Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Christmas 1966: Choral memories

It's no more than several quick paragraphs in my book:

On Dec. 13 [1966], Guaraldi and Charles Gompertz were in the audience for a rather unusual performance of the music for the Grace Cathedral Mass ... at Tamalpais High School.

"This was a kid, Brian Mann, who was a music major," Gompertz recalled. "He had memorized the Mass, and was a really good piano player. He could 'play Vince' the same way Vince played!

"The music department phoned and asked if I could get Vince's permission for Brian to do the concert, and then have Vince and me come up afterwards and say a few words, and answer questions. So we did, and Brian did a great job. Vince was blown away, and really taken with this kid; he saw himself at age 20.

"Vince gave him some tips after the performance, and then they sat down at the piano together and played stuff. It was a wonderful evening."

The entrance to Tamalpais High School, early 1967, as seen in an archival photo
extracted from a KPIX-TV Channel 5 news story.

Just a few paragraphs, because I hadn't been able to find Brian Mann or anybody else associated with that performance. 

With what I know now, that short anecdote could — should — have blossomed into several pages. If not more.

But let's look on the bright side. That's what this blog is for, right?

During one of my bookstore signings in 2012, a vivacious woman handed me a book and asked me to personalize it for "Brian." In response to my observation that she didn't look much like a Brian, she laughed, said her name was Linda, and explained that she knew Brian Mann from "back in the day," when they were members of the Tamalpais High School Advanced Choir. She was buying the book as a gift for him.

My heart didn't quite stop, but it certainly paused.

"Brian Mann?" I asked. "The Tam High School performance of the Guaraldi Mass?"

She nodded.

"Please," I said, as persuasively as possible, "ask him to get in touch. I'd love to chat with him about that performance, and everything that led up to it."

Linda did that, and more. She put me in touch with both Brian and John Terwilliger, who played drums in that Tam High School trio. Better still, she gave me a copy of the program handed out to audience members that evening in 1966, and dubbed a copy of the performance itself ... which, wonder of wonders, had been recorded and pressed as a small-run LP that was given to all the choir members.

Having now listened to that recording at least a dozen times, I can confirm that Chuck Gompertz wasn't exaggerating: Brian did sound just like Vince. More to the point, the audio quality of this recording — given its age — is nothing short of stunning; for my money, it sounds better than Fantasy's recording of the 1965 Grace Cathedral performance.

But I'm getting ahead of things. Let's hear the story unfold as it actually happened.


"I distinctly remember first hearing 'Cast Your Fate to the Wind' at Playland at the Beach, a San Francisco amusement park down the hill from the Cliff House," Brian recalls. "The tune was being broadcast on loudspeakers, and I thought it was odd — which it was — that a piece for jazz trio would be aired that way. It was the summer of 1963 and I was 13, just about to start high school.

"I was struck by the feeling and style of Guaraldi's playing; its soulfulness resonated deeply. For me, that's where it started. I bought the album. Although my earlier training was in classical piano — I was studying at the Conservatory of Music, in San Francisco — I was drawn to jazz piano like a magnet. More than anything else, I wanted to know exactly what they all were doing: and I mean not only Vince, but also Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson and Denny Zeitlin, who like Vince was a local star. Denny played often at the Trident, in Sausalito — my home town — and I went to hear him there. Since it was a restaurant as well as a bar, there was no problem about my being under age.

"So, I learned how to play all the songs on the Black Orpheus album; I was really crazy about 'Alma-Ville.' Then the Peanuts albums came out, and I learned how to play 'Linus and Lucy,' which my peers at Tam enjoyed. I bought every Guaraldi album that came out, and of course that included the Grace Cathedral Jazz Mass. Once again, I was drawn to learning it by ear, figuring out those chords and voicings. Pretty much every day I was in high school, I'd come home and start playing the piano. This meant putting on a record — the phonograph was near the piano — listening to it, and then jumping to the piano before the sound disappeared.

