Vibraphonist Cal Tjader was one of the first American jazz musicians to embrace Latin music

He played with notable percussionists Armando Peraza, Willie Bobo, and Mongo Santamaria early in his development. He covered Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo’s famed “Guarachi Guaro” in 1955 and made it his own in 1965 as “Soul Sauce.” Throughout his career, Cal Tjader would coat that salsa on everything he played.  

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Cal Tjader. Photo by Chuck Stewart.

Photo by Chuck Stewart.

 

On July 16, 1925, while on a vaudeville tour in St. Louis, Missouri, Victoria Tjader gave birth to a son named Callen Radcliffe Tjader Junior. Callen Junior was groomed from the beginning to be a success in the performing arts. But it was not as if he had any choice in the matter. Callen Sr. began training him to be a dancer shortly after his second birthday. During this period, the Tjaders moved from St. Louis to the Bay Area. “[My parents] had an act with the Duncan Sisters,” recalled Cal Tjader in 1966, “and they played the Orpheum circuit. I got into the act as a solo tap dancer when I was four.”1 Vaudeville, however, was gradually losing popularity to motion pictures, particularly after “talkies” became the standard of the industry in 1930. Callen Sr. and Vicki responded by opening a dance studio at their San Mateo home and one near Union Street in San Francisco’s prestigious Cow Hollow district.

 

Originally published as “Buenas Vibraciones” in Wax Poetics Issue 49

 

Hollywood soon took notice of the little tap-dancing marvel, nicknamed “Mr. Talent” by his parents. Cal appeared in several Paramount movies, including The White of the Dark Cloud of Joy (1932), with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and Too Many Parents (1936), with a twenty-two-year-old Frances Farmer. Nevertheless, it was music that would ultimately take center stage in the life of Callen Jr.

During his teenage years, Cal and his buddies would go across the San Francisco Bay to Sweet’s Ballroom in Oakland. On Sundays, they would listen to all the major swing bands of the era, including Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, and Artie Shaw. “I remember one of those Sundays in particular,” said Tjader, who was working as a drummer with a Dixieland combo at the time. “They had a Gene Krupa contest, which I won by playing ‘Drum Boogie.’ It was a big thrill for a [sixteen]-year-old, except that something else happened that same day that completely overshadowed the drum contest—the date was December 7, 1941,” Tjader recalled, referring to the attack on Pearl Harbor.2

 

 

Following a three-year stint in the Navy, Cal Tjader enrolled at San José State in the fall of 1946. “It was late in 1947 when I began playing vibes seriously,” he recalled. “I figured if I could double on vibes, like [Lionel Hampton], I was really going to prove something.” By 1948, Tjader had transferred to San Francisco State College. At some point during the year, he sat in with Hampton’s orchestra and was offered a job as second drummer. “As flattering as it was, I turned it down…. I was right in the middle of my education.”3

Cal had chosen campus life over life on the road, but he soon found a way to stay in the classroom and persue a career in music. His opportunity came during 1948; the San Francisco Jazz Workshop Ensemble was looking for a drummer. Pianist Dave Brubeck did not look upon himself as a conventional leader, but rather considered his group a cooperative. The majority of the band—specifically Brubeck, David Van Kriedt (tenor sax), William O. Smith (clarinet and baritone sax), Jack Weeks (bass), and Dick Collins (trumpet)—could compose and arrange, and each man would alternately conduct and rehearse their colleagues. Other members included altoist Paul Desmond and, by January 1949, trombonist Bob Collins, brother of Dick.

From its inception, the Brubeck cooperative rarely functioned as a working band and, by September of 1949, Dave decided to form a trio with Tjader and bassist Ron Crotty. After a few weeks at the Burma Lounge, a nondescript nightclub located on Lakeshore Avenue in Oakland, Cal decided to unveil another facet of his musicality. Dave Brubeck looks back on that moment: “[One day], Cal asked if he could bring his vibes. I said, ‘I didn’t know you played vibes.’ He said, ‘Well, I don’t play ’em very well. I’m just starting to play.’ The first night he played, he sounded like he had been playing all his life.”4

Cuban conguero Armando Peraza had just been dumped by guitarist Slim Gaillard and was fortunate enough to wind up at Ciro’s in downtown San Francisco. The club’s owner gave the twenty-five-year-old shelter and let him do small chores like sweeping up to earn his keep. Dave Brubeck recounts what happened next: “One night, the owner said to me, ‘This kid can really play bongos and conga drums. Would you let him sit in?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ Peraza broke the place up. That was Cal’s first exposure to [Cuban] music. Then he brought his bongos and learned a lot from Armando. He [picked it up] immediately. Cal started getting really interested in the Latin sound. He was one of the most natural musicians that I have ever known.”5 This event not only changed the course of Cal Tjader’s career but the history of Latin jazz as well.

