Plastic Alto welcomes “Palo Alto” and “The Set of All Blind Piano Players”

1. A whiles back I ran into Jim Keene, the City Manager for City of Palo Alto, at a chain coffee house on El Camino, near Stanford Avenue, the place that us old timers think of as the former Mountain Mike’s Pizza — where we went after Gunn basketball home games — and I dropped an idea on him: what if the City of Palo Alto used a recording of the Lee Konitz song “Palo Alto” as the “music on hold” that you hear when you ring City Hall? I’m still holding on to that one, but not holding my breath. He wrote the idea in his notebook.

Somewhere in there I also ran this by the New York based jazz musician Jacob Garchik, who is a trombonist and plays tuba, and plays with Konitz. I thought maybe we could custom order a session rather than just licensing a version we could find at the library. I thought also (there I go again, thoughting) that someone could modify and simplify the riff to make it catchier and more memorable, and slightly more hummable. I find “Palo Alto” pretty subtle. And it’s also probably true that it was written about a different Palo Alto, but so what?

Just for yucks here is a bad picture of Jacob Garchik playing with Stew at Yoshi’s SF in March, 2012. Jacob is the little cluster of pixels next to and behind the slightly darker and larger cluster known as Stew. He is playing a tuba not a trombone, in case you cannot tell. (unlike me, who cannot keep a secret). 


Honorable mention: Dick Fregulia, John Coltrane, Dave Brubeck, Gerry Mulligan, Paul Desmond, Lennie Tristano, Marcus Roberts, Lee Konitz, Henry Butler, Jack Walrath. (Note: not all these people are blind. Not all these people are pianists, but we mention them to honor them ok? Not entirely off-topic but Walrath told me that the arrangements of Mingus by the various tribute groups play more simplified versions of what Charles and them use to play)


I started this blog one Sunday morning not unlike today because I wanted to post a comment on a site run by Anna Cervantes about her father the late jazz pianist Federico Cervantes aka Freddie Gambrell. I had only just learned of Freddie Gambrell based on reading an excellent article on Matt Bowling’s Palo Alto history by Dick Fregulia called “I Got Jazzed in Palo Alto” or something; the link is no longer active, although Matt is releasing a book with excerpts from his numerous postings, and it features Greg Brown on the cover, from back in the day, but I digress. Also, coincidentally, I found a violinist in Mill Valley named Patti Weiss who once was a student of Mr. Fregulia when he taught at Tamalpais High. That’s how my brain works, and that’s how the search-injuns fire.

Dick Fregulia is a Palo Altan (by some definitions) who played piano for many years at Washington Street Bar and Grill in San Francisco.  Another digression lead me to read an obituary from last year of the late great Ed Moose, the founder of Washington Square Bar and Grill (the WashBag as Herb Caen call it) and Moose’s, who died at at age 81.

The post I was trying to send Anna was in response to something where she gave away cds to fans at the Salt Lake Jazz Festival in July 2009 it seems. I wanted to say (and posted somewheres):

Hi, Anna. I am writing about your father Federico Cervantes aka Freddie Gambrell, who I only just learned about by reading Dick Fregulia’s excellent article about the history of jazz in Palo Alto. Would you like to donate a cd to the Palo Alto Historical society? We are creating an archive of artists from here or who were associated with our city.

Anna writes back: I am just now seeing these messages (I wrote her in September, 2010 and she replied on her own site in April of last year, but I only saw it today, if you follow me). If you are still interested in some music, perhaps I can find something for you. A lot of his music has now been placed in storage in the state of Washington. Get in touch with me and we can figure something out!! Thank you.

I got started that morning because Terry Acebo Davis my girlfriend  the artist and former arts commissioner asked me to guess what music was coming out of her computer. It was a sax solo and I lazily said “Coltrane?” and she said “No, that’s Dave Brubeck” and then  I tried to correct her a little by telling her the name of the alto player being featured, whose name was escaping me. She suggested Gerry Mulligan. I had to boot up her little iMac — the same one I am using now 18 months and 380 posts later —  to find but of course Paul Desmond. Something in the wiki on Desmond led me to search for Band Box or Bandbox which was apparently a little club on El Camino but actually probably in Menlo Park. It said Desmond’s first steady gig was at the Bandbox in Palo Alto. I am always hungry for information about jazz in Palo Alto back in the day, people’s anecdotes, or random mentions in publications. One of these days I should search the Palo Alto Times archives, or interview Herb Wong. Also I recently traded a few emails with Ted Gioia who is extremely knowledgeable, and also snagged a copy of his recent book:

Still want to suss out Lee Konitz “Palo Alto” — is it about here? Probably about New Jersey. It was the street his piano player lived on. Forgetting his name, Lennie Tristano? Also, I think, a blind pianist? If I ever see Konitz live — he’s in his 80s — it would probably be the most parochial thing to ask him about that song.

Meanwhile, I was trying to read LogicComix by Doxiadis and Papdimitriou when this digression occured. (about Bertrand Russell, A.N. Whitehead, Wittgenstein etc). A paraphrase: a useful definition of insanity is confusing a map or model of the world for the world itself. Or confusing Plastic Alto with Ornette Coleman. For a minute I understood the logic book and quite often I ring Steve and or either or Eric Cohen to get some pretty good answers to math questions I think every educated people should know. Including myself, or at least advertising for my self. Borges y Yo kind of way. Just when I thought I was making this up, I found the link to Russell’s Paradox.

