January 28, 2009
By Donovan Henderson
That's how Leonard Jaffee answers the phone. A simple "Hello" just
doesn't get it done for Jaffee, a resident of the Fort Collins area
for 10 years and a chef for Colorado State University dining services.
This is a guy with a 10-foot long ponytail wrapped in colorful ribbon
who in one breath enjoys telling about his award-winning food
creation and the next how, in the 1980s, he was a bodyguard for O.J.
Simpson and Yul Brynner. He has a doctorate of divinity from a
correspondence school in Oklahoma, and he worked for several years as
the pyrotechnic engineer for The Grateful Dead.
His life has been a kaleidoscope of characters and experiences that
would make Mark Twain proud. Jaffee anyone who knows him, or
doesn't know him, for that matter, calls him Boots blazed his trail
on his own wits and moxie, but it was a chance meeting at a summer
camp in New York State that molded him into much of what he is today.
It's why he's sitting at the Crown Pub in Old Town, drinking a Jim
Beam and Coke, talking about his "mom," the woman who, though she
didn't give birth to him, gave life to so much of what he has become.
The two meant so much to each other that on Feb. 24, when the
memorial service for Boots' mom is held at Riverside Church in New
York City, he will be one of the first to speak, bumping further down
the program speakers the likes of Morgan Freeman.
That's pretty heady company for a guy who enjoys his job preparing
meals for college students, but that's been the life of the Rev. Dr.
Leonard "Boots" Jaffee.
When most newspapers and news services ran the obituary in early
December for Odetta the iconic folk singer and civil rights
activist who for six decades captivated fans, celebrities and other
legendary musicians they listed a Boots Jaffre (note the spelling)
of Fort Collins as her surviving son.
The New York Times obituary also said Odetta has been married three
times. Boots chuckled at that. Yes, she was married once, but
divorced about 40 years ago. But the two other men? He has never
heard of them. One man the paper listed as a musician named Louisiana Red.
"That's a name I think I would remember," Boots said.
Dressed very Western his name is Boots, after all he is in jeans,
a red checkered shirt and an insulated denim vest. He has a faded
skull tattoo eight tattoos in all on his left ear lobe. His tells
his stories with enthusiasm and with ease, interweaving tales of
Odetta, the music business and his own personal journey.
He was 15 and attending a workshop at Shaker Village in New Lebanon,
N.Y., when he first met Odetta. One of the special activities there
was when you would get "arrested," taken in the middle of a stack of
hay bales, and you had to do something to get out. He was teamed with
Odetta, and to get out of jail, she sang "Wayfaring Stranger," wowing
both the small crowd and the teenage boy.
To this day, that song is the one that "gets" Boots every time.
It was about a year later that the pair's relationship was
permanently cemented. He was with her in Greenwich Village one
afternoon, and they walked into one of Odetta's favorite watering
holes. She was going to leave him at the bar for a few moments, and
he worried out loud that, as just a 16-year-old, he'd be asked to leave.
If anyone hassled him, she said, "Just tell them you're my son." And
from then on, he was. Boots came from a stable, two-parent home, and
they welcomed Odetta as part of the family.
"We had an incredible connection," Boots said.
"At one time, I had two moms, one who would take me places and one
who would bitch at me and that was interchangeable," Boots said
with a wide grin.
As a boy, Boots walked a little "cockeyed," causing him to wear
through shoes quickly. The only shoes his mom could find that he
wouldn't wear out were cowboy boots. In New York City in the summer,
not many boys were wearing cowboy boots. Boys being boys, they called
All these years later, he's just "Boots."
At the beginning of his working life, one of his gigs was at the
Fillmore East on the lower east side of Manhattan. He did
sleight-of-hand magic as an opening act for many of the bands. One of
the bands, The Grateful Dead, loved his act and hired him to do their
So, the young man headed west to San Francisco and worked with the
Dead. During that time, he met Merl Saunders, the keyboardist best
known for working with Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia on his side
projects. For about 32 years, Boots was Saunders' tour manager. It
was during one of those tours that Saunders played a gig at
Mishawaka, the musical mainstay on the river just up the Poudre
Canyon. He fell in love with the place, and during the course of
several stops, fell in love with his wife, who worked at the Mish.
(She's affectionately known in these quarters as Mish Chris).
The couple make their home in the Poudre Canyon with her kids. He has
two grown children from his first marriage.
Few people living in Northern Colorado would be able to stack up with
Boots in the number of names he's met in the music business, maybe
with the exception of the Cajun fiddler Doug Kershaw, who makes his
home in Greeley. Boots, a harmonica aficionado, has played with
Kershaw, Dark Star Orchestra, Warren Haynes, Bob Weir and the like.
During his time in the Bay Area, because he had a house and a yard,
after Janis Joplin's death, he inherited her Great Pyrenees dog.
And for a while in the 1980s, Boots ran a successful security firm,
which led him to be the security guard for Simpson, Brynner and
others. He used to drive horses, which allowed for appearances on
'70s TV shows like "Hart to Hart" and "McCloud." In the late '70s and
early '80s, he also had earned a chef's certificate, the basis for
his career now.
He's lived a diverse life, and his self-description is a hodgepodge
of diversity: "I'm a white, Asian, Buddhist Jew raised by a black woman."
"I attribute all this diversity to being the son of Odetta."
Odetta wasn't a pop star, so her name doesn't jump off the page to
the casual music listener. But to fans of folk and blues music, she
was a legend, an icon. Her career had incredible staying power, with
a Grammy nomination in 1963 for "Odetta Sings Folk Songs," to a
nomination in 2005 for "Gonna Let It Shine." Her public relations
resume sent out by her manager is 31 printed pages, and includes
quotes and references from a Who's Who of the entertainment, literary
and political worlds.
Rosa Parks is said to have gained strength from her songs; Martin
Luther King Jr. anointed her the "Queen of American Folk Music"; and
she influenced everyone from Bob Dylan to Joan Baez.
Harry Belafonte and Maya Angelou are scheduled to speak at her
She died Dec. 2 in New York of heart disease. Boots was with her that
final week. Her goal was to get out of the hospital and perform at
President Obama's inauguration. She hadn't been officially invited,
but there's little question that had she lived, one would have been
Odetta was one of the strongest voices during the Civil Rights
Movement in 1960s and beyond. "As a civil rights activist, she was
very strong," Boots said.
Her last performance was given from a wheelchair, of course to rave
reviews, Boots said.
On Sept. 10, 2001, Boots performed with Odetta at a gig just a few
blocks away from the World Trade Center. He woke up with her in her
apartment on Sept. 11 and watched the carnage along with the rest of the world.
"That changed a lot. We got much closer after that," he recalled.
Despite all he had done in show business, Boots said he has a shy
streak in him. He recalls the time Odetta asked him to play harmonica
on one song, "Bourgeois Blues," during a performance at the Lincoln
Center in New York. This was the big time, and waiting in the wings,
he was nervous as could be.
It's her voice that the world will remember. For Boots, her son, it
will be her smile.
"When she would walk on the stage and smile, she would have control
of everyone in the building," he said.
When she turned to look at him, telling him it was time to go on, she
smiled. He walked on to the stage as calm as could be.
"Her smile was the best damn sedative you could get."