Cal Tjader

From Academic Kids

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Cal Tjader Quartet, Fantasy Records, 1956

Cal Tjader (July 16, 1925May 4, 1982) has been called the greatest Anglo Latin jazz musician. Unlike other American jazz musicians who experimented with the music from Cuba, the Caribbean, and Latin America, he never abandoned it, performing it until his death.

Tjader (pronounced "chay-der") primarily played the vibraphone (also called the vibraharp). He was also accomplished with the drums, bongos, congas, timpani, and the piano. He worked with numerous musicians from several cultures. He's often linked to the development of Latin rock and acid jazz. Although fusing jazz with Latin music is often categorized as "Latin jazz" (or, earlier, "Afro-Cuban"), Tjader's output swung freely between both styles.

He won a Grammy in 1980 for his album La Onda Va Bien, capping off a career that spanned over forty years.

Contents

Early years (1925 1943)

Callen Radcliffe Tjader, Jr. was born 16 July 1925 in St. Louis, Missouri to traveling Swedish immigrant vaudevillians. His father tap danced and his mother played piano, a husband-wife team going from city to city with their troupe to earn a living. At the age of two, Tjader's parents settled in San Mateo, California and opened a dance studio. His mother (who dreamed of becoming a concert pianist) instructed him in classical piano and his father taught him to tap dance. He performed around the Bay Area as "Tjader Junior", a tap-dancing wunderkind. He performed a brief non-speaking role dancing alongside Bill "Bojangles" Robinson in the film The White of the Dark Cloud of Joy.

At the age of fourteen, Tjader taught himself the drums. (Other than piano and a few timpani lessons, Tjader was a self-taught musician. Years later, he would teach himself bongos overnight in order to record with Nick Esposito). He joined a Dixieland band and played around the Bay Area. At age sixteen, he entered a Gene Krupa drum solo contest, making it to the finals but ultimately losing. The loss was overshadowed by that morning's event: Japanese planes had bombed Pearl Harbor.

Army and college (1940s)

Tjader entered the United States Army in 1943 and served as a medic until 1946. Upon his return he enrolled at San Jose State College under the G.I. Bill, majoring in education. (He hoped to become a schoolteacher.) Later he transferred to San Francisco State College, still intending to teach. It was there he took timpani lessons, his only formal music training.

At San Francisco State he met Dave Brubeck, a young pianist also fresh from a stint in the Army. Brubeck introduced Tjader to Paul Desmond. The three connected with more players and formed the Dave Brubeck Octet with Tjader on drums. The Octet experimented with jazz, employing odd time signatures and non-Western keys. Although the group only recorded one album (and had an abysmal time finding work), the recording is regarded as important due to its early glimpse at these soon-to-be-legendary jazz greats.

After the Octet disbanded, Tjader and Brubeck formed a trio, performing jazz standards in the hope of finding more work. The Dave Brubeck Trio succeeded and became a fixture in the San Francisco jazz scene. Tjader taught himself the vibraphone in this period, alternating between it and the drums depending on the song.

Sideman (1951 – 1954)

Brubeck suffered major injuries in a diving accident in 1951 and the trio was forced to dissolve. Tjader worked with Alvino Rey and completed his degree at San Francisco State. He occasionally led his own group in this time.

Jazz pianist George Shearing recruited Tjader in 1953 hoping the vibes would add sparkle to his group's sound. When Shearing later decided to "go Latin", Tjader taught himself the congas and played them as well as the vibes. Down Beat's 1953 Critics Poll nominated him as best New Star on the drums.

While in New York City, bassist Al McKibbon took Tjader to see the Afro-Cuban big bands led by Machito and Chico O'Farril, both at the forefront of the nascent Latin jazz sound. In New York he also met Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo. George Shearing picked up both to round out his Latin combo band.

