In addition to being infatuated with Latin music, Cal Tjader was a tasty straight-ahead jazz musician and one of the more famous jazz musicians to come from the West Coast. A native of San Francisco, Cal’s group was a frequent denizen of the jazz clubs in the Bay Area, and called one club in particular home. During the club’s relatively long existence, the Blackhawk was the home base of Tjader’s different groups, and in 1957 became the spot where Fantasy decided to make Tjader’s first live record. Enter this track.
Tune: ‘I’ll Remember April’
Recorded 20 January, 1957 in San Francisco, California
- Cal Tjader: Vibraphone
- Vince Guaraldi: Piano
- Eugene Wright: Bass
- Al Torre: Drums
From 1956-57, Tjader led one of his best bands, one that was well-versed in both Latin music and modern jazz. On this album, Cal wanted to show that he and his group could swing as well as they could make Latin music. The band certainly had the pedigree. Vince Guaraldi was described by some as the West Coast version of Red Garland, and Vince constantly challenged the stereotype of West Coast musicians not swinging like the cats out of the Eastern United States. Vince of course went on to greater fame as the musical mind behind the Charlie Brown TV specials. Eugene Wright was a solid bass player who had been with Count Basie, Sonny Stitt, and even led his own big band called the Dukes of Swing, all prior to his work with Cal Tjader. The man was no joke. On paper it doesn’t seem like he would fit with a Latin/cool jazz band like Tjader’s, but it worked. At the beginning of 1958, Wright left Tjader’s group and joined Dave Brubeck’s group, where he stayed until 1967. Compared to Guaraldi and Wright, the drummer Al Torre was pretty obscure, and outside Tjader’s band didn’t do much.
Tjader’s cool vibes start the song off, with Guaraldi adding some counterpoint. Tjader often said that Milt Jackson was one of his favorite vibraphone players and an influence on his own playing, and that influence is evident on this track. Cal plays with a quiet fire, simmering along but never coming to a complete boil. His solo is the epitome of tasty, not overplaying, delivering individualistic and interesting lines. Guaraldi’s ensuing solo is another study in the simmer. Cal and Vince trade fours with the drummer and then bring things to a close. All in all, this track and the album as a whole is a great example of the better sounds that came from the West Coast during the 1950’s.
Curiously, although this is a live album (you do hear the band talking to each other here and there on this track and throughout the album), the engineer decided to fade out each tune instead of including the applause. With the virtually nonexistent audience and the almost studio-like acoustics of the club, is this really a live album? Speaking of that club…
The Blackhawk is (not was) my favorite jazz club. No, I’ve never been there. Yes, I missed it by 30 years. But that’s not important. For a good run in the 1950’s and early 60’s, it was arguably the most important jazz club west of the Mississippi River. Opened in 1949 and closed in 1963 on the corner of Turke and Hyde in San Francisco, the Blackhawk was where Dave Brubeck honed his craft, where Billie Holiday and Lester Young played their last West Coast club dates, and numerous jazz groups made sure to appear during their stay on The Coast. Countless albums were recorded in the acoustically-blessed club, including Miles Davis, Shelly Manne (who made a whopping five albums from one of his engagements), Thelonious Monk, and Ahmad Jamal. The club’s more mainstream claim to fame is that it was the site where Johnny Mathis first sang and grabbed people’s attention. The owners famously kept the little club as dark and dank as possible, stating that ” “I’ve worked and slaved to keep this place a sewer.” The cramped quarters didn’t deter people, and in the 1950’s the club put in a special area in the corner of the club for patrons below drinking age, barricaded from everyone else by chicken wire. Truly innovative they were. In the mid-50’s up until the literal end of the club’s run, Cal Tjader was almost headquartered at the Blackhawk and appeared there frequently and for extended engagements. Fantasy recorded hours of material during his many appearances there and devoted quite a few albums completely to this material. I say completely, because Fantasy liked to grab material from different dates and sources and stick them onto an album, and they did this frequently with Tjader’s live material from the club. I’d sure love to hear some of those complete sets…As if these pictures weren’t retro enough for you, dig those parking prices on the far right. 50 cents for 4 hours?! Unbelievable. Based off of the cars and the days mentioned on the marquee, this and the other exterior shot could’ve been taken during Tjader’s 1957 appearance that made up this record. Another piece of trivia. Is the club’s name one word or two? It’s appeared in print, album liner notes, and books both as ‘Black Hawk’ and ‘Blackhawk’. Fantasy has naturally helped confuse things. On this album, Ralph Gleason’s liner notes, as does the album’s title, say ‘Blackhawk’. In 1959, Fantasy released another Tjader album recorded live at the Blackhawk, and the liner notes were pretty contradicting. The title had it spelled one word; the main section of the liner notes, written by a mysterious ‘B. Rose’, had it spelled in two words. Further down, though, in a blurb about the club, it’s back to one word. Confusing yet? Well, in 1961, Fantasy released yet another album recorded at the same spot. Ralph Gleason is back in the writer’s chair, and apparently he was sick and tired of the confusion, too:
The Black Hawk… is two words; Black and Hawk. This has caused a lot of trouble with the Mayor, because the sign outside the club, its advertisements, the table tents and other stationery all give different style. Some say Black Hawk, some say Blackhawk. We are hereby permanentizing (sic) it as Black Hawk, two words.
