S. Duncan Reid

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S. Duncan Reid has written a meticulously researched and detailed account of the performances and recording career of Bay Area-born and small group Latin-jazz innovator and vibraphonist Cal Tjader. Tjader’s high-energy yet lyrical and melodic playing introduced new demographics of jazz listeners to the soulful sound of Latin jazz for four decades beginning in the 1940s and ending with Tjader’s untimely death at the age of 56 in 1982.

In Cal Tjader: The Life and Recordings of the Man Who Revolutionized Latin Jazz (McFarland, 2013), Reid details Tjader’s uncanny ability to soak up ever-evolving stylistic and percussive nuances – and discusses his collaborations with and influences on other Latin jazz innovators such as Mongo Santamaria, Willie Bobo, Poncho Sanchez, Vince Guaraldi, Michael Wolff and many, many more.

Reid recounts how Mario Bauza, Machito, Tito Puente, Dizzy Gillespie, and Stan Kenton, among others, had influenced the Latin jazz scene in the 1940s with their exciting big band/orchestral sound – and that the majority of influential jazz critics were “west of the Mississippi.”

One of the delights in Reid’s book is to see how Tjader, with his  San Francisco Bay Area roots and a European family background, nonetheless was attracted to and became an innovator in the small-group Latin jazz scene.

Cal Tjader was literally born to rhythm.  His father, of Swedish descent, was a talented vaudevillian.  His Idaho-born mother played classical piano.  Tjader’s parents opened a popular dance studio in San Mateo, California in the late 1920s.  Tjader was already tap dancing in front of audiences by the age of 4 and as a child even danced with tap dance legend Bill “Bojangles” Robinson on a Hollywood set in the early 1930s.   Forsaking tap dancing in high school, Tjader picked up drums and within three years won a Gene Krupa drum contest playing “Drum Boogie.”  News of his success, however, was “overshadowed” by another news event –the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

After serving in the South Pacific in WWII, Tjader returned to the San Francisco Bay area, attended San Francisco State College and soon began collaborating with other West Coast jazz musicians – most notably Dave Brubeck (Tjader started out as a drummer for Brubeck in the late 1940s and subsequently the vibes),  and sax player Paul Desmond.   It wasn’t long, however, before Tjader became enamored of the infectious and complex percussive permutations in Afro-Cuban rhythms after meeting Cuban percussionist Armando Peraza in San Francisco early in 1950.   Reid also writes that Tjader’s collaborations/recordings with classically trained jazz pianist George Shearing were central to Tjader’s own evolution in the small-group Latin sound.  Shearing called Tjader a “percussive genius.”

Tjader always had a lyrical quality to his playing – he left space and was always looking for new compositional challenges, and it wasn’t long before Tjader became a fixture in the small-group Latin jazz scene in San Francisco, playing gigs at the most famous San Francisco clubs of the day – notably The Blackhawk, The Great American Music Hall, and the El Matador.

Tjader is probably most associated with his catchy cover of the Gillespie/Pozo hit Guarachi Guaro on his Grammy-nominated album Soul Sauce in 1964.  Tjader later won a Grammy for his album La Onda Va Bien, recorded in 1979.

Reid is upfront about Tjader’s problems with alcohol and challenging family dynamics but doesn’t psychologize – he lets his interviewees do the talking.   Tjader was a progressive political thinker who often performed for liberal causes including anti-war concerts to protest U.S. military involvement in Vietnam as well as benefits for Cesar Chavez and in support of the farm workers’ union.  Like his contemporary Dave Brubeck, Tjader was highly sensitive to racial and ethnic discrimination against their musical colleagues:

Armando Peraza, cited by Reid in Latin Beat Magazine has said: “We got discriminated [against] a lot, but guys like Shearing and Cal Tjader saw beyond color, recognized our value and talent.  Their philosophy was ‘music is music.’”

Included in Reid’s biography is a comprehensive discography and musical glossary compiled by Michael Weil as well as interviews with Tjader’s daughter, Elizabeth, and son, Robert.

Reid’s book fills a gap in the history of Latin jazz and leaves a soulful legacy of “good vibes” about a jazz great and a good man, too.   Tjader was highly popular with college audiences, recorded and toured relentlessly, influenced countless younger musicians and sidemen, and was instrumental in establishing a highly listenable small-group Latin jazz sound.

Reid’s eight years of research and writing have resulted in a labor of love that honors Cal Tjader’s peripatetic penchant for ever-new percussive and musical possibilities and his heretofore often underappreciated influence in the world of Latin Jazz. 

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