Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Cal Tjader: San Francisco to Portland with Seattle a Bust

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.



1962 was the year of the Seattle’s World Fair and that summer found me heading up to a gig in The Emerald City by way of two gigs in San Francisco and Portland, respectively

It was a trio gig with a pianist and a bassist that I had worked with around town, but had never performed with on a regular basis.

The “bread” was quite good and included a nice “taste” for room and board. It also offered me a chance to travel up the coast for first-time visits to all three cities.

In San Francisco, we played at The El Cid, a glass-fronted club that was located at the tri-corner of Broadway, Columbus and Grant streets. This area is considered part of North Beach although it is just a stone’s throw away from Chinatown.



We stayed at the Sam Wong Hotel which, then as now, was located on Broadway directly across the street from the club. That’s me in the airline pilot sun glasses in this photo that was taken directly in front of the hotel.


I had just purchased a black lacquer set of Ludwig drums with flanged, chrome rims and these along with my three-button lightweight suits and 1” narrow ties gave me a “too-hip-for-the room” look.

The only problem was that as Mark Twain once said – “The coldest winter I ever spent was the summer I spent in San Francisco" – so I just about froze in the clothes that I had brought up with me from Los Angeles.

But who cared. I was in one of the most scenic cities in the country with a two week gig playing Jazz from to nightly.  The boss at The El Cid was very kind to us, fed us heaps of wonderful food and was tolerant of our generous breaks.

Since the place was packed every night, he even allowed us to run a small bar tab each night so we could treat guests to an occasional drink.

Across the street was The Condor, which like many of the clubs in North Beach would later become famous for reasons that had nothing to do with Jazz.  Further along on Broadway were Sugar Hill and the Jazz Workshop whose owners allowed musicians in for free as long as they used the back door and stood at the bar so as to keep the tables free for “paying customers.”

Every night I was in heaven or a few steps away from it: playing Jazz with a swinging trio and walking down to catch first-name Jazz artists performing at the other, near-by clubs during my breaks.

One night while we were eating dinner before the first set began, bassist Al McKibbon walked into the club. A big man who always wore a goatee, Al had stopped by to pay a social call to our bassist whom he had known from their days together in New York City.

Al had replaced Ray Brown as the bassist in Dizzy Gillespie’s big band, played on the now-legendary Miles Davis Birth of the Cool recordings and worked with pianist George Shearing’s famed quintet [where he met Cal Tjader who played vibes in the group].

He was in San Francisco working with vibraphonist Cal Tjader’s quintet at the then famous Black Hawk Jazz club and as he was leaving to go to that gig as a sub for Cal's regular bassist Freddie Schreiber, he invited all of us down to the open jam session which the club offered every Sunday afternoon.


When Sunday came along, the bassist and I decided to take Al up on his offer. We hopped on the Powell-Hyde Street Cable Car and road it down to the turnaround on Market Street. From there, the Black Hawk was a comfortable walk away at the corner of Turk and Hyde Streets.

When we arrived, things we just getting started as a few horns players were taking instruments out of their cases and quietly tuning-up. Al McKibbon motioned me up onto the bandstand and while I adjusted the drums, Lonnie Hewitt came up and started playing a medium-tempo blues on the piano.

I joined in and what happened next is exactly as Ralph Gleason described in a 1953 down beat magazine article that Ted Gioia references on p. 105 of his West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945-1960:

“I will never forget … that group got a blues groove going that was something else again. It was so good that the band was giggling, the waitress stopped serving to turn and look, and the audience held its breath. It was one of the best moments of music in my entire life, believe me.”

I often played with me eyes closed, but when I opened them and looked up after we came out of that blues-inflected reverie, there was Cal Tjader standing by the entrance of the club with his arms folded and a big smile on his face.

In retrospect, I’m certainly glad we made it over to that jam session as the following year, 1963, the Black Hawk closed.

Thirty years later, when I lived and worked in San Francisco, I would turn off Market and drive up Turk Street to my flat.  I was always so saddened to see the location of the former club which by then had become an empty parking lot.

