The drummer wears a puffy red cap over his dreadlocks, and dangling behind his head from a nail in the wall of the garage is a squashed red, yellow, and blue Sesame Street ball, so that Big Bird seems to be peering forward with interest as the drummer hits his sticks together three times and the music begins again: a reggae rhythm imposed on a funky tune because they are working on the bass line and only four of the musicians are here. The garage door is open and it is raining. Late rush-hour traffic hisses up and down Catalina Boulevard. That evening the Padres are scheduled to play the Mets and the game gets called because of the rain — the first time a Padres home game rained out in 15 years.
The two car garage seems a parody of a cluttered garage — bikes, suitcases, car seats, beach paraphernalia, gold clubs, vacuum cleaners, chairs, file cabinets, broken tennis rackets, an old washer, dryer, and refrigerator, boxes, tricycles, hot water heater, and the music stuff — speakers, monitors, amplifiers, keyboards, drums. The cars are parked helter-skelter in the driveway and along the curb. Rain drips from the double overhead doors and collects in pools on the concrete floor.
The drummer has a moon-shaped cat face, a ragged beard, and his eyes are narrowed to slits. His name is Leon Wesley. At 40, he’s been playing funk for 25 years. His drumming has the fluid grace of a swimmer, as if all his movements were joined into one elegant stroke, a calculated series of repetitions that seem all of a piece. Even at his fastest, he never seems to hurry. The guitar player, David Harris, is very different. Blond, ponytailed, ascetic, and 36, his breakneck fingering shows his roots in acid rock and the music of Eric Clapton. He stands tall and motionless as his fingers blur across the strings. He has a benign smile. When not playing music, he’s teaching 8th-grade math at Rincon Middle School in Escondido. Seated on a bar stool is the singer, Belinda Elias, 38, who also writes a lot of the lyrics. Trim and pretty, she can do Motown numbers like a fourth member of the Supremes, gliding through three octaves like Otis the elevator.
The man playing electric bass is Glen Fisher and it’s his garage, his house, and his band, although three members still haven’t arrived. Glen started playing the bass at 11 and he has been playing 22 ½ years. Tall and handsome with mussed short dark hair, he looks younger that he actually is, almost boyish. He’s brash and self-confident with dark eyes and a long straight nose. He dresses like a golfer and looks like an infielder. He is always moving and has the hyper intensity of a second baseman. His electric bass is made of light-colored wood, and under the strings is inlaid a chocolate-colored fish standing on its tail. Leaning against the refrigerator beside him is a stand-up or acoustic bass that he uses on his jazz gigs.
Glen tells me, “I do three or four rehearsals a week with different groups. My friends that are musicians laugh. They say, ‘You’re always rehearsing, man. You make 50 bucks a night and you’re rehearsing every week.’ But for me the joy is to grow a band. You’re able to hold your head up high if you’re better every week. You try to do something that you couldn’t do before. Then when musicians walk in they realize this is some polished shit and you put some work into it. We’re not reaping the financial rewards so we might as well get the most out of it that way.”
As for me and why I’m standing in a damp garage getting my eardrums fired, my path to this place began in the mid-1950s standing outside the Metropole, a jazz bar in midtown Manhattan listening to a jazz band with Cozy Cole on the drums. There was jazz at the Metropole all day, and there was always a crowd outside. I was 15 and the music took hold of my gut and hasn’t let go yet. In 1941, the year of my birth, there were 350 jazz bands traveling around the United States. Even into the 1960s a small band could book into a club for two weeks and play three to four sets a night. Now if a musician wants to play that often, he or she has to be adaptable.
Glen Fisher plays in at least five bands a week, and this is far from unusual. He plays in a funk band that is rehearsing in this garage; Planet Grove. He also leads a jazz band, Glen Fisher Con Alma, that puts an overlay of Latin onto straight-ahead or mainstream jazz. He plays in a Brazilian band, Sambrasil, in an acid jazz band, Kubikai, led by the saxophonist Harold Todd; and he plays in his brother Mark’s rock-and-roll band, Fish and the Seawards. And in the week last May that I was trailing him around, he also did a jazz gig with the trumpet player Bruce Cameron, another with the blues band Cream of Soul and he was part of a trio backing up the singer Coral Thuet.
Glen does freelance gigs at bars and clubs on the spur of the moment when another bassist can’t make it. He plays at weddings, corporate parties, groundbreaking ceremonies, and wakes. He played with Con Alma on the stage of the Republican National Convention and for six or seven private parties at the convention, including a party for the secret service agents. “They were the most fun,” he says, “because they were the least stiff. Everyone else at the convention was really stiff.”
“I’m unique,” Glen tells me. “I’m not bragging or anything, I can just play all these different styles. They’re lots of great musicians out there who won’t play because the money’s bad. They’ve got the ability, but they’ve let themselves get stagnant. “
I ask him to define funk. He says, “It’s what happens when a drum backbeat is accompanied by a lot of syncopation in music. Brazilian and Latin use syncopation but without the backbeat. Funk’s got a James Brown groove, Stevie Wonder, those guys…”
But it’s jazz to which Glen Fisher feels the closest. “There’s more interest in jazz everywhere in the country, but San Diego’s a little slow in that regard. We give up so much careerwise to live here, but it’s nice to live here. San Diego has an abundance of world class-musicians, but we don’t have an audience. People lean toward outdoor activities and water sports and things of that nature as opposed to seeing a concert in an intimate situation and really listening, you know? Going out in San Diego is more of a social thing and it involves a lot of talking and socializing. I’ve seen a correlation between thriving jazz scenes and cold weather, drastic climates, seasonal places. If people want to go out and it’s cold, then they have to go in someplace, like a jazz club. Whereas here you can go for a walk at any time or go to the beach. Latin countries have thriving music scenes, but it’s much more dance to straight-ahead jazz. For me it’s important that people feel like dancing. I’ve been most successful in putting a Latin beat to the jazz and calling it Latin jazz, and it seems to work best as far as keeping a club full. I love to sneak my jazz on them and they think its music they like, with that Latin beat, you know. Then when you throw out a straight-ahead jazz tune, it’s a different color and they’ll sit through it.”
