“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.”