Vince Wallace: A Jazz Legend Stands Tall in Oakland
Maybe the luckiest day in tenor saxophonist Vince Wallace's life, or at least the luckiest day in the last few years, was the day in the summer of 2001 that he wandered into the Bulldog Coffee Shop on Broadway in Oakland and was recognized by a jazz fan named Justin Scovil.
Wallace is a West Coast jazz legend to area musicians and fans with long memories. An Oakland native, Wallace had been playing up and down California since the 50's.
On this day in 2001, the 62-year-old Wallace was, essentially, down on his luck. But within weeks, Scovil had taken on the role of Wallace's manager and procured him a rhythm section (essentially by walking into the music store across the street from the Bulldog and asking for one) and a gig: playing every Sunday afternoon on the sidewalk in front of the Bulldog.
Two years later, that Bulldog gig is still a Sunday happening, and the young rhythm section of drummer Jason Slota and bassist Shan Kenner is still with Wallace. In addition, each week Wallace brings one or more guests from among the best of the Bay Area's working jazz community. Players like Michael Marcus, Jim Grantham, Prince Lasha, Mitch Marcus and Bishop Norman Williams are regular visitors. Scovil has also helped Wallace get gigs at area clubs like the Cato's and the Ale House, both in Berkeley.
On November 8, 2003, a six-hour Vince Wallace Underground Jazz Festival will take place at the Broadway Studios in San Francisco's North Beach, featuring Wallace along with Sonny Simmons, Kim Nalley, Bishop Norman Williams and many others. Slowly, the word is getting out that Vince Wallace is alive and kicking, and playing with gusto.
Wallace's story is colorful, to put it mildly. He tells of using a fake mustache as a 14-year-old to make himself look older so that he could get into Bop City, the famed bebop palace that served as the heart of the thriving jazz scene in San Francisco's Fillmore District in the 40's, 50's and 60's. At Bop City and in blowing sessions all over Oakland, Wallace found himself jamming with the greats of the day, once his ability to play had become apparent to his elders.
After Wallace's high school years came an unhappy stint in the Air Force. Returning to California after several years away, Wallace found that the jazz scene had mostly migrated down to Southern California, and he went to find it. Again, Wallace shared playing time with all-stars like Hampton Hawes and Dexter Gordon in places like Sherry's Bar and the Cascades Club. Hard drugs were everywhere on that scene, and Wallace fell victim, initiating a problem that has dogged him ever since. Chronic arthritis is an obstacle, as well.
Back in Oakland in the late 60's, Wallace joined a jazz-rock band called Little John that recorded and released an album on Columbia/Epic. Wallace says that the company sabotaged the album, stating, "They made us sound like a mediocre band, when we were really one of the best bands around." Wallace claims Little John was undercut because Columbia was intent on pushing Blood, Sweat & Tears and Chicago and didn't want competition from other horn bands. Ultimately, the record company abandoned the group, and they soon broke up.
A 1974 album, Vince Wallace Plays Vince Wallace, with friend and pianist Kent Glenn, received good reviews but lousy distribution and nobody heard it. Two subsequent LPs with Glenn also failed to take off. Some hard years followed, and despite Wallace's strong reputation among his fellow musicians, gigs were hard to come by.
From the mid-80's through mid-90's, Wallace led a storied Sunday evening jam session at Schooners, a tavern in San Francisco's Mission District. In addition, in the late 90's Wallace played on a quartet of self-released CD's with the Gene Stone/Vince Wallace Quartet.
Drummer Stone, a longtime friend and supporter, provided the funds for the recording and production, and Glenn appears on two of them. The recordings also feature West Coast jazz veterans like pianist Si Perkoff and bassist Mark Proctor. These CDs are solid, high-energy jazz recordings that show off Wallace's fire and talents to great effect. The bad news is that they've never received distribution. The good news is that they're available through Wallace's website, at www.bayarealist.net/vincewallace . Thanks to Scovil, Vince is still out there doing his thing, keeping the faith and playing with passion in Oakland and the San Francisco Bay Area.