Now the keyboard player, Mark Bentley, wanders into the garage. He’s 33, stocky with a dark ponytail and a small beard, a sad, serious face that breaks into abrupt smiles. He also sings—a raspy baritone that brings to mind the lead singer in Blood, Sweat, and Tears. The other musicians are still working on the bass line of the reggae-funk tune, doing it again, then stopping and talking about it.
“Take it from breakdown” says Glen.
“Are we keeping the rasta groove or going back into the other groove?” asks David.
“We put some kind of chord changes in it before, but it was different.” Glen tries to remember what they had done.
“That’s why you should tape it, man,” says Leon. He has a red jacket to match his red cap and he sits behind his drums like a red Buddha. The rain gets heavier and splatters off the parked cars. Leon hits his sticks together and they begin again. Belinda begins to sing. Her tone is like the tone you get when you run your finger around the rim of a wine glass. “Reggae music is the message of love. It’s something you must feel…”
Glen started playing acoustic and electric bass with the school orchestra at Richard Henry Dana Junior High—“which has since closed and they sold all the instruments”—then at Point Loma High. He is one of four brothers, and their parents started all four off in music. The father, Fred Fisher, worked as a physicist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography studying underwater acoustics. The mother, Julie Fisher, was a mathematician who taught at a number of local colleges and served a term on the San Diego Board of Education. At the age of 15 Glen was taken to a concert given by Count Basic and his Orchestra. “I saw Count Basic and I was hooked,” says Glen. “That’s quality musicianship when you can go plink on one single note before an audience of 15,000 and steal the show. That’s called the lethal use of a note.”
Glen began to play in a jazz ensemble in high school and began to study with Bertram Turetzky — “the world’s greatest bass player” — who teaches at the University of California, San Diego. Glen then attended UCSD for three years, working with Turetzky for a total of six. At 21 he entered the Vienna Academy of Music, studying classical bass but also playing jazz. He stayed in Europe for four years “gigging around Europe,” touring with Brazilian bands and learning Portuguese. “You can’t be with ten guys and not learn the language.” Glen met his wife, Judith, in Vienna and they have two children.
I ask him to tell me about the bass.
“The bass is the bass of the harmony. It’s the lowest note in the chord. Its functions are rhythmic and melodic—rhythmic like a drum and melodic like on the piano and everything else. It looks like an overgrown cello. The acoustic bass is one of the hardest instruments physically to play because of the tension strings. It’s the same as the violin, there’s no frets, those ridges across the fingerboard, so you have to memorize where the notes are. But the violin has very tiny strings and it’s hard to push down the strings, which creates physical problems with the instrument, especially getting it in tune and stuff like that. I would say that to play a stand-up bass you have to go through about ten years of sounding like hell before you can get it to work. I can definitely do a lot more with a stand-up bass as far as subtle inflections on the notes, bending the notes, sliding the note, making vibrato on a note. Because of the lack of frets you have a lot of freedom as to how you want to make the note sound. The acoustic is much more majestic, that’s for sure, much more noble.”
“An electric bass is an electric guitar with bass strings on it. It’s much easier to play an electric. With the electric bass you hit the note in that spot and that’s how it sounds. You have some control but not the kind you have on an acoustic. When I’m playing jazz, I want to play acoustic. When I’m playing funk I usually want to play electric. Playing the blues can go either way. Playing the Latin stuff, it’s fun to play the acoustic, but on Brazilin stuff, it’s fun to play electric. Notewise, both instruments are tuned the same way. However, nothing sounds like wood, and an acoustic bass is wood, that’s what you’re hearing, whereas with an electric bass you’re hearing the magnet pick-ups on metal strings. The acoustic can be more haunting. It can be more mysterious than an electric, but there can be great electric bass and bad acoustic bass, the colors are definitely different. In an electric bass you hear all the overtones so each note has a fatter, kind of fuller sound because of the way it’s amplified is more efficient, but that can be good or bad. The acoustic bass has a more hollow sound. It’s not quite as full, although it’s very rich.”
“The bass — and I don’t want to let this secret out — but the bass when used properly can control everything without anybody knowing it. They’re what we call chord substitutions in jazz, so that instead of a C you have an F-sharp. I can create that in the bass by changing the C note to an F-sharp note, thereby changing the whole color of the chord, but it’s still right, so to speak. You can change the whole color of everything by changing your bass note or holding one bass note. Just the fact that there are no frets means you can play with every note, can control every note, put subtle twists on every note, slide in, slide out, vibrato. My teacher Bert Turetzky called it ‘this noble but misunderstood instrument.’ He was the greatest. Like, he taught me how to use dissonance to create tension and then resolve it to make everybody happy,” he laughs.
A van pulls up out on the street and a man jumps out of the passenger side with a small black instrument case. He runs toward the garage holding his music over his head so as not to get wet. The van drives off as a young girl waves from the window. The newest arrival is the sixth member of Planet Groove, Steve Ebner, 40, and he greets the others as he takes a trumpet from its case. He has a mustache and European good looks. Soon he’s playing quick bursts in the chorus of the reggae-funk tune. What had sounded ragged an hour earlier is getting smoother as the disparate noises come together into one sound.