The Dave Brubeck Trio was the first jazz group to take the stand at the Blackhawk, which eventually became known as the “Carnegie Hall of Jazz.” Critical acclaim from both Down Beat and Metronome magazines soon followed. Their arrangement of “Perfidia,” recorded in the fall of 1950, is among the earliest and least recognized examples of Cuban-influenced jazz in a small group setting. And the first such record by a trio.

 

Following his departure from Brubeck in May 1951, Cal Tjader formed a trio of his own with bassist Jack Weeks and pianist John Marabuto, who was replaced by Vince Guaraldi in the fall. “The Smart Crowd is at Mardi Gras: He’s Back!!! Cal Tjader and his Progressive Mambo Trio,” proclaimed an ad in the November 22, 1951, edition of the Oakland Tribune. Alternating on vibes, drum set, bongos, and cencerro (cowbell), Cal continued the work he had begun with Brubeck. His recordings for Galaxy, a subsidiary of the new San Francisco label Fantasy, were getting national attention from Down Beat and other major publications. The tracks, which include “Chopsticks Mambo” and “Vibra-Tharpe,” Tjader’s earliest originals, can currently be heard on the compilation CD Extremes. Then on January 16, 1953, Tjader accepted an offer to join the George Shearing Quintet. The New York group spent the majority of their time on the road over the next sixteen months, but they were in the midst of a gig one night at Birdland when bassist Al McKibbon encouraged Cal to take a little walk with him. “While on a half-hour break,” Cal recalled, “Al and I entered the Palladium Ballroom through its service entrance on Fifty-Third Street. The orchestras of Machito and Tito Puente were playing…and they flipped me. I was knocked flat when I saw how Puente utilized his vibes in Latin music.”6 Later, he told McKibbon, “I’ve got to go back to San Francisco and get a band like this.”7

The Cal Tjader Afro-Cubans, featuring pianist Manuel Duran, bassist Carlos Duran, timbalero/conguero Bayardo “Benny” Velarde, and vocalist/conguero Edgardo Rosales, made their debut in July of 1954 at Club Macumba on 453 Grant Avenue. With his trio, Cal had played bongos and cencerro on the Cuban numbers. Now he could not only play the timbales and congas, but the sounds coming from his vibes had a Cuban accent as well. The group’s popularity with local fans encouraged owner Rickey Triscell to book them for the remainder of the year.

While in the midst of this lengthy engagement, Tjader promptly set in motion the quintet’s first recordings on September 11 and 21. The sessions produced twenty-one tunes, which was enough for two LPs. Tjader Plays Mambo and Mambo with Tjader further demonstrated Cal’s burgeoning genius. The bulk of the material did not come from Tito Puente or Machito, as one might expect, but from the Great American Songbook. Tjader possessed a very rare facility for a jazz musician in the ’50s; he knew how to create a Cuban arrangement for songs such as “Yesterdays” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” His mellow approach and melodic invention might appear to be at odds with the hot Cuban rhythms, yet the blend is seamless. Moreover, his own compositions are standouts of the genre. “Mamblues” is a deft blend of mambo and jazz-blues that features Cal doubling on vibes and conga drum, and the lovely “Lucero” performed well on the charts in 1955. But the biggest hit from Cal Tjader’s Modern Mambo Quintet, as the group was now known, was the Cuban jazz tune “Guarachi Guaro,” written by Chano Pozo, Dizzy Gillespie, and Walter Fuller. Tjader would continue to play and evolve the song over the years, even recording it again almost a decade later.

