Tuesday, March 31, 2015

A drummer's reflections

During a career that caught fire in the 1960s and continues to this day, drummer Carl Burnett has worked with a Who's Who of jazz artists: from Eddie Harris and Sarah Vaughn to Marvin Gaye and O.C. Smith, from Art Pepper and Freddie Hubbard to Horace Silver and Kenny Burrell. These days, Burnett frequently performs and records with bassist and longtime friend Stanley Gilbert; the two met back in the 1960s, when both were members of Cal Tjader's Quintet.


Which led both Burnett and Gilbert, in turn, to a brief association with Guaraldi.

I caught up with Burnett thanks to my colleague Duncan Reid, who authored our shared publisher's recent biography of Tjader. Just as I continue to gather anecdotes and information about Guaraldi's life and career, Duncan does the same, with respect to Tjader; Duncan tracked down and interviewed Burnett, and then kindly shared the drummer's contact information. Burnett's path crossed Guaraldi's only fleetingly, but significantly, and the drummer cheerfully welcomed the chance to reflect on his memories of Dr. Funk.

Burnett made his first appearance with Tjader's band on March 14, 1966, during a gig at El Matador. The drummer remained with Tjader for a little over two years, departing in the summer of 1968.

"El Matador was our home base, with Cal," Burnett recalled. "We'd go on the road and be gone for awhile; when we returned, we'd rest for a week, maybe two. Then we'd be back at El Matador, and folks would say, Hey, Cal's back, and the place would be packed every night."

As he related during an interview for Kathy Sloane's Keystone Korner: Portrait of a Jazz Club, Burnett had a room at a place called the Happy House, where numerous jazz musicians both resided and hung out.

"I was still living in Los Angeles," Burnett elaborated, "but Happy House was home when I was in San Francisco. We had a big piano in the living room, and every Sunday we'd have jam sessions, and everybody would play. It was a wonderful place to call home."

Burnett recalled having caught Guaraldi and Bola Sete during their heyday ("a really enjoyable musical situation"), but he didn't actually meet the famously mustachioed pianist until a few years later.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Grace-ful memories

As I've mentioned, this will be a busy year for Guaraldi fans, as we count down to the 50th anniversary of both his Grace Cathedral Jazz Mass (May 21) and the TV debut of A Charlie Brown Christmas.


David Willat and your faithful blog host. (David is the good-looking gent not wearing a
Peanuts T-shirt.)
With respect to the former, I recently shared a radio studio with David Willat, who as an 11-year-old boy had a part in both of those productions. He was a member of the St. Paul Church Choir that spent the better part of 18 months rehearsing what became Guaraldi's Jazz Mass, before performing it for the packed-to-the-gills worshipers at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral on May 21, 1965. A few months later, he and a small number of the choir's younger members rode a bus to San Francisco's Fantasy Records studio, where they supplied the vocal performances for "Christmas Time Is Here" and "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing," as part of the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack, and also dubbed the Peanuts gang at the end, when everybody shouts "Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!"

(I interviewed David and two other former choir members, back in June 2010, during an energetic four-way conversation; the setting was one of the the rehearsal rooms at St. Paul's Church itself, in San Rafael. That was a memorable couple of hours.)

Local-access DJ Bill Buchanan, who back in 2012 granted me his weekly KDRT show to discuss my just-published Guaraldi biography, opened his studio again for a half-hour chat with Willat and me. The three of us had a grand time, as David discussed his experiences back in the day. The interview even resurrected a memory nugget that I'd not heard before, which you'll recognize while listening to the show, and which you can bet I'll be investigating more aggressively.

The show is being broadcast this week on our local station, and the podcast version is available for listening here.

Sadly, I made a lamentable gaffe at one point, with respect to the date of the second presentation of Guaraldi's Jazz Mass. My memory was accurate when I pegged that event in January 1966, at the Rev. Charles Gompertz's Church of Ignacio ... but then I had to spoil the moment by trying for the precise date, and fluffed it. (January 23, for the record, and not January 8. That's what happens when you try to show off.)

That aside, the conversation was lively, and David was a great sport. I only wish Bill's show could have included some of the juicy stuff that was mentioned before and after the microphones went live...