An elderly gray Datsun 280Z sports car parks in front of the house next door and the last member of Planet Groove hurries through the rain to the garage, this is Hollis Gentry III, certainly the best-known member of the group. Hollis sees that he has left his lights on and hurries back to his car. He is 43, tall, thin, and I’ve never seen him wear anything but black — except for the dark brown fedora that he seems to wear everywhere. Hollis greets the others and begins putting together his tenor saxophone. He calls Glen “Fish.” It turns out that there’s no more beer. Hollis can’t imagine rehearsing without beer so he and Fish run back into the rain to make a beer run.
Hollis’s father was a career navy man who got Hollis playing the saxophone when he was seven. “He was passionate about music,” Hollis tells me, “an always wanted to play the saxophone himself, though he never did, but he used to get on the piano and play this boogie-woogie thing that would crack us up every time. He’d try to sing. One thing he did do. My nickname is Chipper, so he’d go, ‘Chipper come here’ and he’d put on some jazz, you know, like Johnny Hodges, Jimmy Smith, or Cannonball Adderley. He’d say ‘Check this out, this is real music.’ I was more into some of the things that were happening at the time — Parliament Funkadelic, Tower of Power—but I listened to what he had to say and what he wanted me to hear, and who he knew, that became my favorite music. As I came to appreciate what was going on in those jazz albums, then the more I wanted to be the kind of musician and the more I found myself going to his collection and pulling things out, a lot of which I still have.”
Under his father’s guidance Hollis started playing semiprofessionally around San Diego at 13, and at 17 he was performing regularly and touring with Barry White’s 30-piece Love Unlimited Orchestra. Early on, Hollis was drawn to the music of James Brown and rhythm, and blues, but then Bronze Larson, who taught saxophone at Mabel E. O’Farrell High School , took him under his wing and began to teach him how to improvise. In 1969 Larson took that school stage band to Southwestern Community College for a competition and they won the event, “They gave out two outstanding soloist awards,” Hollis tells me, “One went to a college player and the other went to me, and that might have been the hook that got me into jazz.”
Hollis attended UCSD, also working with Bertram Turetzky, who directed his thesis, and he continued to win awards for his playing. He received his BA in performance, primarily in flute and piccolo, his favorite composers being Igor Stravinsky and Gustav Mahler. Then he got an MA at UCSD in composition, theory, and technology of music. “I’d love to write a symphony,” he says. “I haven’t quite got to that big orchestra commitment yet but that’s what I look forward to.”
Since then he has played with bands ranging from David Benoit, Fattburger, the Benny Hollman Big Band, Mel Torme, Nancy Wilson, Freddie Hubbard, and the San Diego Sympathy, making the first appearance of a jazz musician with the symphony. He played briefly in the early 70’s with Cannonball Adderley, who recorded him and encouraged him, showing Hollis Charlie Parker’s saxophone given to Adderley by Parker’s mother after his funeral. “It was a C-Melody that Bird had left at home. It makes an awful sound.” But for Hollis it was the second hook tying him to jazz.
“I started on alto saxophone, but now I feel more comfortable on the tenor and the soprano. It was my original instrument, but the more instruments you can master in the wood wind family, then the more opportunity you have to play. My ambition as a saxophone player is to record a lot of the music that I’ve written. The saxophone is a sensual instrument. It was originally designed to bridge the gap between the brass and the string instruments. It can be riveting and played in a machine-gun-like way and get your back up against the wall or it can be very smooth. I love playing ballads. I was really affected by John Coltrane, as a lot of us were, that sheets of sound kind of thing—clarity, there were no accidents. It’s the sound of personal urgency. The saxophone is a good vehicle for wherever you are emotionally—whether it be, lush or violent or just happy.”
Glen and Hollis bring back a 12-pack of Budweiser. The beer rips through the paper bag and falls to the concrete floor in front of the drums. “That’s how you deliver beer, man,” says Leon. “You just throw it on the floor. Want one? Psst! Right in your face!” He laughs.
They start up the reggae number again with Hollis and Steve adding horn embellishments. Everything goes well for several minutes, but then the horns come in at the wrong place and everything stops.
“We used to cut after four bars, second time, after the vocal. Is that right?” asks Steve. “So we’re coming in on the back-ups. We need a road map for this.”
Hollis makes marks with a pencil on his music. “Last time through then slash.”
The guitar player begins practicing speedy runs and the drummer joins in. Glen drinks his beer. Mark plays chords on the keyboard.
“Working with Planet Groove is being a team player,” Hollis tells me, “and keeping your ensemble skills together. Leon is probably the most important element in the band right now. He’s been around for years. Belinda is amazing, she’s petite and demur, but boy, can she belt it out.”
Steve is holding his trumpet under one arm and poking at the music with a pencil. “We went to this one, then we went to that one, then we went to this one again.”
“Slash and burn,” says Hollis, “slash and burn, then we go to the end.”
“One more time, man,” says Steve.
Leon hits his sticks together and they begin again, “Reggae music is the music of love…”
Over the next half hour they keep repeating the song, making mistakes, stopping and talking about it, starting again, then talking some more.
“I don’t know if that will be an effective solo area,” says Hollis.
‘You know how he is,” says Glen. “He’s got this much attention span, then he’s ready for the French fries.”
The rain lets up and then comes down heavy again.
“We need a little patter between the tunes,” says Hollis. “Just so Steve and I can get some blood back into the mouth. Otherwise we feel like putty face.”
“This is all we’re doing,” says Glen, strumming a bass chord, “just working out a shit-load of kinks.”
