Friday, August 21, 2015

Cal Tjader: "A Certain, Smooth Elegance" [La Onda Va Bien] [From the Archives]

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

“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.”

“The disparate strains in his playing [influences ranging from Lionel Hampton to Milt Jackson; one a banger the other a bopper] 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.”
- Ted Gioia, West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945-1960, pp.103-104].

"No matter how extensive the ear's training or experience," … "there is in Tjader's art a kind of hypnotic sophistication rare in any music. For those who can experience it, he is 'Tjader le Grand.'  
- Heuwell Tircuit, Music Critic, 1973

“Cal was a very sophisticated musician, a real jazz player. He had a lot of feeling. There are a lot of vibe players out there that aren't really playing on that level. There are very few of them that can play a ballad the way that Cal did. By the time I met Cal, there were certainly [lots] of guys who could do unheard of things with the instrument technically. But there were not very many people that were interested in just expressing themselves in an artistic fashion."
- Scott Hamilton, Jazz tenor saxophonist

"[Cal had] a wonderful sense of rhythm, harmony and time.... He was 100 percent into the music.... His musical ideas flowed so effortlessly.... [Following the early pioneers], Cal set the standard by which all vibe players would be measured.... He was a great teacher, but not of the classroom type. He taught by example and I think that's probably the greatest way to teach.... I believe I would have been much the greater musician if I had worked more with Cal."
- Hank Jones, Jazz pianist

If you have ever wondered about what goes into the life of a working Jazz musician, then S. Duncan Reid’s biography of vibraphonist, drummer and bandleader Cal Tjader is for you.

Cal Tjader: The Life of the Man Who Revolutionized Latin Jazz [Jefferson, NC: McFarland Publication, 2013] contains annotations about almost every gig, recording and band that Cal was associated with during the three, plus decades of his career [he died in 1982 at the age of 56].

Additionally, Mr. Reid includes excerpts from interviews he conducted with many of the musicians who performed with Cal, as well as, the full text of interviews with Cal’s son and daughter, a Glossary of Musical Terms, which is especially helpful for those unfamiliar with the vocabulary of Latin Jazz , a 53-page Discography compiled by Michael Weil and a host of rare photographs of Cal and his various bands.

This excerpt from the Foreword by the distinguished Jazz author and critic Doug Ramsey sets the tone for Mr. Reid’s biography of Cal:

“Cal had a marvelous way of placing current jazz trends in the context of the music’s history and culture. … In his years of extensive research, interviews and writing, S. Duncan Reid has produced a biography that brings back with its clarity my good times with Cal. More importantly, his book gives all of us a thorough portrait of Tjader the man and the musician, and an understanding of the extent of his contribution to the music.”

The book is divided into the following five chapters, each one centered around a pivotal development in Cal’s career:

1. Tap Dancing with Bojangles to Playing with Brubeck
2. Tjader Plays Mambo and Tjazz
3. Reaching for the Skye
4. Last Bolero in Berkeley
5. Flying with Concord

Here are some excerpts from each chapter to help give you an idea of how Mr. Reid writes about the many highlights in Tjader’s career.

1. Tap Dancing with Bojangles to Playing with Brubeck

- “The fact that his many legions of fans came from every racial and cultural background is a testament to the universality of his music. And Tjader was revered internationally; his tours took him to France, Japan, the Philippines, Mexico and Puerto Rico. Nonetheless, he has not received enough recognition from American jazz historians and critics. To start with, he was a vibraphone virtuoso. More importantly, he was an artistic genius and great innovator who took Latin jazz further than his highly accomplished predecessors.” [Preface, p. 3]

- "We [pianist Dave Brubeck’s trio] had to get seven or eight new tunes every week for [Lyons' half-hour show]," said [bassist Ron Cotty]. "So we did a lot of rehearsing. Then we'd play those tunes at the Burma Lounge. We went through numerous standards and had built up a repertoire rather quickly. Everything happened pretty fast over that period, the popularity and then the recordings.... Cal was a great natural musician.... He played mostly drums early on. He was a great rhythmic guy. Good time, great ideas and great energy [smiles and chuckles slightly]. Dave wrote about 50 percent of the [arrangements] for the tunes in his style and [the other half] were Gal's arrangements, which were more bebop oriented.... I remember the charts that used vibes were lines that he wrote.... He'd jump up from the drums and go back and forth between the vibes and drums.... At the time, [we] were considered a new group, part of the avant-garde." [p. 27]

