What happened in November 26, 1978?
THERE ARE THOSE, the fine saxophonist Don
Menza among them, who long afterwards found it all but
impossible to talk about what happened in those early hours
of November 26, 1978. By one of those bits of mental prestidigitation
with which we protects our sanity, we all succeeded in not
even thinking about it. We pushed the event into some closet
in a back room of the mind, and then we all shut the door.
cannot to this day explain, and neither can the Van Nuys
homicide detectives, why it happened. I'll tell you, as
I told them, what I know.
Rosolino was among the best-loved men in jazz. One of
the finest trombone players in the history of the instrument,
he had a superb tone, astonishing facility, a deep Italianate
lyricism, and rich invention. Frank was, very simply, a
sensational player. In addition he had a wonderful spirit
that always communicated itself to his associates on the
bandstand or the record date.
was one of the funniest of men, with a wit that literally
would not quit. He bubbled. Quincy Jones remembered
touring Japan with a group that included Frank and drummer
Grady Tate. "With those two," Quincy said,
"you can imagine what it was like. The band was always
in an uproar."
3 months before he died.
was one of a number--Donald Byrd was another--of
fine jazz musicians to come out of Cass Tech in Detroit,
a superior high school which drew its students from all
over the city. Only the exceptional could even get into
it. Frank always had the air of a mischievous kid looking
for some hell to raise or trouble to get into, and this
trait had emerged by the time he went to Cass Tech.
Giggling in that way of his, he would in later years recall
swiping cars for joyrides. It was always a serious mistake
to get into a poker game with Frank. He was one of those
men who, but for a soaring and compelling musical talent,
might well have ended up in jail.
everyone who knew him, I remember vividly the last times
I saw Frank. We were at Dick Gibson's party in Colorado,
one of those events that sprung up in recent years in which
aging rich jazz fans invite brilliant musicians to come
and play for them. At one point he played with Carl Fontana
and Bill Watrous, and the three-trombone music was
gorgeous. In another unforgettable set, Clark Terry
and Frank did several scat-singing duets. They kept making
each other laugh, and afterwards I urged them to record
together, not playing so much as scatting. Frank was one
of the few people who could scat on the same bandstand with
main events of the long weekend were held in the Broadmoor
Hotel in Colorado Springs, noted for exciting scenery, dull
food, and sullen service. After the last performance at
the Broadmoor, we all traveled by bus back to Dick Gibson's
house in Denver, Frank and the girl he was living with,
Diane, were in the seat behind my wife and me.
did not know it at the time, but Frank's third wife, the
mother of his two sons, had gone into their garage, shut
the door, turned on the car's engine, and sat there in the
fumes until she died. I do not know her motive. Frank, in
the seat behind us, was talking about following her, killing
himself and taking the two boys with him, since he could
not bear the thought of leaving them behind in this world.
Were we hearing him correctly? Diane said, "Don't talk
that way, Frank. Let's pray together."
evening in Denver there was a final informal party at Gibson's
house. Frank seemed cheerful, making my wife and me doubt
the accuracy of our hearing in the noise of the bus. She
and I leave early to get back to Los Angeles. So did Frank,
who had a gig the next morning. We took a cab to the airport
together. Frank was as funny as always. The conversation
overheard on the bus seemed like the morning memory of a
were told at the airport that the flight would be boarding
late. My wife and Frank and I wandered around with little
to do. Frank shattered the impersonal tedium that hangs
in the atmosphere of all airports: he had us laughing so
hard that a salesgirl in the bookshop, watching us with
suspicion, pointed us out to a security guard, who kept
an eye on us.
of it was Frank's delivery. It has been said that a comic
says funny things and a comedian says things funny. Frank
was both. He had a lazy low-key way of talking, the epitome
of cool, that was either the archetype or the mockery of
the classic bebop musician. You never knew who Frank was
putting on, the world or himself. Or both. And he had a
loose-jointed rag-doll ah-the-hell-with-it way of walking.
