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Vince Wallace: A Jazz Legend Stands Tall in Oakland

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Maybe the luckiest day in tenor saxophonist Vince Wallace's life, or at least the luckiest day in the last few years, was the day in the summer of 2001 that he wandered into the Bulldog Coffee Shop on Broadway in Oakland and was recognized by a jazz fan named Justin Scovil.

Wallace is a West Coast jazz legend to area musicians and fans with long memories. An Oakland native, Wallace had been playing up and down California since the 50's.

On this day in 2001, the 62-year-old Wallace was, essentially, down on his luck. But within weeks, Scovil had taken on the role of Wallace's manager and procured him a rhythm section (essentially by walking into the music store across the street from the Bulldog and asking for one) and a gig: playing every Sunday afternoon on the sidewalk in front of the Bulldog.

Two years later, that Bulldog gig is still a Sunday happening, and the young rhythm section of drummer Jason Slota and bassist Shan Kenner is still with Wallace. In addition, each week Wallace brings one or more guests from among the best of the Bay Area's working jazz community. Players like Michael Marcus, Jim Grantham, Prince Lasha, Mitch Marcus and Bishop Norman Williams are regular visitors. Scovil has also helped Wallace get gigs at area clubs like the Cato's and the Ale House, both in Berkeley.

On November 8, 2003, a six-hour Vince Wallace Underground Jazz Festival will take place at the Broadway Studios in San Francisco's North Beach, featuring Wallace along with Sonny Simmons, Kim Nalley, Bishop Norman Williams and many others. Slowly, the word is getting out that Vince Wallace is alive and kicking, and playing with gusto.

Wallace's story is colorful, to put it mildly. He tells of using a fake mustache as a 14-year-old to make himself look older so that he could get into Bop City, the famed bebop palace that served as the heart of the thriving jazz scene in San Francisco's Fillmore District in the 40's, 50's and 60's. At Bop City and in blowing sessions all over Oakland, Wallace found himself jamming with the greats of the day, once his ability to play had become apparent to his elders.

After Wallace's high school years came an unhappy stint in the Air Force. Returning to California after several years away, Wallace found that the jazz scene had mostly migrated down to Southern California, and he went to find it. Again, Wallace shared playing time with all-stars like Hampton Hawes and Dexter Gordon in places like Sherry's Bar and the Cascades Club. Hard drugs were everywhere on that scene, and Wallace fell victim, initiating a problem that has dogged him ever since. Chronic arthritis is an obstacle, as well.

Back in Oakland in the late 60's, Wallace joined a jazz-rock band called Little John that recorded and released an album on Columbia/Epic. Wallace says that the company sabotaged the album, stating, "They made us sound like a mediocre band, when we were really one of the best bands around." Wallace claims Little John was undercut because Columbia was intent on pushing Blood, Sweat & Tears and Chicago and didn't want competition from other horn bands. Ultimately, the record company abandoned the group, and they soon broke up.

A 1974 album, Vince Wallace Plays Vince Wallace, with friend and pianist Kent Glenn, received good reviews but lousy distribution and nobody heard it. Two subsequent LPs with Glenn also failed to take off. Some hard years followed, and despite Wallace's strong reputation among his fellow musicians, gigs were hard to come by.

From the mid-80's through mid-90's, Wallace led a storied Sunday evening jam session at Schooners, a tavern in San Francisco's Mission District. In addition, in the late 90's Wallace played on a quartet of self-released CD's with the Gene Stone/Vince Wallace Quartet.

Drummer Stone, a longtime friend and supporter, provided the funds for the recording and production, and Glenn appears on two of them. The recordings also feature West Coast jazz veterans like pianist Si Perkoff and bassist Mark Proctor. These CDs are solid, high-energy jazz recordings that show off Wallace's fire and talents to great effect. The bad news is that they've never received distribution. The good news is that they're available through Wallace's website, at www.bayarealist.net/vincewallace . Thanks to Scovil, Vince is still out there doing his thing, keeping the faith and playing with passion in Oakland and the San Francisco Bay Area.

The following interview is culled from two long conversations at Wallace's small Oakland apartment. Vince Wallace is a relatively small man, noticeably hunched from his arthritis. He is soft spoken, but not at all tentative in his speech. When I spoke to him, he displayed, more than anything else, an urgency to be understood about the positive forces within the music. On his face one reads a strange combination of effects: there are the lines chiseled out by the hard roads he's traveled, yet often the overall effect is of a man younger than Wallace's 64 years. There's still more than a bit of innocence about him, despite the disappointments and the missteps.