"My parents' turntable had three speeds: 33-1/3, 45 and 16. Both of these other speeds were useful. The system's fidelity was so pathetic that I often couldn't hear the bass lines, but I could if the record were played at 45. But that speed transposed the music up a fourth or fifth — I can't remember which — and that was good for my musicianship, because it helped me learn how to transpose.

"The 16 speed, on the other hand, was about an octave lower than the original, and was useful if I needed to slow down some really fast lick, in order to separate the pitches. I remember one afternoon, when I was busy with my 'research' — in other words, playing the same passage over and over and over again, both on the record player and on the piano — and my older brother Kevin, normally quiet and reserved, came downstairs and said 'Stop it! I can't stand it any more!' He probably was trying to do his homework!"

[Brian couldn't have known this at the time, but he was in good company. During one of Larry Vuckovich's many chats with me, he described using that same trick — slowing a record down to 16 — in order to learn rapid bebop lines.]

"I must have gotten brave at one point, probably in the spring of 1966," Brian continues, "and told Laurence [Larry] Nelson, Tamalpais High School's wonderful choir director, that I was learning (or had already learned) this Grace Cathedral music. I'm sure this would have gone nowhere if he hadn't liked the score, but he did. Mr. Nelson must have contacted the choral director who had trained the choir for the Grace Cathedral performance, in order to get the sheet music.

"School ended for the summer, and then we hit the ground running in the fall of '66, at the beginning of my senior year. I remember the plan was in place: We were going to do this as our December concert."


Meanwhile (and backing up a bit)...

John Terwilliger had grown up in a household filled with music, and by his own admission was involved with "hundreds of things." ("I'd been performing since I was quite young. I played guitar with my sister, and our mother used to trot us around as performers, at various functions.") He liked rock and jazz, and in high school played with the jazz band, marching band and advanced band, as a trombone player. ("I didn't play in the school orchestra; that was for long-hairs!") He also got a cheap drum set when he was 15 or 16, and picked up his early chops by playing along with records by the Ventures, the Beach Boys and the Surfaris. ("I figured if I could master 'Wipe Out,' I'd be ready for anything!")

As it happened, John met Guaraldi casually before plans took shape for the Tam High School performance of the Jazz Mass, thanks to the jazz musician and his family moving to Mill Valley in May 1965.

"Vince wound up living across the street from my best friend in high school, Bruce Thomson," John recalls. "I visited Bruce all the time, and I got to know Vince during the process of his moving in, and getting to know the neighborhood. He and his wife were no taller than Bruce! I remember being impressed by Vince's huge mustache, and later Bruce and I learned that he was the author of 'Cast Your Fate to the Wind' and the 'Charlie Brown Christmas' score, all that music we loved so much. That fascinated me, because I liked playing jazz. I was in awe of his talent."

Imagine John's surprise, then, when he began his senior year in the fall of 1966, and learned that Laurence Nelson had selected Guaraldi's Jazz Mass as the Advanced Choir's Christmas concert. John found himself assigned to the trio, on drums, along with Brian and Louis Judson (double bass). Although the three boys hadn't played together before, they knew each other and "fit" perfectly, thanks in great part to Brian's skill and adaptability.

"Tam was a fairly small high school," Brian explains, "so I knew Louis and John, probably from back in my freshman year."

"Brian could play anything," John laughs. "He's an amazing pianist."

"I'd been playing bass and singing in the choir for a few years," Louis adds, "as well as being in the small Madrigal group that was a favorite of Larry's. We had rehearsed at Larry's home on Mount Tamalpais several times. So, as I already was in the choir, and had been playing with Brian and John for fun and a few gigs, it was a natural for us to become the trio for the Jazz Mass."

Rehearsals began immediately, with Nelson focusing on the voices; Brian, John and Louis did most of their trio rehearsing after school.

"We listened to the Grace Cathedral LP a lot," John admits, "so we had a pretty good handle on it."

They also had the benefit of counseling from The Man himself.

