We attended Al’s funeral yesterday at Forest Lawn’s Church of the Hills, followed by a gathering at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. Bass players in attendance included Richard Davis (he flew in from Wisconsin) Jimmy Bond, Jennifer Leitham, Richard Simon (who along with pianist Phil Wright, accompanied Ernie Andrews in his rendition of “My Way” with lyrics by Howlett Smith) and Howard Rumsey. Of course there were many other musicians on the scene — Kenny Burrell, Herman Riley, Charles Owens, Clora Bryant, Donald Vega, Michael Melvoin, and Jake Hanna, to name a few — but what touched me most were the tributes and reminiscences shared by other people whose lives he touched: his next door neighbor, his dentist, a fan, and his hanging and dining buddy Gary Chen-Stein.
Neither John nor I spoke at the service, but here’s what I would have said:
Big Al looked tough and mean – that is, until he smiled. He was also an exceptional listener and a loyal friend who refrained from judging people…unless they did him wrong. He mastered the art of overt generosity while still wringing blood from a nickel. He could grumble a lot, but he never gave up. He was 80 years old when his first recording as a leader was released. Tumbao Para Los Congueros Di Mi Vida was followed five years later by Black Orchid, and both albums are deeply steeped in Afro-Cuban flavors. If anything could surpass the joy he felt in creating those recordings, it was his trip to Cuba last November. There he found a beautiful country with smiling faces, warm sun and great music – everything the world should be. Despite its poverty, Cuba was his heaven.
Al was a proud man who maintained the best of “old-fashioned” values: he was a man of his word (and you’d best stick to yours, too), he liked to shop for clothes and dress well, he preferred for everything and everyone to run on time, (including his wives and daughters), and he was fiercely independent. Al always spoke his mind, regardless of the consequences, and yes, it got him fired plenty of times. But when it came to darker feelings, he was very private and hid any despair. He was extremely intelligent and well-read, but when asked what college he attended, he’d say “the one behind the Bass looking out at the world.” He loved to travel and meet people from all over the world. Whenever language was a barrier, music was always the solution.
Al was a big man with big heart and we will miss him.