Sunday, May 13, 2012

Guaraldi's career: Nailing down every event

The third disc of Stan Getz's four-CD set, The Bossa Nova Years, is playing as these words are typed: a languid, lovely reminder of the film Black Orpheus; the subsequent explosion of sensual, Latin-hued music in the U.S. pop world of the early 1960s; and the impact both had on Guaraldi's career. I'd love to have been in the adjacent seat, the first time he saw that film in a San Francisco movie theater. Ralph Gleason got the pianist to reflect on that seminal moment in the charming 1963 film, Anatomy of a Hit, but of course hindsight isn't the same as being present in the moment.

Guaraldi's life was filled with such moments, many of them taking place during otherwise ordinary gigs at greater Bay Area jazz clubs such as the Blackhawk, the hungry i, Outside at the Inside, the Trident and El Matador. One of my many "getting ready" exercises, while preparing the outline and itinerary that prefaced my plunge into the actual writing of my book, was an attempt to identify where he performed, and when, for as much of his life as possible. This began as a useful chronology; it quickly blossomed into an obsession. If I knew where he was for the first few weeks of, say, November 1968, I had to clock his movements for the rest of that month (which I was unable to do, alas).

I got lucky at times. Guaraldi's mother saved many things, such as the three-page itinerary of his 1956 winter and spring tour with Woody Herman's Third Herd; it wasn't complete, but ads in newspapers across the country helped fill many of the holes. Herman was a very popular draw; most of his band's performances were publicized.

The San Francisco Chronicle's entertainment section also was a blessing, as it listed who was appearing at every greater Bay Area club during the upcoming week. I had to be careful, though; I discovered that those bookings sometimes changed after the paper had gone to press, and that -- at other times -- careless reporters occasionally made mistakes. At times, a listing would claim one thing, but the given club's display ad -- on the same page! -- contained entirely different information. 

That phase of the research would have been much easier if the Chronicle -- and its companion paper, the San Francisco Examiner -- had entered the 21st century and made its archives available online. Alas, it seems the Chronicle and Examiner are destined to be the last big-city U.S. papers to make that transition (and they still haven't). The only option? The painful study, day by day, of the four or five pages of entertainment news via a microfilm reader. (My eyes are still crossed.)

The effort was worthwhile, though, because a portrait of Guaraldi's career began to take shape, which helped immensely during the subsequent construction of the book's narrative. But this was only the Bay Area: just part of the picture. Guaraldi toured a lot during the first 15 years of his career, whether on his own or as a member of units fronted by Woody Herman or Cal Tjader. I'd get occasional hits with respect to specific stops in larger markets, thanks to papers such as the Chicago Tribune, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times (all of which do have online archives). Daily Variety, Variety and Billboard also were great help, and here's something I was delighted to discover: Google Books has made every single issue of Billboard available online, at no charge. What a Godsend!

The resulting timeline blossomed to a size and scope that outgrew the eventual destination for its data. Much of the information wound up between the covers of my book, but I didn't want the reader -- particularly the casual reader -- to drown in minutia. Ergo, much got left behind. But I also didn't want the information -- and the effort required to compile it -- to go to waste. Enter the Vince Guaraldi Timeline, a companion web page designed to complement Vince Guaraldi at the Piano. This web chronology contains everything I learned about Guaraldi's movements, along with who played at his side, when known. It's a "living" document; new information continues to surface all the time. 

Which leads to the obvious request: If you remember seeing Guaraldi perform at a particular venue, on a particular date, please get in touch. If you're one of Guaraldi's former sidemen, and you recall being with him at a particular gig -- note all the timeline entires with "sidemen unspecified" -- please get in touch. If you know of a gig I left out, absolutely get in touch. If you saved a poster from one of the many "group gigs" Guaraldi joined during his latter-career appearances at Bay Area rock and folk clubs, please get in touch. If you took pictures -- even ill-focused snapshots -- please get in touch. If you saved a souvenir program, or a newspaper ad such as the one at the top of this post, please get in touch. 

Despite the wealth of information in this document, many, many gaps remain ... all waiting to be filled.

Think of it as your contribution to history!

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