"We went to Vince's house for some of the practice sessions," John confirms, "to get Brian into the groove, and to get all of us hooked in. Vince knew all the instruments, and he gave all of us pointers. He definitely helped us shape our performance.

"Looking back, I figure he saw this concert as a means of becoming part of the community, so he was willing to spend some time with us. And also to make sure that it was done right!"

"A meeting was set up with Vince," Brian confirms, picking up his end of the story, "and I went over to his house. He had a very nice studio in the basement, and I played for him. It's possible that he needed to hear that I actually could play the piece; I'm sure he wouldn't have wanted some kid to make a complete mess of it.

"I remember asking him about the Gregorian chants that are used in the Mass, and how he came to know them. He said that he'd taken some music appreciation courses at San Francisco State. I think I also asked him about how he came to use the first theme in Mozart's G minor Symphony, on one of his records with Bola Sete, and the answer was the same: music appreciation class.

"So let's hear it, for music appreciation!"

John still remembers the guidance he received from Guaraldi.

"He told me to quiet down. He spent time with me, one on one, on the proper use of brushes, because so much of his music in the Jazz Mass was hushed. So he worked with me on brush technique, trying to get me to calm down, to give the kind of support that the music required. It was enlightening; he gave me a whole new perspective and appreciation for drumming.

The cover from the concert program.
Click here for a larger view.
"I also remember Vince coming down to the school, and sitting in during a couple of the rehearsals in the hall, with the full choir. He gave some pointers to Larry and the choir members."

The excitement built, as the big day approached.

"We had only a few rehearsals in the actual performance space," John admits, "because the school gym, Ruby Scott Auditorium, was used for so many things."

Nelson, for his part, wasn't about to let this extraordinary occasion fade into memory.

"Larry was very close to all of us in the choir," John recalls, "more a friend than a teacher/student relationship. I have to give him credit for the amazing camaraderie he built up. He and his wife would have us over to their house for punch and sodas, that sort of stuff.

"And Larry was a real audiophile, and had invested in a brand-new, state-of-the-art stereo tape system. He'd show us goggle-eyed students what this system could do, and how it could sound."

Nelson's system notwithstanding, Louis recalls that it wasn't up to the challenge of preserving this upcoming event.

"Larry loved recordings," Louis notes, "but he didn't have the gear to record. I had talked my parents into getting me my first Sony tape recorder, mostly because I wanted to record the choir and band performances I was in."

An interior page from the program.
Click here for a larger view.
On the big night, December 13, Guaraldi was seated in the audience with his friend, the Rev. Charles Gompertz.

"I remember seeing Vince," John confirms, "and it probably was the most focused any of us had been, because we all realized we were in the presence of greatness, having him be a part of this. We wanted to make Larry and Vince proud of us.

"How often do you get to perform in front of the guy who actually wrote the music?"

"I don't remember being particularly nervous," Brian admits, "which is a little amazing, since I was playing in the presence of the composer. Maybe I was too naive to be nervous.

"Somebody told me that they overheard Vince say, in jest, 'I ought to break every bone in that kid's hands.' But that might be apocryphal!"

By all accounts, the concert was a roaring success; the same could be said of Louis' recording.

"I set up a single pair of my Sony microphones on tall stands," Louis remembers, "with the trio close in front of the choir, and captured the entire concert and Mass."

Another interior page from the program.
Click here for a larger view.
"You're talking about a big, cavernous, high school basketball gym," John points out, "so Lou did an impressive recording job!"

"We were so happy with the recording," Louis adds, "that I took the initiative to get it pressed on LPs, so we — and our parents — all could own copies. It was the first record I ever made, and it's still an excellent example of the art, and it gave my professional sound career a big boost!"

That concluded Tamalpais High School's involvement with Guaraldi and his Jazz Mass ... but it's not quite the end of the story.

Brian never saw Guaraldi again, not even to watch him perform in a club. "You have to remember that we were under age," Brian points out. "Louis and I were able to hear Duke Ellington at Basin Street West once, which was amazing. And Louis and I also went to the Monterey Jazz Festival two years in a row, if I remember correctly; we heard lots of great musicians there."