Wallace loves to talk about music, about his long career and about the joys of performing. His conversation, like his tenor solos, can take some unexpected, if interesting, twists and turns. Wallace works to stay rooted in the present, but his memories, especially of the Bop City days, are fascinating.

AAJ: How did you start playing music?

VW: I had a metal clarinet to start with, and I used to pretend it was a sax. I played along with the radio. I figured out the notes on the clarinet and started improvising along to the radio to my favorite alto players. Eventually, I got enough money to buy a saxophone. My first sax was a Martin Indiana. It was a student model that had a gold body with silver keys. It was actually a very good horn for a school model. Now I have a Mark 6 that looks exactly the same. Silver keys, gold body.

AAJ: Did you have music classes in school?

VW: I got kicked out of my high school band for wanting to improvise on a Mozart piece. I was playing tenor sax on what was supposed to be the French horn part, I think. I said I wanted to improvise and they got all mad at me. But then along came Mr. Kane. He was really cool. Mr. Kane had played with Benny Goodman's orchestra. He was a tenor and clarinetist and really good. He knew I had a natural talent for improvisation. So he let the lead alto player in the sax section take all the reading parts, and I got the solos. This was in Fremont High (in Oakland). He was a great music teacher. He let me slide on a lot of things and encouraged me to stick with the jazz I was doing. He told me I was on the right track. He wasn't the first person to encourage me, but he was the first authority figure, the first real teacher to tell me that I was a really good jazz player, that I should go with what I know. So I did and I was successful. I had some bands and we played some assemblies at school, until some of the teachers had us blackballed.

AAJ: This was the early fifties, and they were still trying to blackball jazz?

VW: Rock and roll had just started. Fremont was the more like Fonz or American Graffiti territory at the time. But during this same time, someone told me about this great place called Bop City, and how I should make it over there. When I was in high school, I used to entertain the kids at lunchtime. They used to call me The Hawk. That was either because of my nose, or the reference to Coleman Hawkins. But I had that nickname. Finally, I met this other cat named Ed Eliot, an alto player, and we decided we would start going over to the sessions at the Blackhawk every Sunday afternoon from three to seven, and start hanging out at Bop City. We started doing that, and it was the beginning of something really wonderful. Paradise on earth. It was my college; my whole university of jazz started right there.

AAJ: I guess you had to have a lot of courage to walk in there wanting to play at your age.

VW: Yeah, you had to have a lot of courage to walk anywhere at that time of night.

AAJ: Did they let you go up on stage right away? How did that work?

VW: Not right away. They made the white boys and the women'all the waitresses who worked there were vocalists'they acted like they were getting their big break just by being there and being on the scene. It was so chauvinistic. They'd be looking at their ass all night, and then finally they would put them on stage at the end and let them sing. Sometimes, they turned out to be pretty good. There was one waitress who not only sang, but played alto sax, too. Her name was Theresa, and she became Theresa Poindexter, Pony Poindexter's wife.

AAJ: What did you have to do before they'd let you up there?

VW: Well, first the house band would play, then they'd bring up the guests who were well known throughout the city. This guy Kermit Scott, or Scotty, he was about 300 pounds, a 6-foot 7-inch giant guy. He'd come piling out of a taxicab with two women at his side, with this huge saxophone. He sounded like Coleman Hawkins. A lot of people. People like Teddy Edwards, Frank Foster. Somebody might be in town, Buddy di Franco, whoever, they let those guys sit in first. And then, right when you'd think you were going to be able to sit in, they'd call an intermission. They'd say, "No more horn players. All the horn players have to get off the stand." Then they'd bring up Federico Cervantes, who was Freddie Gambrell at the time. He changed his name to Federico Cervantes and started playing trumpet. He could hit all those high notes like Maynard Ferguson. But he was originally a great pianist. He played like Errol Garner. A blind cat. He had a dog sitting underneath the piano. When he played, no other horn player was allowed to sit in, because Jimbo wanted to break it up and have a nice variety. The problem was that ten tenor players all wanted to play at once. They didn't have much etiquette at that time, so the club had to enforce strict rules to keep everything in order, or else there would have been chaos. They would have to tell the cats not to play more than two or three choruses, or else cats would just blow forever. So anyway, then they would come back with the house band, and a few more guests, and then at the very last, 3:30, 4:30 in the morning, they'd say, "OK, this man with the horn, here. Come on up and let's see what you can do." So my partner and I would go up. I passed the test, but my friend didn't. They sent him down and told him, "Get off the stand and come back when you're ready."

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