Vince Wallace: A Jazz Legend Stands Tall in Oakland
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.