John also regrets never having seen Vince perform in a club, for the same reason. But unlike Brian and Louis, John did spend some more time with Guaraldi ... albeit under somewhat different circumstances.


Winter gave way to spring and summer, and then everybody went off to college in the fall of 1967. Now old enough to indulge another hobby, John bought, sold and traded his way up to a Harley 45: an old military bike that some guy had begun to fix up. John purchased it and finished the job.

"I always loved machinery," John explains. "I took apart my first car when I was 12. Anyway, I came home for Christmas in 1967, with that Harley 45; I rode it over to my friend Bruce's house. Vince apparently saw me; he came out of his house saying, 'Hey, that's a great bike!' He also loved motorcycles, which I hadn't known until that moment, and we immediately connected on that level. He was interested in the bike, and I offered to customize it, for his size, so he bought it. He thought it was just grand!

"Vince really enjoyed the fact that I actually had listened to him, and had changed and grown under his tutelage, back when he was working with me on drums. I remember him telling me, 'You know, you can actually learn!' He told me about this friend of his, Buddy Miles, and said 'I'm gonna hook you guys up; I think Buddy could teach you a thing or two.' "

(Buddy Miles was a founding member of The Electric Flag in 1967, and later became a member of Jimi Hendrix's Band of Gypsys.)

John returned to college after the holiday break. By the time he completed his freshman college year and returned to Mill Valley, in the summer of '68, he had another bike: a larger Harley 74, which he also had customized.

"I was visiting Bruce again, and Vince came over and saw the new bike, and asked if I could adjust that one to fit him. I said sure. So he gave the 45 to his wife, and he bought the second one, and I wound up customizing his-and-hers Harleys for them."

The promised introduction to Buddy Miles, sadly, never took place. But that certainly didn't diminish John's respect for Guaraldi.

"He was the king of cool," John says, the smile evident in his voice. "1967 was the summer of love, but he pre-dated that; he was back to the beatnik era. He was a hipster, and he walked the talk. He had the challenge; he had the style. To somebody like me, with the normal 1950s upbringing — and then just a 'touch' of the wild, in the 1960s — he brought it all home. He was breathtaking.

"And you know, even though he was a tiny guy, he had this absolute aura. The moment you started to talk to him, and look into his eyes, you'd forget size altogether, because he was a presence. The only time you ever thought he was a 'little guy' was before you met him; after that, you never thought about size. You just thought about the incredible power he had in those fingers."

John never saw Guaraldi again, after the summer of '68, but he still has warm memories of the entire experience.

"I listened to our recording again recently, at one of our high school reunions, and I couldn't get over how good we sounded. I always knew Brian was a master; he was born to play superbly. Hearing it all these years later, and remembering how it all came together ... wow. I have to give all kinds of credit to Larry Nelson, for making it happen, and to Lou, for recording it and making that LP.

"It was a big adventure: that somebody like Vince was willing to work with us; and that this incredible choir director put it together; and that Brian made his own magic. A lot of very diverse elements came together for that one moment.

"It was one of the best times of our lives, no question."


Happily, John has posted the entire Tamalpais performance — taken directly from the album — on YouTube, for everybody's listening pleasure. Check it out!


The Possum said...

Is there any way we can hear the Tam High School performance?

Derrick Bang said...

Sadly, no. The recording exists only in private hands, and rights issues prevent wider distribution. Remember, the music is co-owned by Fantasy and Guaraldi's estate.

Sarah Applebaum said...

Wow I just found this at a thrift store and it's great. Had to google it and lucky for me you wrote these blog posts. Thanks for the backstory!

Derrick Bang said...

An amazingly lucky find ... hang onto it!

Waverly said...

I believe the recording has been posted on Facebook:

Derrick Bang said...

Indeed it has, and let's thank John Terwilliger for having done so!