The New Yorker magazine’s nightlife listings begin with this suggestion: “Musicians and night-club proprietors lead complicated lives; It’s advisable to check in advance to confirm engagements.” That could very well apply to the Marin live music scene as well. It’s a fluid, ever-changing, some would say even crazy, business. And that’s what makes drummer Michael Aragon’s 36-year run at the No Name Bar in Sausalito such an incredible milestone.
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“Undoubtedly, it’s the longest continuous jazz gig in the Bay Area,” says the 75-year-old musician before playing his regular weekly show last Friday night. “Not one band has played at one spot for 36 years.”
After all that time, Aragon’s tenure at the colorful downtown watering hole finally comes to an end this month. The Michael Aragon Quartet plays on the bar’s cramped little stage the next two Friday nights, and that’s it. For the many friends and fans the charismatic drummer has made over nearly four decades, these final shows have been bittersweet.
“We will miss him so much, because it will never be the same,” says artist Carolyn Meyer, who has been coming to see Aragon and his quartet most Friday nights since moving to Sausalito 15 years ago. “It’s an era that’s ending. We’ve seen Sausalito go through some changes, and this is another one. It’s absolutely sad.”
That sadness isn’t just about Aragon’s retirement from No Name. It goes deeper than that. Three years ago, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer that has metastasized into his bones. He doesn’t know how many years he has left, and he wants the freedom to spend more time with his wife, Amanda, and do some traveling while he still can.
“Life is a very interesting thing,” he says as we walk along a darkened Bridgeway before the gig. “If you stay mindful and you look around, you can have a lot of fun, especially if you think there’s no more left.”
I’ve known Aragon since the early 1970s. He was one of the first musicians I met when I first moved to Marin. We jammed in a big house in San Anselmo where he was living at the time. There was something special about that day, and I’ve never forgotten it.
As we walk along, catching up on our lives since then, he offers to show me the house where he was born. We come to it on the south end of Bridgeway. Jack London is believed to have written “The She-Wolf” there. A stately old place with a turret, it looks like a castle overlooking the bay and San Francisco’s skyline.
“I was born right up there,” he says, pointing to an upstairs room, as little waves sigh on a small beach where he used to play as a child. He explains that he comes from a line of Portuguese landowners and business people that go way back in the history of Sausalito. He credits his mother, a powerful, religious woman, with instilling in him his love of music.
“She would push me down this sidewalk in a stroller and sing to me,” he says. “When I got my first jazz gig, the guy who hired me asked who taught me all the lyrics to the songs? I said, ‘My mom.’ She turned me on to music.”
In his adult life, Aragon has suffered through unthinkable tragedies, more than any one person should have to bear. His son, Franklin, was 31 when he died of cancer. His 23-year-old daughter, Sheila, was killed by a hit-and-run driver. His late wife, Susan, died of a brain tumor. And now, he’s dealing with his own mortality
“It’s a horrible thing, all that happened,” he says. “I thought nothing like that would ever happen to me again. Music is the thing that’s been keeping me together. If it wasn’t for that, life would be very difficult.”
The cancer keeps Aragon in a great deal of pain most of the time, but he’s resisted taking medication to ease it.
“The doctor wants to prescribe all kinds of things for me, but I refuse,” he says. “The funny thing about pain is you can make friends with it, especially if you have to choose between pain and opiates. I’m not into opiates.”
He’s found that his best medicine is to be up on stage behind his drum kit, leading his band through an evening of jazz.
“When I play, my pain level is zero,” he says. “I get in the bubble and things stop.”
Packs the bar
Back at the bar, the members of Aragon’s quartet — tenor saxophonist Rob Roth, bassist Pierre Archain and keyboardist Casey Filson — are setting up as the place begins filling with warm bodies. By the time the music starts, the narrow saloon will be standing-room-only.
Roth, the senior member of the group, figures he’s played more than a thousand Fridays since hooking up with Aragon 20 years ago.
“I haven’t gone through half of what Michael has gone through,” he says. “He really personifies what it means to persist and push through tough times in life. The time we have together playing, all that goes away. We don’t think about anything else. We’re playing with the same energy and drive we had 20 years ago. But Friday nights won’t be the same anymore.”
Fridays certainly won’t be the same for Dave Mitchell, Pulitzer Prize-winning former publisher of the Point Reyes Light, who travels every Friday with a group of friends from his home in Point Reyes Station to hear Aragon and his quartet.
“When you watch him, there’s so much emotion in his face when he’s performing,” Mitchell says. “It’s really fun to watch. I really like him and I’ve brought lots of other people along, too.”
The renowned jazz and pop drummer Harold Jones, of San Geronimo, best known for his stints with Count Basie, Frank Sinatra and Duke Ellington, stopped by to see Aragon one last time before going on the road with Tony Bennett.
“I can’t imagine what it’s gonna be like without him after all these years,” he says.
Aragon’s musical legacy goes beyond his residency at No Name. With former Sausalito Parks and Recreation director Carol Buchholz, he co-founded Jazz and Blues by the Bay, an annual summer concert series in the city’s Gabrielson Park.
“Michael was my music guru when I was in Sausalito,” says Buchholz in a phone interview. “He has contributed in so many ways to the music scene in Marin. His entire life he’s been doing this. I can only say wonderful things about the man.”
Aragon doesn’t plan to stop playing entirely, but he’ll pick and choose his gigs, rather than be pinned down to a regular schedule. For him now, it’s all about living in the moment, enjoying these last nights with his band and sharing them with the all the folks who are showing up at his final gigs to wish him well.
“Some people kid themselves, but we all know we’re going to leave here,” he says. “I stopped kidding myself years ago, probably when my son passed. There was a reality check there. So, I surround myself with positive people. You can look at it as a glass half-full kind of thing and it’s not so bad. It’s one foot in front of the other, baby, and that’s it.”