Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The soundtrack that almost was...

In Chapter 13 of my book, I briefly discuss the Columbia soundtrack album produced to accompany the 1969 big-screen film, A Boy Named Charlie Brown, and I conclude with this paragraph:



Unfortunately, the soundtrack album went out of print rather quickly and never was re-issued on CD. To this day, it remains one of the great Holy Grails for Guaraldi fans. In the early 21st century, an ambitious attempt was made to produce a music-only CD of the soundtrack, which would have allowed some of Guaraldi’s best work to shine, notably with extended versions of “Skating” and “Blue Charlie Brown.” But the rights issues had grown labyrinthine with the passage of so many decades. Despite a heroic four-year struggle, the project was abandoned.

That final sentence understates the agonized frustration of those who tried so hard to get that CD released. I speak from experience, having been involved; I was hired to write a lengthy essay and track-by-track liner notes for the large booklet that would have been included. It was a wonderful assignment — at least, at the point we all thought the project would be brought to a successful conclusion — because I got to interview Rod McKuen, Lee Mendelson and several of the musicians who worked at Guaraldi's side. I wrote and submitted the essay and liner notes; then I sat back and waited. 

And waited. And waited.

Years passed. I got occasional updates, but the trend began to look grim. Cinema Center Films had ceased to exist as a production entity, and Columbia Records had been swallowed up by Sony. Ultimately, my associates had to surrender; they simply couldn't secure all the rights and permissions needed to make all the disparate musical entities and performers happy (or, to be more accurate, needed to reassure everybody that nobody else might be lurking in the woodpile, waiting to pounce with a lawsuit).

I never got paid for my work, which obviously was a major bummer ... but never unexpected, in the freelance writing business. Besides which, I felt much worse for those who would have written me a check; they had put far more effort into the project than I had.

Happily, a good portion of my research and work didn't go to waste; major chunks of that essay were re-purposed and wound up in my book about Guaraldi. Not quite everything, though, which brings me to the point of this blog entry.

When it became obvious that Vince Guaraldi at the Piano was running long — eventually, a full 50,000 words longer than my original contract with McFarland had specified (and bless my editor for allowing that extra length!) — I went looking for things to trim. Bits and pieces flew by the wayside, although everything got saved; some of the specific LP information wound up in my online Vince Guaraldi discography, while other snippets landed in the Vince Guaraldi timeline. But I didn't really have a home for the deleted stray data from the A Boy Named Charlie Brown CD project.

Not wanting it to be wasted, I've decided to resurrect it here.

Monday, June 25, 2012

My Guaraldi dog-and-pony show

A short entry today, mostly for the benefit of fans living in and around San Francisco's greater bay area.


I'm giving a presentation about Vince Guaraldi at 3 p.m. this Friday, June 29, at the Charles M. Schulz Museum, 2301 Hardies Lane, Santa Rosa, California. For additional information, call the Museum at (707) 579-4452.


I plan to read a short excerpt from my book and then briefly take the audience through some of the high points in Guaraldi's life and career, accompanied by a multi-media presentation that will include photographs and a few short video clips. The latter should be regarded as strong incentive to join us, because they'll be things almost nobody has seen. Fans have been long aware of the two Jazz Casual episodes Guaraldi starred in, back in the early 1960s, along with the 90-minute film Anatomy of a Hit, all made by his good friend Ralph Gleason. Indeed, many people believe that these three KQED Channel 9 productions are the extent of Guaraldi's appearances on TV or film.


Not so ... and I'll have four clips to share, from sources most folks aren't even aware exist. And no, I'll not spoil the surprise by identifying them here.


If you're in the area, then, and not otherwise occupied this Friday afternoon, take a trip to Santa Rosa. I've also invited all of Guaraldi's former sidemen who are known to still live in the area, along with other of his former associates. I've no idea how many or few will accept that invitation, but the possibility of "special guests" exists.


And if all this isn't reason enough to drop by, consider the broader smile on my face, if I know that at least a few avid Guaraldi fans will be present.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Champlin at the bit

Wheels within wheels within wheels. Researchers love this phenomenon.


