Under a gray, late-spring sky, artist John Reynolds begins conjuring. With a swirl of his open hand, a neat stand of palm trees sprouts from the ether. Next, a wide sharp sweep of an outstretched arm produces a stately driveway and neat rows of fragrant orange groves. With each shared memory, brick by brick, the lush tangle of what is now the Arlington Garden, is replaced by the footprint of old Pasadena grandeur: The former Durant manor, on land formerly known as Arlington Heights, flickers into view; a French chateau on “Millionaire’s Row” imagined as only Southern California could. “Growing up, I loved this old house,” Reynolds says with longing heavy in his voice, “I think about it all the time.”
There are other addresses, countless others, that still take up residence in Reynolds’ imagination -- a sort of holding area for his lost Los Angeles: “In those days -- 1964, ‘65 -- the abandoned old houses would just sit there. They didn’t put yellow tape on them. You could walk right up on them. This thing would just stare down at you,” he recalls. “I would be out with mom walking and she’d say, ‘Come on! Let’s go in!’ Inside, I’d look up -- chandelier, winding staircase. It was all in tact,” with a sigh, the smile fades from his face, “I saw a lot of great places go.”
Reynolds knows it can be treacherous business dealing in nostalgia. There are all manner of trick wires, trap doors and uncomfortable -- “Whose nostalgia?” -- truths to confront. But as a musician and painter who firmly situates himself in the landscape of history and memory, conveying a sense of home, especially in a constantly remade Los Angeles, is its own tight-wire act. The things that both located and grounded you are sometimes gone before you can make full sense of them: “You look up one day and there’s just an empty lot and a tractor.”
For Reynolds, a fifth-generation Southern Californian, history has a heavy presence. It’s palpable at every turn. It’s often a past that most people can no longer discern: It’s been bulldozed, retrofitted, rethought or stuccoed-over. That’s why his creative output, for as long as he can remember, has been dedicated to bringing those stories to the surface and rekindling unfinished conversations about place: “I guess you can say I’m haunted -- in a positive and negative way,” he reflects. “I’m sorry that so much of it -- that feeling is gone -- but I am glad that I can remember it.” And there’s legacy to protect.
That “feeling” he’s trying to reanimate, the one that flows through most of his work is inspired by 20th century architecture and early 20th century music. They are spaces to walk into and sit a spell. Both musically and visually, Reynolds has for decades been mining a vivid and distinct Californian past, as a way to both mark time and celebrate place.
While the sweep of his interests might be rooted in the silent era, he’s the product of a creatively abundant lineage and a picaresque personal path. In a city famous for out-the-box creative pursuits and quirky day jobs, Reynolds can claim pre-eminence. While he worked for a time in animation, he has most often made his living playing early American music of dancehalls, bôites and speakeasies -- hot jazz, jug bands, trios. Among his portfolio of gigs, there’s a regular monthly spot as one of the Parlor Boys, backing singer Janet Klein, on banjo, guitar and flights of “fancy whistling” at the Steve Allen Theater. Outfitted in an array of snazzy vintage ties, sharp suits and spectator shoes, he heads his own ensembles -- The Hollywood Hotshots and The North Hollywood 4, among them.
Reynolds is part of various “atmosphere” ensembles as well, at both Disneyland and California Adventure over the years, most recently as part of the Ellis Island Boys -- in knickers and bowtie -- playing brightly alongside his brother Ralf on washboard. Many nights, he’ll jump off that gig at day’s end, then snake up the 5 to another date -- party or late-set -- at the Lindy Loft, Cicada or Joe’s Great American Bar -- where he will serve up what the evening calls for -- diners, dancers, across-the-cocktail-table gazers.
Perhaps Reynolds’ long-gaze backward was unavoidable. Growing up, history has always been a study, an integral part of daily conversation. He comes from deep and venerable California roots: His maternal grandmother was the early Hollywood actress ZaSu Pitts, his paternal great-grandfather, Isaac Julian Reynolds, according to family lore, was the first licensed mortician in California. “I got to know a little bit about dead bodies,” he cracks, revealing just a flash of an impish smile, “and not just where they’re buried.”
The bygone Southern California that Reynolds’ paintings evoke is steeped in a sense of sunshine and noir reflected in his own past. Los Angeles has always been a steep gamble. And consequently, visually, his backward glimpses aren’t wholly sentimental. Along with the whimsy, an antic, foreboding quality sometimes filters through. “My houses are a little crooked; the perspective sometimes isn’t quite right.” In other words: That Red Car barreling down the hill may be going just a little too fast to stop.
