Doctor Herb Wong is a long time jazz expert. He was been as jazz commentator for West Coast-based WJAZ for over 35 years where he hosts his own jazz show.
SMITH: How long have you been following jazz?
WONG: Well I really started around ten and a half years old by fortuitous incident. A large box of recordings came to this city as a matter of fact, in Stockton because my family had moved here when I was that age. And it was addressed to the gentlemen who sold the home to my parents. My brother and I, his name is Woody, thought, 'Well, hey let's say what's in it.' So we broke open the box and it was full of jazz records. Now prior to that I had been playing classical piano and, as a matter of fact, playing in the community in recitals beginning at age six. So when we heard Art Tatum and all these other cats, we said, 'Wait a minute. This is fantastic music.' So I approached my mom and dad and said, 'Can you get me a jazz piano teacher?' And she said, 'No such species.' And so a cocktail pianist who came to my home to teach me.
SMITH: When did you first hear Dave Brubeck?
WONG: I heard Dave on the radio on Jimmy Lyons' radio show from San Francisco. Jimmy was obviously a tremendous advocate of Dave. And so Dave's first records were on the Coronet label and Jimmy played Indiana and Blue Moon, Body and Soul, you know, the things that he had out and I flipped my wig. It was just something else. I was just taken by all that and so the religious listening to Jimmy's show to try to catch another occasion when he would play Dave's music was a game for me. At one point, he mentioned that he was gonna be in Oakland at the Burma Lounge by Lakeshore Avenue. And, I made it a point to go. I gotta go hear this guy because he was unlike any other pianist I have ever heard. It was such a unusual blend of components on the piano - that is more specific, the approach that he had with his two hands, some of the block chordedness some other pianists had explored with that, but he had that combination of something that I had related to - some classicism along with the improvisatory aspect of jazz. And he was able to do all this - he was like a magician to be able to blend all this together. So the sound, which is so essential in jazz, was unique and instantly identifiable. Which is another goal of any jazz musician, to be artistically unique and, can be recognizable as quickly as possible.
SMITH: When was the first time you heard Dave Brubeck play and what was your reaction?
WONG: I heard him on the radio in the San Francisco Bay Area, on a [radio] show. The announcer, Jimmy Lyons, had put some of the first Dave Brubeck records on. And I had to stop what I was doing. I mean I flipped out of my wig. I said, 'Wait a minute, this is a revelation! Who is this guy? What is he doing and who are the guys playing with him?' I actually gave Jimmy a call. I said, 'Jimmy, who are these guys?' [He said] 'Well his name is Dave Brubeck.' I said, 'Well I'll never forget that.' And I said, 'Does he have anymore records?' He said, 'I think there're a few more coming. So you dig it, huh?' I said, 'Oh, man, Jimmy keep playing him.' Well, you know, I thought I was in jazz heaven. I didn't need anything else at that point because I thought I found it.
SMITH: Now what was it about Brubeck that got you so much?
WONG: I think it's his approach based on his excellent classical background. And with his jazz elements, his jazz ethic poured into it as a person who understood and understands that whatever he's playing is really his persona and is so personalized that whatever was coming out you knew that you couldn't hear it from anybody else. When I heard him play the same tune again, it was somewhat different so I knew that he was improvising. It wasn't just something that was automatic and formulated.
SMITH: What do you think Dave Brubeck's contribution to American jazz has been?
WONG: [He is] somebody that always will guarantee you excitement. Whether you understand it or not, you're gonna get a lot of goodies from just being in the audience. You don't have to know anything theoretical about it. He communicates in such a way that he'll get into, under your skin and make you feel wonderful. When you leave there, you know that you've had a fantastic, magnificent experience. That'swithout any technicality involved.
SMITH: What do you think Dave's music means to other musicians who came after him?
WONG: From the world and global community of music, whether it's rhythms or ethnic tunes of melodic lines or different harmonies, whatever the influences from these other cultures, Dave has been able to show the way that you can take these elements in their pure form and put it together and they're transformed into something that's more exciting than the original.
SMITH: What about his style? In your experience, how early was Dave in doing these things and how important was that in terms of breaking new ground?
WONG: Multiple rhythms, polyphony and harmonically the same way, too. I mean he was able to mix the ingredients together and have multiple lines going both rhythmically and then harmonically. And then he'd have melodic lines as well. He did everything. He tried everything that was more than one. If he had had four hands, you'd have more lines. I'm telling you, this guy was able to harness whatever was available to him and took it to a whole different level. And that's why I think it legitimized for a lot of other musicians who were experimenting in their own.
SMITH: How do you remember the Black Hawk, what it was like when you went there, Dave playing?
WONG: The Black Hawk was the jazz club in the San Francisco Bay Area. I was there all the time. Dave always attracted hoards of people. And I think he loved playing at the Black Hawk because the whole of the environment, the attitude of people there -- they were very up people. People were very lively; they're not just sitting there like stumps, you know. So when he would start, it was like New Year's Eve. It was a celebration every night. And no matter what the context of the group that he finally would bring in there through the years, it was the same way.