Corry, one of my many colleagues (co-conspirators?) in the realm of meticulous fact-finding, recently forwarded what he hoped might be a helpful tidbit of information. Corry focuses on the greater San Francisco rock 'n' roll scene, with a particular emphasis on the activities of Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead. You'll lose happy hours (days? weeks?) at Corry's blog, Lost Live Dead, and I recommend it highly. He shares my passion for attempting the impossible: Just as I hope to eventually nail down every club, concert and studio date Guaraldi ever had, Corry hopes to do the same with Garcia and the Dead.


So, while pursuing a lead involving Garcia's possible participation with the Sons of Champlin in August 1969, Corry came across a brief quote from Bill Champlin, who once had been asked about this very possibility. As it turned out, Champlin didn't remember Garcia sitting in during the performance in question, but then he (Champlin) added an additional comment, which is what Corry passed along to me:


I jammed with Jerry's band with Bill Vitt and John Khan at the Matrix once, with Vince Guaraldi.


Now, that was tantalizing. Readers of this blog know that I'm always after fresh evidence of "Vince and Jerry" collaborations, particularly at the Matrix. (See the May 11, 2012, blog entry.) My Guaraldi timeline already included quite a few of his verified appearances at the Matrix, and it's known that he and Garcia occasionally played together at that club, particularly during the regular "Monday jams" that took place for a few years. But I didn't have any listings that found Guaraldi alongside Garcia, Bill Vitt, John Khan and Bill Champlin. Clearly, this bore further investigation.


Happily, Champlin was easy to reach, and he responded quickly:


I couldn't remember a date of that jam, but I'll try to recall the stuff for you. Bill Vitt called and asked me to come play rhythm guitar, because Jerry was so busy fooling around with some kind of effects unit, very cool but not kickin'. So, being a friend of Bills', I brought a guitar and amp and set up. I didn't know that Vince was gonna play 'til I got there. Cool stuff for me; I'd been a fan since the red plastic Fantasy album with "Cast Your Fate to the Wind" on it. Anyway, we played, and it was very cool. Vince was way cool. Damn, what a great musician. At one point I was looking down, and suddenly I heard this beautiful soprano sax wafting across the band; I looked up, and there was Vince Denham playing, beautifully as always, after having just played with Don Ellis at Fillmore West. I found out that he and Vince had hit it off. Curley Cooke came up and jammed on my Gibson for awhile also, and then the night was over and I went home. Looking back, it was a rare night, but back then it was never a surprise to find great players coming together, even in spite of themselves and their careers. 


That's all I remember, but between then and now there's been a lotta water under the bridge, and I could very easily have lost a few details of the night. I'm writing to you from backstage in Osaka, Japan, which means that I'm still out there makin' noise, so I look back on those rare jams with a lot of respect for the players. Vince Guaraldi was one of the big ones for me. Anyway, there it is. Be good, Bill.


Wow! Suddenly we're talking about Guaraldi, Garcia, Bill Vitt, Bill Champlin, John Khan, Curley Cooke and Vince Denham. And Champlin's narrative contained one big, fat clue: Don Ellis and Fillmore West.


Ellis and his band were at Fillmore West June 18-21, 1970; the magnificent double-LP set Don Ellis at Fillmore was recorded during those four memorable evenings. Now, Vince Denham wasn't yet an official member of Ellis' band — he joined a bit later, with the 1972 release of Connection — but Denham certainly could have been "hanging around" during one or more of those Fillmore sets.


After sharing this newest data with Corry, he cross-matched with some additional details:


The Grateful Dead played the Pauley Ballroom in Berkeley on Sunday, June 21, 1970 (two nights after Memphis, and three days before New York). Jerry Garcia and Howard Wales were booked for the Matrix on Monday, June 22, so that fits Champlin's timeline. It sounds like Howard Wales was booked, but Guaraldi actually played the gig.


I [also] know a lot about the Don Ellis Orchestra. Among many other things, it was sort of a session man's side project, so Vince Denham and every other working jazz musician would have had numerous friends in the Ellis band — there were 23 guys in it; Denham had to have known somebody — so whether he jammed or not, Denham must have been at Fillmore West to hang out.


And, just for good measure, Corry forwarded a clipping that ran in the entertainment section of the San Francisco Chronicle on Monday, June 22, 1970 (on Page 44, if you insist on full disclosure). You can see that at right.


