you? I’m the man who made ‘Caldonia’ ”’ He said, ‘I need a saxophone player. I heard about you. You like to go to Lake Tahoe?’ That was my first big break.”
Louis Jordan was big time in the music world and his song, “Caldonia,” was on fire in the 1960s. Brooks played with him for several years.
“He died of a heart attack on the bandstand. I was up there with him when he died. We were in Reno, Nevada.”
After Jordan’s death, Brooks was courted by the Ink Spots, an iconic African-American group singing rock and roll and doo-wop. Brooks stayed with them until 1980. Then he followed his former wife back to Des Moines, her hometown.
“I started working at a funeral home. Estes Funeral Home. Helped with the bodies. Drove the hearse. The guys didn’t know I was a musician.”
What about your love of the saxophone?
“I started going out at night to play my horn. I went down to the Hotel Fort Des Moines. Met a girl called Susie Miget. She’s a bass player. So I asked to sit in. ‘What’s your name?’ It was now 1982. I jammed with her. She said, ‘What did you say your name was?’ That got me started.”
Gina Severino-Gedler, the singer at the microphone, tells the audience that Brooks is going to take a break from the sax. “Julius is going to sing a few tunes for us now.”
A mellow tenor, rich with experience, floats out over the crowd.
The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by
I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do
But they’re really saying I love you.
What a wonderful world, ooh…
He laughs at himself. He gracefully acknowledges the applause. A “isn’t this fun” grin appears. He returns to his sax.
And so it goes.
But every once in a while, if you watch the old man carefully, his eyes steel up, his jaw sets a little more rigidly, and a weary fierceness is reflected, born of experience and grit and longevity.
“I can do this as long as God let’s me,” he proclaims without hesitation.
The set of his jaw becomes even firmer.
“I had a friend who played until he was 100.”
And that’s enough of that. Time to get back to the show.
The new set begins. The low, seductive, mournful sound of the saxophone again floats under the piano and the bass and the singer. One more voice among the many. And then they all eventually break away. The wash of music subsides. All that remains is the old man and the horn and the simple melody. But then he takes the strands of the melody and shakes them up into something else — and he soars. CV
Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog: www.joesneighborhood.com.