By Marcia Gawecki
I have been painting the “Bronze Buckaroo,” red, yellow and blue for years.
Herb Jeffries, who appeared in the first black westerns also sang with Duke Ellington’s orchestra. When I heard he would be celebrating his 100th birthday on Sept. 24 at Cafe Aroma in Idyllwild, my heart raced!
Most of us in Idyllwild hadn’t seen Herb and Savannah for years since they moved to Wichita. To us, it seemed like the ends of the earth. But they had driven back to California, and wanted to celebrate this milestone with some old friends.
Cafe Aroma put out a last-minute announcement for anyone in Idyllwild to come and share birthday cake and champagne with Herb.
Lucky for me, I was working right next door at the Acorn Gallery when the truck pulled up. Lots of well wishers rushed up and Herb flashed that winning smile! He looked dapper in his cowboy hat, boots and tie.
Like a groupie, I took pictures through the gallery window. I was nervous that he wouldn’t remember me, and that I would be in the way. But taking pictures from that vantage point proved to be unsuccessful. And since I had to work at the gallery, I couldn’t join in the festivities.
Yet, Herb and I already had an arts connection. He and Savannah own one of my banners. In 2008, I painted a door-sized banner of Herb that hung outside Cafe Aroma during Jazz in the Pines from August to October.
Along with Herb’s banner, I painted jazz banners of Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, and Marshall Hawkins, who heads up the jazz department at Idyllwild Arts. Marshall’s banner was the only one that sold that year.
Years later, Cafe Aroma hosted a fundraiser for Herb, who was in the hospital and battling a bad respiratory infection. Cafe Aroma asked local artists to donate pieces to help raise money for his recovery. Since my banner was already on Cafe Aroma’s deck, I donated it.
Hubert Hawkins, Cafe Aroma’s owner, bought it and donated the money and the banner to Herb and Savannah. It made me happy to know that it was in Herb’s possession, and that I helped him in a small way with my art. Over the years in Idyllwild, Herb had performed pro bono for many charities, including one for ARF (Animal Rescue Friends of Idyllwild).It was our turn to give back to a man who had given so much to Idyllwild.
Herb ended up recovering and my banner of him (which I never got a good picture of) was somewhere in Wichita.
And suddenly, on Tuesday night, he was right next door celebrating his 100th birthday with friends. During the evening, Savannah went out to the truck to check on their one-eyed terrier, and I was outside. She told me how happy they were to have my banner in their home.
“Will the banner be donated to a museum?” I asked.
“Oh, he has so many things in museums now, we’re going to keep this one,” Savannah said.
Those words made my heart sing! Herb Jeffries wanted to keep my banner in his private collection!
I wanted to ask Savannah where the banner was hanging, in the garage or somewhere, but other people came up and started talking to her. And that was the last of it.
Feeling nostalgic, I picked up a smaller print of Herb that I had done years ago. He had sunglasses on and I captured his signature smile. I ran it over to Frank Ferro at Cafe Aroma.
“Can you give it to Herb for me?” I asked Frank. “Or, if he doesn’t want it, sell it for $20?”
Frank smiled and put it on the bar for everyone to see.
The next day, I reviewed the Idyllwild Herald, Hubert’s online paper, and saw many pictures of Herb and friends. He had a great time! He was celebrating at Cafe Aroma for nearly two hours.
About five years earlier, Herb was the last one to leave an event hosted by Jeffrey Taylor from Cafe Cinema at the Caine Learning Center. He kept talking about how much fun he had.
In fact in 2008, Herb was still performing before a live audience at the Temecula Valley International Jazz Festival.
Later that night of Herb’s 100th birthday celebration, a few well-wishers came into Acorn Gallery.
“His voice is a little higher now, and harder to hear,” one said.
“I think it’s a result of all the medication they gave him in the hospital,” another added.”But he looked great! He recognized so many people!”
I was happy and sad at the same time. I wished I wasn’t so shy and would have greeted Herb on his big day, even if he didn’t recognize me as the banner artist.
Then on Thursday, Sept. 26, I got a chance to talk to Herb!
Again, I was working at the Acorn Gallery next door to Cafe Aroma, when the truck pulled up. I watched as Savannah got out and was greeted by their friend, Harley (who is a farmer and a gourd artist at the gallery). Savannah went to make table arrangements at Cafe Aroma, and Harley took their dog for a walk.
So, for a moment, Herb Jeffries was alone in the truck.
I looked out the window, not knowing what to do! But let me tell you, if you get an opportunity like that, you should take it!
I strode up to the truck, and spoke to Herb through the window. He said the door was locked and was trying to open the window, when Harley walked up with the dog.
Harley opened the door, and Herb immediately tried to step out, but Savannah wasn’t back yet with the wheelchair.
“He’s really mad,” Harley warned. “He wants to go eat.”
“Hiya, baby!” Herb said, flashing a smile. “Where’s Savannah?”
He was trying to get out of his seatbelt like a precotious child, while Harley was holding him back.
“Just wait!” Harley warned.
I asked Harley if I could get a picture of Herb with one of my portraits. By then, Savannah had come up with the wheelchair.
“Smile, Herb!” Savannah and Harley both shouted.
I got a picture with Herb, just before they whisked him away to lunch. His eyes are as blue as can be, and there’s barely a wrinkle on him.
I credit his good looks with a positive outlook on life. Whenever I’d see Herb at events, he was always gratious and thanked God a lot for his good fortune. It just peppered his conversations so naturally.
“Would Herb want another one of my portraits?” I asked Savannah.
She said sure, and I ran to get one from the Acorn Gallery, and grabbed the other one from Cafe Aroma.
I handed both to Herb and asked him to decide which one he liked best. He turned it over to see his name printed on the back.
“He likes the blue one,” Harley said after a few seconds, and Savannah ran it back to the car.
“Stop by later and get a picture of him smiling,” Savannah said.
But I didn’t want to impose again. I was happy knowing that they owned two of my portraits.
On Oct. 28, Herb and Savannah were headed to Apple Valley Inn for another banquet to celebrate being a centenarian. For more info, call the chamber (760) 242-2753. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy!
Copyright 2013 Marcia Gawecki Art.