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Vince Wallace: A Jazz Legend Stands Tall in Oakland

By Published: October 5, 2003

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.

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