The following interview is culled from two long conversations at Wallace's small Oakland apartment. Vince Wallace is a relatively small man, noticeably hunched from his arthritis. He is soft spoken, but not at all tentative in his speech. When I spoke to him, he displayed, more than anything else, an urgency to be understood about the positive forces within the music. On his face one reads a strange combination of effects: there are the lines chiseled out by the hard roads he's traveled, yet often the overall effect is of a man younger than Wallace's 64 years. There's still more than a bit of innocence about him, despite the disappointments and the missteps.
Wallace loves to talk about music, about his long career and about the joys of performing. His conversation, like his tenor solos, can take some unexpected, if interesting, twists and turns. Wallace works to stay rooted in the present, but his memories, especially of the Bop City days, are fascinating.
AAJ: How did you start playing music?
VW: I had a metal clarinet to start with, and I used to pretend it was a sax. I played along with the radio. I figured out the notes on the clarinet and started improvising along to the radio to my favorite alto players. Eventually, I got enough money to buy a saxophone. My first sax was a Martin Indiana. It was a student model that had a gold body with silver keys. It was actually a very good horn for a school model. Now I have a Mark 6 that looks exactly the same. Silver keys, gold body.
AAJ: Did you have music classes in school?
VW: I got kicked out of my high school band for wanting to improvise on a Mozart piece. I was playing tenor sax on what was supposed to be the French horn part, I think. I said I wanted to improvise and they got all mad at me. But then along came Mr. Kane. He was really cool. Mr. Kane had played with Benny Goodman's orchestra. He was a tenor and clarinetist and really good. He knew I had a natural talent for improvisation. So he let the lead alto player in the sax section take all the reading parts, and I got the solos. This was in Fremont High (in Oakland). He was a great music teacher. He let me slide on a lot of things and encouraged me to stick with the jazz I was doing. He told me I was on the right track. He wasn't the first person to encourage me, but he was the first authority figure, the first real teacher to tell me that I was a really good jazz player, that I should go with what I know. So I did and I was successful. I had some bands and we played some assemblies at school, until some of the teachers had us blackballed.
AAJ: This was the early fifties, and they were still trying to blackball jazz?
VW: Rock and roll had just started. Fremont was the more like Fonz or American Graffiti territory at the time. But during this same time, someone told me about this great place called Bop City, and how I should make it over there. When I was in high school, I used to entertain the kids at lunchtime. They used to call me The Hawk. That was either because of my nose, or the reference to Coleman Hawkins. But I had that nickname. Finally, I met this other cat named Ed Eliot, an alto player, and we decided we would start going over to the sessions at the Blackhawk every Sunday afternoon from three to seven, and start hanging out at Bop City. We started doing that, and it was the beginning of something really wonderful. Paradise on earth. It was my college; my whole university of jazz started right there.
AAJ: I guess you had to have a lot of courage to walk in there wanting to play at your age.
VW: Yeah, you had to have a lot of courage to walk anywhere at that time of night.
AAJ: Did they let you go up on stage right away? How did that work?
VW: Not right away. They made the white boys and the women'all the waitresses who worked there were vocalists'they acted like they were getting their big break just by being there and being on the scene. It was so chauvinistic. They'd be looking at their ass all night, and then finally they would put them on stage at the end and let them sing. Sometimes, they turned out to be pretty good. There was one waitress who not only sang, but played alto sax, too. Her name was Theresa, and she became Theresa Poindexter, Pony Poindexter's wife.
AAJ: What did you have to do before they'd let you up there?
VW: Well, first the house band would play, then they'd bring up the guests who were well known throughout the city. This guy Kermit Scott, or Scotty, he was about 300 pounds, a 6-foot 7-inch giant guy. He'd come piling out of a taxicab with two women at his side, with this huge saxophone. He sounded like Coleman Hawkins. A lot of people. People like Teddy Edwards, Frank Foster. Somebody might be in town, Buddy di Franco, whoever, they let those guys sit in first. And then, right when you'd think you were going to be able to sit in, they'd call an intermission. They'd say, "No more horn players. All the horn players have to get off the stand." Then they'd bring up Federico Cervantes, who was Freddie Gambrell at the time. He changed his name to Federico Cervantes and started playing trumpet. He could hit all those high notes like Maynard Ferguson. But he was originally a great pianist. He played like Errol Garner. A blind cat. He had a dog sitting underneath the piano. When he played, no other horn player was allowed to sit in, because Jimbo wanted to break it up and have a nice variety. The problem was that ten tenor players all wanted to play at once. They didn't have much etiquette at that time, so the club had to enforce strict rules to keep everything in order, or else there would have been chaos. They would have to tell the cats not to play more than two or three choruses, or else cats would just blow forever. So anyway, then they would come back with the house band, and a few more guests, and then at the very last, 3:30, 4:30 in the morning, they'd say, "OK, this man with the horn, here. Come on up and let's see what you can do." So my partner and I would go up. I passed the test, but my friend didn't. They sent him down and told him, "Get off the stand and come back when you're ready."