So, there we have it: Thanks to Bill Champlin, I'm satisfied that we can identify June 22, 1970 — a date which, until this moment, had remained empty on my Guaraldi timeline — as the memorable evening that featured Guaraldi, Garcia, Vitt, Champlin, Khan, Cooke and Denham.


As Corry said, "Yeah, I'd go!"


No kidding. Me, too!


If all this seems like a lot of effort just to nail a single gig out of so many, well ... yes, of course it is! But that's the name of the game. I want to have the world's most accurate and informative timeline of Guaraldi's activities, and such a goal requires this level of dedication and perseverance.


Besides: If Corry and I — and other tireless investigators like us — don't do this stuff, who else will?

Friday, June 8, 2012

Jazz pilgrimage: One fan's journey

I lived in Southern California until graduating from college, at which point I relocated permanently to the northern half of the Golden State. On a random Saturday during the summer between my junior and senior years, I rather cheekily drove into the heart of Los Angeles, with the express purpose of finding Ray Bradbury's house, knocking on his door and ... honestly, I had no idea what might come next. His address, you might be surprised to learn, was listed in the greater Los Angeles phone directory.


I found the house — ironically, on a street just around the corner from a Bradbury Drive — parked in front, walked up the path and nervously rang the bell. His wife answered; I explained my desire to see The Great Man. She smiled far more graciously than I ever would have expected, invited me inside and explained that Ray was taking his afternoon nap, but would wake shortly. I waited on the couch in their living room, eyed with considerable suspicion by their four daughters, not one of whom said a word. When my clumsy efforts at idle conversation met with stony silence, I quit trying and attempted to disappear between the cushions.


Fortunately, the torture lasted only 10 minutes or so. Ray came clomping down the stairs, having been briefed about his unexpected guest. He thrust out his hand, greeted me warmly and escorted me down another flight of stairs, to his basement office. I won't even attempt to describe that Aladdin's den; mere words couldn't do it justice. He chatted with me for slightly more than an hour, then pulled two of his books from the voluminous shelves that surrounded us, autographed them, and sent me on my way.


But not before agreeing to a formal interview a few weeks later, at his downtown Los Angeles office. I was, at that time, a journalist on my college newspaper; it had been the weak excuse that granted me the courage to attempt this crazy excursion. The subsequent interview was dynamite, and I ran every carefully transcribed word — in four lengthy installments — in the college paper. 


And that, boys and girls, marked the start of whatever career I've enjoyed to this point.


I was reminded of that long-ago golden afternoon by Bradbury's death on June 6. It's a crushing blow; he was the first of my childhood icons, certainly the first celebrity I ever met and had the pleasure of interviewing. The compulsion that drove me to attempt that Saturday encounter is an impulse that will be recognized by all fans: We cherish our heroes, and hope for an opportunity to deliver some respectful, in-person admiration.


And when our idols are gone, we seek substitutes. I therefore understand the compulsion that drives acolytes to walk in long-ago footsteps. Music fans constantly take "rock star tours" in Los Angeles. Don Herron has been conducting excellent walking tours of author Dashiell Hammett's San Francisco haunts since 1977; Herron even produced a booklet that allows folks to conduct their own excursions.


Guaraldi's Northern California hangouts are harder to find; most of the long-ago jazz clubs that hosted his various combos are distant memories. In many cases, the buildings themselves are long gone.




I've corresponded with hundreds of people since beginning my book about Guaraldi; I continue to exchange notes and messages with many of them to this day. One fan decided, a few years ago, to seek out the final Menlo Park locales where Guaraldi died that fateful evening on February 6, 1976: Butterfield's, the club where his trio was performing; and the adjacent Red Cottage Inn, where Guaraldi relaxed between sets.


You can read all about this journey here. It's a thoughtful, heartfelt account, complete with numerous photographs ... including the one above, taken shortly after the building that once housed Butterfield's was razed. You'll even get a glimpse of Guaraldi's gravestone.


I've never visited the latter in person; I really should ... even though I'm certain it'll be a sobering experience.


One that will remind me anew of the loss, just as the shattering news of Bradbury's death reminded me of that Saturday afternoon spent in his wonder-filled basement, lo those many decades ago.