The next night I watch Planet Groove at Croce’s Top hat in the Gaslamp Quarter. The Top Hat is one of Croce’s two music venues, the other being the Jazz Bar next door. The Top Hat mostly features blues, though jazz musicians have played here as well. Glen Fisher plays at both: the Jazz Bar with Con Alma on Mondays, the Top Hat with Planet Groove on Wednesdays.
The seven members of Planet Groove are spread out on the stage under an old-fashioned theater marquee and in front of a brick wall with a larger monotone triptych showing a jazz band. Hollis Gentry III and Steve Ebner stand at stage left; David Harris and the keyboardist Mark Bentley are at the other end. Maybe 50 people are listening. Long-legged waitresses glide back and forth with drink orders. I feel something is wrong and realize it’s because the room isn’t smoky. I’ve grown up on smoky jazz bars and now that’s a thing of the past.
Belinda is singing the standard “You Got the Best of my Love,” swaying back and forth and doing some dance steps in front of the band. Dressed in slacks and a blouse, she is graceful and pretty. Is she hadn’t of told me she was 38, I would have guessed 25. Mark joins in on the vocals, and their two voices weave patterns in the air.
Most things in life move to dissolution and decay—the ultimate falling apart, a return to dust. Human endeavor tries to go the other way—taking pieces that wouldn’t seem to fit and making not a patchwork but a seamless whole. Here onstage the racket from Glen Fisher’s garage becomes transformed into one unbroken gesture of sound. Besides giving us something to which to tap out feet, doesn’t this encourage us? Bit by bit we’re slipping down the moral chute but as we go we can put together seamless aggregations that are not only complete but beautiful. We call it art.
Just as an elderly couple after years of marriage can come to resemble one another, so it seems that musicians come to resemble their instruments. Bulky and jacketed, Leon perched behind his drum set assumes the same sprawling shape; thin and ascetic. David Harris with his blond ponytail resembles the blond guitar on which he plays. Hollis Gentry sways and bends his long body as if attempting to duplicate the long curves of his tenor saxophone. I am struck by their differences: one woman, six men, four whites, three blacks, two stocky, three thin, two ponytails, two dreadlocks, three beards, four mustaches, one collegiate, one dressed in black, one wearing a Hawaiian shirt. I doubt the holding cage at the dog pound could show a greater variety.
Planet Groove has been together for two years. “A band’s got to stick together,” Glen Fisher tells me. “It takes two years to make your own sound and another to make it really good. It takes farsightedness. Then you have to weed out the bad apples—if someone doesn’t show up for rehearsals or keeps sending in substitutes. You have to do what it takes. Even guys who are great. If you can’t work with them, then you can’t use them. Ego ruins a band. As for the bar scene, we’re basically in the business of selling drinks. I don’t mean that in a cynical way.”
The ambition is to do a CD that might get picked up and be noticed, rather than to be noticed at a small venue. A venue like Croce’s is practice working toward the CD; the garage is practice working toward the venue. All these players are trying one thing after another—different bands, different styles, different combinations—trying to break out into the world is where the glory is, or where it seems to be, where their work, their downtime, and their ambitions come together.
In the last set, the band again tries the reggae funk number that they had practiced in the garage. Belinda begins to sing. “Reggae music is something you must feel..” For a minute all goes well, Then Hollis starts playing the sax in the space reserved for the guitar solo. The other members of the band groan and Hollis stops playing. He scratches his beard and smiles beatifically.
For many musicians is San Diego, the two venues at Croce’s have a terrible reputation. The bands are paid $50 a night during the week and the cover at the door is $5. Tonight with Planet Groove the take at the door has to be at least $500.
“Among musicians, playing at Croce’s is called working on the plantation,” Jack Wheaton tells me. Wheaton has been president of the Musicians Association of San Diego County for the past three years. Before that he was administrative director of jazz studies at the University of Southern California. “The management at Croce’s won’t sit down and work out a collective bargaining arrangement with us. Ingrid Croce is very resistant, and I’m sure that her husband, Jim Croce, wouldn’t have approved of it. Our basic work is to keep musicians from being exploited. It’s dangerous for the players not to be working together. They can be replaced by machines. We’re not rigid. We realize some of these venues are very small. We can always come to an agreement.”
Dues in the union are $148 per year, and the union offers a job-related service, a rehearsal hall and practice studios, an emergency-relief fund, life insurance, group medical insurance, and other benefits. It has about 1000 members, but many of the younger musicians, especially rock-and-roll musicians, haven’t joined.
“The union can’t start demanding anything until they have something,” says Glen Fisher. “None of the bands that you see advertised in the Reader are union bands, and this is all the work in San Diego. The union is trying to live in the past and none of these musicians are involved in it. There’s not any rock-and-roll type thing in the unions. I’ve always thought that the way to attract these groups is to set up some sort of distribution system for their CD’s. If the union could distribute the CDs in San Diego through the stores, then every musician would want to join. Then you’ve got power. If the union did something like that, then a musician would have something to lose by not belonging. Right now we have nothing to lose. It doesn’t affect my career at all being in the union or not.
