Vince Guaraldi at the Piano

Derrick Bang By

Sign in to view read count
This article appears in the prologue of Vince Guaraldi at the Piano by Derrick Bang (McFarland Books, 2012).

Prologue: "The Sound of Surprise"

Saturday, October 4, 1958: shortly after midnight, at the first-ever Monterey Jazz Festival.

It had been a busy day; indeed, it was already a long three-day weekend. Headliner Louis Armstrong—introduced by emcee Dizzy Gillespie—had helped lure a crowd of roughly 5,000 jazz fans to Friday evening's opening-night performances, although one critic was much more impressed by an earlier set from pianist Burt Bales' "boisterous, stomping band," with its crowd-pleasing riffs coming from clarinetist Vince Cattolica, trombonist Skip Morr and bassist Bill Smith.

Saturday afternoon brought sets by Rudy Salvini's Big Band, the Brew Moore/Dickie Mills Quintet, Med Flory's Big Band, the Leroy Vinnegar Quartet, the Mastersounds, and Shelly Manne and his Men; vocalist Betty Bennett concluded the "daytime" activities, although by now darkness already had fallen.

New emcee Bobby Troup brought Gillespie back to the stage in a performing capacity, as the jazz legend's quintet kicked off the Saturday evening program at close to 9 P.M. Gillespie was followed by the Jimmy Giuffre Trio; they passed the torch to Gerry Mulligan's combo, which boasted trumpeter Art Farmer, bassist Bill Crow and drummer Dave Bailey. Mulligan's group then yielded the stage to the Max Roach Quintet. Next up: the Modern Jazz Quartet and vocalist Ernestine Anderson.

By now, the witching hour had come and gone. An appropriately eerie fog should have dampened spirits as the temperature—invariably chilly along the Monterey Peninsula, even during early autumn—dropped further. According to box-office receipts, 5,912 jazz fans were jammed together for this wonderful onslaught of music; they should have been tired, man!

Still to come, on Sunday, were the Dave Brubeck Quartet, the Harry James Orchestra, Benny Carter, Buddy DeFranco, Sonny Rollins and Lady Day herself—Billie Holiday—along with return appearances by Gillespie, Mulligan, the Modern Jazz Quartet and many of the other musicians who had made Monterey their home for the cheerfully rowdy weekend.

Reasonable people therefore would have headed home to bed, in order to recharge for Sunday's rousing festival finish.

But no, here it was, after midnight Saturday—already into early Sunday, in other words—and the fans still wanted more. They had grooved to great licks from top-flight musicians—interrupted, far too often, by the roar of overhead planes flying to or from the Monterey Airport—and were worked up into a toe-tapping, finger-snapping frenzy.

At this late hour, facing a crowd that massive—that energized—even a seasoned celebrity might have thought twice before offering dessert after such a sumptuous, multi-course meal. Imagine, then, the likely anxiety of the five young men who quietly walked onto the stage. They even had to introduce themselves, Troup having retired for the night.

"It's getting kinda late in the morning ... early in the morning, late in the evening," the striking, clean-cut band leader fumbled. "I'm Cal Tjader, and I'd like to introduce the guys in our regular quartet."

Tjader must have been gratified by the burst of applause resulting from these few words, because his voice became clearer and more confident. Polite clapping greeted each of his sidemen, as they were introduced in turn.

"We have, on piano, Vince Guaraldi ... and, on bass, Al McKibbon ... and on drums, Willie Bobo. And we're very happy to have, as a guest with our jazz quartet, the very wonderful clarinetist who needs no introduction at all, Buddy DeFranco.

"We'd like to start things off with George Gershwin's very wonderful tune from Porgy and Bess, 'Summertime.'"

The crowd murmured approval at this choice, then settled into quiet silence as Tjader's mallets gently and impeccably opened with a few bars from the opera's "Catfish Row" theme. Guaraldi, McKibbon and Bobo woke potentially drowsy listeners with four sharp unison fanfares; Tjader slowed the straight-time tempo to a crawl, almost a stop...

...and then the band launched into a bluesy arrangement of "Summertime" that would have had everybody dancing in the aisles, given enough room. DeFranco took the first bop-hued solo, Guaraldi's piano adding harmonic counterpoint as Bobo's drums rose, just slightly, in volume and intensity. McKibbon's bass slowly fought to the foreground as Bobo inserted a double-time riff, and then DeFranco surrendered the lead back to Tjader, and to the song's first spontaneous burst of applause.

Bobo's foot-stomping two-beat became stronger as Tjader worked the vibes, hanging on unexpected notes, drifting from and back into the melody line. All five men could be heard talking just below the music, trading encouraging and triumphant comments: a dialogue of enthusiastic chatter every bit as deftly choreographed as the music.

Tjader faded away from his extended solo—more applause—and then it was Guaraldi's turn. The pianist teased a sultry, sassy, single-note melody from his instrument: runs and trills from one end of the keyboard to the other, carrying echoes of Red Garland—always, in interviews, one of Guaraldi's favorite influences—and all strongly suggestive of Gershwin's core melody, but each somehow its own distinct variation. The runs became faster, more complex, more flamboyantly out there ... and yet, still, listeners could detect the Gershwinesque elements needed to evoke that same core melody. Guaraldi shifted to chords, now grooving smoothly to McKibbon and Bobo's steady beats; then, suddenly, the pianist all but mashed the palms of his small hands into the keys, extracting pleasing sounds seemingly through sheer force of will.

Guaraldi subsided once again to a supportive position—to a very enthusiastic burst of applause—and McKibbon took over. Tjader returned to the foreground, DeFranco's clarinet now adding some shading, as the guys brought the song home.

This was smooth, seemingly effortless musical synergy: slightly more than 13 minutes of delectable work on a song whose simple, repetitive melody had become (and would become, for decades yet to come) redundant and boring in lesser improvisational hands.

The applause now was longer, louder: Folks were paying attention.
About Vince Guaraldi
Articles | Calendar | Discography | Photos | More...


Shop for Music

Start your music shopping from All About Jazz and you'll support us in the process. Learn how.