My father died last Friday. Pneumonia finally took him, and despite two years to intellectually prepare for his death, it hits in emotional ways that are simply not possible to prepare for. Jerome “Jerry” Heldman was born on February 24, 1937, in Fargo, North Dakota, was raised in Seattle, lived in southwest Washington starting in the early 1970s, and died on October 11, 2013, in Yacolt, Washington.
My dad was different from other dads I knew. He was an ill-fitting transplant in rural, isolated Yacolt where he settled down at the foothills of Mt. Saint Helens to raise six kids. He told stories of travelling the globe during his stint in the Air Force (1955 – 1959), playing the drums nearly every night at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, hitchhiking the West Coast as a hippie musician, and running the fabled underground Seattle jazz club The Llahngaelhyn (1965- 1968). I would only later come to understand that my dad had played with some of the biggest names in jazz — bassists David Friesen and Gary Peacock, guitarists Ralph Towner and Larry Coryell, horn players Nat Adderley and Jay Thomas, wind players Joe Brazil, Carlos Ward, and Cannonball Adderley, and pianists McCoy Tyner and Chick Corea, to name a few. In Paul de Barros’ book Jackson Street After Hours: The Roots of Jazz in Seattle (1993), he writes that “The Llahngaelhyn scene is a kind of missing link in Seattle jazz history. For a while it was a hotbed of avant-gardism and free jazz, the music played there also remained grounded in blues, bebop, and swing tradition.”
My dad was a high school dropout who got caught smoking cigarettes a week before graduation and opted to quit school rather than tell his dad. He joined the Air Force that same year and was stationed in various Europe countries during reconstruction under The Marshall Plan. President Truman had desegregated the Armed Forces in 1948, and my father learned his first jazz licks from African American soldiers in his squadron. He was discharged from the Air Force after getting visibly upset at the racist mistreatment of an African American soldier in his squad.
When he returned home to Seattle, my dad opted for a desk job over a patrol beat with the Seattle Police because of the open racism demonstrated by patrol officers. He was still working for the Seattle PD when he started managing jazz clubs, and officers would often come by and harass him for playing “n***** music.” Eventually, his boss gave him the ultimatum that he could have a club or be a cop. It was an easy choice.
My dad’s first steady gig in Seattle was with The Seattle Jazz Quartet (with dad on bass, Dick Dunlap on piano, Joe Brazil on reeds, and Rick Swann on drums) at Larry Coryell’s sessions at the Queequeg. He would also have steady gigs with The Playboys during that era. When Coryell left for New York, my dad took over these sessions and eventually moved into new digs at the south end of University Bridge. The Llahngaelhyn was born.
Jam sessions at The Llahngaelhyn sometimes went all night long. In an interview in 2001, my dad recounted that “After hours, we locked the front door and left the back door open. We played sometimes until 6 or 8 in the morning. One night Roland Kirk came in and set out all of his horns on the table. Our piano player didn’t show up, so Roland got up on the drums, then switched around to the vibes, bass and piano. He played everything except his horns.” Jimi Hendrix also played at The Llahngaelhyn a few times, a fact that made my dad seem uber cool when I was a kid. McCoy Tyner, legendary jazz pianist and man of few words, once said “there was no place like the Llahngaelhyn.”
My dad met my mom, Julia Selvidge, at The Llahngaelhyn. She was a young student at the University of Washington who performed children’s theater with Howard Thorsen, Bill Billings, and my mom’s best friend, Peggy Bull (who would tragically die in the 1997 Heaven’s Gate cult’s mass suicide). My mom and dad married on December 18, 1965, and the first of six kids, Clara, would come along within a year. My siblings and I – Clare, Christian, Sarah, Caroline, Kathleen, and Joy – are spaced about two years apart. My dad nicknamed us Peanut, Po, Pea, Poo, Plum, and Puffin, respectively, and would sometimes run through this entire list and our seventeen cats’ names before calling us by our proper names. I definitely got the short end of the stick on the nickname.
