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Vince Wallace: A Jazz Legend Stands Tall in Oakland

By Published: October 5, 2003

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.

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