“Here’s what I see — there’s this club Croc’s that hires 14 bands a week, 2 bands a night. All the jazz purists and upper echelon jazz players think, ‘I’m not going to work for 50 bucks a night,’ which is what Croce’s pays on off nights. But it’s the only club that’s kept jazz going, that hasn’t folded. Every single other jazz venue has closed. Otherwise the kind of work you get is playing in a restaurant or a hotel lobby. A woman named Holly Hofmann is very active in getting jazz venues going, but she works with the best players in town. She plays the flute and she’s very, very good. She’s one of the ones that scoffs at me because I work at Croce’s, and she won’t hire me because of that. There’s no animosity there, it’s just a principle thing, and that’s cool. She has this rhythm section of these guys who’d played with all the heavy cats — Jim Plank and Bob Magnusson and Mike Wafford. Magnusson is definitely the best jazz bassist in San Diego. He’s consistent — he doesn’t play bad notes and he doesn’t get distracted. They’re the hottest guys in town. Holly’d get these venues going and then they’d close down. They wanted her to start paying the bands from how much money they were taking in at the door or off the bar or whatever and she said forget it. She’s hustling and trying as hard as she can and what she’s doing is scarping a gig, starting a venue, and then it’s closing, but she keeps trying, she’s working hard. It’s a struggle and she’s the best, you know.”
I call Holly Hofmann to see what she has to say.
“I try not to compromise my standards,” says Hofmann, who has played in San Diego for 12 years and tours regularly. The holder of two degrees in classical flute, she now concentrates on mainstream jazz and has brought out six CDs. “I work very hard at keeping a home-base gig in San Diego. I like to work here in order to put my stuff before a local audience. I make a point of getting union contracts and I’m on the union board. Unions nationally have a lot of problems, but those contracts for music gigs are always negotiable. The union has a contract-guarantee fund so if you get stiffed on a gig, then the union will pay you and pursue it with their own attorneys. The union has worked pretty hard to get a negotiator into Croce’s but without success. I wouldn’t play there. I tend to believe that if you lower your price, then that’s where you’ll stay monetarily. I’ve chosen not to lower my price, and I work as much or more than most of the players in town.”
Then I talk to Joe Kocherhans, who is music director of KSDS-FM, San Diego’s jazz station at City College. The station features local jazz musicians, plugs their CDs, and has had live concert with all the local players, including Glen Fisher, Hollis Gentry, and Holly Hofmann. The station runs a daily jazz calendar telling where local jazz bands are playing.
“Croce’s has been running for 11 years,” he tells me, “and no other jazz club has lasted that long. All in all there seem to be fewer jazz clubs than ten years ago. Most of the local jazz musicians have played at Croce’s even though they don’t pay much. But Croce’s Top Hat has had some national acts. The great trumpet player Maynard Ferguson played there some time ago. As for the best local players — the saxophonist Charles McPherson, James Moody, Joe Marillo; pianist Mike Wafford; Holly Hofmann and Bob Magnusson. Other bass players like Chris Conner and Glen Fisher. Fisher is a great player. He has all the technical skills to play the bass and he plays a variety of styles equally well. But I find most of our listeners who like mainstream jazz tend to be older, then there’s a break and there’re a bunch of young people who like very contemporary acid jazz and funk, but 1930s swing is becoming a big thing with the kids again, so go figure.”
If there’s a band in San Diego that is the very opposite of Fisher’s two bands — Planet Groove and Con Alma—it is probably the San Diego Concert Jazz Band, which in one form or another has been playing every Wednesday night for 25 years. Now it plays at Inn Suites Hotel on El Cajon Boulevard, where the great Harry James used to play trumpet back in the 1940s.
The band is presently codirected by two saxophone players, George Kezas and Barry Farrar Sr.
“We have what we call a kicks band,” Kezas tells me. “It’s not a commercial band. We’re incorporated as a nonprofit organization, and the money we make goes back into the band. This way we avoid union problems. We’re doing more on a big-band basis than we used to. We mostly do concerts, but we may do some dances at the hotel. There seems to be a revival on big-band swing music that’s kind of encouraging. I don’t think it’s dying down, it’s revitalizing itself.”
The Wednesday night I see the band. It’s 17 members are banging out jazz standards like “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Bye Bye Blackbird” for an audience of nearly 100. There’s a good alto player, Gordy Edgerton, who played for many years in pit bands in Las Vegas, and a good trumpet and valve trombone player, Mike Bogard, who tours with Maynard Ferguson. Half the members are professional musicians and a few play with the Navy Band. Three quarters of the audience is over 45 and the rest is under 25.
Traditional big band jazz has a way of ordering the daily cacophony and smothering out one’s spiritual and emotional entry into the next moment. It has a melancholy quality — it’s such an ephemeral link to lost time. Big-Band jazz is one of the only art forms free of irony and cynicism. There’s no rancor. Glen Fisher used to play with the Concert Jazz band before he got too busy.
“Fisher is exceptional in the way he moves back and forth between straight-ahead and Latin jazz,” Kezas tells me, “He’s a real good showman and he knows how to perform. He’s a good reader and he’s got a lot of versatility. He can play all kinds of music, and you don’t see that too much. Glen has created his own music, he really works it. He’s the kind of guy who wants to stay busy and plays where he can.”
I ask Kezas for a definition of straight-ahead jazz.
“It’s mainstream jazz and there’s no frills to it and no puffing it up, like when fusion came in with drum machines and computers and electronics. Straight-ahead is more bebop orientated and had its birth with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and was carried on with John Coltrane and Miles Davis. It has a strong beat, a strong pulse with a lot of room for improvisation.”
I ask Glen Fisher the same question.
“Straight-ahead jazz means a walking bass — chung, chung, chung. The term began to be used when different types of jazz started developing — it started getting avant-garde, and fusion jazz came in. Straight-ahead jazz was used to refer to more traditional jazz. It’s like Coke and Classic Coke. It just used to be Coke now it’s Classic Coke.”
On Friday night I watch Hollis Gentry play with the drummer Chuck McPherson Jr.’s band at the Juke Joint, a soul food restaurant at the bottom of fourth. It’s a big room in back with more than a hundred people eating and listening. Pipes and girders crisscross the high ceiling. There’s a yellow brick wall behind the stage with big black letters spelling Juke Joint. The bass player is Cecil McBee Jr. Both McBee’s and McPherson’s fathers are famous jazz musicians.
