Palo Alto/Jazz origins
October 21, 2007
Harlem it wasn't, but it's where I was first introduced to and learned to play jazz. I'm speaking, of course, of Palo Alto, my home town, a quiet middle-class, college community about as far as you could get from New York, Chicago, or the Mississippi River. During World War II, pre-school rhythm classes at the Community Center introduced me to the basic concepts. From there I mixed piano lessons and trumpet playing in school music programs with lots of sports, which literally brought me to the other side of the tracks and the necessary cultures of color.
But real jazz - bebop in particular - didn't come to my life until I turned 14, in 1954. It started in the listening rooms of Palo Alto's two downtown records stores: Hagues on University near Ramona, and Melody Lane, further down University by the Varsity Theater. Each had a row of glass-enclosed phone-booth sized rooms, with a three-speed record player and small bench that would squeeze two if you had a date. The rooms smelled thick with the sweat and stale cigarette smoke of the preceding listeners, who sometimes had tattoos. You could bring in several l.p.'s at a time to sample. Shrink-wrapping had not yet been invented, and you wouldn't considerr buying a record (lp's were $3.95) without thoroughly sampling both sides.
Hague's was the hipper of the two and was particularly well-stocked with the new long playing albums of Milt Jackson, Clifford Brown, Diz, Miles, Monk, Bird, Bud Powell, Hank Jones, Erroll Garner, etc. The album covers were an enticing mix of pop art and film noir and the sounds seductive and challenging. The man behind the counter was often the stern, bespectacled Chuck Travis, a Palo Alto native a generation ahead of me. At night he became a Ben Webster inspired tenor sax player who had worked in the Dorsey band through the war years and now gigged with all the major jazz musicians in the Bay Area. Without realizing it, I was formulating the basis of my musical style as well as entering the aura of a fine musician with whom I would play gigs later in life.
My second source of jazz sounds found their way to Palo Alto over the airwaves from Oakland's KROW-AM radio station. Patrick Henry was the d.j of the evening program to which I'd fall asleep trying to absorb the tantalizing sounds of Stan Kenton, Mose Allison, Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, and Shorty Rogers.
Stanford was the third source of jazz. When the hip 16-year-olds at Paly High were driving up to the city to Norman Granz Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts, I was crossing El Camino to concerts at Stanford's Memorial Auditorium. There I saw in person for the first time the likes of Cal Tjader, Vince Guaraldi, Brew Moore, Kenton, Dave Brubeck, and Paul Desmond. The concerts were part of a revolutionary movement that brought jazz out of the big city bars and on to college campuses.
By the time I entered Paly High I had quit my piano lessons and the marching band to concentrate on sports, grades, and popularity. On the sly, though, I started picking out jazz chords and improvising tunes on my own. Jazz pianist Billy Taylor came to me over Channel 9, the only local PBS station at the time, with a jazz program that explained the basics of improvisation. I'd watch, then run into the living room and try emulating him on the home piano. Friends were now collecting jazz albums instead of baseball cards. By junior year some of us tried jamming. And once we turned 16 we were able to venture to the Blackhawk jazz club in the city to hear our favorite bebop artists. Palo Alto had become too suburban for our new interests.
In the summer of 1959, however, the downtown scene underwent a significant change. The conditions of the Leland and Jane Stanford will had always stipulated that no liquor be served within two miles of the Stanford campus, hence there were no bars in any of Palo Alto. Two coffee houses, each serving a variety of espresso drinks, frappes, and sandwiches managed to open, however, and soon featured live jazz, folk music, paintings and photographs, dramatic performances, and a full cast of students, artists, and shiftless intellectuals.
St. Michael's Alley was the hippest, quickly becoming the new soul of the local bohemian scene. It was dark, woodsy, cozy, and intimate. Just two doors down from the Varsity Theater, it brought to University Avenue a new alternative to the hip scene at Kepler's bookstore. When it became apparent that all that was lacking was a piano, I helped Vern, the owner, pick out an old upright with a speckled green paint job. which we placed against the wall in the darkest corner. It became a favorite place for jam sessions, usually involving some combination of drums, bass, a guitar, and/or saxophone.
If St. Mikes was downtown, the Outside at the Inside was uptown. Actually located above the Zack's electronics store on High Street, the theater/gallery/coffee house was the creation of local artist Sheila Dorcy and Michael DuPont, an actor-producer from New York with lots of disposable family money. The layout defied description, but S.F. Chronicle writer Joel Pimsleur submitted the following in a 1960 review:
"Modeled, loosely, after a Greek open theater, the interior stresses simple, classical lines, suggests not so much a night club as an atrium - complete with stone fountain. Ionic columns flank the club room, furnished with Belgian, Greek, and Italian marble tables. Greek keys and theater masks spike the red, black, and gold inner awnings. This is the "outside" room - under the sky roof - skirted on the one edge by a small enclosed theater, on the other by an art gallery. Presiding over all, above the center stage, a familiar figure: a cherub-cheeked bust, with the ringlet beard and gaping maws of Bacchus."
