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Vince Wallace: A Jazz Legend Stands Tall in Oakland

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AAJ: Do you think of yourself as having a distinctive style of playing?

VW: Yeah. I think my style originally started off sounding more like the people I idolized. If I liked Stan Getz, or Ben Webster, or Coleman Hawkins, I would take certain facets of their sound or aspects of their playing and apply it to my playing.

Sometimes people say that it's better to be a good copier than a bad original. When I first started playing, I had that funky Cavalier all-metal clarinet I told you about, which I would fantasize was a Sidney Bechet fish horn or a soprano saxophone. I always wanted it to be a saxophone, but it wasn't. I learned how to master the clarinet, which was a good thing, because once you do that, the sax is just a breeze. I played along to the radio, and I got a style from appropriating things from all the people I felt an affinity to. Like if Louis Armstrong hit a certain note a certain way, or Lionel Hampton or Getz or Earl Bostic or Tab Smith or Johnny Hodges. If they played something that would hit me a certain way, then I would take that as my own and play it too. Pretty soon, if you get a whole bunch of this stuff, it starts formulating into a certain style or sound. But the real style comes later on. It comes with experience. You can aim for something early on in life, but the real style, your real individuality of your own style happens after a build up of many years of playing. It's a residual effect. There's no replacement for it. No young musician, no matter how hot he is, can come out and say within a year that he's really got his style down. It takes more maturity on the part of the player before he arrives at a completely original voice.

AAJ: When did you feel that you did that?

VW: Probably around the time I was jamming with Dexter Gordon, maybe around '61 or '62.

AAJ: You were jamming with him where?

VW: He was playing with me at a place called the Cascades Club down in Belmont Shores, sort of a ritzy area of Long Beach. It was my gig on the weekends, and there was a jam session that started at six on Sunday morning. And I think we went out to Sherry's Barn, south of Paramount, and played from two to six all night long. We had a jam session out there, and everybody from all over the Los Angeles area used to come down there and sit in with me. At the Cascades Club, every week we would feature a different star from Hollywood, like Jack Sheldon, Richie Kamuca, Frank Rosolino or Anita O'Day, different people like that.

So, once we had Dexter playing with us every night for two weeks. During that time, a lot of people said that I cut Dexter. That's just their opinion. But I was able to teach him some of his own tunes. He had forgotten some of the tunes he'd written back in '47 and '45. He hadn't played them for so long, probably not since the record date, but I liked the tunes, I used to play them all the time with my group, so I was really on top of them. So I relearned him his own songs back in the kitchen. It was a real far out scene. There should have been a camera.

AAJ: So this was the period of time that you came to realize that you'd developed your own style?

VW: I don't think it just hit me at one time. It was sort of a gradual process. Pretty soon I just realized, thinking back on it, that I basically played the same as I always had, but I'd accumulated a lot more wisdom and a lot more knowledge about the music. At that time I began to feel like I had mastered the instrument, technically at least, and I started being able to make my own musical statements, according to how I felt, and project a reflection of the daily events of life at that time, without having to struggle to sound good or to sound like somebody else, or whoever was hip that day, but really make an individual effort that was my own statement. I felt I really had control over that around that period. I was in my mid twenties.

AAJ: That's pretty young to reach that level.

VW: Yeah, that's pretty young, because I started real young. I was really fortunate to have this musical gift originally, and then to be put in situations where doors were open to me.

AAJ: I know a lot of musicians don't like to try to define their own style, because they feel like they're trying to put their art in a box, but if I was to ask you what is Vince Wallace's style, could you respond to that question?

VW: Well, I'd like to have a variety of sounds. I don't want to be limited to just one sound. I like my sound to convey emotion, to have a soft quality, but also to have an edge. Whatever's called for at the time. There are certain sounds that I've admired all my life, listening to other people's tones. Not all saxophones. I like a lot of trumpet players' tones. I like to be able to incorporate them into my own sound if I could. If I had the ideal setup and mouthpiece, I'd love get a sound like Clark Terry gets on his trumpet.

AAJ: Can you describe what it is about his sound that you like?

VW: It's so rich. It just fills up the room. So mellow, it's just a quality of sound. Like gold, or something, like a cream that rises to the top. It's almost not a trumpet, it's so beautiful, it's like a French horn, or a really mellow trombone. It's like butter, I don't know. There are so many types of sounds. As far as saxophones sounds I like, Getz has a beautiful sound. Coltrane has a nice sound. Dexter Gordon. Ben Webster has a beautiful sound.

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.

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