Later that same Sunday, we packed up and headed up to Portland to begin our two week stint at The Roosevelt Hotel.



Portland was beautiful and the hotel was situated in an area that had a tree-lined park running through the center of the street.  By this time, I had acquired a lined rain-coat and a leather jacket, both of which made me considerably more comfortable and thus able to enjoy the rainy and chilly weather of this peaceful city in the Pacific Northwest.

By this time, too, we were really jelling as a trio. Somewhere along-the-line, we had added a number of uniquely arranged tunes from West Side Story to our repertoire. Since this was the year of the movie release of this popular Broadway musical, needless to say, our versions of that show’s more familiar tunes made us a big hit with the hotel’s supper club audience.

We worked two supper club sets each night followed by a closing cocktail set during which we played our hipper Jazz tunes including our version of everything from Oscar Peterson’s albums with Ray Brown on bass and Ed Thigpen on drums..

Woody ‘N You was saved as our last tune and played at a blistering tempo. I got to solo on it for a few choruses and the owner even tolerated my use of drum sticks since there were so few patrons in the place by closing time.

It was a marvelous two weeks and I was looking forward to continuing on with the gig in Seattle when the piano player suddenly broke the news that he had cancelled the two week stint there to return home and tend to a serious family matter in Vancouver! [he was a Canadian citizen].

Luckily, I was able to book a few extra days stay over at my lodgings thanks to an understanding manager. This would give me time to search around for a way to ship my drums and myself back to Los Angeles now that I had lost my ride home.


The Sunday night of our closing we had a particularly packed house.  I was sitting in the hotel coffee shop between super club sets when the bass player walked in to let me know that we were ready to start again and to inform me that “By the way, Cal Tjader and Al McKibbon are having dinner in the club.”

Musicians always concentrate more when they know that other musicians are listening to them and this was no less the case with us that evening.

We played a really great set after which all of us stopped by to say “Hello” to Cal and Al before I continued on to my usual post-set cup of coffee and cigarette.  As I was getting up from the table, Cal asked if he could join me.

Cal’s quintet was booked into the Ho Ti Club which, at the time, one of Portland’s swankier establishments.  It even had a raised stage where people seated at the tables below could watch the performance while enjoying dinner and a drink.


He explained that although they were booked from Tuesday through Saturday of the upcoming week, his piano player and drummer were going to be late coming in from Los Angeles and not be able to make it to the gig until Wednesday.

Cal went on to say that he had a lead on a local piano player and then asked if I could make the gig with his group on Tuesday night?

I asked: “Why me?”

Cal replied: “Because you know what your doing back there, including the Latin stuff.”

I said: “I know you have a conga player, but I don’t have a set of timbales.”

“I have a set in my van that you can use,” Cal said.

To say I was thrilled at the offer to work a night with Cal’s quintet would be an understatement.

After I agreed [we never even talked about money], Cal said: “How about dropping by the Ho Ti tomorrow afternoon so we can set-up and go over a few things?’’

The following morning I bought a bus ticket for a scheduled trip to Los Angeles on Wednesday which included cartage for my drums and had lunch with my departing mates from the trio before making it over to the club.

Cal explained that we would play mostly familiar standards such as I’ll Remember April, Lover Come Back to Me and Laura either as ballads or light tempos during most of the super club sets and then do a “Latin feature” highlighting tunes such as Afro Blue, A Night in Tunisia, Manteca and Tumbao as a set closer.

At the end of each set, we would play off using an original written by a friend of Cal’s and entitled “S.S Groove.”  We extended the tune with a tag based around a four-beat vamp over which Cal would introduce the band members and “Thank” the audience.

As you would imagine, most of the rehearsal was spent going over music, keys and chord changes with the young pianist who was from near-by Beaverton and who played very well.

When Tuesday night rolled around, Cal did a masterful job of presenting and pacing each of the three shows. Both Cal and Al made sure that us youngsters fit in by using a variety of visual cues, hand signs for sharps and flats and exaggerated looks for tempo changes, stop time and lay-outs.