- “Brubeck returned to Sound Recorders sometime in June [1950] with a new and improved Tjader. On "'S Wonderful," "Sweet Georgia Brown," "Undecided" and "September Song," Cal's technique is more refined and his harmonic sense is beginning to take shape. This is due in part to the influence of Milt "Bags" Jackson. Tjader was attracted to Jackson's laid back approach, harmony and bluesy, bebop sensibility. Furthermore, he liked the fact that Bags, a nickname given to Jackson by a bassist in Detroit because of his habit of staying up all-night and carrying his collapsing vibraphone in a bag on his back, used two mallets instead of three or four. Lastly, Jackson enhanced his sound by setting the vibraharp's resonators to a slower speed, thereby bringing in a delicate vibrato and or tremolo. [p. 34]

2. Tjader Plays Mambo and Tjazz

- “I’m not an innovator, I’m not a pathfinder. I am a participator.” [p. 38, from a 1953 liner note in which Cal is quoted by Ralph J. Gleason].

- "Whenever we played the tunes, I had no arguments with Cal.... Every now and then when we would play a club, Cal would say, 'Let me sit in on drums.' So it would be Vince Guaraldi, myself and Cal on drums for a few tunes. Cal could play those drums. But the nice part about him was he had that feeling, boy, that nice soul feeling. I don't care what they say.... That's the beautiful thing about music. It isn't just how well you play.... It's what you have to say on the instrument and Cal had a lot to say.... Cal Tjader was one of a kind and we will always miss him, his heart and soul. God bless his gift to the world. It was great  to have known another king." [p. 78, bassist Gene Wright who along with pianist Vince Guaraldi and drummer Al Torre was a member of one of Cal’s earliest groups]

- “[Flute and sax player] Paul Horn offered his perspective on Tjader and small bands in general. "Cal was a [fine] bandleader [and] just really a likable guy. I never saw him get upset or lose his temper.... Musically, he really had a handle on the blend of jazz and Afro-Cuban.... Cal could put [the drinks] away, but ... he always performed up to his standard of professionalism, even if his face was a little flushed after intermission.” [p. 94]

3. Reaching for the Skye

- “Dick Hadlock covered the event [Cal’s last gig at the Blackhawk in San Francisco, CA in July, 1963] for The San Francisco Examiner. He loved everything he heard that night, from the bossa nova tunes to a laid back set of blues and ballads. Hadlock observed that Tjader was technically adept but chose to emphasize form, melodic balance and understatement. Moreover, there was the superb sense of time. "Ballad playing requires a more highly developed feeling for time than does the mere recitation of chord patterns on a fast tune. Tjader's ability to place the right melody notes —HIS melody notes, not necessarily the songwriter's — in all the right places is a gift only the most eloquent jazzmen possess."” [p. 126]

- “Among the many gifts of Tjader was one for musical understatement. Not surprising for a man whose subtle touch was as developed as his ear for harmony. "Cal Tjader has certainly been one of the most underestimated jazz artists currently recording," wrote Mike Davenport of the Van Nuys newspaper Valley News and Green Sheet, "and [Warm Wave] easily demonstrates the warmth and beauty of his playing." This LP, issued in September of 1964, remained a personal favorite of Tjader's. "Cal used Warm Wave as his template [for all-ballad albums]," said Herb Wong. "He would say, 'Let's do another Warm Wave!"” [p. 131]

- “By the time … Chick Corea played on Cal’s Soul Burst [1966], the composer/pianist was only 24. "I brought a few of my compositions to the recording," he recalled, "especially one I ... titled 'Modbo Mambo.'" It was an attempt to put some of the Miles/Coltrane-like harmonies I was so interested in with the Latin rhythm section that I also was growing to love more and more.... The thrill was to hear my own composition so well recorded and performed. Cal was obviously wonderful ... as he allowed an unknown guy like me to bring in an original composition to a date with such well-known and wonderful musicians on it. I thank him to this day for that break and his good will and wonderful playing."” [p. 137].

