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.

"I was working with Cal, at El Matador. Vince used to come and sit in from time to time, because he was doing the play around the corner. We'd hang out and have a good time."

We pause, to allow eyebrows to raise.

The play? What play?

El Matador was at 492 Broadway, which — as it happens — was indeed right around the corner from 535 Pacific, home of the Little Fox Theater. On June 1, 1967, the Little Fox became the home of San Francisco's debut run of the smash musical play, You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, which remained there for quite some time.

But let me quickly point out that there's absolutely no indication, no evidence, that Guaraldi ever had anything to do with the play. Indeed, plenty of reviews and articles cited Don Sheffey (keyboards) and Earl Zindars (percussion) as the two-man combo in residence. But Guaraldi had gotten to know both Charles M. Schulz and Lee Mendelson quite well by this point, and also had developed a strong fondness for the Peanuts gang; it's therefore easy to believe that Vince caught the show many times. And if he knew that Tjader's band was nearby on any of those occasions, he certainly would have ambled around the corner — the play letting out comparatively early in the evening — to hang with his friend and former colleague.

And who knows? It's possible that Sheffey might have called in sick on short notice, and that Guaraldi might have subbed in ... but it seems unlikely. Remember, Guaraldi didn't — couldn't — read music, and the stuff Clark Gesner wrote for that show is impressively complex. Then again, Guaraldi was a quick study, and he had backed all sorts of vocalists not that many years earlier, particularly during his trio's 1960-61 run at Palo Alto's Inside at the Outside. Then again...

Then again, we'll likely never know for sure. But it's a tantalizing thought.


"Vince was fun to be around," Burnett continued. "He enjoyed his music, and he was at a comfortable place with it. You couldn't help enjoying it, working with him, because he enjoyed it so much. All of that comes through in the music itself, and that's what today's kids are feeling. That's one of the reasons his music has lasted this long: because there's a feeling of contentment in it.

"Then the opportunity to do that LP came up, and he asked Stan [Gilbert] and me to do it with him."

"That LP" turned out to be Oh, Good Grief!, the first of Guaraldi's three albums in his new contract with Warner Bros. Records.

After the Guaraldi/Sete Quartet dissolved in early 1966, Vince partnered with numerous sidemen for the next several years. This marked the beginning of his "experimental phase," when he explored all sorts of musical genres: from his gentle, wholly unexpected album collaboration with the San Francisco Boys Chorus; to cacophonous jam sessions at rock clubs such as the Matrix. Electric keyboards and guitars had become ubiquitous; even longtime friend and collaborator Eddie Duran had added an electric axe to his kit. In the summer of 1968, Guaraldi would debut a combo dubbed the Electric Umbrella Quartet.

No surprise, then, that a few months before that — liking the sound they delivered with Tjader's band — Guaraldi would have asked Burnett and Gilbert to join him and Duran on that first Warners album. It was to be a notable departure from everything he had recorded while under Fantasy's roof.

Burnett remembered more than one session, and he was correct. A union contract bears this out, citing three sessions of three hours each, all at San Francisco's Golden State Recording Studio. One of those dates is known to have been March 22, 1968. For their efforts, Duran, Gilbert and Burnett each were paid union scale wages of $195, with a pension contribution of $15.60. Guaraldi made $390, with a pension contribution of $31.20.

"Working with Vince was like guys getting together and just playing," Burnett remembered, the delight quite evident in his voice. "It wasn't a job; it was just, like, we're gonna get together and record this music, and have fun doing it. That's what the feeling was, and what the action was. It was easy to help make it right, because it was something we all were sharing.

"What Stan and I did with Vince, on that album, we already were doing with Cal. And I'm sure that's why Vince would sit in, and play, because with Cal it was the same exciting level, the same enjoyment. And I'm sure that's why Vince wanted to work with us."

As much fun as the recording sessions were, they apparently didn't lead to more work with Guaraldi.

"We might have done one other thing with Vince, but that was it," Burnett lamented. "It wasn't at a club; it seems like it might have been a school, maybe a high school, somewhere on the other side of the Bay Bridge.

"And I remember seeing him one other time down in Los Angeles, when he came by Shelly's Manne Hole, where Cal was playing. Vince didn't sit in that time; he stayed and listened for awhile, and then we hung out during the breaks. He must've been playing somewhere nearby. That might've been the last time I saw him."

Sensing that my chat with Burnett was wrapping up, with the pauses between his responses growing longer, I asked him to describe what made Vince uniquely himself.

"His concern about his music," Burnett quickly replied. "And there were so many different levels. That thing he did at Grace Cathedral, that was a whole body of work, and he put his heart into it. He dealt with it the same way he dealt with everything else, like his Charlie Brown music.

"He did that stuff 50 years ago, and I've been hearing it all this time. Today's kids keep getting into it, and it keeps taking on new life every year. I was invited to visit a school late last year, and at the time I was there, they were preparing for a Christmas show. One of the things they were working up was Vince's 'Christmas Time Is Here.' I played it with them, and that was really something, man!"

I sensed Burnett's smile, and thanked him for this engaging journey in his personal Wayback Machine.

"All that was a long time ago," he concluded, wistfully, "and everything was pretty fast in those days. 

"And it was a great part of our society, that a lot of people miss today."


Jim said...

Thank you for another wonderful story, Derrick. Keep 'em coming.

Doug said...

Another great reminiscence that also spontaneously vindicates the focus of "Vince Guaraldi at the Piano": A biography focused primarily on Vince's music career tracks Vince's own focus -- "His concern about his music." As Mr. Burnett noted from experience, "[H]e put his heart into it."

George said...

Love "Oh Good Grief" albeit the harpsichord is too loud for my taste. Excellent quartet with classic Guaraldi tunes. Thanks Derrick for the interview. Carl Burnett is one of the great jazz drummers.