*******


As I mention toward the conclusion of my book, true fame comes when an artist's work enters the pantheon of pop-culture exposure, particularly on television and in cinema. Guaraldi's tunes, as he recorded them, have lived on in TV shows such as The Simpsons and Arrested Development, and in the soundtracks of movies such as The Royal Tennenbaums and An Education.

The most recent big-screen example is the 2014 Hugh Grant romantic comedy, The Rewrite, which also features Marisa Tomei and recent Academy Award winner J.K. Simmons. Although the soundtrack is dominated by original music from Clyde Lawrence and Cody Fitzgerald, the menu also includes tunes by Madeleine Peyroux and Stolen Jars, along with the Vince Guaraldi Trio's rendition of "Since I Fell for You," from his album Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus. Thus far, the soundtrack is available only as an MP3 download at Amazon and a few other digital outlets; no CD has been announced.

Unfortunately, I've no idea when most of us in the States might be able to see the film. Although released in the United Kingdom back in early October, it has yet to secure wide U.S. distribution ... which probably isn't a good sign for a film with such a heavyweight cast. It therefore might be awhile before we can hear Guaraldi's tune within the context of writer/director Marc Lawrence's storyline. Ah, well...

Thursday, March 26, 2015

A message from 1967

It tantalized me for years.

The San Francisco Bay Area Television Archive is a marvelous resource: an endeavor that has preserved great chunks of Northern California's television history, whether it originated on film or broadcast video, from the dawn of television to 2005. Best of all, much of the archive's contents have been digitized and made available for online viewing by all, at no cost.


You can check out a nifty video introduction of the archive here.

The archive's deposits are a fascinating window into the past, affording the sort of "You're really there" experience that simply doesn't come from the oh-so-phony "re-enactments" beloved by many of today's cable and satellite channels.

Jazz fans will find tantalizing items, albeit only after some digging. George Lewis and his Ragtime Jazz Band come to life during a 1953 performance at the Hangover Club. Dave Brubeck discusses his former mentor, Darius Milhaud, in a two-part documentary first aired on KQED in 1965. In a 1974 KPIX Eyewitness News report, San Francisco jazz critic Ralph Gleason — also a founding editor of Rolling Stone magazine — reflects on the death and legacy of Duke Ellington.

The archive's collection is sizable, and growing all the time: far faster than its dedicated staff can tabulate, digitize and post the contents. And therein resided the source of my frustration.

A search on Guaraldi, during the research phase of my book, yielded three entries: all of them "waiting to be processed." I was lucky; thanks to relationships cultivated with the many individuals I interviewed, I was able to obtain copies of two of these three items. 

The first, 1965's Bay of Gold, was an hour-length documentary about the San Francisco Bay; it was directed and produced by Lee Mendelson, who later that same year made history with Guaraldi when A Charlie Brown Christmas debuted on television. As the two men already had become friends and creative partners, Mendelson hired Guaraldi to write and perform the score for Bay of Gold, and you'll hear themes and improvisations that never appeared elsewhere (along with a few themes that Guaraldi did later recycle). 

Friday, March 20, 2015

Mass appeal: Chapter 1

Guaraldi fans know that this year marks the 50th anniversary of A Charlie Brown Christmas, first broadcast December 9, 1965: the show that introduced most of the world to "Linus and Lucy" and the other catchy themes that Dr. Funk wrote and performed for that television special. No doubt this occasion will be marked by plenty of publicity, and likely a special event or two; I'll certainly try to keep up with them in this blog.

The hoopla surrounding that first Peanuts TV special, however, threatens to overshadow another Guaraldi milestone also celebrating its golden anniversary this year: the Jazz Mass that he wrote and debuted at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral, on May 21, 1965.

Although Guaraldi's score for A Charlie Brown Christmas (and subsequent Peanuts TV specials) had a massive impact on the American public's music taste — unquestionably turning more people onto jazz than any other single artist — his Grace Cathedral Mass is more significant historically, for a variety of reasons.

As I explain in my Guaraldi bio, in part:

The entire concept was completely radical. No American church had ever employed jazz in such a setting [during an actual worship service]. The Rev. Charles Gompertz [who "hired" Guaraldi for this assignment] knew of only one earlier precedent. Geoffrey Beaumont, a London priest, had composed a Jazz Mass in 1956: a work scored for a cantor and a jazz quartet. Beaumont and his composition made the news in 1957, but the vicar's performance of this work always took place after his regular services at St. George's, in Camberwell.