Then Terry or a robot who I mistake sometimes for human started playing Marcus Roberts “Blue Monk” funny segue or full circle, Euclidian trick, is what I recall thinking, then writing about in the very first chapter of this here Plastic Alto the blog. We almost saw a Marcus Roberts show once while in Santa Fe for Indian Market, as opposed to the new Broadway show “Once”. The self-referential bit above is also a Bertrand Russell allusion, about the set of all sets, does it include itself. Apparently not. Sometimes we long for the days when we could ask our parents.

Note: a version of this appeared previously in “Plastic Alto” hereabouts. And I just want to mention for no obvious reason Jack Walrath, Henry Butler and John Ellis, three former clients.

3. Continuing my morning — it’s 11:53 so I have about 7 minutes yet — of advertisements for myself, I took the liberty of analyzing the readership summaries of “Plastic Alto” my blog. It is still only modestly followed or read — and I consider it a notebook to myself as much as a conversation with readers — but about 300 people saw the thing last week. More striking is the fact — if I can believe wordpress, my overlords — that readers found their way to 89 different pages, of the 373 posts herein. Fifty-one different pages were viewed exactly once, which is what they call “the long tail” effect. The top six pages in popularity accounted for 73 of the 207 views, plus 98 home page views, which includes the most recent article, and more if you scroll down.

About markweiss86

Mark Weiss, founder of Plastic Alto blog, is a concert promoter and artist manager in Palo Alto, as Earthwise Productions, with background as journalist, advertising copywriter, book store returns desk, college radio producer, city council and commissions candidate, high school basketball player, and blogger; he also sang in local choir, fronts an Allen Ginsberg tribute Beat Hotel Rm 32 Reads 'Howl' and owns a couple musical instruments he cannot play
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5 Responses to Plastic Alto welcomes “Palo Alto” and “The Set of All Blind Piano Players”

  1. markweiss86 says:

    Although very few people will make the leap from a set of piano players to foundations of logic, I still recommend this book:

  2. markweiss86 says:

    Here is Dick Fregulia’s post:
    Excerpt from “How I Got Jazzed in Palo Alto – by Dick Fregulia”
    Harlem it wasn’t, but it’s where I was first introduced to and learned to play jazz. I’m speaking, of course, of Palo Alto, my home town, a quiet middle-class, college community about as far as you could get from New York, Chicago, or the Mississippi River. During World War II, pre-school rhythm classes at the Community Center introduced me to the basic concepts of jazz. From there I mixed piano lessons and trumpet playing in school music programs with lots of sports, which literally brought me to the other side of the tracks and the necessary cultures of color.

    But real jazz – bebop in particular – didn’t come to my life until I turned 14, in 1954. It started in the listening rooms of Palo Alto’s two downtown records stores: Hagues on University near Ramona, and Melody Lane, further down University by the Varsity Theater. Each had a row of glass-enclosed phone-booth sized rooms, with a three-speed record player and small bench that would squeeze two if you had a date. The rooms smelled thick with the sweat and stale cigarette smoke of the preceding listeners, who sometimes had tattoos. You could bring in several l.p.’s at a time to sample. Shrink-wrapping had not yet been invented, and you wouldn’t consider buying a record (lp’s were $3.95) without thoroughly sampling both sides.

  3. markweiss86 says:

    is there some kind of blurring or slurring linking “lee konitz” to “logicomix”? There was also a “lee’s comics”. But actually I was trying to read the book that actual book when Terry asked me to identify “Take Five” and I said “Coltrane” meaning “Paul Desmond” although it has taken me a while about 18 months to state that so plainly which is better in someways than just accepting “Dave Brubeck” as an answer.

  4. markweiss86 says:

    This is pretty random but, Larry, I was wondering about your opinion on the composition “Palo Alto.” I am a blogger and cultural activist here in Palo Alto, CA, and I have initiated a quixotic campaign about getting the City of Palo Alto the local government to be hip to (in a bureaucratic and official way) the tune, and indirectly thereby honor Lee Konitz (notwithstanding the possibility that his “Palo Alto” may actually be based on a street name where Tristano lived, or something). I ran into the City Manager Jim Keane and explained this to him and he at least recorded the words “KONITZ” and “PALO ALTO” in his notebook, which is a first step. I am thinking that when people call city hall here they could hear a recording performance of “Palo Alto” while on hold.

    Actually I just noticed today that apparently some people (including Scott Yanow of Allmusic dot com) think “Palo Alto” is a contrafact of “Strike Up The Band’ I had not noticed.

    I am wondering about whether it is worth it to record our own version of “Palo Alto” or something between it and “Strike Up…” that is a little more hummable than an actual synch license of sampling of a Konitz or somebody else’s master.

    In this ends up in your in box (or blog comment on wordpress) because a Mark Turner project covered the song, that plus I know you are a Stanford guy (or THE Stanford jazz guy laureate), so maybe this works for you.

    Or how much would you or a producer want to record that one track, or a ringtone/Muzak-y version, or however to technically answer my question.

    That and I notice you are a fellow Aquarius (i.e. I am, too) so maybe this works for you.

    My blog by the way is called “Plastic Alto”, and has about 500 posts maybe 50 about jazz per se.

    A better jazz story would be about Stanford and Nathan Oliveira and Stan Getz, or the David Park Elmer Bischoff artists’ jazz band, and jazz influence on they and Diebenkorn circa 1960 or so; the De Young Museum recently hired a group of local musicians to play as a tribute at a Diebenkorn show there, but I digress.

    posted on Larry Grenadier website blog tonight….

  5. Pingback: Jazz time travels or jazzscribe contrafacts | Plastic Alto with Mark Weiss

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