SEATTLE — Northwest jazz lost an exceptionally talented and eccentric figure last week when bassist/pianist Jerome “Jerry” Heldman died of pneumonia.
Heldman was the proprietor and also a performer at the Llahngaelhyn, a legendary coffee house located in the fairy-castlelike building just south of the University Bridge that hosted jazz from 1965 to 1968.
Heldman died Oct. 11 in Yacolt, Wash., after being bedridden for two years with heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He was 76.
The Llahngaelhyn was known for all-night jam sessions, where touring musicians such as pianists McCoy Tyner and Chick Corea and saxophonist Roland Kirk dropped by, and local players such as bassist David Friesen, guitarist Larry Coryell, saxophonist Carlos Ward and guitarist Ralph Towner cut their teeth. The late Seattle beat poet, Jesse Bernstein, was also a regular.
Born Feb. 24, 1937, in Fargo, N.D., Heldman was raised in Seattle, attended West Seattle High School and served in the Air Force from 1955 to 1959. After returning to Seattle, Heldman got a desk job with the Seattle Police Department, but he quit when his work came into conflict with his life as a jazz musician.
Self-taught, Heldman played bass with the Seattle Jazz Quartet and the Playboys, an early Seattle rock band. During the 1962 World’s Fair, he was the drummer for a rock band at the Roll Inn Tavern. In 1965, he moved into an apartment above the Llahngaelhyn and started hosting jazz sessions.
The bohemian scene at the club could be bizarre. Heldman, who according to his daughter, Caroline, had “undiagnosed mental-health issues,” became notorious for wearing a tinfoil hat to deflect alien “rays.”
“Late in life, he admitted to me that he heard and spoke with voices, both of angels and God,” wrote Caroline in a blog post about her father’s death.
Though part of the hippie counterculture, Heldman also became a born-again Christian and, thinking to escape what he saw as Seattle’s corrupting drug culture, he moved to Ridgefield, Clark County, where he worked for the Ridgefield Parks and Recreation Department. After moving to nearby Yacolt, he worked for three decades as a janitor at Tektronix, in Vancouver, Wash.
Heldman continued to play music, notably at the Columbia Gorge Hotel, in Hood River, Ore. For the past few years, he had been leading services at Yacolt Full Gospel Community Church.
The Heldmans raised and home-schooled six children, bringing them up in a strict, sheltered environment, unexposed to TV. His daughters were not allowed to wear pants or cut their hair until they were teens.
“As a dad, he was an unrepentant but ultimately failed misogynist,” recalled Caroline, a feminist political-science professor at Occidental College in California. “I got a spanking for bringing home Betty Friedan’s ‘The Feminine Mystique.’”
But while conservative about gender roles, he “undermined his overt sexism by being a proud and supportive parent,” she said, and he was progressive about race.
He was also generous to a fault, picking up hitchhikers and sheltering the homeless, even when he had little to give.
Heldman is survived by his wife, Julia, of Yacolt, Clark County; five daughters: Clare Heldman-Kachmar and Joy Tindall, both of Yacolt; Caroline of Los Angeles; Sarah and Kathleen Heldman,both of San Diego; one son, Christian Heldman, also of San Diego;and seven grandchildren.
A memorial is planned for Nov. 11, but the location has not been announced.
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