Guaraldi's Mass was an impressive success, and not just in San Francisco.



The subsequent publicity wasn't merely a localized wave; it was a tsunami that swept across the entire country. The Grace Cathedral Mass was granted a page-length article in Time magazine; the single accompanying photo showed Guaraldi and his trio members, Tom Beeson and Lee Charlton, above a caption that read "Praising the Lord with blues and bossa nova."

The Grace Cathedral staff couldn't move quickly enough, in an attempt to replicate the event. No less a jazz icon than Duke Ellington was hired to perform in the cathedral later that same summer, on Sept. 16.

But Guaraldi got there first. He even beat Ellington.

That's huge.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Yankee Songbird

My wife and I spent an enjoyable few hours Wednesday afternoon, at San Francisco's St. Francis Yacht Club. The occasion was a lunchtime presentation by Medea Isphording Bern, author of the just-released photo memoir, San Francisco Jazz. (I discussed this book at length in a previous post.) Medea included us on her guest list, and I must say that the club prepares an impressive lunch spread. Her talk covered the background and creation of her book, accompanied by nifty PowerPoint highlights of the photographs within.


Although we arrived with the expectation of enjoying Medea's presentation, the event delivered an unexpected bonus. We were seated next to veteran jazz chanteuse Pat Yankee, 87 years young, who has mischievous eyes and an impressive memory for details stretching back more than half a century. (That's Pat on the cover of Medea's book, by the way, in an award-winning 1962 publicity shot by photographer Emilie Romaine.)

Medea, who knows of my interest in All Things Guaraldi, had orchestrated the seating arrangement for a reason; this became obvious the moment we were introduced to Pat.

"I knew Vince quite well," she said, "and he accompanied me once."

Do tell, I encouraged her.

"This was when I was working at Goman's Gay '90s, which would have been from about 1952 to '56," she continued, settling into the story.

[Goman's Gay '90s operated from 1941 to 1967, initially at 555 Pacific Avenue, in the old Barbary Coast. In 1956, the club moved to 345 Broadway, where it remained until it closed.]


"Everybody knew everybody back then. Enrico Banducci — he owned the hungry i, you know — he had a television show at the time. This was when the Keanes had all their paintings up in the little gallery room. Vince had his piano there, and he'd be playing when people came out of the big room."

[That would be Margaret and Walter Keane, who became famous in the late 1950s and '60s for her wildly popular paintings of wide-eyed, often gloomy-faced children; they're the subjects of Tim Burton's recent film Big Eyes.]

"Enrico used this space for his television show. He'd interview people, before they performed something; he was quite a character. So he said, 'Come on over, and be on my television show.' So I did. And Vince played for me.

"Now, it wasn't Vince's thing to play something like 'A Good Man Is Hard to Find,' but he did, and he was just wonderful.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Childhood Fantasy

Researchers rely on the kindness of friends and strangers, who occasionally point us in the direction of something — a key piece of information, a fascinating anecdote — that we wouldn't otherwise have found.


In that way, I'm grateful to a good friend for calling my attention to a delightful online profile of Dogpaw Carillo, the sort of cheerful, colorful figure who typifies San Francisco's still-quite-lively counter-culture vibe. Dogpaw — and that's how he prefers to be called — is the star of this engaging and informative article by Viktorija Rinkevičiūtė, which she wrote during her post-graduate stint as a master's student in media, journalism and globalization, while at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. She subsequently returned to Lithuania, where she maintains an engaging blog and looks back fondly on the time she spent in Northern California.

As you'll discover, reading Viktorija's charming piece, Dogpaw spent part of his childhood living directly adjacent to the Treat Avenue headquarters of Fantasy Records. He grew up in a house at 841 Treat; Fantasy was next door, at 855 Treat.

(A quick sidebar: We have become conditioned to assume — thanks in part to a Vince Guaraldi composition — that Fantasy's most famous early home was on Treat Street. But Guaraldi's tune isn't the only source; this slight error has been promulgated by scores of musicians who refer to the good ol' days, when "Fantasy was on Treat Street." Many of them are quoted saying as much in my book. The lapse is understandable; "Treat Street" rolls more swiftly off the tongue, and the rhyme is hard to resist. But it's a mistake nonetheless: Although San Francisco does possess a tiny Treat Street, it's nowhere near the Mission District locale where Fantasy Records made its home ... on Treat Avenue.)