Outside at the Inside catered to a more upscale crowd. Weekends brought in jazz names like Red Norvo, Cal Tjader, Jackie and Roy, Jimmy Witherspoon, Ben Webster, Red Mitchell, Lord Buckley, Vince Guaraldi, Al Cohn, the Mastersounds, and jazz tap dancer Tommy Conine. Cutting edge theatrical productions were presented in the adjoining theater, and local artists displayed in the gallery. The weeknight entertainment was either local folk music or a local jazz trio - mine, for instance.
Also worth noting in 1959 was a greasy spoon on University at the north side of the Circle, the Electric Kitchen. It was one of a few small downtown black-owned businesses and for awhile featured blind pianist Freddie Gambrell playing with his trio, which had just recorded an album for Atlantic records. Alcohol, however, could still not be legally served in Palo Alto. The fact that it flowed freely at Stanford parties meant that most local jazz players played gigs for college dancers. In the hills west of the campus, weekend beer bashes featured both aspiring Stanford jazz musicians as well as groups like Bob Scobey's Dixieland Band and Buddy deFranco's bebop quintet.
Up and down El Camino Real just outside the two-mile limit jazz was also pressing the limits. In 1962 a jazz spot called the Percussion Room opened on El Camino right on the Palo Alto-Mt. View border. The following ad (written by the owner) appeared in the Stanford Daily: "Is Jazz the Death Rattle of a Decadent Society? LISTEN To Stanford's Own DICK FREGULIA 'Reply to Fate by 88' HIS PIANO & JAZZ DUO EVERY FRI.& SAT NITE"
We played there to a mixed audience of students, locals, whites,blacks, straights, and at least one ex-con from San Quentin (a guy who used to spit on me in basketball practice, in fact.).The jazz ambiance was attacking all the stereotypes we had been raised under in Palo Alto. We created jazz beauty in our youthful anger as we continued to rebel against our own suburban culture.
At the other end of the 2-mile limit , the Band Box on El Camino in Atherton featured a local jazz dance band with a full bar and dinner. Bernie Kahn, the booking agent/band leader, brought in major big bands on occasion, most notably Count Basie and Duke Ellington, as well as locals Chuck Travis, Kermit Scott, and Ernie Royal.
In spite of all the societal changes in the 1960's, however, the downtown liquor restrictions remained. It wasn't until 1971 that Henry's Pub adjacent to the President Hotel broke the barrier with the first downtown liquor license. In the late sixties, though, you could go to the other end of University where the Nairobi Corner managed to serve food, beer, and small jazz groups, one with bassist Ray Drummond and a trumpeter named Tom Harrell.
Tom was, in fact, the most exciting young jazz musician on the scene. Having graduated from Los Altos High in 1961, he developed a local reputation as a bold, lyrical, adventuresome trumpeter in the Clifford Brown tradition. As a Stanford student in the mid-1960's Tom also played at a classic jazz dive called Easy Street , which opened just south of Oregon on El Camino. Originally a convenience store, then a massage parlor and topless dance joint, it evolved for a short time into a bebop-oriented decadent jazz club often featuring Tom with a full quintet.
During this ten year period between Eisenhower culture and the takeover by rock and roll a number of mid-peninsula jazz musicians nurtured their talents. Tom Harrell went on to play with Horace Silver and Stan Getz and has become a New York based international jazz star in his own right. Ray Drummond achieved status as one of New York's top mainstream jazz bassists. Many musicians playing Palo Alto's scene continued into a lifetime of jazz performance. Even I eventually achieved the distinction of holding the longest-standing jazz piano gig in North Beach (33 years at Washington Square Bar and Grill, and still going strong).
The institutions that were part of this special jazz era went various ways. St. Michaels Alley closed in 1966 over a lease hassle, then re-appeared on Emerson in 1973 as a restaurant. The original site on University is now occupied by Peet's Coffee and a new gelato cafe called, coincidentally, Michael's. Outside at the Inside failed financially after a couple of years and reverted to being a storage room (a very fancy one) for Zacks Electronics Now the building houses a yoga studio and several offices upstairs. In the middle still stands an outdoor courtyard, the original "outside" showroom of Outside at the Inside. Pat Henry, the KROW dj, created the 24-hour jazz radio station KJAZ, the premier Bay Area jazz station for over 30 years. Palo Alto mainstream embraced jazz with street fairs and special summer jazz series, and Stanford, which used to have a policy of no jazz in the music department practice rooms, became a major player in jazz education with its summer jazz workshop.
By the time liquor came to Palo Alto, rock and roll had replaced jazz as the music of social relevance, but for that short era from the mid-50s to mid-60's Palo Alto provided a subculture that helped nurture the further evolution of America's great indigenous art form. We didn't have our Apollo theater or Minton's Playhouse, but we did have a visionary alternateculture that broke through barriers of a social system that needed change. And we did it to a soundtrack of live jazz within and around the city limits of our home town.