Back in the early ’60s, I often spent a night at the Stardust Room on Blackstone Avenue, watching and listening to the jazz sounds of the Charles Tilghman and Roger Krum duo. I had been young Roger’s art teacher during his senior year at Fresno High School in 1960, and I immediately liked the dark-haired, mature-faced kid who played string bass like it was molded to him, body and soul.
Ten years apart in age, Roger and I shared Cinco de Mayo as our birthday, so something astral may have been pulling us toward each other.
“Teach me something about visual art,” he said.
“Only if you teach me something about music,” I replied. And that was how our long friendship began.
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Since Roger’s death recently, I have been reviewing the stories he sent to me over the past dozen years from his home in Sacramento. “Just some stuff in my head,” was how he put it, memories he wanted to put on paper.
Like his recollection of the Stardust Room:
“Charles Tilghman and I worked there five or six nights a week from 1962 to 1964. A nice medium-sized bar with seating for about 80 people, the Stardust Room was above the Manchester Motel. The décor was very ’60s with a dark red carpet, black Naugahyde furniture, and re-flocked wallpaper. Tall, darkly tinted windows looked west over Blackstone, and now that I think about it, it must have looked from the road sort of like a Las Vegas upscale bordello.”
Roger’s memory of playing with Tilghman during this time is telling in so many ways. Master and pupil, huddled in the rose-tinted dimness could be a drawing by Toulouse-Lautrec, a picture of two musicians matching theories as they paid homage to their generation’s lush life.
“The bandstand was a riser pushed tight against the south wall,” Roger wrote. “A tall piano bar surrounded it on three sides. Patrons sat on high stools. A small duck under allowed the two of us to set up. Charles faced the crowd. I stood behind him, a bit to his left. Man, watching his left hand play the root notes of the chords was just like reading music.”
And the tunes of the day? That beat in time, that lapse before the Vietnam War, that pause before hard rock?
“Jazz-oriented is how we described the music. And Charles could really sing it. He added a personal feeling to his voice, a certain something that jazz called for from living the life. We reached a point where a couple notes off his keys told me where we were headed. Playing there several nights a week for two years sharpened my technical skills. By the time we left that gig, my chops were at their peak, better than they ever were before and better than they ever would be again.”
About that time, Roger graduated from Fresno State with a bachelor’s in psychology and began a 24-year career working for the state of California. He and I would meet now and then, especially when he retired from the state to take on the executive directorship of the Sacramento Traditional Jazz Society, a position that included running the Sacramento Jazz Jubilee, the largest venue of its kind in the world.
To contrast all of his titles, appointments and positions, Roger took on the added pressure of playing bass for The Fulton Street Jazz Band, a group of hardened players so filled with talent that they carved a swath across the Sacramento Delta straight into a legendary fame all their own.
Most of his writing was devoted to characters he’d met during his time with the band, but I’m left thinking of the positive spin he gave to his various yarns, particularly present in an essay he wrote about “The Natural,” a movie based on a story by Bernard Malamud.
“ ‘The Natural’ has the feel of an Arthurian fable about it, the way Robert Redford, as Roy Hobbs, a baseball player, dreams that one day people will say of him, ‘There goes the best there ever was.’ Just before the film’s climactic scene, Randy Newman’s musical score, until now nearly inaudible, increases to a crescendo as the ball flies from the pitcher’s hand toward Hobbs’ bat.
“Then what sounds like a cannon shot is almost deafening, and the ball is spinning through an atmosphere charged by a note held in a tremolo fashion. Cymbals crash as the ball busts out the bulbs on an outfield light standard, and here comes the French horns as Hobbs rounds the bases.
“I’ve been involved in music virtually all my life, and each time I watch this movie, I’m surprised at how much more I hear within its music. I think it is in how Newman so skillfully integrated the score into the story, sort of like being there but not taking over the spotlight.”
Roger, a true sports fan, asked in one of our last conversations if I thought Roy Hobbs was too corny to be real, then huffed at his own question’s absurdity. My longtime friend wasn’t about to go negative on me. Not then. It was too late in the game.
Larry Hill of Fresno is a painter and author of “Saroyan’s Bookie” and “Streak Hitter.”