Saturday, September 21, 2013

What's in a name?

Full disclosure up front: This entry is sheer speculation.

But it's fun to wonder about such stuff, even when there's probably no way to verify the hypothesis.

First, the facts: On August 7, 1959, a club/theater dubbed Caffe Court opened at 642 High Street in Palo Alto, California. The Vince Guaraldi trio was on hand for the gala opening celebration, backing vocalist Valerie Knight. This gig ran through August 16, and likely would have continued longer, but on August 17 Guaraldi left for Las Vegas, to join Woody Herman's "small combo" for a week. Immediately thereafter, Guaraldi spent most of the next eight months down in Southern California, as a member of the Lighthouse All-Stars.

To my ongoing frustration, I've never been able to find a photo of Outside at the Inside.
Not even the kind fellow at the Palo Alto Historical Association could locate one. But he
did supply this nifty vintage shot of 621 High Street, which would have been directly
across the street from the club, once upon a time. And isn't in interesting that, at
the time this picture was taken, 621 High Street appears to have been a recording
studio and (possibly) a TV repair shop!
He returned to the greater Bay Area in the spring of 1960, and on May 18 began what would become a regular gig at the same Palo Alto venue, which in the meanwhile had adopted the name by which it remains best known today: Outside at the Inside. The Guaraldi Trio remained the house band for roughly a year, through the early spring of 1961.

This portion of High Street is quite close to Stanford University. (Today, what once was 642 High Street appears to be a parking lot. Sic transit gloria mundi.) High Street runs parallel to one of the city's primary arteries, El Camino Real/The Betty Meltzer Memorial Highway. There's also one major street running parallel between High Street and El Camino Real: Alma Street.

The Brazilian/French/Italian/Portuguese film Black Orpheus debuted in the United States on December 21, 1959. Guaraldi is known to have seen it quite a few times, and he quickly became entranced by its marvelous soundtrack, a collaborative masterpiece by Antonio Carlos Jobim, Vinicius de Moraes, Luis Bonfá and Antônio Maria. During the next year and change, Guaraldi shopped his concept for an album of jazz arrangements of that film's four primary themes. The project finally found a home at Fantasy Records, but the Black Orpheus music filled only one side of the album. No problem, of course; Guaraldi filled the other side with material that he'd been working up during his club gigs, most of which -- at this point in time -- would have been at Outside at the Inside.

A vintage shot of Palo Alto's University Avenue. Note, in the lower right corner, the sign that points the way to Alma Street.
Two of the additional tracks were covers: Henry Mancini/Johnny Mercer's "Moon River" and Buddy Johnson's "Since I Fell for You." The two remaining tracks were Guaraldi originals, one of which — "Cast Your Fate to the Wind" — we know all about, as it put the jazz pianist on the map. The other was a tune dubbed "Alma-Ville," which later gave its name to the final LP that Guaraldi recorded during his lifetime. It's known that he was refining "Cast Your Fate to the Wind" during 1960; it's highly likely that he also composed, shaped and named "Alma-Ville" at the same time.

So: Whence the name "Alma-Ville"?

As suggested by a good friend and fellow Guaraldi fan, is it reasonable to assume that Alma Street's lengthy presence in this Northern California municipality, and its proximity to High Street and Outside at the Inside, could have made Palo Alto "the city of Alma" ... or, to put it another way, Alma-Ville?

Guaraldi is known to have acknowledged the venues and areas where he performed; consider his original composition "El Matador." It's not too much a stretch to imagine that he might have paid tribute to Palo Alto in a similar, whimsical vein.

That's total guesswork, of course. But it seems a reasonable assumption.

What do you think?

Friday, September 6, 2013

More power!

Bassist Kelly Bryan became a member of Guaraldi's trio in the fall of 1967, during what was to become a transitional point in the jazz pianist's career.

Kelly Bryan in 1968: You gotta love the threads.
(Sadly, no, he doesn't have any photos of his various
gigs as a member of Guaraldi's trio. More's the pity!)
The reason: Vince’s fondness for experimenting with all sorts of sounds, and his seduction by good ol rock n roll.

In hindsight, we probably can’t blame him; jazz clubs had all but vanished by this point, replaced in the San Francisco area — as everywhere else — by folk and rock venues. Guaraldi undoubtedly regarded his first-gen electric keyboards as a means of remaining relevant. Perhaps to the dismay of his long-time fans, though, he experimented with these new toys on the fly, during his club appearances, rather than developing at least some technique in the privacy of his home studio.

The results often weren't pretty, but hey: It was the 1960s, and some listeners probably expected things to get way, way out during an extended jam.

Bryan was present at Ground Zero, during one such gig, and he remembers it well.

Kelly was one of my more enjoyable interviews: amiable, helpful and always willing to be prodded by a few more questions, as I attempted to clarify various details. Our chats also helped motivate his own literary desires, and he has been penning his own memories of this quite engaging period in his life. (Frankly, Kelly, if what's to come reads as well as what you've already kindly shared, you must consider some sort of formal publishing arrangement.)

Anyway, Kelly cheerfully agreed to go into a bit more detail about his early days with Guaraldi, along with some general thoughts about the early days of electric instrumentation.

The rest of this entry, then, belongs to Kelly.


In late January and early February of 1968, I played for a week with Vince Guaraldi and John Rae at the Bear Valley Ski Resort, in northern California. Vince had taken an interest in skiing and would spend all day on the slopes. He must have done well, because he always made it back to the lodge in time for dinner and the gig ... and all in one piece. I went skiing a couple of times and took lessons from a pretty blond ski instructor. By coincidence, she lived in Berkeley, too, so I got her number and dated her for a while when we were both at home again.

It might have been after the Bear Valley job that Vince said, "Well, Kel, now we've played every kind of gig there is ... except a hanging.”