Thursday, October 18, 2007
Jazz in Carmel is going to the dogs. And that’s a good thing.
Last weekend, the pooch-friendly Cypress Inn marked the second anniversary of a music schedule that has featured veteran jazz pianist Dick Whittington three nights a week, Thursday through Saturday. Hosted by this stellar improviser, who has injected a bracing jolt of bebop into the local scene, the inn is a mellow, undiscovered gem of a hang in what feels like a cozy, beautifully-appointed living room off its bustling lobby.
Widely esteemed by his peers, Whittington is regularly joined by top-shelf players from near and far. He draws the cream of the local scene, regularly playing with flute master Kenny Stahl and, when he’s in town, the brilliant bassist Ray Drummond. Musicians from the San Francisco area regularly make the drive down, like fiery alto saxophonist Andrew Speight and bassist Robb Fisher. And fellow keyboard wizards have been known to sit in, such as Monty Alexander and Benny Green, who studied with Whittington as a teen.
“It’s real informal,” says Whittington, a Big Sur denizen who was a pillar of the Bay Area jazz scene for more than three decades before he and his wife relocated to the Monterey area in 1996. “We just call tunes, and if somebody suggests a tune we know, we’ll give it a shot. There’s an unusual free-flowing affair of dogs, hotel guests, diners, cocktailers and serious listeners. Dogs can go almost everywhere in the hotel, and sometimes they bark during ballads.”
For this Thursday’s gig, Whittington will be accompanied by redoubtable Robb Fisher, best known as a long-time member of Cal Tjader’s great Latin jazz band. On Friday, ace guitarist Bruce Forman, another Bay Area transplant, serves as his improvisational foil. And on Saturday, Whittington joins forces with Monterey brass expert Hart Smith, who was a member of Toshiko Akiyoshi’s magnificent jazz orchestra for more than a decade.
“I hold Dick in very high esteem,” says Smith, who grew up in Monterey and returned to the area in 1994 after a thriving career in Los Angeles and New York City. “He’s one of the real bebop pianists I was looking to play with when I moved back. In this area, he’s the man.”
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Whittington has always kept impressive company. While still in college in the mid-1950s, he landed a regular gig at the Lighthouse when the Hermosa Beach club was an essential showcase for the burgeoning Southland jazz scene. By the end of the year, his band featured a future hall of fame, including saxophonist Charles Lloyd, trumpeter Don Cherry, drummer Billy Higgins and either bassist Scott LaFaro or Charlie Haden, all of whom went on to become some of the 1960’s most influential players.
The pianist grew tremendously from sharing the bandstand with leading innovators, but it was Sonny Criss, a blazing altoist who remained something of a cult figure throughout his career, who really took Whittington under his wing. “An alto saxophonist friend of mine studied with Sonny, and we’d go down to the sessions in South Central to hear him play,” Whittington recalls. “That’s where I got to hear the great pianists Sonny Clark, Carl Perkins and Hampton Hawes. Criss always let us sit in for a couple of tunes. A few years later he hired me and I worked with him off and on for a year. He taught me a lot about people and life and leading a band.”
Whittington gained more wisdom accompanying Ernestine Anderson and Dinah Washington, a gig he took over from Joe Zawinul. He earned his jazz post-doc degree in the early 1960s when he spent a year working with tenor sax titan Dexter Gordon in a rhythm section with bassist Leroy Vinnegar and drummer Lawrence Marable.
“These guys were my heroes,” Whittington says. “I felt so honored to be able to play with them. To this day, every time I listen to Dexter I learn something. He’s a big influence on me, the way he phrases, and how he plays so laid back and melodic.”
The gig with Gordon changed his life off the bandstand too. After several trips up to San Francisco to play at the Jazz Workshop, Whittington decided to stay in the Bay Area, where he started making important contributions on several fronts. As an educator, he and trumpeter Phil Hardymon helped found the Berkeley public school system’s innovative music program, which has produced several generations of brilliant improvisers, including Peter Apfelbaum, Rodney Franklin, Steven Bernstein, Jessica Jones, Joshua Redman and Benny Green.
He and his wife Marilyn also turned a cozy studio in a gorgeous Berkeley Hills house designed by famed architect Charles Maybeck into one of the region’s best-loved venues, the Maybeck Recital Hall, where Concord Records produced an acclaimed series of solo piano albums by keyboard royalty such as Hank Jones, Kenny Barron, Jessica Williams and Mike Wofford. While he never released a Maybeck session himself, he did record a beautiful 1992 album, The Dick Whittington Trio In New York, that captures his exquisite touch, rhythmic fluency and deep understanding of the advanced harmonic vocabulary of Bill Evans.
DICK WHITTINGTON performs Thursdays-Saturdays, 6:30-10pm at the Cypress Inn, Lincoln and Seventh, Carmel. No cover. 624-3871 or cypress-inn.com. Dogs are welcome.