The band plays “Autumn Leaves” and Hollis takes a solo on the saxophone. Dressed in black and with his brown hat, he stands in the center of the stage with his tenor sax and his alto and soprano saxophones at his feet. He wears gold earrings in his left ear and a large gold ring on the right finger of his right hand. He exudes vast quantities of charm and dignity. As he waits to come in, he strokes his goatee and smiles slyly. His eyes crinkle at the edges and I think how his father had nicknamed him “Chipper.” When he begins to play, he slowly goes through the melody, it’s initial groupings of four notes, then begins to vary them. He rocks back and forth during the melody, then stiffens when he begins to improvise. HE stands with his feet close together, his elbows at his sides. Soon he has left the melody altogether and has picked up speed, quickly going up and down the register. He likes to add a little fillip of sound at the end of a progression, then he rocks back and stamps his foot. His playing is passionate and intellectual. He plays rapidly like Coltrane but with a softer attack and not as brassy. He constructs one pattern of sound after another with repetitions and runs, pushing at times to the very edge of tonality. The faster he plays the more he steps from foot to foot and occasionally stamps when he hits a high note. The saxophone makes semi-melodic screeches like fabric tearing as Hollis leans back on his heels. He comes back down the register with a flourish, doubling the notes. Slowing the tempo, he returns to the melody, then comes to a stop, spins his saxophone upside down, grins and bows his head. The audience applauds. Someone shouts, “Yeah!”
Later I ask Hollis about his improvising.
“Whatever I’m playing, I try to fit the idiom as much as I can. What seems to be happening lately is that I’m not consciously trying to merge things, but they do merge, and more and more I’m hearing my own harmonic development bring itself forward, but in my improvisation I’m following the harmonic changes of tune. Each tune has its own harmonic map and that’s where we begin and that’s what we try to stick to, so it becomes an embellishment of the tune itself. In most cases I’m not putting some wild thing over the music, you know. I’m following its harmonic map. That’s pretty much what jazz musicians are trained to do, much in the tradition of the classical masters—Bach, Beethoven, Mozart—that’s certainly what they did. They made a harmonic map and they improvised melodic lines over them, divided them up, gave them to the orchestra, and, even in the case of soloists back in those days, those musicians operated in the same way a jazz musician does. They had the harmonic map in front of them, and their solos were never written out, and when Mozart said, ‘You got it’ to the violin player, then she or he had to follow the harmonic map and make something up that melodically fit the music. We’ve lost that in classical training for the most part and that’s not good. I see my solos as a conversation or in some cases a dissertation, but you know, it’s about interaction with the guys you’re playing with and communicating to the people who are listening and trying to make some cohesive statement that goes somewhere and has something happening. Yeah, I do see it as kind of an arc that starts little and develops more and gets bigger and more passionate and ends up in a kind of a big scream like Yeah!” Hollis laughs his deep laugh. “I stamp a lot. In most cases that’s just my own affection to make sure I know where the hell I am. But sometimes when something comes off particularly well, yeah, it deserves a stamp.”
On Saturday night I go out to Loews Coronado Bay Resort to see Glen Fisher play with a group featuring the singer Coral Thuet, an ample and attractive blonde originally from Tijuana who sings jazz standards as well as Latin and Brazilian numbers. Mike Peed plays the piano with Kevin Koch on the drums. Koch is also drummer in what is at the moment San Diego’s most successful jazz band, Fattburger, a fusion band whose seven CDs have all reached Billboard magazine’s top ten. The group plays far more often on the East Coast then on the West, although as one of them told me, “We also did our time at Croce’s.”
It’s a huge room furnished with couches and soft chairs and a vast carpet, all light colors and pastels. There’s a bar at one end, and a great crystal chandelier hangs from the ceiling. Tall windows look out on a terrace where a dance is going on. Beyond the dancers is the bay and the lights of San Diego. Basically, it’s a lobby, and there is a constant stream of people coming and going.
Coral sings a Hoagy Carmichael tune. Her voice is very light and quickly touches the notes as a butterfly touches a flower. “I love her,” Holly Hofmann had told me. “She gets each note exactly right. She’s always in tune.”
Glen Fisher is playing the stand-up bass, rocking slightly back and forth with a slight smile and glancing around the room as he plays. He wears a blue gingham shirt and looks very collegiate. When he solos, he bends over the shoulder of the bass and seems to be engaged in a passionate discussion with his instrument. This is the third gig he has played today. He started at two o’clock doing a wake at a boatyard and now it is past ten, “But I’ve made $240,” he says with satisfaction.
The group has never played together before, yet their playing is faultless. The first set goes well, but then the dance comes to and end outside and couples drift into the lounge. Very few seem interested in the music. Groups push the couches together to form squares. There’s just one waitress and she’s moving faster and faster. It turns out that a couple by the name of Larry and Kimberly have just announced their engagement, and there is a loud celebration that drowns out the band. Coral wears a blissful smile while she sings, but it’s getting tighter at the edges.
During the next break, Glen tells me, “Do you see how we suffer for our art?” Then he laughs. He has a slightly abrasive laugh like a bow being dragged spasmodically across a bass string.
“Maybe they don’t know how to listen,” says Coral. “I didn’t even like jazz until I was 25. The first time I heard jazz I walked out. Hearing Billie Holiday sing changed all that. But this sort of disruption used to break my heart. People would be talking at the bar and no one would be listening. I’d think, here I am giving them my soul. Now I don’t let it touch me. I keep sort of a protective space around me and only sing to the people who are listening. Then at other times it’s wonderful and everyone is paying attention. You just have to wait for those times.”
