AAJ: Is that something you picked up, to be able to do that?
VW: I wasn't able to do it right away, I was just able to listen to it and comprehend what he was playing, what he was trying to say. The thing in jazz is, the way cats move from point A to point B, the way they can link up phrases and get from one part, one note, into another, or one part of the chord change or some pattern, in the most interesting, smoothest way possible'that's what you learn from these cats. The way they execute these phrases in a way that makes musical sense. And Hank Mobley was one of the best at putting together these things based on the conception of Charlie Parker and bebop and Monk'the essence of all these ideas'and really saying something with these beautiful lines. He was like a sculptor, sculpting these beautiful lines.
AAJ: With everything you learned from Mobley, you've said your real mentor was Frank Haynes.
VW:Yes. I heard something in Frank Haynes that I think the whole world seemed to miss. He was never recorded properly. I think very few people alive today ever heard of Frank Haynes or heard him play. There are a few cats who remember him and are awestruck. They know that he was good.
AAJ: What was it that you got from him? What kind of things did he teach you? Was it technical or emotional?
VW: Technical, what songs to play, what kind of a tone to have. Just his whole aura, his whole presence, his whole presentation. He was the man on tenor in the Bay Area.
AAJ: When did you work with him?
VW: It was mainly the fifties. He didn't last very long into the 60's. He went back to New York for about six months and died of lung cancer, or something like that. But he made three albums with Les McCann and Kenny Dorham and Dave Bailey. But those albums don't really do justice to him. He had a beautiful tone. Somewhere between Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Jimmy Forrest, Johnny Griffin. The way he played was kind of bluesy, kind of funky. He played with real intelligence and his phrases just laid really right. He had a huge repertoire, knew all the tunes perfectly. Just an "all the way around" musician. He played with Lionel Hampton. Not only could he play jazz, but he could play really good rhythm and blues, like King Curtis and some of those guys. He was from Cleveland, Ohio.
AAJ: Tell me about the CDs you've made over the past several years with Gene Stone and Kent Glenn. How do you know them?
VW: I've known him for so many years. In fact, one time around 1964, I was homeless and so was Mark Proctor, the bassist. Gene provided a place for us to stay in Topanga Canyon. We had a place where we sort of lived off the land. We had peach trees and plums and a garden. We worked a few good jazz gigs around Hollywood. Also, in Topanga Canyon there was a place called the Coral Club, and they had jazz up there.
I met Kent while I was playing at the Cascades Club. One night and this sort of heavy-set guy came walking in. He really stood out. White tuxedo, red carnation, and this really beautiful girl he brought. It was his senior prom or graduation or something like that, and he'd brought this girl out afterward to the Cascades to show her a jazz gig. So we were playing, and he asked if he could sit in on piano. I said, "Sure." So he sat in and it sounded really good. He was a really young kid, and that was Kent Glenn. He's steadily improved since then. He eventually became one of the greatest composers and piano players around.
AAJ: It must be a really good thing for you to have been able to document your playing over the last several years, especially with musicians you know very well.
VW: Yeah, it sure is.
AAJ: What would you like to tell people about this music?
VW: That it's straight-ahead jazz that comes from the heart, that gives a balance between emotion and intellect. That it swings. It should make you feel better than you felt before you started listening to it, just uplift your spirits a little bit.
AAJ: I've enjoyed listening to all of these recordings, but I particularly like the sound you got on Spherycle.
VW: Yeah, I like it, too. Alex Baum was the engineer. He has a studio in his kitchen and his living room, and he has cables running from his garden shed and all through the house. He gets a real nice sound. He's also a real good bassist in his own right. He plays with Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks. I meant to dedicate the CD to Thelonious Monk, because his middle name is Sphere, but the people who produced the cover misspelled the name.
