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Vince Wallace: A Jazz Legend Stands Tall in Oakland

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AAJ: But you passed the test the first time?

VW: Yeah, I already knew the tunes.

AAJ: But this wasn't your first time going into the club?

VW: No. I'd been in the place, but I wasn't allowed to play. I had to wait my turn.

AAJ: Did you bring your horn every time?

VW: Oh, yeah. I always brought my horn because otherwise I'd have to pay to get in. My horn was my ticket into the club.

AAJ: So they just wanted to make sure that you were serious enough that you would come back a few times even if you didn't get to play?

VW: Not only that, but when they started realizing that I was good, they started offering me money to get there. They'd pay my cab fare and or bus fare to get over there, and give me a little change after it was over, just to get me to come down a few nights a week and help out. But it was really a good experience because I got to be on the bandstand with all these greats, and there's no replacement for that. You can't learn jazz on a record or going to school like you can being right next to George Coleman or Dexter or someone on the stand.

AAJ: So that's how you were able to accelerate the process of developing your own style. First of all, you started so young. Secondly, you had this incredible trial by fire.

VW: But I also realized that this was it. It was my destiny, somehow. I was meant to do this. So I was going to stick with it.

AAJ: What did your parents think about this?

VW: They thought it was a fine hobby. But they thought I had to have something to fall back on. They were willing to support me, my whole family, my uncles, everybody. They wanted to send me to law school or medical school or dental school. Anything like that, except for music. With music I was on my own. I had to do it all by myself.

AAJ: But you made it.

VW: Well, I don't know about that. I'm still struggling.

AAJ: The music you made then must still be fresh in your mind.

VW: It sure is. A lot of people say that there wasn't any bebop on the West Coast, that it was all happening in New York, or elsewhere, but that's not true. There were cats constantly working on the music here. A lot of it was underground, though. The sessions were by word of mouth. There wasn't much advertisement. A lot of the stuff took place in somebody's living room.

AAJ: Who else was there?

VW: Miles Davis, Billie Holiday played at 53rd and Shattuck, I think, for a while. A guy named Sanders King. Frank Haynes, Skippy Warren, a great bassist who also used to sing. He had played with Bird and Lester Young. There was Frank Jackson, who is still playing around today.

AAJ: These are jam sessions that you were at?

VW: Yeah. There were places in Oakland like the Rum Boogie Club and Slim Jenkins' place. And there were a lot of illegal jam sessions. Cats were always trying to bring their conga drums and instruments down to Lakeside Park and jump onto the municipal bandstand, which was a perfect place, except sooner or later someone would complain and the cops would be there to shut it down.

AAJ: These were the days when you were 14 or so? Are we talking about those days when you were a really young guy, sneaking around with a false mustache?

VW: Yes, lying about my age to join the union, with a blue suit and a red tie, working with strippers and stuff, playing rhythm and blues and practicing jazz on the side as much as I could.

AAJ: At that moment, you're a young guy, you discover something about yourself and you say, "This is what I'm going to do for my whole life." Do you remember that moment?

VW: Sure. That was an amazing moment. I remember seeing this movie, with Duke Ellington's band and seeing Johnny Hodges, and there was another movie with Jimmy Dorsey. The instruments! I just fell in love with the saxophone. I thought it was so expressive. It was the closest thing to a human voice. I saw what could be done with it. And I started realizing how many different styles could be played on this same instrument, and right there I thought, "That's what I want to do." The next thing was setting out to do it, and going through all the dues you have to go through'all the practicing. Going to a place like the Blackhawk or Bop City, which was like a university for an aspiring musician, and being there every night to see Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong and Miles or somebody walking in the door. It was like a dream. I must have had a charmed life, even though I've had a few downers in my life and a few obstacles.

Overall, I'm sure glad I stuck it out, with all the wonderful moments I've had in jazz, and the people I got to play with as a kid. It rubs off on you, in a way that you can never get from a record, no matter how hard you try. It's a one-to-one thing. Cats like Hank Mobley, who became my real close friend. And there were no ego trips. One person would just teach jazz to another.

Just having that experience of being able to see all those great jazz stars and have them take time out to give me a few words of encouragement. Eric Dolphy, a beautiful cat.