 

Over the next year, the MMQ attracted large crowds in Chicago, Cleveland, New York, and all the West Coast cities. In fact, as the following story illustrates, Cal had established himself among the preeminent recording artists of the time. Promoter Gene Norman’s first “Modern Sounds Concert” took place on February 18, 1956, at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium. In addition to Cal Tjader, the bill featured the Miles Davis Quintet, the Modern Jazz Quartet, the Lighthouse All-Stars, and Shorty Rogers and His Giants. Conguero Luis Miranda, who had replaced Rosales the previous spring, vividly recalls what took place that night: “The stage had no curtain. So the audience could see the workers in the back setting up the instruments of the next group before they were announced. All the other [performers] went on ahead of us. Every musician got a nice applause when they were announced. Then [the master of ceremonies] said, ‘Now, ladies and gentlemen, the Cal Tjader Quintet!’ Everybody stood up and screamed. We got a standing ovation. Cal was shocked and said, ‘Oh, my God!’ When we were backstage, Miles Davis said, ‘What the fuck! Oh, shit!’ That pissed him off. He couldn’t believe it. Most of the people that came to this concert were there to see Cal Tjader. That place was packed with his fans. Miles was thinking that what we were doing was not important compared with the jazz he played. [The standing ovation] was something that everyone was talking about.”8

“The Latin thing worked well for us,” said Tjader over a year after reorganizing the Modern Mambo Quintet, “but there’s no law that says we have to stick to it. It takes time to evolve a sound of your own, but I think we have done so, and by now we have proved we can make it with straight jazz.”9 Pianist Vince Guaraldi, coming off a recent tour with Woody Herman, was back in the fold. The band was completed with bassist Eugene Wright—who had played for, among others, Count Basie, Buddy DeFranco, and Red Norvo—and drummer Al Torre, whose experience included a stint with the Virgil Gonsalves Sextet. This band did indeed make it with straight jazz, as evidenced by the success of two quartet LPs, Jazz at the Blackhawk and Cal Tjader, both taped early in 1957. Nonetheless, Tjader had not jettisoned the Cuban influence. Panamanian conguero Luis Kant was always on hand for two or three numbers at the end of each set. Moreover, Tjader and Kant taught Torre how to play the timbales and bongos, expanding the band’s Latin sound.

By the end of ’57, Cal Tjader had become the top-selling artist in a Fantasy catalog that carried such names as Dave Brubeck, Red Norvo, Art Pepper, and Earl Hines. The demand for his music became so great that there was nary a day without a booking for a nightclub, concert, television, or movie appearance.

Ramon “Mongo” Santamaria and William Correa, better known as Willie Bobo, made their first contact with Cal Tjader at the Macumba on August 10 and 11, 1955. As members of Tito Puente’s eleven-piece orchestra, they had participated in a battle of the bands with the Modern Mambo Quintet. More than two years later, on November 20, 1957, Santamaria and Bobo were hired by Cal Tjader for a recording session in New York. Shortly after being confronted by an angry Puente, the dynamic percussion duo visited Tjader at Birdland and let it be known that they were available. On April 1, 1958, Mongo and Willie made their debut with the Cal Tjader Quintet, which also featured Vince Guaraldi and Al McKibbon, at the Interlude in Los Angeles.

This ensemble went on to set the standard for small-group Latin jazz. Their packed schedule included a television appearance with composer/pianist Bobby Troup on NBC’s Stars of Jazz, a series of live shows for San Francisco public TV station KQED, two Bay Area concerts with Nat “King” Cole, and the first annual Monterey Jazz Festival. At well after midnight on Saturday, October 4, 1958, the majority of the Monterey audience, which had topped out at just under six thousand earlier in the evening, listened to the great improvisational ideas of featured guest clarinetist Buddy DeFranco, Guaraldi, and Tjader during extended versions of George Gershwin’s “Summertime” and Charlie Parker’s “Now’s the Time.” For the last part of the set, DeFranco departed and conguero Santamaria stepped up to join timbalero Bobo on “Cubano Chant” and Cal’s “Tumbao.” The excitement generated by both the jazz and Latin musicians had everyone clamoring for more. Fortunately, this concert is presented in its entirety on the 2008 release The Best of Cal Tjader: Live at the Monterey Jazz Festival 1958–1980. Additionally, two other classic live shows from late 1958, Cal Tjader’s Latin Concert and A Night at the Blackhawk—which showcases Cuban tenor saxman José “Chombo” Silva—were issued in 1958 and 1959, respectively.

