The Making of a Legend’s Banner

Shown under construction, the Herb Jeffries banner will be auctioned off at Cafe Aroma

By Marcia E. Gawecki

A couple of years ago, there was an event in Idyllwild honoring a Film Noir star, Colleen Gray. Jeffrey Taylor, from Green Cafe and Cafe Cinema, hosted the event. About 200 people showed up that night to watch “Nightmare Alley,” and hear Colleen speak of her experience with making the film. It was a great time, and at 11 p.m., Herb Jeffries and Savannah were the last to leave. Herb was 95 at the time.

In Idyllwild, Herb Jeffries is like everyone’s favorite uncle. He’s talented, handsome, positive and interested in everything. And he tells great stories about all of the people he’s met and worked with over the years. You just never get tired of being around Herb.

And he always thanks God for everything he’s ever received. He doesn’t sound preachy or anything. Just a man telling it like it is.

Louis Armstrong is part of the "Jazz in the Pines" banner series

Last year, I created a 7-foot banner of Herb Jeffries. It was part of my first “Jazz in the Pines” banner series shown outside of Cafe Aroma. The other banners included Marshall Hawkins (another local musician critical to the Jazz Fest); Miles Davis (whom Marshall played with!); Louis Armstrong, and Billie Holiday.

I was so nervous about making the banner and wondering if Herb would see it and like it, that I made myself sick. I stayed up all night painting it over and over again with my funky colored acrylic paint. By morning, I was shaking and tired, but still not satisfied with the outcome. But I had to turn it in.

A legend was going to see this banner. A legend who played with Duke Ellington and starred in cowboy westerns. He’s visited the president and has a star on the Walk of Fame. What would he think of my humble rendition of him?

“Did Herb like the banner?” I asked Frank Ferro, the owner/manager of Cafe Aroma, almost every day.

“He hasn’t seen it yet,” Frank said.

A couple of weeks after the Jazz Fest, Cafe Aroma hosted a birthday party for Herb Jeffries, and my banner served as the backdrop. A good time was had by all, and Herb saw the banner, Frank said. But that’s all Frank said.

It took a long time to decide if Herb's specs should be pink or purple

My guess was that Herb didn’t like it and Frank was too polite to tell me. So I pressed my friends and my boyfriend for their opinions.

“I like the one of Marshall Hawkins the best, even though he looks angry,” Jeffrey Taylor admitted. “But the one of Herb Jeffries I don’t like as much.”

Daggers in my heart, but constructive criticism, just the same.

When my neighbor’s friends came to stay for a few days this summer, they asked me to fly Herb’s banner outside my house. Les and Barbara Doaks knew Herb and Savannah Jeffries. They said they had seen a picture of Herb in “Cowboys & Indians” magazine recently. Herb had just attended some big rodeo event.

Once hanging outside my house, I realized the colors were all wrong. Hot pink and orange were not right for a legend. The trouble with painting door-sized banners is that it takes a lot longer to change colors. And when you change one color, it affects all of the others.  In fact, you can work yourself up into a feverish frenzy–to the point that you don’t know if it’s even Herb Jeffries anymore.

Jackson Pollock once said, “It’s easy getting into a painting, but sometimes you have to fight your way out.”

So this year, I was lucky enough to host another series of “Jazz in the Pines” banners at Cafe Aroma. I spent a lot of time repairing the 2009 banners, especially the one of Herb. The only new banner this year was of another local jazz musician, Barnaby Finch. Barnaby’s ended up being a “bear” to complete because it was larger, almost barn-door sized.

So when Cafe Aroma sent a Live Mail notice recently announcing the 97th birthday celebration for Herb Jeffries, I was thrilled! I trusted they would use my banner as the backdrop for another celebration. Sadly, Herb may not be there to celebrate his big day. Yet, Cafe Aroma plans to set up a live link to where Herb is recovering from his surgery.

And there’s going to be a fundraiser that night too. Local artists and musicians have been asked to contribute something. My 7-foot banner of Herb that has been smiling down on Cafe Aroma diners for two years now would be a natural. Donating the banner (worth $800) to a legend’s recovery fund would do my heart good.

“Herb used to do a lot of free concerts for people in Idyllwild,” Jeff told me. “He’s a very generous man.”

My only hope is that my Herb Jeffries Banner fetches more than $200. You just never know with live auctions. But Herb has always preached a strong faith in God and mankind. So whatever it fetches, it will be enough.

I just wish I knew if Herb liked it.

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the attachments to this post:

It took a long time to decide if Herb's specs should be pink or purple
Banner Herb CU

Louis Armstrong is part of the "Jazz in the Pines" banner series
Banner Louis CU

Shown under construction, the Herb Jeffries banner will be auctioned off at Cafe Aroma
Banner HJ Full CU


One Comment to “The Making of a Legend’s Banner”

  1. cheri says:

    Hi Marcia,I just finished reading your touching piece “The Making Of A Legend’s Banner.” This piece has inspired me greatly!

    Thank You for sharing! Warmly, Cheri M. Bentley-Buckman