Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Woodward’s Hope to Die

Hope to Die: a Memoir of Jazz and Justice
By Verdi Woodward
Schaffner Press

When reading Verdi (Woody) Woodward’s Hope to Die: a Memoir of Jazz and Justice, one can’t help wishing there was more jazz than justice in his life-story of drugs, crime, and prison. I imagine Woodward does too. The baritone saxophonist with a Belushi-like capacity to ingest narcotics tells a brutally honest life-and-death story of drug addiction—a jazzman’s A Million Little Pieces, without the exaggerations and fabrications.

Woodward started using heroin at a time when its use was widespread on the jazz scene. For many players in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, heroin was instant cred. on the scene, and a seeming fount of creative energy. His first experience came while playing with a piano player named Joe Abrams. Woodward recalls: “I remembered throwing up all over his gray suede shoes, and also that I played forty choruses without my chops getting tired.” (p. 119)

Things quickly turned bad. Woodward would need more and more to fix, and would resort to crime to facilitate an escalating habit. Music, which had been his first connection to heroin, would suffer. When the personified gorilla on Woodward’s back taunts him, music is one of the targets:

“I always knew how to reach you; you were such an easy trick for music. But now you can’t play for shit. If you don’t believe me, check yourself out. Try playing a C major scale in tune. Try and make it sound the way it did when I was a little guy. Ah, you see, you won’t even try.” (p. 79)

Woodward takes readers on a stark tour of the early 1960’s drug scene, encompassing the streets of L.A., detouring through Mexico and the L.A. County Jail, and ending up in Folsom and San Quentin Prisons. His best period of incarceration was a brief stint in Vacaville, where drugs were easy to score and prison discipline was relatively lax. Once he had finally secured another bari, Vacaville was looking quite attractive: “I was once again just the way I wanted to be—comfortable and content with a horn in my hands and heroin in my veins.” (p. 294) Again, the contentment was not to last, as Woodward was soon transferred back to San Quentin, where he had a score to settle with the murderer of Red, his partner in a prison gambling enterprise.

Hope to Die is a gritty memoir of drugs, crime, prison, and revenge. Woodward is a forceful writer, if not always a sympathetic figure. There is no question he deserved to do his time, because he certainly did the crimes. If there is a follow-up, hopefully it will have more jazz than justice. While there may not be much of specific interest to jazz readers, Hope to Die is a cautionary tale that is also a quick and compelling read.