 

Although the three-day Monterey Festival was an artistic success, the financial returns were disappointing; general manager Jimmy Lyons needed to generate more buzz for the next festival. He turned to his good friend Cal Tjader and organized an indoor “Jazz Festival Preview” concert for April 20, 1959, at the Sunset School Auditorium in nearby Carmel. This concert, which features reed man Paul Horn and marks the debut of Santamaria’s oft-covered “Afro Blue,” was taped by Fantasy and issued separately in 1959 and 1962 as Cal Tjader’s Concert by the Sea and Concert by the Sea, Vol. 2. These seminal LPs sum up the ’50s Tjader experience: a varied repertoire of cool swinging jazz, expressive ballads, and a Cuban influence. The result is a truly unique sound that combines spiritual togetherness among artists immersed in their work with the highest level of musicianship. What many of those in attendance may not have realized was that they weren’t just witnessing the greatness of Cal Tjader’s band but the birth of the Monterey Jazz Festival. As the liner notes to the 1989 CD Monterey Concerts explains, “Then came this ‘preview’ concert by Tjader prior to the ’59 Festival; it was hugely successful, and another permanent jazz institution was launched!”10

While on tour in New York during the summer of 1961, Cal Tjader sent a letter to the San Francisco office of Fantasy’s Max Weiss. After entertaining offers from major labels such as Columbia and Reprise, he had decided to sign with Verve. Among his early Verve LPs are Cal Tjader Plays the Contemporary Music of Mexico and Brazil and Several Shades of Jade. The former was produced by Creed Taylor and arranged by pianist Clare Fischer, who had arranged for Dizzy Gillespie and would continue to work with Cal throughout the years. The album was recorded between March 5 and 7, 1962, in Hollywood, only three weeks after the much more celebrated Brazilian-influenced album Jazz Samba by Charlie Byrd and Stan Getz. Once again, Tjader was at the forefront of an important movement in jazz, as the bossa nova movement in America was just beginning to take hold. Then, at the suggestion of his new label, he went in a different direction. Jade is a Far and Middle Eastern–tinged big band album arranged and conducted by the brilliant Lalo Schifrin in New York City. It peaked at number seventy-nine on the Billboard pop chart in 1963 and remained in the Top 100 for fourteen weeks. But Cal Tjader would climb higher still.

Soul Sauce, released in early 1965, would become Cal’s most popular album to date. Though Mongo Santamaria did not join Tjader on the album, his composition “Afro Blue” was a highlight. Arranged by a young Gary McFarland, the track features many jazz guest stars, including tenor saxman Jimmy Heath, guitarist Kenny Burrell, and trumpeter Donald Byrd. That session took place on November 19, 1964, at Rudy Van Gelder Studios in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. The following day at A&R Recording Studios in New York, the band—a top-tier working unit consisting of pianist Lonnie Hewitt, drummer John Rae, bassist Terry Hilliard, and conguero Armando Peraza, with additional percussion provided by Alberto Valdés—cut the remaining eight tracks. The standout single was a funky version of “Guarachi Guaro,” renamed “Soul Sauce (Guacha Guaro)” by producer Creed Taylor.

“The first set with Soul Sauce was all done in five hours,” recalls Hilliard. “From there, they brought in Willie Bobo, and [he played jawbone and did some vocals]. We spent hours talking about [things that we thought would be effective], and then we knocked it out. Most things were first cuts. There wasn’t a lot of fine-tuning. We got the feeling, and everybody was loving it.”11 Bobo’s vocal interjections (“Ay, que rico!,” “Sabor,” and “Salsa…salsa”) helped the title track achieve crossover success on the jazz, pop, and R&B charts. The single initially grabbed the public’s attention, but there is more than one delicious ingredient in this Sauce. Among them are the hypnotic “Leyte,” cowritten by Tjader and Hewitt, “Spring Is Here” (Rogers and Hart), which features Cal’s sublime ballad artistry, and “João” (Clare Fischer), a bossa nova tribute to singer, guitarist, and father of the style, João Gilberto. Soul Sauce, a 1965 Grammy nominee, peaked at fifty-two on the Billboard pop album chart, stayed in the Top 100 for twenty-two weeks, and sold over 150,000 copies. “[Our] band with Cal was so hot that every place we went, they treated us like royalty,” adds Hilliard. “I don’t remember any shows that we did that weren’t standing-room only.”12 Soul Sauce was not only the biggest hit of Tjader’s career but also the best selling Latin jazz LP of the 1960s.