AAJ: But you passed the test the first time?
VW: Yeah, I already knew the tunes.
AAJ: But this wasn't your first time going into the club?
VW: No. I'd been in the place, but I wasn't allowed to play. I had to wait my turn.
AAJ: Did you bring your horn every time?
VW: Oh, yeah. I always brought my horn because otherwise I'd have to pay to get in. My horn was my ticket into the club.
AAJ: So they just wanted to make sure that you were serious enough that you would come back a few times even if you didn't get to play?
VW: Not only that, but when they started realizing that I was good, they started offering me money to get there. They'd pay my cab fare and or bus fare to get over there, and give me a little change after it was over, just to get me to come down a few nights a week and help out. But it was really a good experience because I got to be on the bandstand with all these greats, and there's no replacement for that. You can't learn jazz on a record or going to school like you can being right next to George Coleman or Dexter or someone on the stand.
AAJ: So that's how you were able to accelerate the process of developing your own style. First of all, you started so young. Secondly, you had this incredible trial by fire.
VW: But I also realized that this was it. It was my destiny, somehow. I was meant to do this. So I was going to stick with it.
AAJ: What did your parents think about this?
VW: They thought it was a fine hobby. But they thought I had to have something to fall back on. They were willing to support me, my whole family, my uncles, everybody. They wanted to send me to law school or medical school or dental school. Anything like that, except for music. With music I was on my own. I had to do it all by myself.
AAJ: But you made it.
VW: Well, I don't know about that. I'm still struggling.
AAJ: The music you made then must still be fresh in your mind.
VW: It sure is. A lot of people say that there wasn't any bebop on the West Coast, that it was all happening in New York, or elsewhere, but that's not true. There were cats constantly working on the music here. A lot of it was underground, though. The sessions were by word of mouth. There wasn't much advertisement. A lot of the stuff took place in somebody's living room.
AAJ: Who else was there?
VW: Miles Davis, Billie Holiday played at 53rd and Shattuck, I think, for a while. A guy named Sanders King. Frank Haynes, Skippy Warren, a great bassist who also used to sing. He had played with Bird and Lester Young. There was Frank Jackson, who is still playing around today.
AAJ: These are jam sessions that you were at?
VW: Yeah. There were places in Oakland like the Rum Boogie Club and Slim Jenkins' place. And there were a lot of illegal jam sessions. Cats were always trying to bring their conga drums and instruments down to Lakeside Park and jump onto the municipal bandstand, which was a perfect place, except sooner or later someone would complain and the cops would be there to shut it down.
AAJ: These were the days when you were 14 or so? Are we talking about those days when you were a really young guy, sneaking around with a false mustache?
VW: Yes, lying about my age to join the union, with a blue suit and a red tie, working with strippers and stuff, playing rhythm and blues and practicing jazz on the side as much as I could.
AAJ: At that moment, you're a young guy, you discover something about yourself and you say, "This is what I'm going to do for my whole life." Do you remember that moment?
VW: Sure. That was an amazing moment. I remember seeing this movie, with Duke Ellington's band and seeing Johnny Hodges, and there was another movie with Jimmy Dorsey. The instruments! I just fell in love with the saxophone. I thought it was so expressive. It was the closest thing to a human voice. I saw what could be done with it. And I started realizing how many different styles could be played on this same instrument, and right there I thought, "That's what I want to do." The next thing was setting out to do it, and going through all the dues you have to go through'all the practicing. Going to a place like the Blackhawk or Bop City, which was like a university for an aspiring musician, and being there every night to see Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong and Miles or somebody walking in the door. It was like a dream. I must have had a charmed life, even though I've had a few downers in my life and a few obstacles.