Frank could even more humorously. He seemed to relish the
idea of the bebopper, even as he made fun of it.
exhausted the airport's opportunities for amusement, we
went into its coffee shop. It had a U-shaped counter and
a terrazzo floor that someone had just mopped with a hideous
disinfectant. The air was full of flies, drifting back and
forth in lazy curves. We slid onto stools. A waitress about
thirty years old approached us. Frank said in that unruffled-by-anything
drawl of his, "I'll have a bowl of those flies,
unexpected sang-froid, the waitress tossed the ball right
back at him. "We only serve them on Thursdays,"
I'll come back Thursday," Frank said, and we all laughed,
including the waitress.
late, we were told that we could board the plane, a TWA
flight on stopover between Chicago and Los Angeles. On the
plane, returning from an engagement, was, to our delighted
surprise, Sarah Vaughan. Red Callender, the
bassist, and his wife were also with us. We all sat together
and talked, waiting for the take-off. The pilot's disembodied
voice told us that there was fog in Los Angeles and the
flight would be further delayed. Frank got funnier, Sass
got helpless with laughter. Frank asked a pretty stewardess
if we could have drinks. She said it was against regulations
for her to serve them before takeoff. But Frank soon had
her laughing too, and she left to get us the drinks. Frank
said, "I have to be careful. I wouldn't want her to
lose her gig over it, 'cause then I might have to marry
last the plane took off. Sass wanted to sleep but Frank
kept up his jokes, and she said, "Frank, stop
it!" Finally, shaking her head, she moved further back
in the plane to escape him.
last weariness overcame him, and Frank too fell asleep,
sprawled across two or three seats of the nearly empty aircraft.
awoke in daylight to the sound of the pilot's voice telling
us to fasten seat belts for the descent into Los Angeles.
I peered around the back of the seat ahead of me and saw
that Frank was still asleep. By this time in his life, his
thick dark curly hair had become almost white and he had
a full iron-gray mustache. And yet, asleep, he looked like
that boy at Cass Tech, trying to find a little action. I
shook his shoulder and said, "Frank, Wake up, we're
Frank Rosolino with Carl Fontana (photo
I turned on the television that morning to watch the news,
then drifted back into that soft state between sleeping
and waking. Then there was a voice saying, "The
internationally celebrated jazz trombonist Frank Rosolino
took his own life last night." Police in the Van
Nuys division say that Frank Rosolino shot his
two small sons and then turned the gun on himself. One of
the children is dead, the other is in critical condition,
undergoing surgery. Frank Rosolino, who became nationally
known with the bands of Gene Krupa and Stan
I shouted, waking my wife. She asked what had happened.
I told her. She burst into tears. We remembered his words
on the bus.
got up and, after staring at the floor for a while, telephoned
the Van Nuys police and asked first for homicide,
then for whomever was handling the Frank Rosolino
"case." After a while a man took up the telephone
and gave me his name. I gave him mine and asked if he could
tell me any more than I had heard on the news.
you know him, sir?" he asked.
perhaps, you can help us." he said. "We're
am I," I said. "But not totally surprised."
I told him about the bus trip to Colorado.
it possible that drugs were involved?" the detective
don't know," I said. "Although nowadays, you always
wonder that." I told him what kind of person Frank
was, how loved he was. But even as I said it I questioned
how well any of us had really know him. I had realized there
was a dark side of Frank but had never dreamed that it was
this dark. And, as Roger Kellaway said later. When
somebody cracks four jokes a minute, we all should have
known there was something wrong."
conversation with the detective at last ended, as unsatisfying
to him as it was to me.
the course of that day and the next I learned a little more.
Diane (the girl Frank was living with) had wanted
to go to Donte's to hear Bill Watrous. Donte's
is a nightclub in North Hollywood, a hangout for musicians
and one of the few places in Los Angeles where the best
studio players can go to play jazz and remind themselves
why they took up instruments in the first place. Frank said
he wanted to stay home with his two boys: Jason,
who was then seven, and Justin, nine.
met those boys once, at a party at the home of Sergio
Mendes. They were full of laughter and energy and mischief,
like Frank. They were wonderfully handsome and happy little
fellows, scampering like puppies amid the hors d'oeuvres
and among the legs of people, having a high old time.
went to Donte's with a visiting girlfriend. They
came home toward four o'clock in the morning and were sitting
in the car in the driveway when they saw a flash of light
in the boy's bedroom. Thinking the boys were awake, they
got out and went into the house. As they entered they heard
the last shot, the one Frank put into his brain. He was
still alive. I do not know and do not want to know the further
details. In any case, he soon died.
had gone to the bedroom where Jason and Justin
were sleeping and shot each of them in the head. Justin
was dead. Jason was not. That night and long into
the next day he underwent surgery--fourteen hours of it.
autopsy deepened the mystery. The coroner's report said
that there were no significant amounts of alcohol or drugs
in Frank's system.
service was organized or Frank's friends. His two brothers,
Russell and Gasper Rosolino, had flown out from Detroit
to take Frank and Justin back with them for burial. I do
not remember the name of the funeral home, but I can see
its polite and muted decor. A lot of us, including Don
Menza, Shelly Manne, and Conte and Pete Candoli,
were standing around in little groups in the lobby, watching
our friends arrive. It seemed everyone in town was there.