In 1965, during a trip to New York City, Cal Tjader took in a concert by Eddie Palmieri. His band, La Perfecta, was famous for using a flute and four trombones instead of the more traditional trumpet section. After the show, Tjader approached Palmieri and suggested they record together. El Sonido Nuevo/The New Sound, taped at Rudy Van Gelder Studios from May 24 to 26, 1966, was given that title to commemorate their first collaboration. Cal was attracted to Eddie’s adventurous spirit, and the pianist’s torrid ten-piece ensemble brought out his avant-garde side. Palmieri, who cowrote three tunes with Tjader, set the tone for the Verve album. In fact, he even arranged “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” to sound like a mozambique, then a popular Cuban dance rhythm. But it was the head arrangement of Tito Puente’s “Picadillo” that critics singled out for the highest praise. The late music historian Max Salazar had this to say: “[Eddie Palmieri and Cal Tjader] recorded one of the most moving, most hair-raising descargas in the history of Latin jazz.”13 The follow-up LP, Bamboléate, was made later in the same year. Palmieri was inspired to write five of the set’s eight selections for his label, Tico. However, from the waltz-like jazz of  “Resemblance” to the Cuban jazz of “Mi Montuno” to Cal’s sole offering, the erotically charged “Samba Do Suenho,” one can best describe this masterpiece as “Tjaderesque.”

 

“Things that are necessarily important to the artists may not necessarily be important to the recording industry,” said Tjader near the end of his time with Verve.14 Seeking more freedom, he formed Skye Records in 1968 with Gary McFarland, guitarist Gabor Szabo, and business manager Norman Schwartz. The creative spirit was there, but the expenses soon outweighed the profits, and the label folded in less than three years. Cal then returned to Fantasy, now based in the East Bay and run by Saul Zaentz. The ’70s were marked by often-rewarding excursions into rock and pop material (Tjader and Agua Dulce), live records (Puttin’ It Together and The Grace Cathedral Concert) and collaborations with Charlie Byrd and Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira. After Zaentz did not renew his contract in the fall of 1977, Cal tried to revive his popularity with the horn-driven Direct to Disc LP Huracán (Crystal Clear). However, the revival wasn’t complete until he met Carl Jefferson.

Jefferson, head of the fledgling label Concord Records, created the subsidiary Concord Picante especially for Tjader. La Onda Va Bien, taped in July of 1979 but not released until well after the November 1 deadline, won the 1980 Grammy for Best Latin Recording. Tjader was in top form and had a superb sextet: Mark Levine (piano), Roger Glenn (flute), Robb Fisher (bass), Vince Lateano (drums), and Poncho Sanchez (congas). Tjader would finish up his career with Concord, releasing several more albums in the next two and a half years.

On May 5, 1982, Cal Tjader suffered a fatal heart attack while on tour in Manila. This tragedy is magnified when one learns that Cal was booked up to a year in advance before he arrived in the Philippines. During his lifetime, Cal Tjader received more than his share of criticism from writers such as Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler. Nevertheless, his legacy lies not just with those who have acknowledged his influence—including Dave Samuels, Carlos Santana, Ruben Estrada, Dave Pike, Manny Lopez, and Poncho Sanchez, whom Cal mentored—but anyone who plays Latin jazz in a small group setting. .

 

Duncan Reid is the author of the biography on Cal Tjader for McFarland; he currently lives on the West Coast.

 

Notes

1.Harvey Siders. “The Latinization of Cal Tjader: What’s a Nice Swedish Boy Like You Doing in a Bag Like This?” Down Beat, September 8, 1966, p. 21.
2.Quoted in Ibid, p. 22.
3.Quoted in Ibid, p. 22.
4.Telephone interview with author, February 20, 2005.
5.Ibid.
6.Max Salazar. “Cal Tjader: Tough to Follow.” Latin Times, November/December, 1976. p. 27.
7.Telephone interview with author, January 15, 2006.
8.“Cal Tjader (Biography).” Fantasy Press Book, 1958, p. 3.
9.Cal Tjader’s Monterey Concerts (Prestige PRCD-24026-2).
10.In person interview with author, January 30, 2005.
11.Ibid.
12.Herb Wong. Liner notes to Cal Tjader’s The Prophet (Verve V6-8769).
13.Salazar. “Cal Tjader: Tough to Follow.” Latin Times, November/December, 1976. p. 26.
14.Herb Wong. Liner notes to Cal Tjader’s The Prophet (Verve V6-8769).

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  1. Well done! I’ve always thought that Tjader’s work with Vince Guaraldi was a very central part of Guaraldi’s development as a leader. When Guaraldi landed the gig recording covers for the film “Black Orpheus” the samba influence of Tjader was front and central. That album spawned “Cast Your Fate To The Wind” and set Guaraldi’s career on an upward path that eclipsed Tjader when it picked up the Oscar and the Grammy and the attention of Peanuts producer Lee Mendelsohn.

    Tim Brosnan

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