Overall, I'm sure glad I stuck it out, with all the wonderful moments I've had in jazz, and the people I got to play with as a kid. It rubs off on you, in a way that you can never get from a record, no matter how hard you try. It's a one-to-one thing. Cats like Hank Mobley, who became my real close friend. And there were no ego trips. One person would just teach jazz to another.
Just having that experience of being able to see all those great jazz stars and have them take time out to give me a few words of encouragement. Eric Dolphy, a beautiful cat.
AAJ: Did you play on the bandstand with Eric Dolphy?
VW: Sure. Many times. In those days, he used to come up with Chico Hamilton's group. He mostly played alto in those days. He used to tell me stories about how they tried to run him out of this neighborhood down in Los Angeles. All his neighbors got a petition, they had about a thousand signatures from the surrounding blocks, somewhere in Central LA, because he used to practice about 24 hours a day. He was a freak for practicing. Even at Bop City, most of the time you'd find him in the back, or leaning against the wall, working over some tune. New changes or something like that. He was constantly trying to improve himself and his music.
AAJ: What did he say to you?
VW: Just told me about how he liked my last solo, or something. Just saying something nice.
AAJ: The great article in California History ["The House that Bop Built," California History Magazine, Fall 1996, by Carol P. Chamberland] talks about the cutting sessions that went on, but I guess you held your own pretty well, there.
VW: Pretty well, yeah. I was very fortunate. I held my own in that way, and I was readily accepted by the Black community once they got to know me and got to know how I played and where my heart was.
AAJ: Was that a tough line to cross?
VW: I think it was for most people. There was a lot of Jim Crow/Crow Jim stuff. There was a lot of ignorant shit. But then once you proved yourself . . . a lot of cats said that when they saw me at first at Bop City, they thought I was a vacuum cleaner salesman or something. But then after they heard me blow, it was a different story. I didn't have any problems after that.
AAJ: When was the first time you found yourself on stage there with someone famous and you looked around and said, "Wow, look at who I'm playing with?"
VW: Probably Charlie Parker. It went fine. I did real good, and he gave me some words of encouragement.
AAJ: Are these things you think about a lot, or only when somebody like me comes around asking about the old days?
VW: No, I guess I don't. That's why I have to wrack my brain to answer your questions.
AAJ: That's OK, though. I'm interested in what's going on now, as well, but I thought I'd see what you could tell me about those days.
VW: You know what they say: You're only as good as your last solo. I have a thing about resting on my laurels, because past achievements don't mean a thing if you don't keep up with them
AAJ: If you don't keep that swing.
VW: Right! (laughs)
AAJ: I certainly understand that, and I don't want you to think that I'm only interested in the history. It's just that some of us weren't there, and we all want to hear about it from the people who were there.
VW: There were so many great musicians, and I had so many great times, even if I didn't make any money. But the moments that I had in musical experience were worth more than money could ever buy. I'm so lucky. I've always been thankful for that. I've always had good reviews. I've played with all types of musicians. I played with an Arabic band once. I played in this place called Sneaky Pete's in Santa Ana with Lowell Fulsom. I've played blues. I played with Bobby Day, the guy that had 'Rockin' Robin.' That day my saxophone broke, and Bobby was able to fix my horn. He knew all about mechanics and physics. He was a math major. He worked his way through school by singing blues. He never even intended to be a musician. He wanted to be a mathematician.
AAJ: Are you writing new things?
VW: Writing and also revising things that I've written earlier. Bringing things up to date.
AAJ: What is that process like? These are things that you've been playing, some of them, for thirty years. What's the process where you hear something and you think, "I have to bring that up to date"? What do you change?
VW: Usually something in the harmonic structure. You take a harmony bar where there are two notes, a major second a part'half a second apart'and then there's a third note maybe a third apart from that which gives a sort of a cluster effect, a nice pitch. Or maybe change the rhythms, or I might even add a new section and insert it into a piece that's already composed. Maybe a drum shout chorus, to indicate a drum solo's coming up.