When the conga player joined us for the first set’s “Latin feature,” Cal walked over to the timbales set-up while saying to me: “I’ve got this one, kid.” I used the drum rims and shells to tap out and sustain the appropriate Latin rhythms while Cal and the conguero did their thing.

It soon became very apparent that the glue that held everything together during these excursions into Latin music was bassist Al McKibbon. What a powerhouse he was and he never moved the time; it didn’t budge.

I’ve heard a lot of timbales players over the years – Tito Puente, Willie Bobo, Alex Acuna – and Cal Tjader more than held his own with any of them. He tuned the timbales so tight that they absolutely crackled and he was lightening fast in getting around them.

It was his way of showing me how he wanted it done, because on the second and closing sets, he allowed me to play the timbales on the Latin features while he stayed on vibes.

I always thought that Cal was an extremely underrated vibraphonist. For a drummer, the vibraphone can be an easy instrument to mess with, but a “dangerous” one, too.

As Ted Gioia explains:

“The vibraphone invites overplaying almost by its very nature. … Unlike a horn player, the vibraphonist is unable to sustain notes for very long, even with the help of vibrato and pedal. The vibes invite overplaying to compensate for such limitations. Added to these difficulties is the fact that … [they are played with] a hitting motion powered by the wrists. With the mastery of a steady drum roll, the aspiring vibraphonist is already capable of flinging out a flurry of notes and, given the repetitive motions used to build up drum technique, the vibes player is tempted to lock into a ‘steady stream’… [of notes].

Tjader’s playing, however, was nothing like this. Although he was a drummer and percussionist by background, he seemed to draw on the instincts of a horn player in shaping his improvised lines. They did breathe.” [West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945-1960, p.103].

Cal always maintained that his two main influences on vibes were Lionel Hampton and Milt [“Bags’] Jackson. “Hamp” was a banger and “Bags” was a bopper and a blues player without equal. How in the world did Cal fuse such dissimilar styles?

Ted Gioia also notes this divergence and takes this point a step further:

“These disparate strains in his playing came out most clearly in his Jazz work. Where Tjader melded them into a melodic, often introspective style that was very much his own. Even when playing more high-energy Latin numbers Tjader kept a low-key demeanor, building off the intensity of the rhythm section rather than trying to supplant it. For the most part, he came across as an introvert on an instrument meant for extroverts.” [Ibid, pp.103-104].

Ted later goes on to use words such as “self-effacement” and “self-deprecating” in describing Cal’s performance at a concert that he attended in 1981.

The night I worked with him, I saw all of this up front: the introversion, the self-effacement and the self-deprecation.  All of this from a musician who also ranks among the most unselfish musicians with whom I ever worked.

Throughout that evening, he constantly shared the spotlight at the Ho Ti Club – with two, relatively unproven musicians! 

He took beautifully crafted, short solos, but he let the piano player stretch out on every tune. After “teaching me” the timbales part on the Latin tunes, he stood off to the side of the bandstand and let me “do my thing” during the second and closing sets.

And when we played “S.S. Groove” on the closing set, he gave me four choruses of drum solos while putting me in “the solo spotlight” and announcing my name to the audience.

After the gig, he gave the pianist and I each a $50 bill and thanked us for “making him look good!”

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles has selected the very same “S.S. Groove” as the sound track for the following video tribute to Cal.

On it, you can hear Cal’s unselfishness at work once again as he only takes two choruses while featuring pianist Lonnie Hewitt, throughout.

Cal’s solo begins at and ends at minutes when he starts the four-note vamp that acts as a tag to extend the tune over which Lonnie solos. Al McKibbon picks up this vamp very strongly at minutes.

If you listen carefully, you can hear Cal asking Lonnie – “All right, done?” – before he comes back in to take the tune out at minutes.

He used this same expression at the Ho Ti Club in Portland to ask if I’d finished with my drum solo.

When he asked the question, he had his arms folded and he was smiling, just like that Sunday afternoon at The Black Hawk.