We flew in Joe Piscatele all the way from the River Walk in San Antonio, TX. He's a great pianist. He doesn't read a note of music, but he can play classical, Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, but it's all by ear. And we had a great trumpet player, Sal Marquez. He played with the Mothers of Invention and the Tonight Show Band with Johnny Carson and Jay Leno. He was the head trumpet player. He's great. He plays with a lot of facility. It was recorded in Chatsworth, CA, one mean, nasty day. Gusty. Chilly. "Sphericle" is a tune I dedicated to Monk, and then there's a tune called "Cold Scotch." "Scotch," because it has a Scotch/Irish feeling, and a Coltrane feeling, so it's called "Cold Scotch."
There's a great story about one of the tunes on the CD. Si Perkoff wrote it, and it came from a dream he had. Si used to know Monk personally, and in the dream, Thelonious was playing this tune that Si had never heard before, except in his sleep. And so immediately, Si woke up and ran downstairs to his piano and started playing this tune that he'd heard in his dream before he forgot it. This is the tune called "Message from Monk." Si was a medium. He got this message from Monk and taught me the tune. Si's not on Spherycle, but I decided to teach the guys this tune and we recorded it on the spot.
AAJ: Did you do a lot of rehearsing for these sessions?
VW: Very little. Mostly, there was no rehearsal at all, except we'd rehearse the tunes in the studio just before we laid them down. We did Spherycle in two days. For the CD With Love from Oakland, it was Gene and I, Steve Husted on bass and Si playing piano. [Tim Ross plays piano on six tracks, Perkoff on thirteen of the two-CD release.] Si and I are such veterans. All I had to do was just mention to him, "Let's try this. Let's play 'With a Song in My Heart,' let's play 'Canadian Sunset.' Let's do it like Eddie Hayward did it and ease into it." And he knew what I meant.
AAJ: That's the advantage of playing with guys you've played with for a long time.
VW: Yeah. I've got a whole list of cats I know in San Francisco right now, and I approximately know what tunes they know. I know what they can do. For example, there's only one guy who can play this tune called "If There is Anyone Lovelier Than You." I think it's a Rogers and Hart tune that Coltrane did. It's on a very rare album, and the only person that knows it is (San Francisco-area pianist) Mark Levine. So whenever I play with Mark, I call that tune. When I'm with Si Perkoff, I can play "Blue Lou," "The Lullaby of the Leaves," or some other tune that most guys would say, "No, I don't know that one. Is it in the book?" They'll always have to refer to some book to play the tune, and that's really bad. It shows that they don't really know the tune, and it's really easy to get the wrong substitution when you're just looking at a fake book.
AAJ: You've got some pretty young guys that you're playing with at the Bulldog. You mentioned before that you like playing with the younger musicians.
VW: I sure do.
AAJ: What's good about that, particularly?
VW: Just the fact that they're still young and on the right track. And in time, they'll be very good.
AAJ: You feel like you're helping these guys develop?
VW: Yes. Plus they give me energy and support. They drive me on to greater heights.
AAJ: Help you feel young?
VW: Yeah, but music in general helps you feel young. Music is sort of a . . . you can go in feeling sick and come out well in the end. You break a fever, you replace your low energy with high energy.
AAJ: I guess you're lucky.
VW: Yes, I'm very lucky.
AAJ: Other people have some of the health issues that you've had, but they don't have music.
VW: Right. I don't know what they have, but they should have something. Or else, what good is life?
AAJ: This may seem like the stupidest question in the world, but can you tell me where the music comes from?
VW: Where it comes from?
VW: It comes from out of the air. It comes from God. It comes from the source from which all life comes. It comes from the cosmos. It's out there. It doesn't belong to anybody. It's a reservoir that everybody who's a medium for music can tap into and share. It's something that belongs to everybody and should be shared with all the people of the earth. It's a powerful force and something that we can't live without. The world without music would be a terrible thing. It would be like being born without your senses. Music's very important. If you take it away, life would get awfully sad very fast. Music can express so many different things'happiness, sadness, joy, pride, victory, defeat, whatever. It's an all-encompassing thing. The more you're into it, the more you feel its ability to express all these different things.