I don't think any man ever had fewer enemies and more friends
than Frank Rosolino. J.J. Johnson and Herb
Ellis came in together; I can still see their bleak
faces. Med Flory said, "Well, Frank sure took
care of Christmas for all of us."
because it seemed the thing to do, I wandered into the chapel.
The two coffins were in the expected place at the front
of it. Roger Kellaway and I walked apprehensively
toward them. The cosmeticians had done well. Beautiful little
Justin truly did look as if were merely sleeping on the
velvet cushion. Frank too looked asleep, as I had seen him
on the plane over Los Angeles.
Kellaway said something softly as he looked at Justin.
Later he told me it was a prayer. Then he looked down at
Frank and said, "You asshole," expressing the
strange compound of love and grief and anger we were all
feeling toward Frank.
couldn't face sitting through a service. What was there
to say? Roger and I headed for a nearby tavern and had a
couple so Scotches. For, as Roger put it, "I've had
friends who killed themselves before, but I've never had
one who killed his kid." He stared into his drink.
The bar was lit softly. The upholstery was red. He said,
"You can make that decision for yourself, but you have
no right to make it for anyone else." After a time
we went back to the chapel. The service, which had been
short, was over, and our friends were standing quietly in
there as a wake at Don Menza's house in North Hollywood.
Menza and I talked for a while about Verdi. And about Frank.
had fought his share of the jazz wars. He had been through
financial hard times and lived to see himself and other
musicians of brilliance and in some cases genius struggling
to pay their telephone bills, while grungy illiterate singers
rode around in limousines, with expensive whores, and demolished
hotel rooms and recording studios and told their underlings
to put it on the bill. He had even lived to see their likes
earnestly analyzed as artists in the New York Times
and the Los Angeles Times and Rolling Stone
things had been improving for him, Menza told me, including
Frank's financial situation. Frank had wanted to play more
jazz, and he was doing it. Don said that he and Frank had
been scheduled to make an album, and there was more work
of that kind on Frank's calendar. He and Frank had been
Flory was right. Christmas was dreary that year.
At first we heard that Jason would be both deaf and blind.
For a long time he was in coma. We heard that he would come
out of it and scream and then lapse back into unconsciousness.
You found yourself thinking some strange thoughts. What
would happen to him if he should indeed be both blind and
deaf? What communication would he have with the world? Would
he be a vegetable? Or, worse, would he be a sentient conscious
being trapped in a black silence with memories of sight
and sounds and never knowing why and how they had suddenly
ceased? Had he been the second one shot? Had he seen his
a while we heard that Jason could hear. He was living by
now with relatives of his mother. Gradually I stopped thinking
about him. And about Frank. Every once in a while, though,
something would happen to remind me.
Kellaway and I were on our way to an appointment in
Tarzana, an area of Los Angeles at the west end of the San
Fernando Valley. We saw a little boy, about three, crying
in the street. We stopped the car. The boy was lost. Roger
and I decided that he would go on to our appointment while
I tried to learn where the boy belonged. I asked passing
people if they knew the child. Gradually a crowd gathered.
A tall handsome man in his late fifties introduced himself.
He was a cop, a lieutenant. He lived in a nearby building.
We went up to his apartment, where he gave the boy something
to eat. The child stopped crying. The man picked up the
phone, dialed, and identified himself. He was head of the
Van Nuys homicide division.
we waited for a police car--which in due course did find
the boy's home--I asked the lieutenant if he had handled
the "Rosolino case." He said that two of
his men had. I found myself going over it all again. So
did the lieutenant.
told me that in his line of work one inevitably becomes
inured, but the two detectives who had gone to Frank Rosolino's
house that night had come back to the office in tears.
I said. "They were beautiful little boys."
that I banished Frank from my thoughts. I never listened
to his records.
