I was born and raised in South San Francisco. Looking back, the important thing was that there was a piano in the house, downstairs. I saw a picture of me there, when I was about 18 months old. I will have to find that picture too. After my parents passed away, I got all that stuff, and I have got to go through it. From what I was told I didn’t bang, I just was trying to make melody, I guess, but the picture that I recall was that I looked pretty happy there.
I grew up Catholic at All Souls Church and got brought to church, and I guess hearing the organist I would come home and mimic what I was hearing at church. And I started with that.
I started lessons about 7, so but I kind of had been able to play with two bands and play by ear, between 4 and 7, whenever I started taking lessons. I guess I was hearing my sister’s Elton John 8tracks or whatever. And I started playing some of his songs. Obviously, I liked them and she bought me this published Elton John, it was greatest hits piano music, but I couldn’t read it, you know. Once I started taking lessons, it was like now I can! Then I realized that I was mostly right or at least or close on some of the stuff, which was encouraging.
And for a while I actually I used to fiddle with the guitar when I was younger too, because I was listening to my brother’s Zeppelin records, The Who, all that stuff. When Kiss hit, I was like, oh my God. But anyway I was very much into classic rock too, although it wasn’t the Grateful Dead, unfortunately.
But I basically jumped right into the classical realm through high school, while simultaneously getting into jazz at the start of my freshman year. My father was quite the avid music listener and had an eclectic album collection. He had some of the old Norman Granz 78s as well as the likes of Dizzy Gillespie or Glenn Miller. And so I was exposed to jazz but I didn’t really pay much attention to it because I was really focusing on the classical side of things.
I had two different teachers. I moved on from one pretty quickly, and the next teacher was better equipped to handle me, as she put it. She had studied at Curtis (a major music school in Philadelphia), during the time when Bernstein was there. But I think she had eyes for seeing me like go with the classical route and perform that way. I didn’t know better, you know, but meanwhile at the same time I had found myself gravitating towards ragtime and Joplin and so forth.
And I think that was really my transition into the jazz realm to where it was like, I was dealing with the harmonic movement and with the type of chordal structure and stuff like that. So when I was going from the 8th grade into the 9th grade of high school, and before the school year started, my father had connected with the jazz band instructor Mike Galisatus who was at my high school to be, and I went and auditioned for him.
Loe and behold, I think I performed everything from memory, and I performed Rhapsody in Blue. Obviously, Gershwin had the jazz side of it too. And some Joplin stuff. And some other stuff that I don’t quite remember what it was. Then he dumped like a chord chart in front of me, which would be the jazz side of things. I was like well what’s that? It was just letters and numbers, and that’s all it was. There were no notes or anything. I had no clue.
So I started delving in. But he brought me into the jazz band in my freshman year, which was cool. They didn’t really take anybody but juniors and seniors at the time for that class. But somehow I got in and kind of went from there. I felt like I was learning pretty quickly, you know, and we had a real good bass player and drummer that were a little older. But my teacher was also a very avid working musician, and then he started hiring us to do some simple casuals, whatever, it wasn’t anything steep. But that was like my first foray into gigs. So you know, I was like 13 and sometimes a check would come along with it. I would be like hey, this is nice. Mike was a great mentor and role model for me in my approach to being a freelance musician and ultimately a catalyst for where I am today. I say that in the most humble way.
I was also playing in the College of San Mateo big band which was the Monday night band, which was basically a class. But my teacher brought me down when I was in my sophomore year, and told me you have got to check out this piano player. Who’s a guy I became friends with years later. But he said, you’ve got to check him out. So I go down there for the first time, and he doesn’t show up. So the band director of the college class was, like, then you play. So after we were done, he said come back next week. I came again, the guy didn’t show up again. So the next thing you know I’m in. They just kept me in there.
I think I also ended up doing Skyline College big band on Tuesday nights. But these bands were all local working musicians. So there were no real, actual students there, it was just like an outlet for horn players and stuff like that or whatever to play on a Monday night and just have fun or a Tuesday night if there were no gigs. And they were all, like, I said they were heavily working musicians. A lot of them became good friends over the years, and I worked with them on different venues throughout the years. So it was a good maturing for me. And now looking back, I also was playing in the percussion section of a local community symphony orchestra under the direction of Leo Bardes, who was one of Phil Lesh’s teachers at CSM. .
We had quite a good high school jazz band. And so we used to do all those festivals, at Reno and Sonoma State and we actually did the Monterey festival, all four years I was there. We won some events. It was tough competition — Berkeley High School, what else — but there were some established high school big bands that were like the favs.
And there were some politics involved, I found out later on. But so many great musicians came out of it, Dave Ellis was one of them. I used to be in opposing bands with him. Kenny Brooks was in El Cerrito High School. I remember both those guys from back in that period but I didn’t know them, not until years later. Josh Redman was another guy at Berkeley High School.
I didn’t meet Dave until I want to say I was, God, it would have been my later 20s — I knew he had been working with Charlie Hunter. I knew Kenny Brooks, he was on the scene with Alphabet Soup and stuff. And actually early on, probably in the earlier ‘80s, I did some gigs with Alphabet Soup, where I met Kenny first there. And also met Jay.