Aside from being absorbed by Dogpaw's childhood memories, I was drawn to the several times he mentioned Guaraldi. Viktorija had no reason to pursue these references to Dr. Funk, since her story focused more generally on Dogpaw, then and now. But I sensed that he'd have more to say about Guaraldi, and so I contacted Viktorija. She kindly shared Dogpaw's contact information, and she also sent along several additional photos that she hadn't used in her article.

I found Dogpaw just as amiable — just as eager to chat about his Treat Avenue days — as I would have expected. And he did, indeed, have a great deal more to share about Guaraldi and Fantasy.

(I've tried to avoid too much overlap with the information in Viktorija's article, although some basic details are necessary.)


Dogpaw examines the exterior of 855 Treat Avenue, the
once-upon-a-time home of Fantasy Records, and now
headquarters of the San Francisco Mime Troupe.
(Photo by 
Viktorija Rinkevičiūtė)
Dogpaw grew up in the house at 841 Treat, and remained there through his teens; his adolescence coincided perfectly with the 1960s, when Fantasy blossomed from a modest jazz label that went "13-1/2 years without a hit" — at which point Guaraldi's "Cast Your Fate to the Wind" came along — to the more ambitious operation that expanded into rock 'n' roll and most famously signed the band that became Creedence Clearwater Revival.

"Fantasy was literally right over the fence," Dogpaw recalls. "They shared the property with a lumberyard; this guy would come in maybe once in a blue moon, and chop and saw some wood, and then take off. His buzz-saw was right next to the studio! But they must've worked it out, because he never made noise when Max [Weiss] wanted to record something.

"At first, I thought the place next door might be a radio station, because you'd see instruments being loaded off vehicles, and going in, and later coming back out again, and all these radio-looking people. That was the vibe, so we kids knew it had something to do with music. Initially, we all thought that every neighborhood had one of these places, like every neighborhood had a playground or a library. This was just normal to us, having a studio on the block.

"But of course it wasn't normal. Growing up on Treat was very, very special."

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Current Events

Photo courtesy the Associated Press
A few Guaraldi-themed tidbits in the news...

The Rev. Canon Malcolm Boyd, the famed priest, author and activist who made quite a splash with his 1965 book of prayers, Are You Running with Me, Jesus?, died February 27, at the impressive age of 91.

Boyd was a hard-charging activist who never worried about whether his socio-political image would clash with his religious training; indeed, he cheerfully employed the latter to further all manner of causes in the realms of civil rights, gender equality and much more.

Early in his career, in the late 1950s and early '60s, he was a popular coffeehouse fixture who reached out to the era's poets and beatniks, earning the media label "the espresso priest." This eventually brought him to San Francisco, where his path crossed Guaraldi's on two notable occasions: first and most famously on May 21, 1965, when Boyd delivered the core sermon during the debut of Guaraldi's Jazz Mass at Grace Cathedral. Alas, Boyd's stirring oratory wasn't included on the album — Vince Guaraldi at Grace Cathedral — that Fantasy subsequently released.

That said, the original Fantasy LP, released in September 1965, was packaged with a printed copy of Boyd's sermon. (And here's a funny story: I wasn't aware of that until just a few days ago, when somebody mentioned that detail in passing. Curiosity prompted me to pull out my old LP, where — lo and behold — I did indeed find the single-fold "booklet." I'd never known it was there! All the many, many times I played that record, back in the pre-CD days, but the printed sermon never revealed itself by sliding out with the disc. And since I bought the LP used, probably at some point in the 1970s, it no longer had the wrapper which likely bore a sticker mentioning the inclusion of that document, and so I didn't know to look for it!)

Their second collaboration took place in September 1966, during the first week of what would become Boyd's month-long run at the hungry i. Activist comedian Dick Gregory was the headliner; Boyd shared the bill, "performing" his prayers/poems to musical accompaniment. His regular partner, guitarist Charlie Byrd, had a conflicting gig at El Matador the first week; Guaraldi is known to have stepped in for at least one night, and possibly for that entire week.

