Howard “Boots” McGhee: Legendary Long Boarder with a Legacy
Imagine a jazz club in central Los Angeles the ‘40s: glasses clink, smoke fills the air, the band plays tunes as cool as the winter air. An unconventional woman sits at a table, a cigarette dangles from her slender fingers. Her long legs cross, and her foot taps to the beat; an Arthur Murray trained dancer, music and rhythm are her constant companions. Her pale skin shimmers in the soft light, and her gaze settles on the one who plays the tune of her heart: Howard McGhee, an African-American trumpet player. He plays amidst a group of musicians, but Dorothy Schnell sees only Howard…
When Boots McGhee sat across from me in his home in Aptos, California, and detailed the stories of his parents, Dorothy Schnell, a Caucasian dancer, and Howard McGhee, an African American musician, I was transported in time. A child of older parents, I could imagine my father in that same club. How I wish that he was still alive, and I could thank him for introducing me to George Shearing, Louis Armstrong, and other jazz legends. I imagine that Howard McGhee was amidst his record collection, his smooth sounds filling our living room from my father’s turntable.
Boots’ life—a child of bi-racial parents, a youth caught up in the drug, civil rights, “free love” culture of the ‘60s, longboard surfer in Santa Cruz, his gentler years as a stand up paddle boarder, and co-founder of the Santa Cruz Surf Museum—is worthy of a novel. He offers perspective of prejudice, drug abuse, the surf scene, and peace of mind brought on by adversity, and triumph over it.
It’s hard to imagine, particularly in California, that a bi-racial couple would receive a second glance. In the 1940s, Dorothy and Howard drew more than looks after meeting in Los Angeles at a USO gig for veterans; they were the victims of violence, drug-plants, and racial hatred, eventually resulting in their leaving California.
In the late ‘40s, the two co-owned The Club Finale, a jazz club in central Los Angeles. Their time there was brief. After WWII, returning veterans from the south headed west, bringing with them their prejudice. A number of them took jobs on the L.A. police force.
“My folks were harassed and beat-up by an officer when they came out of a movie theater because my mom was white and my dad was black. Drugs were planted in their club. They were arrested, but a judge threw out the case, revealing it was a plant. They faced horrible discrimination. So, they left L.A.”
“They drove across country, and feared for their lives and safety during a time of hatred. When they’d stop to fuel or get food, one would hide in the back seat of the car, covered up, to prevent being noticed.”
By the time Dorothy and Howard arrived in New York City, they couldn’t believe that people passed them in the street without batting an eye; their skin color of no consequence.
In New York City, the audience for jazz was cutting edge. Performers such as Charlie Parker and Jimmy Heath became part of Howard’s circle. Howard helped pull together gigs, and performed and recorded with the leading top jazz musicians.
Like many musicians and actors, success brought chaos into the McGhees lives. By then, they had their first son Howard Jr., nicknamed Boots by his father because of his boot-shaped nose. Howard was rarely home, traveled in jazz festivals as far as Paris, and drugs were a central part of his life. By the time the couple split up, they had a second child, Druanne, and a third child, David, on the way. Dorothy and the children headed back west, and eventually settled in Berkeley, California. Worth pointing out is that both Boots and his brother David resemble their mother: fair-skinned and light hair. Conversely, their sister’s genes took after their father. This difference would foreshadow the opportunities and discrimination the children faced, as well as their experience as “white males” versus “black female”.
While current-day Berkeley is a liberal town that embraces diversity, racism bled into the 1950s and 1960s. It was during his elementary school days that Boots had his first encounter with racism.
“One of my classmates saw me walking with my sister. He said, ‘Why were you walking with a nigger?’ I said, ‘She’s not a nigger. She’s my sister.’ It was then that I saw that my sister was viewed totally different from us. Her upbringing and experiences throughout her whole life have been vastly different from my brother’s and mine due to the color of her skin.”
Boots found his identity in the skateboard and surf circles. A student at Berkeley High School, he’d cut school and hitchhike to surf at Bolinas, Kelly’s Cove, Pedro Point, and the beaches of Santa Cruz.
“I was part of a skateboard group called the Top Siders. In ’65 I was doing an exhibition at the Cow Palace, and blew out my knee. In ’66 when I became eligible for the Vietnam draft, it was my knee that kept me out of the war.”
Boots may have been saved from the fight in Vietnam, but he soon entered another battle, and one that was equally deadly: drug abuse. We hear about current surfers and their draw to methamphetamines as a way to keep up their energy. In the ‘60s, Boots found speed. By the late ‘60s, he was not only shooting crystal meth to push the limits in surfing, but was a dealer.
“I started seeing a lot of my friends who did drugs were dying, or quit surfing. I had my own defining moment when I was loaded. I was surfing Pleasure Point, and got in a fight with a friend. I had this out of body experience where I saw how angry I was, and how I was out of control. I left the fight, ran, and stopped using crystal meth from then on.”
Boots credits surfing and his forty-year marriage to Carm as his lifesavers. While construction has been his life-bread, Boots turned his attention to environmental concerns in our oceans. He was the first chair of the Santa Cruz chapter of SurfRider Foundation which tests ocean water for bacteria and pollutants, has its own laboratory, and has developed a curriculum for children to educate them on storm drain pollutants and ways to keep the ocean clean.
He co-founded the Lighthouse Surf Museum located inside the Mark Abbot Memorial Lighthouse Santa Cruz on West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz, California. Now a docent, Boots helps to protect and preserve surf heritage and artifacts, as well as educate those who visit. One of the biggest joys for Boots was his mother serving as one of the first volunteers at the museum; she died just a year later.
In the past several years, Boots has seen a decline in respect from young surfers toward their seniors.
“A lot of fights have occurred in the water, fights over jumping on someone’s wave. I got out of that scene. So, about three years ago I got into SUP, stand-up paddle boarding. I go back and forth between New Brighton Beach and Pleasure Point, a five-mile route. It helps me with my balance, and keeps me healthy.”
Change, growth, and adaptation are the hallmark of Boots’ life. On the horizon is his desire to write about his upbringing, the challenges that he and his siblings faced, and the unique perspectives about life that he and his sister share based on their different skin colors. Boots also devotes a great deal of time to photographing ocean scenes, available to view and/or purchase at www.bootsite.net.
A gentle soul, Boots McGhee is an icon in the Santa Cruz community, a man with a history of tolerance and understanding that touches the heart, and who gives back to the ocean that he so loves.