- “Tjader was tremendously talented.” [An iconic Latin Jazz pianist composer-arranger Eddie Palmieri who would make a number of Latin Jazz recordings with Cal in the 1960’s.] [P. 138]

- “Cal always populated his combos with superb sidemen.” [p. 147]

- “The following are opinions of Tjader the jazz musician. Gary Burton, who recorded the tribute CD For Hamp, Red, Bags, and Cal (2001), had this to say: "Tjader's jazz style was pretty much derivative of Milt Jackson's style. But, where he excelled and left his legacy was in the [Latin jazz] he pioneered. So, I think I would say that Cal is important, not for his vibraphone playing as such, but for his bandleading and originality in that skill." Ted Gioia presents a different point of view in his book West Coast Jazz. "These disparate strains [Lionel Hampton and Milt Jackson] 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." [Guitarist] Eddie Duran concurred. "One of the things most people probably don't realize is that he was a great jazz player.... Cal had not just his own style but his own sound and own approach to it. When you hear Milt Jackson, you know it's Milt. When you hear Cal Tjader, you know it's Cal."” [p. 154]

- “For two decades, Tjader had repeatedly demonstrated an uncanny knack for taking great compositions written by others, such as "Guarachi Guaro," "Cubano Chant" and "Sigmund Stern Groove," and making them his own.” [p. 156]

4. Last Bolero in Berkeley

-  “Tjader was well aware that changes in personnel could either be rewarding or disastrous and was proud of the fact that he had made excellent choices up to this point. Each sideman had his own forte(s) and Tjader's repertoire would reflect the different moods. For example, Lonnie Hewitt leaned toward the blues and Al McKibbon toward the Cuban. Nonetheless, the ensemble would maintain Tjader's musical identity.3 He knew how to balance the leanings of his musicians with the overall sound he wanted for the band: "You should play with people who are sympathetic towards your approach."” [p. 160]

- "Now that I look back on it with a sympathetic eye, I get what it's all about. In the jazz world, and Cal was not like this at all, musicians [exaggerate or underestimate their contributions].... Whenever jazz players liked something they heard, they'd run over to the piano and show Cal. They were very involved in developing the art.... As I listen now to jazz artists, people discovered things.... Everybody had something to contribute. It's not that they were discovering the nature of the universe.... But the egos that got involved in it were really not appropriate. Cal was above all that.... He used to tell me, for instance, 'If you play at a club and come up with one new riff, that's a good night.' He was very humble about the whole thing." [Ed Bogas, Cal's producer, p. 166]

- "Cal Tjader's sound on vibes is gentle and flowing, lyrical and swinging," wrote Jon Hendricks in The San Francisco Chronicle. "He plays the instrument with real passion, always a pleasure to hear and see.” [p. 172]

- “... , in a conversation with [Jazz critic] Russ Wilson, Tjader had pointed out that he'd been asked on several occasions why he wouldn't stick to one format. "I cant," he explained: "I have too many musical interests. My ideal is to make our tunes empathetic or authentic, be it Basic, a mambo, or a Beatle number; to play them with taste and a feeling for the idea they had, but without copying and with our own ideas and interpretation."” [p. 174]

-  “[Guitarist] Eddie Duran described what the working atmosphere was like during the making of Tjader Plays Tjazz, Cal Tjader/Stan Getz Sextet, San Francisco Moods and Last Night When We Were Young, his final Tjader LP. "Cal was a very nice cat... He was very loose and wasn't dictatorial.... When we would record in a small group setting, he wanted me to [complement] behind him. He would say, T want you to feed me.' Occasionally, we'd have piano but sometimes the piano would lay out and Cal wanted just a guitar comp behind him on his solo. I would lay down some chords behind him and then the piano would come in. The music was so together and we all harmonized personally with each other.... His harmonic sense was so beautiful. On some of the music, he would say, 'Let's use this change or this harmony instead of that.' We'd be changing harmonies within the tune itself. We would sit down and discuss it.... [Whether Cal was interpreting standards or creating his own material], there were different intros and segues into a tune......He would start the tune and then when it came to his solo, he'd like a modulation into a different key."” [p. 182; emphasis mine]