AAJ: Is that based on changing styles, or your ear changing? Or just because you like to keep things fresh?
VW: I like to keep things fresh and let them evolve. And there's more than one way to play a certain tune. I like to try different approaches with the rhythm and the harmony.
AAJ: That's a way of keeping the music young?
VW: Sure. Most of the music is more or less eternal music. All of the Broadway show tunes'Gershwin, Porter, Arlen'they all seem to me like they're divinely inspired music. They have an eternal quality about them that always remains fresh, even though they were written in the 20's or 30's. They're still used today as jazz vehicles because they lend themselves through swinging or being beautiful in some way'maybe the chord changes. Take a tune like Cherokee which was written in 1939 and it still sounds fresh.
AAJ: Do you think of yourself as having a distinctive style of playing?
VW: Yeah. I think my style originally started off sounding more like the people I idolized. If I liked Stan Getz, or Ben Webster, or Coleman Hawkins, I would take certain facets of their sound or aspects of their playing and apply it to my playing.
Sometimes people say that it's better to be a good copier than a bad original. When I first started playing, I had that funky Cavalier all-metal clarinet I told you about, which I would fantasize was a Sidney Bechet fish horn or a soprano saxophone. I always wanted it to be a saxophone, but it wasn't. I learned how to master the clarinet, which was a good thing, because once you do that, the sax is just a breeze. I played along to the radio, and I got a style from appropriating things from all the people I felt an affinity to. Like if Louis Armstrong hit a certain note a certain way, or Lionel Hampton or Getz or Earl Bostic or Tab Smith or Johnny Hodges. If they played something that would hit me a certain way, then I would take that as my own and play it too. Pretty soon, if you get a whole bunch of this stuff, it starts formulating into a certain style or sound. But the real style comes later on. It comes with experience. You can aim for something early on in life, but the real style, your real individuality of your own style happens after a build up of many years of playing. It's a residual effect. There's no replacement for it. No young musician, no matter how hot he is, can come out and say within a year that he's really got his style down. It takes more maturity on the part of the player before he arrives at a completely original voice.
AAJ: When did you feel that you did that?
VW: Probably around the time I was jamming with Dexter Gordon, maybe around '61 or '62.
AAJ: You were jamming with him where?
VW: He was playing with me at a place called the Cascades Club down in Belmont Shores, sort of a ritzy area of Long Beach. It was my gig on the weekends, and there was a jam session that started at six on Sunday morning. And I think we went out to Sherry's Barn, south of Paramount, and played from two to six all night long. We had a jam session out there, and everybody from all over the Los Angeles area used to come down there and sit in with me. At the Cascades Club, every week we would feature a different star from Hollywood, like Jack Sheldon, Richie Kamuca, Frank Rosolino or Anita O'Day, different people like that.
So, once we had Dexter playing with us every night for two weeks. During that time, a lot of people said that I cut Dexter. That's just their opinion. But I was able to teach him some of his own tunes. He had forgotten some of the tunes he'd written back in '47 and '45. He hadn't played them for so long, probably not since the record date, but I liked the tunes, I used to play them all the time with my group, so I was really on top of them. So I relearned him his own songs back in the kitchen. It was a real far out scene. There should have been a camera.
AAJ: So this was the period of time that you came to realize that you'd developed your own style?
VW: I don't think it just hit me at one time. It was sort of a gradual process. Pretty soon I just realized, thinking back on it, that I basically played the same as I always had, but I'd accumulated a lot more wisdom and a lot more knowledge about the music. At that time I began to feel like I had mastered the instrument, technically at least, and I started being able to make my own musical statements, according to how I felt, and project a reflection of the daily events of life at that time, without having to struggle to sound good or to sound like somebody else, or whoever was hip that day, but really make an individual effort that was my own statement. I felt I really had control over that around that period. I was in my mid twenties.
AAJ: That's pretty young to reach that level.
VW: Yeah, that's pretty young, because I started real young. I was really fortunate to have this musical gift originally, and then to be put in situations where doors were open to me.
AAJ: I know a lot of musicians don't like to try to define their own style, because they feel like they're trying to put their art in a box, but if I was to ask you what is Vince Wallace's style, could you respond to that question?
