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Cal Tjader

In: Film and Music

Submitted By chamiley
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Mr. Cal Tjader was an American vibraphone player, percussionist, bandleader, composer and arranger of Swedish descent. He began as a jazz player, playing the drums and became the most famous non-latino Latin jazz musician of the 1950s and 60s. Throughout his career Mr. Tjader enjoyed success and mainstream attention from Latin Jazz listeners, however, critics always wrote his music of as being too commercial and catering to popular taste. In this paper I will attempt to illustrate the notion that even though Mr. Tjader was unable to garner the acceptance of the Jazz critics of his time, he was nonetheless respected and admired by many of the influential musicians of his time, as well as by the musicians of today.

Callen Radcliffe Tjader, Jr was born on 16th July 1925 in St. Louis, Missouri. Mr. Tjader came from a family of performing vaudevillians as his father was a tap dancer and his mother was a piano player. It was no coincidence that Mr. Tjader would also take an interest in performing and he initially started dancing professionally when he was three until at the age of fourteen when he discovered jazz and taught himself the drums. With the exception of the piano lessons given to him, Mr. Tjader was self-taught on all of his instruments.
In 1949, Mr. Tjader enrolled into the San Francisco State College. It was here when Mr. Tjader would meet a variety of young jazz musicians, including future jazz legends, Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond. The three musicians along with others formed the Dave Brubeck Octet, with Mr. Tjader on drums. “The Octet experimented with jazz employing odd time signatures and non-Western key” but disbanded after only one album. After the disbanding of the Octet, Brubeck and Mr. Tjader formed a trio and began performing within the San Francisco jazz scene. Mr. Tjader during this period taught himself the vibraphone, often alternating between it and the drums depending on the song. In 1953 Mr. Tjader joined George Shearing’s hugely popular quintet as a vibraphonist and percussionist. It was in Shearing's band that Mr.Tjader's love affair with Latin music began. Ignited by Shearing's bassist Al McKibbon, nurtured by contact with Willie Bobo, Mongo Santamaria, and Armando Peraza, and galvanized by the '50s mambo craze. When he left Shearing the following year, Mr. Tjader promptly formed his own band, The Cal Tjader Modern Mambo Quintet which emphasized the Latin element yet also played mainstream jazz. Between 1954 and 1962, Mr.Tjader began to record prolifically for the record label Fantasy which resulted in 30 albums, and over half of them featured Latin music. A boon to Mr. Tjader’s career was the Mambo craze reaching its pitch in the 1950s and his bands featured “seasoned Cuban players and top-notch jazz talent conversant in both idioms. Some consider his Modern Mambo Quintet his greatest band, and perhaps the greatest small-combo Latin jazz band ever”.

After recording for Fantasy for nearly a decade, Mr. Tjader signed with better-known Verve Records. The luxury of larger budgets saw him interacting with larger orchestras which also led to much experimentation in jazz music. During this time that Mr. Tjader scored his biggest hit, Soul Sauce. The album sold over 100,000 copies and popularized the word salsa in describing Latin dance music. Also his album ‘La Onda Va Bien’ won a Grammy award in 1979. He continued performing and recording until his death in 1982. Notably famed Chicano percussionist Poncho Sanchez who had performed with Mr. Tjader for seven years, continued the Tjader legacy with his own group through the 1980s and 90s.

Even though Mr. Tjader recorded several straight jazz albums, he is widely renowned for his work in the Latin Jazz genre. Fusing jazz with Latin music is often categorized as ‘Latin jazz’, however, Mr. Tjader's output swung freely between both styles. Fascinated with the rhythms and atmospheres of Latin music, Mr. Tjader was one of the first musicians to successfully fuse South American musical styles with straight-ahead jazz. Upon being exposed to recordings of Machito, Tito Puente and Noro Morales, Mr. Tjader reorganized a “small combo along the same lines, only with more jazz feeling incorporated in the Latin format”. Consistently experimenting with jazz music throughout his career, Mr Tjader was very successful with his listeners and but was dismissed by the critics as too commercial and catering to popular taste.