Boyd was famous enough to have earned lengthy obituaries in newspapers and media outlets throughout the country, but the best I've seen (by far) is this one, from the Episcopal News Service. It even mentions Guaraldi, if only in passing.

Boyd was a titan. My wife and I were fortunate to see him perform in person, in August 2010, when filmmakers Toby Gleason and Andrew Thomas screened their just-completed documentary, The Anatomy of Vince Guaraldi, at the second annual Sausalito Film Festival. The film was followed by Boyd, who — accompanied by a piano trio — re-created the beatnik-era style of jazz-inflected prayer and poetry that would have characterized that memorable month at the hungry i. As I wrote in my book's epilogue:

Audience members could close their eyes, lean back, let the experience wash over them, and imagine the intervening years melting away: imagine being transported back to 1966, in spirit if not body, to witness the birth of a new sort of prayerful protest movement.

Boyd clearly was moved by Gleason and Thomas' film: enough so that he made a point of introducing Thomas to Michael Battle, who had begun work on an authorized biography of Boyd, which was published in 2011 as Black Battle, White Knight. In that book, Battle reprints an e-mail that Boyd wrote, shortly after viewing The Anatomy of Vince Guaraldi for the first time. Excerpting the relevant portion of that note:

I realize the incredible impact of the Jazz Mass on my consciousness. More to the point, I can see its impact on Vince Guaraldi. ... For both of us, I think, we'd found a freshness, an innocence and simplicity, that would mark us indelibly. I look back at the event, collaborating with Vince, as a kind of magical moment. Two strangers met, exchanged a brief encounter on a great stage, and the gods seemed to smile or, at least, show friendliness.

After that, we went our own ways.

As it happens, Boyd has become Thomas' most recent project. The filmmaker is collaborating with author/scholar Mark Thompson on a documentary-in-progress titled Disturber of the Peace: The Many Lives of Malcolm Boyd. Additional information can be found at the film's web site.

We need more impassioned agitators like Boyd, but — as the saying goes — we'll not see his particular like again, any time soon.


******

On a happier (concert) note...

Our Canadian neighbors will have the opportunity to enjoy a Guaraldi program at 10:30 a.m. Friday, March 13, when pianist Duncan Cooper and his trio — John Beach, bass; and Chris Lingard, drums — present "A Tribute to Vince Guaraldi" at the John M. Parrott Art Gallery in Belleville, Ontario. The event apparently will be more than music, as Cooper also promises to discuss Guaraldi's life and career. Admission appears to be free; check here for details.

Down here in the States, veteran jazz pianist Larry Vuckovich, Guaraldi's one and only formal student (way back in the day!), will honor his mentor with a couple of concerts in the near future: a treat for those of us in California.




First up is "Larry Vuckovich's Vince Guaraldi Tribute Ensemble," performing at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 14, at the Piedmont Piano Company in Oakland. The set list will be familiar to those who've enjoyed Vuckovich's recent Guaraldi tributes, described in this earlier post. The band personnel have changed a bit: bassist Seward McCain has been replaced by Jeff Chambers, and drummer Leon Joyce Jr. is sitting in for Akira Tana. McCain's absence is unfortunate, since he also remains a direct link to Guaraldi, having been part of Dr. Funk's final band, back in the 1970s.

Ticket information and other details can be found here.


Later in the spring and down in Southern California, the Los Angeles Jazz Institute is presenting an ambitious, four-day tribute to jazz impresario Howard Rumsey, "Music for Lighthousekeeping." Rumsey, 97 years young, is best known for forming the ensemble that became known as the Lighthouse All-Stars, the house band at the eponymous Hermosa Beach restaurant/nightclub. The festival, taking place May 21-24 at Los Angeles' Sheraton Gateway hotel, will feature 26 concerts, rare films and special presentations.

The schedule is frankly stunning, in terms of the talent assembled for this long weekend, and must be seen to be believed; take a gander at this program.

Guaraldi fans will want to pay particular attention to "Concert 23," detailed at left, which features Vuckovich and his band.

But that's not the only Guaraldi element. Four short cinema events are scheduled throughout the weekend, all boasting "rare films from the L.A. Jazz Institute Archive." The May 23 screening, dubbed Mambo Las Vegas, makes a point of mentioning Guaraldi. I've no idea what those archive materials might be, although I'm trying to find out (and will share whatever I learn in this space).