But the quieter moments tell us something else: The bungalows circled by close-cropped lawns, the lean of a shade tree, the hazy hills marking territory are what long-time Angelenos remember from the very edges of memory. They are the vistas or landmarks that used to be conjured in family stories about place -- backyard incinerators, orchards, oilfields, streetcars that ran to the sea.
In both feel and subject matter, Reynolds’ paintings and drawings are reminiscent of the landscapes rendered by California scene painters of the early to mid-20th century, depictions that recorded the day-to-day visual history of both urban and bucolic California life. What pulls him toward a particular moment -- a front door, a shadow on the wall -- “Is the feeling of a dwelling and how it affects me.”
For years, Reynolds tried to find space for both streams of creative expression. The music, however, most often took center focus. “It’s been amazing that I’ve been able to scrape by on music, and weird, odd music at that. Sometimes I can’t believe it. But lately, I’ve wanted to bump up the art some. So much is changing. You know, you see it. ‘Let’s put up an apartment for 600 people where one person used to live.’ So I like to draw things that I know will not exist much longer, because they are quirky and unique and they tell a story. They’re important to look at. And it’s seeming more and more necessary.”
Born in Pasadena in 1953, Reynolds’ remembers music first filtering into his life mostly via records -- his father’s and grandfather’s. “They played the bones -- literally rib bones -- a percussion instrument, not too difficult to get. They’d play to records. The records that they had at the time were LPs -- one of the groups was the Firehouse 5, Turk Murphy, and Lu Watters,” he says. “They were kind of jazz revivalists of the ‘30s and ‘40s going back to an earlier time. And it was on the Goodtime Jazz label. I still have them.”
In a household that could often be stormy -- his parents’ marriage crashing around him -- the music would buoy his spirits. “I don’t know if it was the fact that everybody was in a joyous mood. But it stuck with me.” That feeling would pique an interest in the instruments themselves -- their flow and interactions in these settings. “I told my father: ‘Dad, I think I would like to pick up the banjo.’ Within a half hour we were at Berry and Grassmuck Music and I was in possession of a five-string banjo and lessons. I took them from David Lindley.”
He learned the rudiments and picked out songs by ear but later found himself pulled to the four-string: “That was going back to the bones again and [to] my father and grandfather -- because that’s more jazz oriented -- 1920s pop music, or a loose term they use is Dixieland. And I just begin to futz around at home.”
Later in the ‘60s, as a teenager, he gravitated toward the source music. “I mean to hear Louis Armstrong in the ‘20s and early ‘30s is thrilling. But I also got to hear Bix Beiderbecke and Eddie Lang, Joe Venuti -- and that changed everything. I keep those old LPs in my studio and I still get them out to listen. My old friends. It’s really nice to have something you have passion for. It’ll see you through your life.”
While music took precedence, he found his confidence in visual art. “In the ‘50s both my Mom and ZaSu were very encouraging. Sometimes they would pull my leg though. We’d go out to the Huntington and see work by Sir Joshua Reynolds and they’d go: ‘You know you’re related to him,’” he still chuckles at the prank. “But really they were always encouraging. I loved the smell of oil paint and it was something that I was good at. In school I was so horrible at everything else, but I did such good drawings that I’d get awards and the teacher would have me get up and help other students -- and it felt empowering.”
After his parents’ marriage collapsed, he and Ralf relocated to Laguna Beach to live with their father. There, along the Pacific, Reynolds would find comfort in the new environment -- the trees, the coast and the open space. “People would set up easels and everyone would paint the ocean,” he observed. “I was more interested in the houses, the bits and pieces that remained. So I never turned around,” he recalls. “I loved painting in the hot sun because of the shadows on the houses and the way the sun would dry up the watercolor quickly. For me watercolors were about refining your accidents. So you start very light and work into it.” Those days working in the sun brought some calm to the chaos.
For a while he flirted with the notion of illustrating children’s books, first enrolling in a program at Monterey Peninsula College and then at California State University, Long Beach. But 13 credits shy, “I had had some discouraging moments, and it’s ridiculous that I didn’t follow through, but I was looking for what was next.”
He’d also been working a fill-in job at Disneyland playing banjo -- and that was coming to an end, “So, I panicked, but I quickly hooked up with two other guys and then moved to Hollywood and we worked clubs -- which you could actually do back then. It was just ukulele, bass and guitar. And we just sang harmony.” Music would become not a hobby but a vocation.