When Mr. Tjader incorporated Asian melodies into jazz in 1963, the results were albums, Several Shades of Jade and Breeze from the East. Several Shades of Jade was deemed by one of the critics as “an ok collaboration…and much of the music sounded like it was left over from a soundtrack” and Breeze from the East was considered “at best corny and at worse nearly unlistenable” . In 1966, El Sonido Nuevo, a meeting between Mr. Tjader and Eddie Palmieri, is considered today an all-time classic and the liners of this re-issue call this ‘a landmark in the history of Jazz’. Yet, when released originally, critics did not embrace it fully and said that “while there are some heated and memorable moments, El Sonido Nuevo which has a lot of fadeouts does not quite reach greatness”. Eddie Palmieri had a different opinion and said that El Sonido Nuevo confirmed that Mr. Tjader`s Latin-jazz chops went deeper than the lightweight pop-jazz too often ascribed to him by the jazz press.

Mr. Tjader, like most jazz artists, suffered during the 1970s due to rock and roll's explosive growth. Attempting to stay current and relevant,Tjader added electronic instruments to his line-up and began to employ rock beats behind his arrangements. Few of these albums made an impression on jazz critics. Dave Samuels of the Grammy winning Latin-jazz music group, The Caribbean Jazz Project, admits he never heard the Latin-jazz pioneer in person. However, he argues that Mr. Tjader’s music was more about “incessant grove ranging from delicate to hard hitting than it was concerned with technical prowess” which the critics complained about.

Vibes are an easy instrument to overplay, what with “frills and crescendos that could climax and cascade into oblivion”. But Mr.Tjader’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 his interest was sincerely in the presentation of Latin music as a musical form rather than a backdrop for a particular mood”. Due to his virtuosity and sense of phrasing, San Francisco Chronicle’s John Wasserman dubbed Mr.Tjader as the greatest jazz vibraphone player since Lionel Hampton. He further describes Tjader as a popularizer whose infusion of Latin jazz and Cuban club music came long before the Buena Vista Social Club renaissance. Latin rock artists such as Carlos Santana consider Mr. Tjader as a forbearer. In an interview, Santana said that Mr. Tjader had a “bright, sustained-ringing tone and a judicious way of deploying notes, and his bands always had a nice mixture of percussive groove and sunny, well-defined swing, with occasional light touches of R&B and rock”.
With Mamblues, Tjader comes right at you with a rousing frantically paced, fast tempo mambo. The ensemble has Mr. Tjader on the vibes, Lonnie Hewitt on the piano and Armando Peraza on the congas. The song gives you a swing feeling by maintaining a constant tempo and steady beat and providing an abundance of syncopated rhythms. The track resolves a paradox with style, such as how “can Northern musicians warm up playing Latin music without cooling the music down?” It finds a compromise between original jazz standards and Latin standards. “The rhythm section is warm and fluid in the spirit of a true Cuban band instead of the rigid, overemphasized groove Northerners often impose on such music”. Jazzier contribution brings a nice change of pace, and a welcome feature for the congas gives Mamblues a swinging feel which in essence plays tricks on the distinction between North and South.
The song is in Head, Solo, Head arrangement and the instrument that plays the Head melody is the vibes. The form of the tune is not the AB form encountered with salsa music, but the twelve bar blues of jazz music. The Head melody takes place in the A, A, A, B, A, A, A with each A section using. The introduction starts with the A section using 4 bars playing the melody on the vibes which is repeated for a second time. Furthermore there is a second A section at 0:08 played on vibes but this time it is accompanied by the piano and bass which is the first chorus of the song and is repeated a second time. At 0:14 the third A section is played but this time the drums also join the ensemble and the chorus is repeated for a second time. With a chord change at 0:23 the song enters into the B section and the syncopated rhythms of the piano leads to improvisation taking place up to 0:37. From 0:37 to 0:50 the song is in its fourth A section leading to a piano solo which lasts till 1:07 and is followed by a solo on the conga lasting till 1:35. After the solo on the congas, the song repeats the layout of the third A section.

From the 1950s until his death, Mr Cal Tjader was practically the central figure between the worlds of Latin jazz and mainstream bop; his light, rhythmic, joyous vibraphone manner could comfortably embrace both styles. John Storm Roberts notes that “playing a style most jazz writers did not understand, and in an age when then old European Romantic concept of the suffering artist had to some extent infected jazz, the modest, decent, talented, and agreeable Tjader did not get the critical respect he deserved” . Nonetheless, Mr. Tjader was respected and admired by many of the influential musicians of his time, as well as by the musicians of today.

:azfyxqqgld6e~T1 (25 July 2008)
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Cal Tjader, Cal Tjader’s Greatest Hits, “Mamblues.” Fantasy, Los Angeles (June 30,1995) CD

The song was first released on the album Mambo with Tjader in September, 1954 and it was reissued on June 1995 on the CD, Cal Tjader’s Greatest Hits.

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