What a reversal from his own original usage of the one-word spelling. I suppose a lot can happen in four years. This should be the end of the story, right? Nope. In 1996, in a book on Dave Brubeck entitled ‘It’s About Time’, Fred Hall tells about how his usage of ‘Blackhawk’ in his manuscript was hotly contested among historians and writers, one going as far to show him a picture of the old marquee (there was a space and a martini glass between ‘Black’ and ‘Hawk’). He then gives what apparently is the gospel truth:
The conflict was resolved in talking with the club’s original owners. Both John Noga… and Guido Cacianti… laughed, laughed some more, and then said, “It was one word!” How about the sign in front of the club? “Who knows?” said Noga; “It doesn’t make any difference. It’s one word.” And Cacianti commented, “The guy who made the sign goofed. That’s just the way he made it.”
Kind of makes you wonder who the ‘we’ is that Gleason authoritatively throws around. Surely not the original owners. Then again, the owners were close friends and business partners with the Fantasy Records people… . Anyhow, that’s the Blackhawk for you. Bet you didn’t think you’d get a history lesson on semantics, did you?
Don Draper would approve. It’s simple, but significant. The picture tells you everything you need to know. It’s four men making music, and Cal Tjader must be the guy holding the mallets. It’s aesthetically pleasing, the colors are nice, and in the racially-charged year of 1957, it’s nice to see Eugene Wright standing side by side with the rest of the guys. Seeing Vince Guaraldi, at the end on the left, minus his signature mustache is pretty wild (you can find a picture of him with his famous ‘stache here). The cover itself is in great condition, made with the glossy laminate popular in the 1950’s.
The late Ralph Gleason was a frequent denizen of Fantasy album’s liner notes, particularly of Tjader’s and Guaraldi’s albums. Bucking tradition, the liner notes for this album are surprisingly complete, including not only the tracks and their timings, but personnel AND a date with the location! I haven’t seen any other Fantasy album with information this complete. That red ‘1961’ stamp indicates that this is a later pressing, but still an original pressing. It’s always cool when an album still has its original inner sleeve and any other original items inside, and this record had both- a sleeve with full-color advertising and a catalog insert. The fact that Fantasy’s entire record catalog fits on a single small piece of paper is telling of how young the record company was in 1961.Looking at the roster and the quantity of albums, you get the impression that Fantasy was Brubeck’s and Tjader’s, and they just let others use the studio.
An original mono pressing on red translucent plastic, with a late deep groove. Fantasy made deep-groove records up through 1965 and probably later. The lighter hued and lighter in weight red plastic album showed up around 1958; older Fantasy 12-inch records were pressed on thicker, heavier red plastic with a deeper hue. Fantasy albums pressed on colorful plastic tend to sound pretty good, and this album is no exception. It was listed as NM, but about 20 seconds into the first track there’s a quick skip that’s almost unnoticable unless you know what to listen for. It breaks my heart each time, but other than that, the record sounds great. More like a VG+ great. There’s a little bit of surface noise throughout the record, as you can hear in the track above, but then again, it’s vinyl. That’s part of the experience.
The Place of Acquisition
Normally, eBay is a pleasant experience. Other times, it’s disappointing. This time, it was pretty disappointing. I found this record listed for under $15, which was a miracle since this record normally goes for over $20 without shipping. It was listed as New Mint, which I couldn’t believe, and excitedly hit the ‘Buy Now’ option. Two weeks later, as I said above, my heart was wrenched out by that skip. The ocasional crackles added insult to injury. New Mint. Nope. “Why didn’t you return it?” Well, for $12.50, I figured I had it at a bargain. I am a college student after all. I figured I could hold onto it until I found a better copy. Plus, I liked the vintage album catalog insert and original inner sleeve, and the cover is in great condition. When you’re poor, you learn to put up with more. But I’m not a pushover. I sent an album back before. It was a hassle, but it was worth it when I found the same album in better condition at the local record store for a better price.
Wow. A lengthy post, but a fun one. Happy record hunting!