Vince Guaraldi at the Hungry I

Historical Essay

Excerpted from "Vince Guaraldi at the Piano," by Derrick Bang; published in April 2012 by McFarland Press

The hungry i was just beginning its rise to national prominence in 1954, when Guaraldi was put on the payroll; he fronted a trio that included bassist Dean Reilly and guitarist Eddie Duran. No doubt disappointingly to Guaraldi, they were billed as the hungry i trio.

Vince and Faith.jpg

Singer Faith Winthrop became part of the regular bill a few months into the Guaraldi Trio’s run at the hungry i. Winthrop doesn’t recall ever visiting Guaraldi’s home, either to work or socialize. But she vividly remembers his manner at the piano: “His head used to almost bow down to the keys, when he’d play. And he had a funny way of turning his head up, to look at people”

Photographer not identified/courtesy Faith Winthrop

The piano-guitar-bass instrumentation was unusual but not unprecedented; Nat King Cole had employed the format back in 1937, and it also was used by Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson. Much more recently, Diana Krall fronted the same combo early in her career.

“Nat King Cole’s trio was the greatest inspiration for trios,” Duran explained. “Those cats could swing. They were the first group that introduced the public to a trio with no drums: just piano, bass and guitar. We didn’t miss the drums, as a trio, because we could swing without them.

“This made bass players, through the years, more conscious of keeping a steady tempo. They didn’t have to depend on the drums, to keep the pulse going; they could do it, and create the illusion that drums were there.

“And it was portable. You didn’t have to move drums around. We could go from one end of a room to the other, just by scooting the piano around.”

“That’s my favorite instrumentation,” Reilly agreed. “It’s flexible, melodic and rhythmic. We didn’t worry about ‘filling in’ for the missing drum. Everybody covered everybody to the point that it was really comfortable. I could drop out, and it still would be going on. We were always hearing drums in our minds: that little click on the off-beat.”

Duran had grown up listening to numerous guitarists, and his influences included Barney Kessel (“one of the fine be-bop jazz guitarists”) and Charlie Christian (“among the first to play the guitar as a solo voice, in Benny Goodman’s orchestra”). Duran and Guaraldi had become good friends since making the 1951 Fantasy demo with Tom Hart, and they frequently met at Duran’s “little apartment at the corner of Pacific and Hyde,” to jam and listen to records. For a time, Duran also served as Guaraldi’s amateur barber.

Reilly actually began as a trumpet player, then switched to bass while in college. Although he became quite well known as a bass player, he remained equally comfortable with the trumpet. His influences centered on “melodic players” such as Paul Desmond, Chet Baker, Zoot Sims and Sonny Rollins.

Reilly met Duran in the early 1950s ... by stalking him: “I saw a guy with a guitar case going into an apartment across the street, and I waited for him and introduced myself. And it went from there.”

Duran introduced Reilly to Guaraldi, and the friendship quickly blossomed to include all three young men. Their casual “garage band” sessions turned serious with the offer from Banducci in 1954.

“I was jamming with Eddie, and somehow Vince got word that we could have a job at the hungry i, so we got together for that purpose.”

The gig was all-consuming: six nights a week — Monday was dark — and somewhat unscheduled, because of the club’s intriguing layout and arrangement. “Name” acts — the Mort Sahls and Kingston Trios — were booked into the main showroom. This room was separate and enclosed, with ticketed, theater-style seating and waiters who circulated and took drink orders. Guaraldi’s trio played in the amusingly named “Other Room,” actually the rear portion of an extended foyer/lounge area that included the famously long bar. The Other Room also functioned as a gallery, where local painters would hang their works.

Singer Faith Winthrop, who joined the trio in early 1955, remembers the club’s geography quite well. “Coming off the street, you’d walk downstairs; somebody was selling tickets and taking money, next to a big wine barrel. After you paid, you could make a hard right turn, and be in a very small dining room; or you could make a soft right, and walk into the showroom; or you could walk straight ahead. If you went straight ahead, you could sit at the bar, or continue past the bar, and you’d be in the artwork room.

“We were in that big room beyond the bar, which was filled with paintings: Walter Keane, Pat (Pascal) Cucaro ... maybe four different artists at a time. Sometimes the artists would be there, talking to people and trying to sell their stuff. There was a grand piano and little tables for people who couldn’t get into the main show immediately. They could drink and still be entertained.”

The club quickly became a second home for Guaraldi, Duran and Reilly.

“We lived close by, but we drove separately,” Reilly said, describing a typical evening. “It was a lot easier to park in those days. We’d start playing at 9 P.M. and continue until 1 A.M. We were in the Other Room, which was where people lined up to go into the showroom. There were some bar stools, but people mostly stood in line, waiting for the show to begin; we played for their enjoyment, and to put them at ease.

“We were the frosting on the cake. We were on our own; we played what we felt like playing, when we felt like playing it. It was unbelievable, to be so loose. We’d call tunes among ourselves: standards, blues. We didn’t have arrangements at first; the arrangements — key changes, that kind of thing — grew out of tunes we’d repeat over time.”

Given the nature of this arrangement, interaction with the patrons was to be expected. “People did ask for requests,” Reilly said. “We’d do them if they were standards.”

And if they didn’t interfere with Guaraldi’s set list. Even here, during these early days, the pianist was developing the sense of a “planned show” that he would perfect in the years to come.

Working six nights a week might have been enough for some musicians, but Guaraldi was driven; he wanted to perfect his trio’s sound, and the three men rehearsed as much as they had time for. Sessions often ran three hours or more, with breaks to discuss music and other musicians, and play the newest records.

