Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A cool July afternoon

Silo’s is a delightful little club in the heart of downtown Napa, California, within the greater wine country. The venue seats 125, and is tucked into the historic Napa Mill, adjacent to the Napa River Inn. On Sunday afternoon, July 14, it was the perfect setting for a tribute to Vince Guaraldi, performed by a polished combo led by jazz pianist — and long-ago Guaraldi student — Larry Vuckovich.

The event was sponsored by the Napa Valley Jazz Society, whose head poobah, Bill Hart, encouraged me to bring a stack of books, feeling certain that some of that afternoon’s patrons would appreciate the opportunity to purchase a copy. Bill also asked me to say “a few words” about Vince between sets, a proposal greeted with equal enthusiasm by Larry. I promised not to overstay my welcome; after all, everybody was present to hear the music.

My wife and I arrived about 45 minutes early, at 3:15 p.m. Bill showed us to our seats, at his table and favorably placed about 10 feet from the band. (That said, there aren’t any bad seats in the house, which is the epitome of intimate.)

We were surprised to discover a full bar, but not at all surprised to see that the cocktails were cheaper than single glasses of wine (all of which were high-end, Napa-area selections). I checked in with Larry and his lovely wife, Sanna; they were holed up in a back area separated only by a curtain, from the rest of the room. I also took advantage of the opportunity to chat with bassist Seward McCain; although he and I corresponded a lot and talked on the phone several years ago, while I worked on my book about Guaraldi, we’d never actually met. In person, he’s just as engaging as he was during our interviews.

Shortly before 4 p.m., Bill Hart took the microphone and made several announcements on behalf of the Napa Jazz Society: upcoming events and other bits of business. His colleague Richard Danne already was taking pictures with an impressive-looking camera, and several of his photos are sprinkled throughout this essay. Hart then introduced me and displayed a copy of my book (thanks, Bill!), which he presented as a gift to Vuckovich. After a round of applause, Bill concluded by formally introducing Larry, who discussed his own early years, starting with his arrival in San Francisco in 1951. He recalled seeing Guaraldi as a member of Cal Tjader’s band in 1957.

“Vince had driving rhythm and soulful playing,” Vuckovich said, “and he played Latin music with great authenticity.”

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Tribute to a "big" jazz pianist

I never got to see Guaraldi perform, but I was luckier with jazz pianist Paul Smith; I saw him live at least a dozen times, and probably more. He was a monster pianist, and not simply because of his impressive size — he stood 6 feet 5, and his huge hands easily spanned an octave and a half — but because of his astonishing facility on the keyboard. If you've never heard his stuff, you've a real treat in store.

I was crushed to learn that he had died on June 30.

Even so, I hear you ask, why am I discussing Smith in a blog devoted to Vince Guaraldi? 

Well, because it's my only venue for jazz chat, and because I adored Smith almost as much as I like Dr. Funk, and mostly because I discovered — to my dismay — that the Web contains very little information of substance about him (and much of what I did find is grossly inaccurate). Wanting to correct that oversight, I've compiled a discography of Smith's recorded output as leader, which you'll find here.

I supposed I could attempt to justify this detour by pointing out that while Smith and Guaraldi never shared a stage (as far as I know), Smith did make a few albums with famed Guaraldi bassist Monty Budwig ... and that seems a sufficient excuse. 

On the other hand, as one of my correspondents cheerfully pointed out awhile back, it is my blog, and I therefore get to make the rules. 

That said, this entry will remain short, and therefore easily ignored if Smith isn't on your radar. 

But he should be...

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Many happy returns

Vince would have turned 85 today, a milestone cited by jazz pianist Larry Vuckovich, during Sunday afternoon's Guaraldi tribute concert in Napa, California. I'll report on that event in a bit — still awaiting some photos — but I couldn't let this day pass without acknowledging it.

Nor, happily, could KMUW 89.1 in Wichita, Kansas. Station DJ Chris Heim's award-winning world music show, Global Village, is celebrating the birthdays of several music icons this week; Guaraldi will get his due on tonight's show (7 p.m. Kansas time). You can read a few advance details here. Guaraldi colleagues Cal Tjader and Bola Sete were honored last night (Tuesday), and that show can be enjoyed at the Global Village archives.

We can't help lamenting what might have been, when birthdays remind us of artists now departed: particularly those who were taken before their time. Think of all the music Guaraldi might have written, arranged and recorded, had he lived to the ripe old age currently enjoyed by some of the jazz world's revered icons. I'm reminded of the wry joke, often shared by musicians who lament their own limited output: "Goodness, when Mozart was my age, he'd been dead for [insert a number] years."

