Vince Wallace: A Jazz Legend Stands Tall in Oakland
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."