5. Flying with Concord

- “[Bassist] Howard Rumsey and Tjader had a friendly working relationship for over twenty years. Tjader would raise his price periodically but Rumsey was always happy to give it to him. "Tjader had the most dedicated fans. [Each concert] was almost like a religious event. The women especially revered Cal and his music." [p. 235. Howard was in charge of the music at The Lighthouse Cafe in Hermosa Beach, CA and later at his own club, Concerts By The Sea in Redondo Beach, CA.]

- “Tjader was indeed a unique animal. In an industry rife with ruthless competition, phoniness and self-aggrandizement, he was generous (both musically and with his time), honest and modest to a fault. In 1975, he told Max Salazar that his early groups were a "little bit out in front" because they played jazz tunes, not just montunos all night. This was as close to a boast as he ever came. Tjader's eagerness to deflect attention away from himself has hurt his legacy. It started with the "I'm not an innovator" remark early on and continued throughout his career. [p. 238]

- “ among [San Francisco Examiner columnist] Phil Elwood's fondest memories of the Concord period, were the small after-concert parties that Carl Jefferson would put on at his spread in Clayton, a town six miles southeast of Concord. Tjader would impress the crowd with his rarely heard piano voicings. "Cal always thought that the younger [musicians] had given him so much. It was kind of peculiar. I think that Cal never quite understood that he really was a major figure. He never acted like that." [p. 238

- “The many nights he spent at El Matador [San Francisco, CA] revealed to Herb Wong [Jazz writer, educator, record producer] what a clever bandleader Tjader was. "He paced his sets very intelligently, with taste and understanding of how an audience may move from one context to another and still have logic in the set of music that he was presenting." Tjader was able to express his musical ideas to a broader audience because he could please both straight and Latin jazz purists and ballad lovers during the same performance. "That's not an ad hoc skill," continued Wong. "[It's] something that matures.... The feeling that he would maximize his contribution to the music while ... also contributing to the audience's pleasure, and hopefully, growth."” [p. 238]

"Cal definitely had a knack and feel for picking the right tunes to play and at the right time," added [Latin Jazz percussionist] Poncho Sanchez. "What tunes to start off with and to play at the end of the night. Whether we should hit em hard or start mellow. As a young man, I absorbed all this. Now I do that today." And there are two other qualities that made Tjader a top-flight bandleader. First, according to [drummer] Vince Lateano, he was both a good director and could make things happen spontaneously. Second, according to [bassist] Robb Fisher, he instinctively elicited the best out of his musicians. "When you play with a musician of [Cal's] caliber, it is a lot easier than when you play with other people. He made it easier."” [p. 238]

- “Tjader's legacy extends beyond his musicianship and bandleading. He introduced Latin Jazz to mainstream America.” [pp. 238-39]

What emerges after a reading of Mr. Reid's biography is a detailed and clear picture of Cal Tjader’s career in Jazz and what a remarkable musician he was.

Cal had his demons - he struggled with alcohol addiction for most of his adult life - and while Jazz clubs are not the best place to overcome such bad habits, Mr. Reid doesn't sensationalize Cal’s personal struggle with this dependency.

Instead, he focuses on Cal’s music and helps the reader understand what elements, personalities and factors made it so distinctive and, ultimately, significant.

During the times I caught his groups at Concerts By The Sea in Redondo Beach, CA.
I was always impressed by how thoughtfully Cal probed melodies for nuance and subtlety. To me, he was the quintessential Jazz musician; always looking for ways to make interesting improvisations that swung with intensity.

Thankfully, the legacy of this special musician has been captured in Mr. Reid’s biography.

I can’t think of Jazz another musician more deserving of such recognition.

Order information is available at McFarland titles are also available from all major ebook providers, including consumer/retail suppliers [e.g., Google Play and Amazon Kindle] and library suppliers [e.g., Overdrive, ebrary]. For a complete list of ebook providers, see

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