The Bach's Beach Vision Of Jazz Heaven

Arthur R George By

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After parting company with the probation department, Douglas worked for the San Francisco welfare department, then transitioned into work as a mortgage broker, real estate agent, and property inspector. The jam sessions continued informally. On the suggestion of a lawyer, a savvy Douglas registered his operation as a non-profit organization in 1964 with the purpose to bring jazz and classical music acts to the public. In 1965, he added a 3-bedroom/2-bath house onto the cottage, and in 1966 opened as the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society charging admission.

In 1968, he had begun offering the space also for weddings, parties, anniversary celebrations, and other events. In 1971 Douglas expanded the facility again, adding a more dedicated listening space with a raised ceiling, balcony, improved lively acoustics, bar seating, and the view of the Pacific.

His jazz aphorism Number 84 states that a small listening venue needs a subsidy over and above ticket sales. Number 85 observes most venues are partially supported by drink and food sales that often distract from the music, but for the Bach, the subsidy was renting the facility for wedding receptions. By 1975 he was fully in the wedding business, doing 40 or so a year, as an adjunct to the music. Without being underwritten by the weddings, there would have been no jazz scene. Wedding, party, and meeting rentals of the space remain important to its continuation now.

The mind-twisting name Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society is a kind of faux-pretentious nonconformist absurdity. It arose out of an informal party in 1963. A small group of friends was hanging out on a Sunday afternoon in what had been the original beer joint, drinking and listening to recorded music. Some folks came by with some actual dynamite and suggested exploding it on the beach. The original guests declined to join in, and the dynamiters went off to do their deed. Meanwhile, back at the party, in a change of mood, Douglas put on a recording of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos. Someone perceived the music was in 4/4 time, and suggested dancing to it, in a form of West Coast Swing.

Soon came an explosion on the beach. One guest, upon hearing the blast, dubbed the crew the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society. Douglas recalled, "Of course, we were anything but a society, and fancied ourselves Beat Hipsters of the Fifties who looked with bohemian disdain on any social conformity." Douglas put a sign out in front bearing the incongruous moniker, and the name stuck. Its illogic had a certain allure.

Decades after his place had become upgraded to more of a club and less of a clubhouse, Douglas wondered to a local magazine whether potential listeners thought the house experience was too personal, that they were cautious about entering "Pete's Place," concerned whether they were sufficiently "inside" the scene to belong in the home of "an eccentric nut who does music in his house." Douglas was a salty character, usually wearing a knit seaman's cap at a jaunty angle, smoking a pipe, a jazz Popeye (as Etta James called him), irreverent except for his dedication to the music. Those wary on the outside need not have worried; once in, you are in, and those who are out are unfortunate.

When Douglas died, questions for the daughters were whether they had inherited a white elephant, more troublesome to manage than useful, or even a dinosaur, amid changing musical tastes, well-regarded but of a gone scene. The Bach had been their Dad's pursuit and not their own, although it was the place of their own formative years, where they had been raised and where chores included setting up the venue. Barbara Riching recalled to the San Jose Mercury News that Douglas' welcome to others sometimes had the girls jealous for his attention. But Riching says that as she grew older she came to appreciate what her father had created, bringing into their home the world's greatest jazz performers.

"He wasn't the kind of dad who took us fishing or hiking. He hated to be hugged, even to the end. But he did give us all this music," she remembers. His trademark cap and pipe, the actual worldly relics, are brought out by Riching before most concerts and placed on a windowsill to the left of the stage where Douglas normally sat. His hat and pipe are thus still there, just as he always was. "Dad had kind of a ritual as to where he sat, so it's still a bit of a ritual to put his hat and pipe there," Riching explained. "It's recognizing that he is still with this."

Historically, the Bach got many of its engagements through performers scheduled elsewhere who had Sunday afternoons off during weeklong engagements in San Francisco. Now, with bookings of shorter duration, it's a place to add a stop on a West Coast tour, for all a brighter venue than a nighttime scene. Riching has said that the experience of having the best jazz musicians in the world in such an intimate environment was "a communal thing" that she could not let go. "That experience is incredible. I've seen it, I've felt it, and others here have had the same experience." Thereby, the sisters made a commitment to continue what their father had created into the future: back to the Bach.

Yet there's a continual need to maintain the Bach financially. Pete Douglas was his own kind of traditionalist, dedicated to acoustic, even unamplified, music, yet also with an ear for the new. Riching says she is always thinking about keeping current with a mix of music and audience: young/old, women/men, black/white, other. She clearly states that if people want the Bach to survive, to be there for them, they must show up. There's always a need for fresh ideas, and the deeper pockets of financial angels would help too. There were Friday-night candlelight classical concerts in the 1980s, many of them, which might come back, but it's not a music that Riching admits she knows well enough to book. Someone else could assist with that.

The music now remains rooted in straight-ahead jazz, but with its most contemporary practitioners. Pete Douglas had considered a decade ago whether his spot had become an anachronism, in thrall to the memory of deceased jazz players. But Benny Golson, 89 years young, appeared in April with sidemen decades his junior; there was nothing moldy about the presentation. His anthem "Killer Joe" still slayed, and "I Remember Clifford" brought the past into the right now. Grace Kelly, 26, brings her millennial magic in June. Regina Carter played late last year, songs associated with Ella Fitzgerald. Whatever the era, as Douglas often said when introducing performers, "You are now about to hear what the rest of the world is about to miss."


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