“Yeah, we were really getting drowned out,” Glen tells me later, “but I would expect that at a place like Loews, so it doesn’t bother me. I don’t get mad. Some guys say, ‘Fuck these people, they don’t know how good this music we’re playing for them is.’ You’re in a situation where that’s your audience and you can’t be against them. I’m going to figure out something they’ll like. We’ll try different things. We’ll try to play a blues. There’s a lot to jazz, there’re a lot of different aspects to jazz that you can go to. My band Con Alma can play a Sinatra tune or we can play ‘Tequila.’ Whatever it takes. You got to grab the people, and I don’t feel bitter towards the people for that. I say, that’s what I’m here to do tonight, so let’s do it. When I get mad is when guys are dogging it. If you have guys in the group who are not upholding their trust, the trust that you have in them, that’s the most disappointing thing. I don’t scream on the bandstand, but I’ll fire a guy if he’s not trying. The audience reaction, that’s my goal every time. I’m not happy with a gig unless the people are blown away. They’re not telling you, ‘That was very nice,’ they’re saying, ‘Wow, man, I’ve never seen a band like this.’ That’s a successful gig. Humiliation, you can avoid that just by playing well, by trying. You can only do as good as you can do. As a bandleader, I feel humiliated when someone’s not trying, and maybe there’s somebody I want to impress out there, you know what I mean? And every time I have done that, like let somebody down, I remember every incident, every single time that I have done things really bad, I never forgot them. Every time somebody told me to turn it down or I was bad that night or I missed a gig or I was late or whatever—I remember those things. It helps you to learn.”
Monday night I see Glen Fisher with Con Alma at Croce’s Jazz Bar. The place is packed, and I think of the five dollars a head that the band is getting. Con Alma is very high powered with Hollis and Glen, Ray Briz on the piano, Caesar Lozano on the drums, and Russell Caldwell on the congas. They play by the front door and against a brick wall with mementos of Jim Croce — posters and photographs. People pause on the sidewalk on Fifth and look in. Sometimes they pay their five bucks and enter. In his white shirt and string tie, Larry the bartender jives behind the bar doing dace steps as he serves up drinks and hustles Con Alma CDs. It’s a long, dark, narrow room next to the restaurant, dominated by a mural on the back wall of Jim Croce with a cigar. The piano and drums move into hypnotic rhythmic repetitions as Caldwell works out his cholesterol on the congas. Hollis has put down his sax and is busy with the maracas. A guy at the bar keeps whistling. This is a song that began as “Over the Rainbow,” but at the moment Judy Garland’s tune has vanished. Glen is grinning. Although the music is far from rock-and-roll, it still has the rock-and-roll energy that he loves. He takes a swig of beer as he watches the conga player. Both he and Hollis have played in six different groups in the past week.
They do standards like “Night Train,” “Love for Sale,” and “Teach me Tonight,” imposing the Latin rhythm on top of the jazz. It’s a dance rhythm and it’s hard to sit still. A couple is dancing out on the sidewalk. Adding the Latin is like adding electricity. It makes the music more aggressive. It means you don’t have to listen so closely. A lot of club jazz, like any art, requires attention, it requires that you follow the interweaving of different instruments like following a road. But the mixture of the Congas and the drums, the percussive use of the piano pushes aside any subtlety. The music works on your adrenaline even if your at the back of the bar deep in discussion about your best friend’s divorce. It isn’t necessarily any better than straight-ahead jazz and many would agree the reverse, but there is no ignoring it.
The band begins the Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride” from the movie Help! The song is somewhat like Glen Fisher himself with his various backgrounds and ambitions — a rock-and-roll classic turned into jazz with an overlay of Latin rhythms. Glen takes a solo on the bass. He has different body movements on the stand-up bass and the electric bass. With the stand-up bass he is more physically involved; he’s not as cool. The instrument is like an extension of his body. When he’s playing with the rest of the band he often steps back and forth from foot to foot and bobs his head, but when he solos, his body becomes still except for his arms. As he leans over the bass’s shoulder and plucks the strings, he moves his mouth as if speaking to the notes. Sometimes he shuts his eyes, sometimes he focuses on something on the other side of the room and doesn’t blink. His smile becomes fixed, as if he were attempting to lift something heavy. By now he has left the tune behind and is deep into his improvisations, moving quickly up and down the register, sometimes holding a note or even slapping his side of the bass. I think of the calluses he must have on his fingers. His normal hypersensitivity, which usually keeps him moving in a dozen directions, is focused entirely on the four fat strings of his ungainly instrument.
“For me jazz is improvisation,” Glen Fisher tells me. “That’s what it’s all about, that’s the whole joy. I use it in everything I do, to be at the level where the music plays itself. And because it’s in you, it just comes out, you know, like when you’re writing and it’s just flowing off your pen. That’s what you’re looking for in jazz. I like to improvise in all music, and I like it when other guys do too, when they play like themselves. I always say you want to get a tune so well that you can make it your bitch, that you can do what you like with the song. You’re not worried about getting it right, you’re already rewriting it. That’s when you know a tune. When I improvise, I incorporate a lot of chords and play two strings at a time, which they call double-stops. I try to use the whole variety of things at my disposal—the bow, certain techniques, using harmonicas, using chords, pulling the strings off the fingerboard to get a rhythmic thing going. Sometimes I hit the side of the bass. They’re techniques that maybe not all the bass players are using, so I try to explore the whole aspect of it and, you know, tell my own story, which is not the way some other guy is going to tell a story. So I like to start slow and build the thing up and take it through the roof. Either you have a narrative ability or not. Can you tell a story? Can you make people empathize with you, do you have that gift? Making music is like telling a story. With the bass a lot of times you hit a note and you stop and let it sit there and it becomes dramatic that way, it leaves a little space. The bass has a deep rich tone, it feels good to hear. Babies don’t wake up when you practice the bass; they’ll wake up when you practice the violin or your trumpet. It’s a soothing sound, so if you know your shit, sometimes you can shut up a room. Then you start your story: Once upon a time there was this big fat bass that liked to swing.” He laughs his ragged laugh. “You get their attention that way.”