There was something in the struggle and the chase that felt familiar. He’d grown up listening to his grandmother ZaSu’s old Hollywood stories, about how she’d scrap and reinvent herself time and again: First as a teenager arriving in Hollywood at 16 with nothing; much later when silents turned to talkies. “Her big break: 1917 in 'The Little Princess' with Mary Pickford. So not bad, she hit it pretty quickly. But by 1930, “She’s in the original copy of 'All Quiet on the Western Front.' But when she went to the premiere and the audience heard her voice everybody laughed. She ran to the bathroom and threw up. She thought her career was over. Very soon after that is when Hal Roach teamed her up with Thelma Todd to be the female Laurel and Hardy and by 1931 she’s on to something else.”
He’s had to mine more than a little of that reinvention spirit. While through most of the ‘70s and ‘80s he was part of several busy ensembles -- Mood Indigo and Palm Springs Yacht Club, the Johnny Crawford Orchestra, by the ‘90s, however, that work was sparse. “I don’t think I worked at all in 1991.” He’d have to pivot like ZaSu. “I felt: ‘I’ve got to make a change.’” He enrolled in a life drawing class offered through the Animation Guild and taught by Glenn Vilppu from Art Center College of Design. “It was intense,” he remembers, classes that ran from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. But out of it he assembled a strong portfolio. “I asked people in the business what they thought I might be good at. They saw my houses and whatnots and they all said ‘background design.’ Luckily, I got a call from Klasky Csupo -- they were doing ‘Duckman’ at the time.” It was six years of solid work -- 1996 to 2002 -- on several shows, including the “Rugrats,” “The Wild Thornberrys” and British cartoon series “Stressed Eric.”
“I was doing that full time, and in the evening’s the music.” Balancing it, while not perfect, was easier than he thought: “You just know that you can’t party. Just go to bed. Go to bed. But sometimes -- you’d find yourself pulled into the moment -- that’s what happens. And then the next day, I knew the routine, I’d have to sneak up the old Buick Skylark to doze.”
A dreamy June sky floats above: a blue canopy awash in cirrus clouds, pierced by palm trees and gently spreading oaks. It’s a backdrop that Reynolds himself could easily render. This evening though, he’s tending carefully to the musical setting -- a propulsive chug-a-chug and soaring, tight harmonies. It’s a standing-room-only crowd at Glendale’s Brand Library and Art Center for the second show of the season’s summer concert series, and Reynolds is warming up the crowd with sly jokes and a chaser of history -- stories of the Brand family and their former home.
As the trio leaps into, “I Would Do Anything for You” a swarm of couples materialize; scores of them, as if through some invisible stage door. Dancers -- in brightly patterned skirts and ties, newsboy caps and fedoras tilted just so -- fill a square of space just beneath the bandstand. It would look like a period movie still if not for the vivid diversity -- in age, ethnicity, skill, ability -- gathered together in tight space: A snapshot of today’s Los Angeles, in sync for a moment. That joy floating on Reynolds face is mirrored on theirs as they dip and tilt and spin. From where did they all emerge?
From the looks of it, all over. The gigs and who shows for them is often word of mouth. Reynolds explains afterward, his white hair falling boyishly onto his brow. “It’s funny. I only do and can do one thing and that’s basically pop music between WWI and WWII. That’s it. I wouldn’t even call it jazz.”
But it hardly seems a museum piece when you glimpse scores of couples gliding around a dance floor -- connecting, conversing, making plans for next time.
What calls them? “I have a handful of licks I repeat and repeat,” he says. It’s a moment of tossed off diffidence, but he pauses, fishing deeper for an answer. “I can tell you, I’ve never gotten tired of it. And don’t know what that is -- but it’s the same sort of feeling I get when I look at these very old buildings,” he gives a nod to the repurposed mansion rising above.
“Even as a kid I would get a feeling from them. Back then these buildings were a lot more fanciful and playful. They had stories. And maybe that’s it. Or part of it,” he considers.
“I’ve just seen too many great places go. Places that brought me joy in some odd way. Sometimes you come up on them and there is just this kind of forgotten-time feeling and I think that’s what comes into my dreams and you want to hold on to it.”
But for a moment on a bandstand, watching past and present swirling on a dance floor, he finds a pathway back again to pleasure that that feels both timeless and transient. “But I’m always asking myself: “How long before it’s all gone?”
Upcoming Events: John Reynolds with Janet Klein and her Parlor Boys, Thursday, July, 7, 7 p.m. at The Steve Allen Theater; Friday, July 8, 10:30 p.m. at Clifton's Cafeteria; and Tuesday, July 12, 6 p.m. at the Levitt Pavilion Pasadena.
Top image: John Reynolds, "David's House." | Courtesy of Jane Lynch.