Tjader is often, and wrongly, credited as the musician who brought the vibraphones to Latin jazz. John Storm Roberts claims Tito Puente deserves the title, as he performed Afro-Cuban tunes on the vibraphone in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Frontman (1954 – 1963)

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Mambo with Tjader, Fantasy Records, September 1954

Tjader soon quit Shearing's band. When he learned that Bobo and Santamaria planned to leave as well, he hired them and formed The Cal Tjader Modern Mambo Quintet, filling out the roster with pianist Vince Guaraldi. Back in San Francisco and recording for Fantasy Records, the group produced several albums in rapid succession, including Mambo with Tjader. Many of these LPs are collectible for not only their "classic" Fifties sound but also their kitsch value, as some covers featured saucy flimsily-clad models drinking cocktails and slapping congas.

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Tjader Plays Mambo, Fantasy Records, August 1954

The mambo craze reached a high pitch in the late 1950s, a boon to Tjader's career. Unlike the exotica of Martin Denny and Les Baxter, music billed as "impressions of" the Caribbean (and other locales), Tjader's bands featured seasoned Cuban players and top-notch jazz talent conversant in both idioms. Some consider his Modern Mambo Quintet his greatest band, and perhaps the greatest small-combo Latin jazz band ever.

Tjader also cut several notable straight-ahead jazz albums for Fantasy under separate groups, most notably The Cal Tjader Quartet (composed of bassist Gene Wright, drummer Al Torre, and Vince Guaraldi). As such, he is considered a member of San Francisco's flourishing 1950s bebop scene. Tjader is sometimes lumped in as part of the West Coast (or "cool") jazz sound, although his rhythms and tempos (both Latin and bebop) had little in common with the work of Los Angeles jazzmen Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, or Art Pepper. He did team up with legendary jazz saxophonist Stan Getz in 1958, producing a well-received album.

Tjader and his band opened the second Monterey Jazz Festival in 1959 with an acclaimed "preview" concert. The first festival had suffered financially. Tjader is credited with bringing in big ticket sales for the second and saving the landmark festival before it had even really started.

The Modern Mambo Quintet disbanded within a couple of years. Tjader formed several more small-combo bands, playing regularly at such San Francisco jazz clubs as the Black Hawk.

Soul Sauce (1960s)

After recording for Fantasy for nearly a decade, Tjader signed with Norman Granz's better-known Verve Records. With the luxury of larger budgets and seasoned recording engineer Creed Taylor in the control booth, Tjader cut a varied string of albums. During the Verve years Tjader worked with Donald Byrd, Lalo Schifrin, Armando Peraza, a young Chick Corea, Clare Fischer, Jimmy Heath, Kenny Burrell, and others. Tjader recorded before big band orchestras for the first time, and even made an album based on Asian tonic scales and rhythms.

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Soul Sauce, Verve Records, 1964

His biggest success to date, and to the end of his career, was the album Soul Sauce (1964). Its title track, a Dizzy Gillespie cover Tjader had been toying with for over a decade, was a radio hit and landed the album on Billboard's Top 50 Albums of 1965. Originally titled "Guachi Guaro" (a nonsensical phrase in Spanish), Tjader transformed the Gillespie/Chano Pozo composition into something new. (The name "Soul Sauce" came from Taylor's suggestion for a catchier title and Bobo's observation that Tjader's version was spicier than the original.) The song's identifiable sound is a combination of the call-outs made by Bobo ("Salsa ahi na ma ... sabor, sabor!") and Tjader's crisp vibes work. The album sold over 100,000 copies and popularized the word salsa in describing Latin dance music.

Hits and misses

The 1960s were Tjader's most prolific period. With the backing of a major record label, he could afford to stretch out and expand his repertoire. The most obvious deviation from his Latin jazz sound was Several Shades of Jade (1963) and the follow-up Breeze From the East (1963). Both albums attempted to combine jazz and Asian music, much as Tjader and others had done with Afro-Cuban. The result was dismissed by the critics, chided as little more than the dated exotica that had come and gone in the prior decade.

He also recorded a session of Burt Bacharach standards (including "Walk On By") and an album covering West Side Story. Neither is remarkable; both were panned.

