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Vibist Cal Tjader

Profile: Cal Tjader: West Side Story

by J.J. Rassler

It's quite the paradox to think that it took an Elvis to wake the world to a forging of black R&B, white gospel, and Country/Western to formulate rock and roll. And for the British to give it back to us 10 years later. Or the Cuban farmers who greatly influenced Hawaiian guitar playing. Or the African slave of centuries past who blended their rhythms with the Spanish settlers in the Caribbean to create rhythms which became Salsa. No less interesting is the input of a Swedish American college student, on the prominence of the Latin Jazz scene in the 1950's.

Born on July 16, 1925 in St. Louis, Missouri, Callen Radcliffe Tjader Jr. got his musical break while studying at San Francisco State in the late '40's. He played drums on recordings for Dave Brubeck's trio and octet. He soon switched modes and instruments to play vibes for George Shearing, and, in 1954 formed the first of many (of his) mambo bands. Some critics wrote off the sound as neo-cocktail or loungey, not too far removed from Xavier Cugat. But although the first recordings may have had their share of standard tunes, there was enough strong material in the band's repertoire to convert any audience.

In selecting players, Tjader was holding no punches. From Pérez Prado's and Tito Puente's orchestras he enlisted Mongo Santamaría. From Slim Gaillard's band he took Armando Peraza. To complete the percussion section he hired Willie Bobo from East Harlem. Al McKibbon, one time Chano Pozo cohort in the Dizzy Gillespe Band and then with Shearing, was enlisted on bass. Lonnie Hewitt filled the keyboard slot. This particular combination survived several incarnations, and one such gave us the classic album Ritmo Caliente (on Fantasy).

In Vernon Boggs book Salsiology, Johnny Colón vividly recalls his reaction to first hearing this line-up. "Jesus, what the hell is this. This stuff moves ya". Colón wasn't alone in his observations. Although the critical acclaim for the first album may have been lukewarm, it ignited a fire that was to burn Tjader's mambo sales for Fantasy throughout the '50's. He produced an amazing 20 LP's in that decade alone. This high volume saturation could have severely damaged the career of another artist, but his success continued on Fantasy through the '50's, on Verve through the '60's, and later back to Fantasy and Concord in the '80's.

Always on the line between Latin and straight ahead Jazz, it would not have been difficult for Tjader to fall between the cracks and never find real direction. But there was, he felt, a need for both styles and for maintaining an integrity in both. In retrospect we can see that one style fueled the other to form a well rounded career. Much thought was given to the individual projects he pursued. His jazz outings were just that, and his Latin affairs were as pure and authentic as one might expect from any Latin jazz band leader.

As a musician Tjader was well respected. Vibes are an easy instrument to overplay, what with frills and crescendos that could climax and cascade into oblivion. But Cal's approach was seemingly that of a horn player, using sparse lines and keeping in mind that most often it's what you don't play that makes a point. This enabled him to utilize his always stellar rhythm section to their fullest, giving credence to the feeling that that Cal's interest was sincerely in the presentation of Latin music as a musical form rather than a backdrop for a particular mood. His LP Demasiado Caliente, which features some of his original line-up, showcases the great charanga sounds of flautist José Lozardo, and several tracks include the great Eddie Cano and his big band. Another foray into bigger sounds was his collaboration with Clare Fischer on a project of tunes from West Side Story.

The 1960's provided him with his career hit. The Dizzy Gillespe tune, "Guachi Guara" was revamped and renamed "Soul Sauce" and smashed into the charts with hurricane ferocity. As was typical, the mega-talent that filtered through his band was always changing and individual careers were launched. But his fans never strayed. His passion for Latin music was insatiable. His late '60's recordings with Eddie Palmieri, such as Bamboleate, demonstrate the growth of the musicians as well as the music itself.

Even into the 1970's and his forays into Brazilian rhythms and a go at Latin rock, he never lost track of what he loved most. His 1974 release of Primo teamed him up with Charlie Palmieri and Tito Puente. Up until his death in 1982 Cal Tjader remained true to his art. His influence on others has been tremendous and the careers of many artists including Bobby Paunetto, Poncho Sanchez and Louie Ramirez have been influenced by the contributions of this Swedish/American jazz cat from the West Coast.

Cal Tjader owed his career to the Latin rhythms he loved. But his debt was balanced by his abundant contributions and ceaseless support of Latin music and it's gifted musicians.

J.J. Rassler

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