(Blue) Notes from the Underground 

After years of scuffling, now is the time for jazz saxman Vince Wallace.

Hip things are happening at Cafe Van Kleef in downtown Oakland. The art gallery, bar, and performance space at 1621 Telegraph is breathing new life into the formerly deserted area with a breezy, bohemian point of view. Part of that approach is Van Kleef's regular Friday-night date with Bay Area tenor sax great Vince Wallace. A typical night earlier this month found Wallace on the high stage, improvising on "It Could Happen to You" with a demonstrably world-class cast of players. Warren Gale was blowing trumpet, Ron Crotty from the original Dave Brubeck Trio was on bass, Berkeley's Terry Rodrigues handled the piano, and the legendary Gene Stone from Los Angeles played trap drums.

The Oakland-bred Wallace has long been an underground jazz-jam fixture here and in Los Angeles. Though major success seems to have eluded him, he has always managed to play somewhere -- including on the sidewalk in front of the Tribune building -- just to survive as a jazz musician. He has fought his demons, but now, at 65 years old, he's at the top of his game -- strong, inventive, and swinging. "Things happen here, good and bad," he says when asked about Oakland being an unfriendly town. "There's a lot of good people here. There's always been a lot of great underground jazz happenings when we were jamming at people's houses, with cats like Robert Porter putting together great sessions."

Wallace grew up in the Fruitvale district in Oakland, and first ventured into Jimbo's Bop City in San Francisco at age fourteen. "Every night of the week there were world-famous cats hanging out from Basie's band, or Duke Ellington's band, or whoever was in town," he recalls. "I met Miles there, and Coltrane." He sat in at jam sessions everywhere, including such East Bay blues joints as Jimmy McCracklin's Savoy Club in North Richmond and Oakland's Palladium Club. In the 1960s, he would start at 9 p.m. at the Black Hawk in SF, then end up after hours at Jimbo's until 6 a.m. It was there he found his mentor Frank Haynes, who played tenor sax in Lionel Hampton's band. "He was the perfect synthesis of Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, and Harold Land," Wallace recalls. "He was from Ohio originally, but lived out here and played at Bop City. We used to talk about going and playing in New York. He finally did when he hooked up with Les McCann, but died six months later of lung cancer."

"Now's the Time," the Charlie Parker bebop blues, should be Wallace's anthem. Thanks to producer-entrepreneur Justin Scovil, he is getting a new lease on his career lately. There's an upcoming new album with Larry Vuckovich; a Web site, VinceWallace.com; the impromptu gigs in front of the Tribune building every Thursday at noon; Fridays at Van Kleef; and Sundays at Cafe SR71, 377 17th St., Oakland. It's a long way from his first gig as a teen playing for strippers at the Chi Chi Club in Hayward. "I'm doing better than I've ever done with music," he surmises. "In music you don't retire, you just die playing. Right now I'm running into a lot of young players that are coming onto the scene that are really good who are going back to the roots. The future is looking good."


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