VW: Well, I'd like to have a variety of sounds. I don't want to be limited to just one sound. I like my sound to convey emotion, to have a soft quality, but also to have an edge. Whatever's called for at the time. There are certain sounds that I've admired all my life, listening to other people's tones. Not all saxophones. I like a lot of trumpet players' tones. I like to be able to incorporate them into my own sound if I could. If I had the ideal setup and mouthpiece, I'd love get a sound like Clark Terry gets on his trumpet.
AAJ: Can you describe what it is about his sound that you like?
VW: It's so rich. It just fills up the room. So mellow, it's just a quality of sound. Like gold, or something, like a cream that rises to the top. It's almost not a trumpet, it's so beautiful, it's like a French horn, or a really mellow trombone. It's like butter, I don't know. There are so many types of sounds. As far as saxophones sounds I like, Getz has a beautiful sound. Coltrane has a nice sound. Dexter Gordon. Ben Webster has a beautiful sound.
AAJ: When you play jazz these days, do you still get the same charge out of it?
VW: Yeah. Probably even more so now. Because the broad experience that I've had since I first started playing. Basically, I play the same as I always have, with a few improvements over the years, things I've learned. No matter how talented you are as a young musician, still, it takes time to gather experience. That's one of the main factors. If you can have some kind of longevity, to gain the experience and still be able to play as long as Coleman Hawkins remained on the scene. You try to keep playing with younger players and try to keep up with what's happening. That's the way to do it.
AAJ: Like Art Blakey.
VW: Yeah. Guys like that.
AAJ: So you're going to keep going?
VW: Yeah. Keep going. That's my job. That's my mission. To carry on the tradition and be one of the messengers.
AAJ: How are you feeling these days?
VW: Well, I have days when I don't have that much energy. Some days I sleep in the afternoon. But I've always been a night owl, anyway.
AAJ: You look good. And you sound great.
VW: Thank you. I've looked worse. I know that. (laughs)
AAJ: I guess when you're playing with people you've been playing with for years, it must feel like time disappears. You're playing, it could be now, it could be 1960. It's just the music that's happening.
VW: Exactly. You make really close friends through music. You play with somebody every week for a long time, or even every few months, you get these friendships and relationships. But there's also a high mortality rate in jazz. There's always somebody passing away. Every month, there's somebody that you know way back when and played with. That's kind of the sad part. At least you got to play with them. You got to experience the joy of their life.
AAJ: You've told me that Hank Mobley and Frank Haynes both had big influences on you. Can you tell me about Mobley first?
VW: We were good friends, good buddies. Every time he came to town, we used to hang out.
AAJ: Were you about the same age?
VW: No, I think he was a little older.
AAJ: Was it a case of your learning things from him, or were you learning things from each other?
VW: I don't know. I don't think he had much to learn from me. I've learned from him all my life, ever since I first heard him on records. But then getting to meet him in person and getting to play with him in person on the stand at Bop City made all the difference in the world. He was such a wonderful cat, such an encouraging cat. Some cats, when they get well known they get a big head and they won't give you the time of day. But he was a really humble soul. When he was coming up, he paid a lot of dues, so he understood. When he heard a musician that had talent, like he saw in me, he gave you all the encouragement in the world.
AAJ: What kind of things did you learn from him? Just general knowledge, or . . .
VW: Like Frank Haynes, Hank had a sort of a synthesis, where he was able to play Charlie Parker or Sonny Rollins, Ben Webster, different influences, and make them into one style, like taking different colors of paint'red would be Ben Webster, blue would be Coltrane, a little white would be Webster'mix them up into a certain shade. A soup, a jambalaya, where each okra would be a different cat, a different flavor, a different flavor he was putting in. And he was able to combine these essences of different cats playing in a way that I really liked. Ira Gitler described Hank Mobley's playing as not blowing out, but sucking in the notes like a vacuum cleaner. They sounded like they were going inward rather than going outward. It's hard to describe, but I used to see him a lot.
Like when Miles would come to town. Miles would take off in his Maseratti with some beautiful girl, and he would let the band be taken over by J. J. Johnson and Hank Mobley. They'd each take maybe a 20-minute, half hour solo, something like that. Miles would just play on the head, then he would jump into his sports car and be gone for a long time, then come back toward the end of the set and just finish off.