Because I’ve watched Glen practicing with his bands in the garage and because I’ve listened to them in clubs, I decide to check him out in the studio. Late Tuesday afternoon the seven members of Planet Groove meet at Proxy Music Studios near the corner of Convoy and Clairemont Mesa Boulevard. It’s a warren of second-floor windowless rooms with cheap paneling on the walls and a tangle of wiring underfoot. Planet Groove is beginning to put together their first CD, and the seven musicians cough up $25 each for the session. The sound engineer is Joe Marlett — a handsome guy in his mid-20s, with gold earrings, a wispy blond goatee and the patience of a saint. He sits in the control room before a huge console with hundreds of switches. Tape machines are to the left of him, ADAT machines to the right, and four speakers perch on top of the console in front of the plate glass window dividing him from the next room where five of the musicians are fussing with their instruments or adjusting their headphones. Leon is in a room by himself so his drums don’t bleed onto the other tracks. He is a distant blur through two layers of glass. Each musician has his or her own track on the tape so they can be worked on separately later. David Harris has brought his guitar into the control room behind the console so he can hear his playing. His amplifier is in a fourth room. He practices little semi-silent riffs—the noise being produced several rooms away.
Mark Bentley is doing some chords on his keyboard. Glen is playing riffs and joking about the need for beer and cheeseburgers. Hollis is tweedling on his saxophone. Steve plays bursts on his trumpet. Belinda is reading a dog-eared self-help paperback. They are all wearing headphones and these take endless adjustments. There are unexplained hums and volume problems.
“I got a lot of static,” says Leon.
“We got no horns in our headphones,” says Steve.
“Could I hear the vocals a little louder?” asks Belinda.
“Let’s go, baby,” says Glen.
Leon: “I got too many horns. It’s too loud!”
Hollis: “I’m not getting the trumpets. It’s totally out now.”
Joe: (trying to keep his cool)
“I need to set up a totally new mix on you guys.”
“I feel like I’m in a tunnel,” says Belinda.
“Sometimes,” says Hollis, “it feels like we are in another club across town over here.”
Something goes wrong and Joe starts flicking a lot of switches shutting everything off. He keeps pushing a hand through his spikey blond hair.
“Hey, we’re not paying for your mistakes,” says Glen, then he laughs.
“You’ve got to have a thick skin to work with this band,” says Hollis philosophically.
I ask the engineer what’s wrong.
“Sometimes it’s difficult for the ADAT machines to sync up and you have to turn them off and rest a while,” says Joe. Then he adds, “You have to have an even disposition.”
Ten minutes later everything seems ready and Glen says, “From the top baby.”
“Are you ready?” asks Joe, flicking some switches. “Tapes rolling…”
Leon clicks his drum sticks together three times and the bass and guitar come in. Belinda sings, “I got an old friend who meant the world to me and now he says he’s never seen me before.” She embellishes some of the notes in a way that reminds me of gospel music. “My old and very best friend, the blues…”
Mark does a blues solo on the piano and the guitar come in over him. The bass strobes along behind. Then the horns come in. This could be a new song or an old song, a jazz song or a blues song. Right now it’s getting an overlay of funk, but it could just as easily be Latin.
“I see every instrument in terms of color,” Fisher tells me, “every sound, just like a color changes, you know, or like a drummer works on a light; the band’s building up, you’re stirring the coals and they glow. You know how coals glow brighter and they get hotter? You blow on them and the color changes — the color of the drum, color of the bass. I totally see things like that. You’ve got a certain shade, then when your drummer brings it down low the color changes. Then you drive the color back up, maybe, and when the saxophone comes in it puts in a new splash of color. It’s improvising, doing things with intuition with other musicians. It’s very fun to improvise on a high level when the band’s been together a long time and there’s ESP going on. You’re playing a series of notes and you don’t know whose idea it was. You don’t know if his idea or your idea.”
The blues number gets done a second time and they move to other songs. They stop and start. They complain and laugh. The rough sections get smoothed out. Between songs, Hollis and Steve talk together passionately and mark up their music. Glen teases the engineer. Belinda reads her book. Then they start up again. There’s a hum and some wires are changed. They do another song. Later the tracks they are laying down will be gone over. Some will be done again. They will be mixed and remixed. Slowly, the clumsy sounds begun in Glen Fisher’s garage and smoothed out in dozens of club appearances will find their place on a CD that will be sent out into the world. Part jazz, part funk, part pop, part Latin, part rock-and-roll — such a mixture seems the music of the millennium as young musicians move from one form to another, combining and separating, seeking their path, the passion for playing taking precedence over what is played.
The music stops. “We’re just waiting for the drummer to take a piss,” says Glen.
George, the co-owner of the studio, offers to make a beer and burger run and money is collected. I decide to leave as well. I say good-bye to Joe and the seven musicians. Earlier I had told Fisher that I was a poet, which usually gets the same response as telling a person that you have an undescended left testicle.
“I’m glad you’re an artist,” says Glen. “It lets you feel out pain.” Then he laughs; it’s the jagged sound of a bow dragged jerkily across the strings of a stand-up bass.