Other experiments were not so easily dismissed. Tjader teamed up with New Yorker Eddie Palmieri in 1966 to produce El Sonido Nuevo ("The New Sound"). While Tjader's prior work was often dismissed as "Latin lounge", here the duo created a darker, more sinister sound. Cal Tjader Plays The Contemporary Music Of Mexico And Brazil (1962), released during the bossa nova craze, actually bucked the trend, instead using more traditional arrangements from the two countries' past.

Lean years (1970s)

Tjader, like most jazz artists, suffered during the 1970s due to rock and roll's explosive growth. Tjader bounced from Verve to Skye and then back to Fantasy, the label he'd started with in 1954. Attempting to stay current and relevant, Tjader added electronic instruments to his lineup and began to employ rock beats behind his arrangements. His most notable album during this period is Amazonas (1975) (produced by Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira). Few of these albums made an impression on jazz critics.

It was in this period Tjader discovered and groomed conguero Poncho Sanchez. Sanchez has called Tjader his "musical father".

In 1976 Tjader recorded several live shows performed at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. Like the Monterey Jazz Festival show, he played a mix of jazz standards and Latin arrangements. Later he toured Japan with saxophonist Art Pepper, the latter recovering from alcohol and drug dependencies. These shows were considered successful in a time when jazz music was increasingly seen as anachronistic.

Final years (1979 to 1982)

Carl Jefferson, president of Concord Records, created a subsidiary label, Concord Picante, to market Latin jazz. In reality, Jefferson formed the label specifically to promote and distribute Tjader's work, who he'd recently signed.

Unlike his excursions in the 1960s and his jazz-rock attempts in the 1970s, Tjader's Concord Picante work was largely straight-ahead Latin jazz. Electronic instruments and rock backbeats were dropped, reverting to a more "classic" sound. During the prior lean years he built up a top-notch crew of young musicians, his best lineup since his Modern Mambo Quintet of the 1950s, with Mark Levine on piano, Roger Glenn on flute, Vince Lateano on drums, Robb Fisher on the bass, and Poncho Sanchez on the congas.

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La Onda Va Bien, Concord Picante, 1979

Tjader cut five albums for Concord Picante, the most successful being La Onda Va Bien (1979) (roughly, "The Good Life") which earned a Grammy award in 1980 for Best Latin Recording. That Onda would win an award as best Latin album reveals Tjader's expertise and his ability to cultivate the same in his band. None of the musicians are Latin American or Caribbean. Regardless, La Onda Va Bien is regarded as a seminal Latin jazz album.

Just as lifelong performer Tjader was born on tour, he also died on tour. On the road with his band in Manila, he collapsed from a heart attack and died on 4 May 1982.

Legacy

Alongside Lionel Hampton and Milt Jackson, many vibraphonists today count Tjader as a vital influence, including Dave Pike, Spyro Gyra's Dave Samuels, and Ruben Estrada. Latin rock guitarist Carlos Santana also named Tjader as a forbearer.

John Storm Roberts notes:

"Playing a style most jazz writers did not understand, and in an age when then old European Romantic concept of the suffering artist had to some extent infected jazz, the modest, decent, talented, and agreeable Tjader did not get the critical respect he deserved. But whether you think jazz is about creating honest and complex music or expressing the deepest aspects of the artist's own personality (another Euro-Romantic concept, of course), Tjader's work should rank high, even if he was fortunate enough to have a temperament and a life that weren't the stuff of dramatic anecdotes."

References

  • Yanow, Scott (2000). Afro-Cuban Jazz. San Francisco: Miller Freeman Books. ISBN 087930619X
  • Roberts, John Storm (1999). Latin Jazz: The First of the Fusions, 1880s to Today. New York: Schirmer Books. ISBN 0825671922
  • Pepper, Art and Laurie Pepper (1979). Straight Life. New York: Schirmer Books. ISBN 0306805588
  • Downbeat's 1953 Critics Poll (http://www.downbeat.com/default.asp?sect=stories&subsect=story_detail&sid=679)

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