AAJ: That's the life.
VW: Yeah. He just had to show up, just because he was Miles. Whatever he played was a valued gem. He could play four notes, or just play half a chorus. People would be wild-eyed. All the young trumpet players would be in awe.
AAJ: That "stew" you were talking about that Hank Mobley would create . . .
VW: Stew or a painting or shadings or however you want to describe it.
AAJ: Is that something you picked up, to be able to do that?
VW: I wasn't able to do it right away, I was just able to listen to it and comprehend what he was playing, what he was trying to say. The thing in jazz is, the way cats move from point A to point B, the way they can link up phrases and get from one part, one note, into another, or one part of the chord change or some pattern, in the most interesting, smoothest way possible'that's what you learn from these cats. The way they execute these phrases in a way that makes musical sense. And Hank Mobley was one of the best at putting together these things based on the conception of Charlie Parker and bebop and Monk'the essence of all these ideas'and really saying something with these beautiful lines. He was like a sculptor, sculpting these beautiful lines.
AAJ: With everything you learned from Mobley, you've said your real mentor was Frank Haynes.
VW:Yes. I heard something in Frank Haynes that I think the whole world seemed to miss. He was never recorded properly. I think very few people alive today ever heard of Frank Haynes or heard him play. There are a few cats who remember him and are awestruck. They know that he was good.
AAJ: What was it that you got from him? What kind of things did he teach you? Was it technical or emotional?
VW: Technical, what songs to play, what kind of a tone to have. Just his whole aura, his whole presence, his whole presentation. He was the man on tenor in the Bay Area.
AAJ: When did you work with him?
VW: It was mainly the fifties. He didn't last very long into the 60's. He went back to New York for about six months and died of lung cancer, or something like that. But he made three albums with Les McCann and Kenny Dorham and Dave Bailey. But those albums don't really do justice to him. He had a beautiful tone. Somewhere between Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Jimmy Forrest, Johnny Griffin. The way he played was kind of bluesy, kind of funky. He played with real intelligence and his phrases just laid really right. He had a huge repertoire, knew all the tunes perfectly. Just an "all the way around" musician. He played with Lionel Hampton. Not only could he play jazz, but he could play really good rhythm and blues, like King Curtis and some of those guys. He was from Cleveland, Ohio.
AAJ: Tell me about the CDs you've made over the past several years with Gene Stone and Kent Glenn. How do you know them?
VW: I've known him for so many years. In fact, one time around 1964, I was homeless and so was Mark Proctor, the bassist. Gene provided a place for us to stay in Topanga Canyon. We had a place where we sort of lived off the land. We had peach trees and plums and a garden. We worked a few good jazz gigs around Hollywood. Also, in Topanga Canyon there was a place called the Coral Club, and they had jazz up there.
I met Kent while I was playing at the Cascades Club. One night and this sort of heavy-set guy came walking in. He really stood out. White tuxedo, red carnation, and this really beautiful girl he brought. It was his senior prom or graduation or something like that, and he'd brought this girl out afterward to the Cascades to show her a jazz gig. So we were playing, and he asked if he could sit in on piano. I said, "Sure." So he sat in and it sounded really good. He was a really young kid, and that was Kent Glenn. He's steadily improved since then. He eventually became one of the greatest composers and piano players around.
AAJ: It must be a really good thing for you to have been able to document your playing over the last several years, especially with musicians you know very well.
VW: Yeah, it sure is.
AAJ: What would you like to tell people about this music?
VW: That it's straight-ahead jazz that comes from the heart, that gives a balance between emotion and intellect. That it swings. It should make you feel better than you felt before you started listening to it, just uplift your spirits a little bit.
AAJ: I've enjoyed listening to all of these recordings, but I particularly like the sound you got on Spherycle.
VW: Yeah, I like it, too. Alex Baum was the engineer. He has a studio in his kitchen and his living room, and he has cables running from his garden shed and all through the house. He gets a real nice sound. He's also a real good bassist in his own right. He plays with Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks. I meant to dedicate the CD to Thelonious Monk, because his middle name is Sphere, but the people who produced the cover misspelled the name.