By the time I came along, there were only rare glimpses of my dad’s former life – dad’s jazz playing, Lamborghini-driving friend paying a visit to our drafty two-story house and leaving a $100 bill in the family bible; my first exposure to public nudity at a Rainbow Gathering; being somewhat envious of dad’s musician friend Heather Hammond who visited with her kids on the colorful bus they called home; and the occasional visits to performance artist Jesse Bernstein’s house. Bernstein once had a conversation with a rodent in his mouth. He assured my wide-eyed toddler self that the mouse had crawled up his sleeve and into his mouth of her own volition.
When his family started to grow, my dad gave up his dream of “making it big” in New York as so many of his friends had done, but it was difficult to find employment as a high school dropout during a recession. Aside from playing music, his favorite job was working as a temp through President Jimmy Carter’s CETA (job training) program under Howard Pearson with the Ridgefield Parks and Recreation Department. He would take us on hikes through the Ridgefield Wildlife Refuge like a pied piper, playing one of his handmade Shakuhachi flutes and mesmerizing humans and water fowl alike. His next and last “day job” would not be so rewarding.
For three decades, he worked the night shift as a janitor at the technology firm Tektronix/later TriQuest where he was routinely mistreated. Aside from all of the nasty class-based mistreatment that janitors receive all the time from people who need to feel “better than,” TriQuest paid him almost nothing, refused to move him to the day shift when he suffered health problems from his sleep schedule, and laid him off a few months before his thirty year mark so they could deny him a full pension (as they had done to the previous head janitor). Since he was relegated to the night shift, my siblings and I would sometimes help my dad at work when he was sick so he would not lose his job.
On the weekends, dad would load his upright bass into the car and drive to gigs in Portland, Seattle, and everywhere in between. He had a standing gig with pianist Tony Klugel at the Colombia Gorge Hotel for years that fed his musical soul, and he continued to record on studio albums. Some of my dad’s fellow janitors respected his musical brilliance and came out to support him at shows, but it was apparent that the white-collar employees at TriQuest did not know or appreciate my father. It is important to mention this because he suffered in silence for three decades while managing to home school us and put half of us through college.
Because TriQuest did not pay a living wage for one person, let alone a family of eight, we managed through government assistance (Food Stamps, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, free cheese, and Financial Aid) and dad’s incredible couponing prowess. On a good shopping day, the supermarket would pay him for items. On a so-so day, he would walk out with a few boxes of cereal and cans for which he paid only pennies. We survived on his couponing, dented cans, expired food, and a summer garden out back. When we ran low, dad would throw together flour, salt, and water to create massive, mouth-watering biscuits he would smother in butter. Like my other siblings, I was eager to contribute to the household income, so at fourteen, I had my first job through the Summer Youth Employment Program… as a janitor.
My hippie-cum-Evangelical parents did not allow a television in the house, although we wheeled one of the garage once a year or so to watch “Roots” and classics on Masterpiece Theater. For entertainment, my dad recreated the jam session environment at home with us kids, giving each of us parts to play on various instruments and turning us loose. I accompanied dad by playing the bass line on the piano, and later sang with him for six years in the Christian rock band, Selah. After relocating to the East Coast, I worked for months on various jazz standards before each visit so I could sit in with him. Dad was exuberant whenever his kids or grandkids played songs we had written or shared YouTube videos of live performances: Joey on guitar, Nettie and Tristan on piano, Christian and I in various band projects.
Perhaps the most lasting remnant of my dad’s early hippie lifestyle was the thousands of hitchhikers he brought home to stay for a few days, sometimes longer. Since dad worked the night shift, we would often wake up in the morning with a new “stranger” on our couch. He never forgot how hard it was on the road when motorists would speed by and not think to pick up the cold, hungry hitchhikers with their thumbs out. This steady stream of travelling folks included professional bubble blowers, a member of the Harlem Globetrotters (who had missed the tour bus departure), missionaries, Beatnik poets, a gentleman with a van full of monkeys, musicians of all stripes, and Jorge Gallegos, who lived with us for years and offered me my first marriage proposal at age fourteen. (Despite the fact that he played a mean bar guitar and had beautiful “bad boy” tattoos, my dad was not amused.)
At some point in the 1960s, my parents became born-again Christians, and my dad mixed hippie sensibilities with Jesus’ words, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40). This was his mantra, so despite our abject poverty, my dad never passed a motorist or hitchhiker in need, and always assisted homeless individuals with money, clothing, food, and sometimes a roof over their heads. When we drove past accidents, he would fervently clutch his hands together and tell us to “pray for the people.” His remarkable generosity was evident in the little things, like the fat sandwich bags full of candy he passed out at Halloween with those bible tracts that would remind the kids about the eternal damnation that comes with sins (gluttony, among others).