And yet it's pointless to wonder about what might have been, when we can enjoy what was, and is. Mozart couldn't make recordings; we can only imagine how his music sounded, as actually performed by his own talented self. We're incredibly lucky to live in an age when our artists are preserved for all time. We can marvel as Fred Astaire dances in dozens of films. We can laugh as Jackie Gleason roars at his TV wife, in The Honeymooners. And whenever we crave a shot of Guaraldi, we need only listen to one of his albums. His output may have been modest, by some standards, but — to quote Spencer Tracy, in 1952's Pat and Mike — "what's there is cherce."

So grab your favorite Guaraldi album — LP, CD or digital medium of choice — and give it a special, concentrated listen today. He'd like that.

Oh, and of course the photo above is young Vince ... all of 1 year old.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Powder Keg redux (well, sort of!)

Pianist Larry Vuckovich was Guaraldi's one and only student, having "graduated" to Vince's mentorship in the late 1950s, after taking early keyboard lessons from Cal Tjader's wife, Pat.

Larry was one of my best interviews, during the course of researching my Guaraldi biography. Larry's devotion to his former teacher remains strong to this day, as typified by this quote:

"Hearing Vince all the time was an uplifting experience. That's one of the things that the young players miss today: They hear a lot of jazz from the newer players, but they never heard Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Stan Getz, Sonny Rollins or Coltrane. I heard most of those players live, every week, and that's how you learn."

When Guaraldi earned a two-week gig in New York during the summer of 1960, backing singer June Christie at Basin Street East, he didn't want to lose his ongoing trio booking at Outside at the Inside; he therefore summoned Vuckovich as a substitute. The young understudy got his splashy debut, and many such fill-ins followed, as the years passed. The tireless Guaraldi often accepted multiple bookings on the same day; if an afternoon engagement threatened to interfere with a club combo gig that same evening, Vuckovich would sit in for the first set, until Vince could hustle on over.

The two became great friends, and even shared the stage for a memorable booking at San Francisco's Great American Music Hall, during the early months of 1973. Guaraldi assembled a dual-keyboard quintet, usually leading on Fender Rhodes; Vuckovich supported on acoustic piano, and they were joined by Tom Harrell on trumpet, Seward McCain on bass, and Glenn Cronkhite on drums. Guaraldi dubbed the group Powder Keg.

"Vince and I alternated on the piano and Fender Rhodes," Vuckovich recalls, "and we always played together. Sometimes we added a guitar player. It's unfortunate that that stuff wasn't recorded, because it was hot!"

During the decades following Guaraldi's death, Vuckovich went on to become a well-respected jazz pianist in his own right, with an extensive discography as both leader and sideman; you can check out his activities at his handsome web site.

But Vuckovich hasn't forgotten his former mentor, all these years later. Current proof is offered by a concert sponsored by California's Napa Valley Jazz Society: 4 p.m. Sunday, July 14, at Silo's Jazz Club in Napa. (I'm told the event already is sold out, which is great for the musicians, but obviously frustrating for any Northern California jazz fans reading these words prior to concert time.) Larry will be joined by guitarist Josh Workman, Latin percussionist John Santos, drummer Akira Tana, and — as if you would have needed more incentive to join the fun — bassist Seward McCain.

So yes, after all these years, two members of Powder Keg are re-uniting for a Guaraldi tribute.

Although Vuckovich naturally acknowledges the impact of the Peanuts music franchise on Guaraldi's career, he's always quick to point out that Vince was a well-established jazz icon before putting the swing in Charlie Brown's step. As a result, this concert will concentrate on Guaraldi's musical output and activities prior to his hook-up with Charles M. Schulz.

Specific program details aren't available, but Vuckovich has promised this much:

• Guaraldi originals such as "Choro," "Ginza Samba" and (of course!) "Cast Your Fate to the Wind";

• "Samba de Orpheus," one of the seminal arrangements Guaraldi delivered on his Black Orpheus album;

• Jazz standards that Guaraldi arranged in his own signature style, and recorded on his early albums, including "The Lady's in Love with You," "The Days of Wine and Roses," "Night in Tunisia," "Boogaloo Blues" and "Viva Cepeda";

• Two Peanuts numbers, "Surfin' Snoopy" and "Christmas Time Is Here"; and, perhaps most excitingly...

• A recently discovered Guaraldi original, "Blue Lullaby," found on a tape made during an at-home jam session with bassist John Mosher and drummer Willie Bobo.

Additional information, and a bit of background, can be found in the Napa Valley Register and the Weekly Calistogan.

Perhaps, with this event already sold out, Vuckovich and his combo will be persuaded to repeat the program. We can hope...