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November 4, 2010

My Midlife Jazz Crisis – The Monterey Stage

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I just finished listening to Brubeck’s Time Out and was once again reminded what a truly brilliant album it is and considering it was originally released in 1959, it remarkably still sounds as fresh as ever. It was shortly after being exposed to this great work that I fell in love with the music. There was something about the sound, the depth and the variety that just spoke to me and I knew at that point that I wanted to do something in jazz.

My father was a drummer and since we had a set of drums at home, I started to play. I learned to play just by listening and copying what I heard. I seemed to have a natural ability and in no time was playing to the many jazz albums in our collection. (We probably had an equal amount of pop albums, but that wasn’t nearly as interesting.) For me, it wasn’t just a hobby, it was more of a calling. By 13, it became clear that I was on a mission to become a great jazz drummer.

As I entered high school, I immediately joined the concert band and by sophomore year in 1978, I became the drummer in our jazz band. It was there that I met trumpeter Phil Grenadier, and then later, his brothers Steve and Larry, along with pianist Thom Daniels. We bonded instantly as we all shared the jazz bug. We formed a combo and set our sights on becoming the best jazz quintet in California which meant playing at the Monterey Jazz Festival. In those days, Monterey was the Super Bowl of high school jazz competitions so we rehearsed and listened to music during every waking hour of high school…summer breaks included. Needless to say we were a bunch of jazz geeks but we knew it would take a lot of dedication to reach our goal. How many high school kids do you know who formed their own Bebop Club?

Mills High Jazz Quintet

Our formidable opponent throughout this period was Berkeley High School who churned out great players year after year. They had a pianist named Benny Green who was blowing everyone away. They had the spotlight at every high school jazz competition in the state and we consistently remained in their shadow. Talk about frustrating! But we never gave up and continued to practice and finally in 1981, our last year as a high school combo, we got our moment in the sun. We beat Benny and Berkeley High which earned us that coveted spot to play at the 24th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival.

We played our set at the festival on September 20, 1981 on the main stage in front of an enthusiastic crowd and it was surreal. Even though it was all we ever talked about, I don’t think we ever imagined actually getting there. Playing Monterey as a high school senior was something I’ll never forget. We never sounded better and I would go as far as to say it was weirdly spiritual. Though it was validating on a certain level, it was also bittersweet because it marked the end of our era. It was the end of our combo as we knew it and the end of our musical brotherhood. But for me, it was just the beginning. That experience changed my life and only further intensified my interest in pursuing a career in jazz.

Our performance was broadcast live on KJAZ and KKGO. Here is the middle tune of our set as introduced by Phil Grenadier. The Mills High Jazz Quintet: Phil Grenadier (trumpet/flugelhorn), Steve Grenadier (guitar), Thom Daniels (piano), Larry Grenadier (bass), Joseph Vella (drums).



And with all of this talk of Monterey I must revisit one of my all-time favorite albums created on that very stage in 1966 – Charles Lloyd: Forest Flower Live At Monterey.

Stay tuned…more to come… JV

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