Vince Wallace: A Jazz Legend Stands Tall in Oakland
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.