Because of my father, I grew up constantly concerned about and praying for the well-being of people I had never met. He truly was a Good Samaritan who harbored none of the petty fears most people have of the downtrodden. I try to emulate him as much as I can by picking up hitchhikers, stopping at accidents, and frequently communing with homeless individuals and street musicians. I refuse to live in the cold, fearful world of “strangers” that we have created because my dad has shown me (and so many others) an alternative reality.
While my father taught us not to live in fear of strangers, he himself was trapped by irrational fears from undiagnosed mental health issues during a time when mental illness was even more stigmatized than it is today. He self-medicated for years, and ended up leaving Seattle to get away from the drug-infused lifestyle. My dad’s mental health issues mostly manifested through paranoia. He wore a tin foil hat and put aluminum foil over the windows to “ward off evil vibrations.” Late in life, he admitted to me that he heard and spoke with voices, both of angels and God, and was fixated on the end of the world as laid out in the book of Revelations. He had our family collectively read at least an hour from the Bible each night, and to this day, I can quote the Bible better than the most devoted of the protesters at Planned Parenthood. Like many of his gifted musician compatriots, despite mental health challenges, my father was able to accomplish extraordinary things during his living years. His quirkiness simply made him more interesting than ordinary folks, a fact I would not appreciate until I grew up.
And my dad was an interesting cat. He was a political leftist who was vehemently pro-life. He loved Jimmy Carter and had no kind words for his successor, although he prayed for President Reagan a lot. He also loved his Dr. Pepper and bear claws and jojos and Doritos and microwavable burritos. He was a heavy smoker (Kool menthols) for decades, but I never saw him with a cigarette in his mouth. My dad took great pleasure in cruising around in his 1989 white Firebird, and he did not age like the rest of us, in spirit or body. He still looked 45-years-old when he was pushing seventy, and passed away with a full head of thick, dark hair. He sported a floppy mustache for most of his life that he thought looked really cool and could conjure up Bible verses like a computer. He used to cover for me when I would sneak home from church to watch Sunday auto racing with him. (Sorry Mom.)
My father gave me many gifts, not the least of which is my love of coffee (although he favored the instant flavored “coffee” granules know as Café Francis). My father also gifted me my feminist sensibilities by being an unrepentant, but ultimately failed, misogynist. He did not let the girls in the family cut their hair or wear pants until we were teens. He refused to listen to “chick musicians” but was exceedingly proud of his different daughters’ musical accomplishments. He rebuffed “chick authors” but was beaming when I published my first piece. He refused to let me enroll in martial arts training, but when I secretly did, he was not-so-secretly happy about my tournament trophies. In other words, he constantly undermined his overt sexism by being a proud and supportive parent, and it is no surprise that all of his daughters are feminists.
In his final years, my dad was a doting grandfather to his seven grandchildren – Jonathan, Jordan, Joey, Zaid, Jennette, Tristan, and Declan. He supported their music lessons, collaborated with them on compositions, and doled out lots of candy (notice a theme here?). He also ran services at the Yacolt Full Gospel Community Church after Pastor Hannes and Anita Wirkkala’s passing. My father’s services were rich with ruminations on Revelations and groovy music featuring dad on bass/piano and grandson Joey on guitar.
In 2001, my dad worked with accomplished musician Heather Hammond to host a Llahngaelhyn reunion that brought back many of the original players: Eric Apoe, Ronnie Pierce, Pete Leinonen, Jay Thomas, Dale Evans, Dick Dunlap, and others. It was an amazing event, brimming with love and good food and great music. Whitey Black wrote “It took a spirit like Heldman’s, free of greed and vanity, to bring jazz back to Seattle. Now let us return the favor and keep it here.” Members of the press described my dad as an “all-around inspiration” and a “jazz wizard.”
“This wizard never slept, and played extraordinary jazz bass and piano, from dusk till dawn. Every night, his friends – many of whom would later become famous musicians – came to play with him.”
We’re still playing, dad, but we’re missing the bass player.