Jason Rosolino didn't cease to be. He was adopted
by a cousin of his mother, Claudia Eien, and her
husband, Gary. Caring for him exhausted the family's
resources, emotional, physical, and financial. Jason was
sent to Braille school, but he was suffering from psychological
problems. Surprised? "But he's beautiful," Don
Menza's wife, Rose, said. "He's smart as
a whip. He has all Frank's fire and energy." He was
also, she said, very musical. He had tried trumpet and trombone
and piano, but he had no patience.
year passed. The strain on Claudia and Gary of caring for
him had proved enormous. Don and Rose Menza and other
musicians and their wives planned a concert to help Jason
and some other people in need. It ran from 5:00 p.m. to
midnight on the evening of October 30, 1983, at the Hollywood
Palladium, a grand old ballroom from the 1930s filled
with the ghosts of vanished bands. It seemed everyone was
there: the big bands of Bill Berry and Don Menza,
Supersax, Steve Allen, Jack Lemmon,
Shelly Manne, Ernie Andrews, the Tonight
Jason. He was there with his adoptive parents
and a young psychologist who had been working with him.
At first I stayed away from them. A lot of people did. Finally
my wife said, "We can't all ignore him."
thought, What is it? Am I afraid of a twelve-year-old boy?
Or am I afraid of seeming to manifest a morbid curiosity?
Or are you, I said to myself, afraid that you
can't handle what he has been through?
and talk to him," my wife said.
go and talk to him!" I answered. But in the end I did
it. Very timidly, I introduced myself to the Eien family,
and soon found myself caught up in conversation. My wife
then joined us.
used to know you a long time ago, Jason," I said.
I was seven?"
I said. "Before you were seven."
He was a handsome boy, tall, dark, and strongly muscled.
There was a scar on his temple but it was not all that conspicuous.
The eyes were in deep shadows, unseeing. The bullet destroyed
the optic nerve but it did not touch the centers of intelligence.
The psychologist told me Jason had a genius I.Q. And you
could see, as you watched him listen to the music, that
he had elephant ears.
uncanny thing happened then--two uncanny things. He touched
my wife's hair. Not her face, just her hair. He said, "I
know what you look like."
what do I look like?"
gave a wolf whistle, then said, "You have blonde hair
and a full mouth." All of it accurate.
was not too severely unnerved by that. Dave MacKay,
the pianist, is also blind. I have known Dave, at a social
affair, to describe the color of a sweater worn by someone
just entering the room. And Dave has a remarkable ability
to fathom character merely from the sound of a voice.
do you know that?" I asked Jason.
her voice," Jason said.
the next one was even stranger. My wife mentioned a friend
in Santa Barbara who grew flowers. Jason said he knew what
the man looked like. He said the man was tall and fair-headed.
This was accurate. But how many tall sandy-haired Japanese
have you met?
Menza's band was performing. "Who's playing the
trumpet solo?" Jason asked me.
I said, and then thought, Why misinform him? "Actually,
it is not a trumpet, it is a fluegelhorn."
a somewhat bigger instrument, it plays in a slightly lower
register, and it has a darker sound."
do you mean by darker?"
stopped me. One of those moments when you realize that music
cannot be described. And in the attempt we usually resort
to visual analogies, which did not seem appropriate in the
present instance. "It's fatter, it's thicker somehow,"
Bill Berry played a solo. "That's a trumpet
in a harmon mute," I told Jason, and explained the
use of mutes.
sounds a little like a saxophone," Jason said. And
not many orchestrators have noticed that resemblance.
Manne was playing with Don Menza's band. Two
weeks earlier Shelly had been hurt in an encounter with
a horse on his ranch and one leg was immobilized by a cast.
This meant he was working without a high hat. I explained
this to Jason. "What's a high hat?" he said.
me your hands," I said, and put them palm to palm horizontally.
I slapped them together on the second and fourth beats of
the music. "Two cymbals facing each other, like that.
You work them with a foot pedal."
yes, I know," Jason said. "I used to play drums."
listened to the music for a time. "I think a lot of
people are trying to help you, Jason," I said
lot of people in this room love you."
because. Take my word for it," I said.
you know who really loves me?"
loves me," he said.
the book: "Meet Me At Jim & Andy's"
by Gene Lees)
-published by the Oxford University Press
The book has an introduction by Don DeMichael, and has chapters
Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw, Woody Herman, Frank Rosolino,
Bill Evans (excellent chapter), Billy Taylor, Art Farmer.
and a great chapter
on Paul Desmond. It also tells about "Junior's"
and has a good chapter called,
"The Myth." ~ GREAT BOOK ! Rene Laanen