AAJ: Did you play on the bandstand with Eric Dolphy?

VW: Sure. Many times. In those days, he used to come up with Chico Hamilton's group. He mostly played alto in those days. He used to tell me stories about how they tried to run him out of this neighborhood down in Los Angeles. All his neighbors got a petition, they had about a thousand signatures from the surrounding blocks, somewhere in Central LA, because he used to practice about 24 hours a day. He was a freak for practicing. Even at Bop City, most of the time you'd find him in the back, or leaning against the wall, working over some tune. New changes or something like that. He was constantly trying to improve himself and his music.

AAJ: What did he say to you?

VW: Just told me about how he liked my last solo, or something. Just saying something nice.

AAJ: The great article in California History ["The House that Bop Built," California History Magazine, Fall 1996, by Carol P. Chamberland] talks about the cutting sessions that went on, but I guess you held your own pretty well, there.

VW: Pretty well, yeah. I was very fortunate. I held my own in that way, and I was readily accepted by the Black community once they got to know me and got to know how I played and where my heart was.

AAJ: Was that a tough line to cross?

VW: I think it was for most people. There was a lot of Jim Crow/Crow Jim stuff. There was a lot of ignorant shit. But then once you proved yourself . . . a lot of cats said that when they saw me at first at Bop City, they thought I was a vacuum cleaner salesman or something. But then after they heard me blow, it was a different story. I didn't have any problems after that.

AAJ: When was the first time you found yourself on stage there with someone famous and you looked around and said, "Wow, look at who I'm playing with?"

VW: Probably Charlie Parker. It went fine. I did real good, and he gave me some words of encouragement.

AAJ: Are these things you think about a lot, or only when somebody like me comes around asking about the old days?

VW: No, I guess I don't. That's why I have to wrack my brain to answer your questions.

AAJ: That's OK, though. I'm interested in what's going on now, as well, but I thought I'd see what you could tell me about those days.

VW: You know what they say: You're only as good as your last solo. I have a thing about resting on my laurels, because past achievements don't mean a thing if you don't keep up with them

AAJ: If you don't keep that swing.

VW: Right! (laughs)

AAJ: I certainly understand that, and I don't want you to think that I'm only interested in the history. It's just that some of us weren't there, and we all want to hear about it from the people who were there.

VW: There were so many great musicians, and I had so many great times, even if I didn't make any money. But the moments that I had in musical experience were worth more than money could ever buy. I'm so lucky. I've always been thankful for that. I've always had good reviews. I've played with all types of musicians. I played with an Arabic band once. I played in this place called Sneaky Pete's in Santa Ana with Lowell Fulsom. I've played blues. I played with Bobby Day, the guy that had 'Rockin' Robin.' That day my saxophone broke, and Bobby was able to fix my horn. He knew all about mechanics and physics. He was a math major. He worked his way through school by singing blues. He never even intended to be a musician. He wanted to be a mathematician.

AAJ: Are you writing new things?

VW: Writing and also revising things that I've written earlier. Bringing things up to date.

AAJ: What is that process like? These are things that you've been playing, some of them, for thirty years. What's the process where you hear something and you think, "I have to bring that up to date"? What do you change?

VW: Usually something in the harmonic structure. You take a harmony bar where there are two notes, a major second a part'half a second apart'and then there's a third note maybe a third apart from that which gives a sort of a cluster effect, a nice pitch. Or maybe change the rhythms, or I might even add a new section and insert it into a piece that's already composed. Maybe a drum shout chorus, to indicate a drum solo's coming up.

AAJ: Is that based on changing styles, or your ear changing? Or just because you like to keep things fresh?

VW: I like to keep things fresh and let them evolve. And there's more than one way to play a certain tune. I like to try different approaches with the rhythm and the harmony.

AAJ: That's a way of keeping the music young?

VW: Sure. Most of the music is more or less eternal music. All of the Broadway show tunes'Gershwin, Porter, Arlen'they all seem to me like they're divinely inspired music. They have an eternal quality about them that always remains fresh, even though they were written in the 20's or 30's. They're still used today as jazz vehicles because they lend themselves through swinging or being beautiful in some way'maybe the chord changes. Take a tune like Cherokee which was written in 1939 and it still sounds fresh.

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