We flew in Joe Piscatele all the way from the River Walk in San Antonio, TX. He's a great pianist. He doesn't read a note of music, but he can play classical, Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, but it's all by ear. And we had a great trumpet player, Sal Marquez. He played with the Mothers of Invention and the Tonight Show Band with Johnny Carson and Jay Leno. He was the head trumpet player. He's great. He plays with a lot of facility. It was recorded in Chatsworth, CA, one mean, nasty day. Gusty. Chilly. "Sphericle" is a tune I dedicated to Monk, and then there's a tune called "Cold Scotch." "Scotch," because it has a Scotch/Irish feeling, and a Coltrane feeling, so it's called "Cold Scotch."
There's a great story about one of the tunes on the CD. Si Perkoff wrote it, and it came from a dream he had. Si used to know Monk personally, and in the dream, Thelonious was playing this tune that Si had never heard before, except in his sleep. And so immediately, Si woke up and ran downstairs to his piano and started playing this tune that he'd heard in his dream before he forgot it. This is the tune called "Message from Monk." Si was a medium. He got this message from Monk and taught me the tune. Si's not on Spherycle, but I decided to teach the guys this tune and we recorded it on the spot.
AAJ: Did you do a lot of rehearsing for these sessions?
VW: Very little. Mostly, there was no rehearsal at all, except we'd rehearse the tunes in the studio just before we laid them down. We did Spherycle in two days. For the CD With Love from Oakland, it was Gene and I, Steve Husted on bass and Si playing piano. [Tim Ross plays piano on six tracks, Perkoff on thirteen of the two-CD release.] Si and I are such veterans. All I had to do was just mention to him, "Let's try this. Let's play 'With a Song in My Heart,' let's play 'Canadian Sunset.' Let's do it like Eddie Hayward did it and ease into it." And he knew what I meant.
AAJ: That's the advantage of playing with guys you've played with for a long time.
VW: Yeah. I've got a whole list of cats I know in San Francisco right now, and I approximately know what tunes they know. I know what they can do. For example, there's only one guy who can play this tune called "If There is Anyone Lovelier Than You." I think it's a Rogers and Hart tune that Coltrane did. It's on a very rare album, and the only person that knows it is (San Francisco-area pianist) Mark Levine. So whenever I play with Mark, I call that tune. When I'm with Si Perkoff, I can play "Blue Lou," "The Lullaby of the Leaves," or some other tune that most guys would say, "No, I don't know that one. Is it in the book?" They'll always have to refer to some book to play the tune, and that's really bad. It shows that they don't really know the tune, and it's really easy to get the wrong substitution when you're just looking at a fake book.
AAJ: You've got some pretty young guys that you're playing with at the Bulldog. You mentioned before that you like playing with the younger musicians.
VW: I sure do.
AAJ: What's good about that, particularly?
VW: Just the fact that they're still young and on the right track. And in time, they'll be very good.
AAJ: You feel like you're helping these guys develop?
VW: Yes. Plus they give me energy and support. They drive me on to greater heights.
AAJ: Help you feel young?
VW: Yeah, but music in general helps you feel young. Music is sort of a . . . you can go in feeling sick and come out well in the end. You break a fever, you replace your low energy with high energy.
AAJ: I guess you're lucky.
VW: Yes, I'm very lucky.
AAJ: Other people have some of the health issues that you've had, but they don't have music.
VW: Right. I don't know what they have, but they should have something. Or else, what good is life?
AAJ: This may seem like the stupidest question in the world, but can you tell me where the music comes from?
VW: Where it comes from?
VW: It comes from out of the air. It comes from God. It comes from the source from which all life comes. It comes from the cosmos. It's out there. It doesn't belong to anybody. It's a reservoir that everybody who's a medium for music can tap into and share. It's something that belongs to everybody and should be shared with all the people of the earth. It's a powerful force and something that we can't live without. The world without music would be a terrible thing. It would be like being born without your senses. Music's very important. If you take it away, life would get awfully sad very fast. Music can express so many different things'happiness, sadness, joy, pride, victory, defeat, whatever. It's an all-encompassing thing. The more you're into it, the more you feel its ability to express all these different things.