“We loved playing together,” Duran smiled. “That was the goal: to keep up your arrangement skills, and to put new material together.”

On occasion, they did step away from their instruments and socialize, like “regular” folks.

“I’d go to Vince’s house on our night off, sometimes, and watch TV,” Reilly recalled. “He had a TV, and I didn’t. We’d watch Sid Caesar or The Honeymooners. Vince was a big Jackie Gleason fan; he’d imitate his mannerisms.

“Vince was funny, and he had funny little sayings. One of them was, ‘You got it! I dunno what you’re gonna do with it, but you got it!’”

“Vince had a very subtle sense of humor,” agreed drummer Al Torre, soon to work with Guaraldi. “After we rehearsed a tune, he’d often say, ‘Well, that was tense and nervous!’ That was his favorite saying, instead of ‘cool and relaxed.’”

During this time, Guaraldi met and befriended a young entrepreneur named Frank Werber. After having flirted with occupations that ranged from commercial artist and gold miner to press photographer, Werber wound up in San Francisco in the 1950s; he impressed Banducci and was hired as the club’s press agent.

“I remember Vince’s introduction as a star,” Werber chuckled, years later. “I was always gassed by his music, and the creative touch that he added to a melody. So I talked Enrico into featuring Vince as one of the opening acts during a weak spot in the show, in the main room. On Vince’s first night, he tore the complete cover off Eddie’s amplifier, by standing there and nervously picking away at it, while Enrico was announcing him.”

Reilly and Duran also remembered how nervous their colleague got that night.

“Enrico asked us to be the opening act,” Reilly recalled. “We’d never done this before, so we talked over a couple of tunes that we’d play. We went into the showroom, and the announcer said, ‘And now, ladies and gentlemen, the Vince Guaraldi Trio.’

“Vince had never talked on a microphone before. He walked up to it and said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we’re going to play...’ — and his mind went blank. He turned around in utter fright, and looked at Eddie and me, and asked, ‘What are we going to play?’ He was really scared!

“But we did okay.”

Duran laughed, remembering the same story. “Dean and I just broke up. We knew what we were going to play, but Vince’s mind was blank. He kept saying, ‘Here we are; now what do we do?’”

Shortly after that event, the trio arrived at the club one night and discovered that they had been granted billing on the chalk board that sat outside the door. Demonstrating his talent for a quick quip, Guaraldi deadpanned, “Look at that: Our names are up in chalk!”

San Francisco Chronicle jazz columnist Ralph Gleason began dropping by during the Guaraldi Trio’s many sessions in the Other Room, drawn by the combo’s sound and intrigued by Guaraldi’s rather unconventional approach to his instrument.

“You look at his hands,” Gleason noted. “Stubby, thick, tough little mitts, and you think of the cliché of artists’ hands. Vince is always pulling splinters from his fingers, driven in when he claws at the wooden baseboard, behind the keys. His fingernails are perpetually split and ragged from hitting that wood.

“He fingers all wrong when he makes runs and plays chords. All wrong, that is, from the standpoint of efficiency and ‘piano technique.’

“He doesn’t make the runs the way it says you should in the Czerny exercise books. He makes the runs the way it fits his stubby little hands. And if he finds shortcuts, and ways to play something with this thumb that ought to be played with his middle finger, he plays it with his thumb.

“But I’ve noticed over the years in jazz that almost all the good ones do it all wrong, because it’s the sound that matters—and the sound, with Vince, is beautiful and moving.”

One particular visit proved galvanic for Gleason: “That night, Guaraldi suddenly took off. He hunched over the piano, ducked his head down behind his two hands like Papa Bear lapping up the porridge, and wailed. He tilted his chair back, let a cigarette droop from his lips, and wailed. He sat sideways at the piano — casual style — and wailed.

“I was entranced for the entire time. The little Italian leprechaun had started to swing like the proverbial gate, and it was wonderfully exciting.”

Guaraldi’s trio also backed visiting vocalists who’d add additional sparkle to the hungry i’s cavernous art den. No single vocalist stayed for more than a week or two, until Winthrop came along.

"I auditioned at the hungry i. It was the first and only place I tried. I got the job, and I got the house trio: Vince, Eddie and Dean. They were the best there was, in the city at that time, as far as I knew. I was hired for a year, as the ‘girl singer.’ “Within the first couple of months, I was living on a houseboat in Sausalito. I had my first car, a red MG, and I learned to drive on Mount Tamalpais. I used to have parties on Sundays, on my houseboat. I remember Dean and his dad coming, but Vince didn’t come over a lot.”

With the personable Winthrop now on view, Banducci expanded his house band’s visibility.

“We worked both the room that had no name, and introduced the headliner,” Winthrop recalled. “We’d do a set or two ‘out there’ in the gallery area, and then we’d open the show in the showroom. Then we’d go back to the gallery area, again to entertain people waiting to get in, because they had two shows per night.”

A typical set would begin with a few tunes by the trio, and then Winthrop would join them for three or four songs; finally, the trio closed the session with a few more instrumentals. Rehearsals, when necessary, took place in the club, earlier in the day.

She remembers Guaraldi’s sense of humor and quick timing. “He was great fun. He was droll and had a very dry sense of humor. He was quick with wordplay. One of the guys who worked the door, at the barrel, had a large nose. Vince used to say, ‘How’d you like his nose full of nickels?’”