I started in college but didn’t last long. I had already been at College of San Mateo for like four years, if you want to look at it that way, I knew what I wanted to do. But I didn’t know what I was really going to do of course, the parents were pushing why don’t you get a degree in business, and a minor in music. I’m like, well… So I did sign up and I think I lasted a semester.
Then I got an opportunity to go to Amsterdam, and I was supposed to be over there for two or three months with this drummer by the name of Bob Braye, who was kind of known in the jazz world in many different ways, I should say. I was like, okay. I’m going to do that. And so I remember my political science teacher, who was also my dean, was just shredding me in his office, when I was telling him, look, I want to go do this, and he was like you are making the biggest mistake of your life and all this stuff. And I said, look, I get it. I said, I can always come back, you know, and that is the way I left it, and I never came back.
On my 18th birthday, I met a guy who used to play bass for Bobby Hutcherson, his name was Mark Williams. After a little time hanging together, he said you have got to go to the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco. Aside from realizing that this was the same famed Jazz Workshop venue from the ‘50s and such that had reopened in the ‘80s, he told me that there were these jam sessions going on and I should jump into them. I was like God, what do I do? I am a kid, let alone I’m going to a club that’s 21 and over and I looked like I was 12.
He took me out one night there, and I got in. I met the people who were hosting the thing, and they were in charge there. Basically at the end of the night my friend Mark said, look you are on your own now, so here is your sendoff, so it’s up to you. So I was like, okay. So I just started frequenting there, you know. And I became a regular, I got to know everybody there and became part of the family there. They were gracious to me and I got a lot of opportunity to play with people there. I mean, guys like Pony Poindexter would come in and play. Like I said, I was just a kid, and but people were very gracious and afforded me the opportunity to play and show me stuff or just, you know I would figure stuff out on my own. But I had the opportunity. You couldn’t pay for schooling like that.
I ended up getting to play with a lot of serious people, like Bobby Hutcherson, Pharoah Sanders, Art Farmer, Frank Morgan, James Moody, Richie Cole, Ernie Watts, and John Handy, to name some.
At that time, I guess, what was dubbed as the whole acid jazz scene that was going on during the Broun Fellinis time, so Alphabet Soup, with founders Jay, Kenny, and Dred Scott was another one I actually ended up with a band called Hueman Flavor, which was the mix where you had instrument improvisation, jazz or improvisational players kind of doing things that could be funk or hip hop groove or jazz stuff, whatever, then you would have rappers in there that had the flow to go with it. It was just a total freedom of expression kind of scenario — a lot of improvising in that stuff. There were no tunes or sometimes there were tunes. I had already been in the jazz scene because I was already around the older guys. So now I was a little more with my peers, but they were equally great growing things and just immersing myself more and more in the scene, and I was a quite busy person back in the day.
I was working a bunch of other jazz gigs you know, fortunately I used to get a lot of kind of like first calls from people coming in from out of town. Yoshi’s gigs or Bach Dynamite (and Dancing Society, in Half Moon Bay), or something like that. You know, some gigs or Stanford festivals, whatever, I had good gigs and I even played in the Monterey festival, not in my high school years but after that, the real years, many years consecutively. And I did a trio of my own there really before jumping in to RatDog fulltime.
And then fast forward to until like 1995ish range or whatever is, I got a phone call from Dave. And he was like how come we have never met before, and all this stuff, so I ended up basically joining his jazz quartet. Which led into him getting the gig with RatDog. Jay was already there. And so once Dave got in, we were quite busy with his group. I said, hey, you know, if you guys need somebody to join with or jam with, let me know.
And literally two days after I said that, say the very beginning of ’97, he calls and says they are looking for a keyboard player, they need somebody to start going on the road. Because Johnny Johnson had been there. And, obviously, big shoes to follow. I got brought into play with Johnny and kind of observe everything and see what was going on, and he was such a soul, an obviously amazing player and the reason why he’s kind of the father of rock and roll, but basically I felt we had a good kinship, a lot of smiles and he eventually gave me the nod to Bob.
I was still busy doing the other jazz stuff initially being around Bob, and all of a sudden, conflicts started coming up, once I got into RatDog to where I would start having to cancel some of those other gigs because I was giving the allegiance to Bob there. And so I had to jump in 110 percent that way and kind of like let the other slide off. The first session with Bob was memorable.
I went up there and it was Rob Wasserman and Matthew Kelly and Jay and Bob and Dave and myself and I get up there and the power was out. So we just basically sat on Bobby’s porch. I think we must have talked, sat out there for three hours plus, I don’t know, then right when it was just like you know, we’ll probably call it a day and reconvene another time, the power came on.
And so we jammed for a little while, but I started going up there I don’t know a few days a week on the average. But this is before I even got in, so I was trying to get in, but nobody was really saying anything. They wanted to take their time about it. So I didn’t push anything. I was looking over the bigger picture, and let’s see where this goes. But it would be cool to get into this band.
But it really was — I first met them like in January. Like I said, it was the beginning of ’97 and it probably wasn’t until May where I officially did the first gig with him because they had a spring tour. Johnny finished that one out, and then it was like May of ’97 would have been my first actual gig with him. And then I was also leading up to the Further festival, that was coming up in ’97, which would be a seven week run. I was like, well, am I in or not, or this or that.
Finally, I talked with Bob on the phone one day. And I honestly said, I am very blessed — I have never hustled for a gig in my life. Stuff has just come at me. And I said I don’t know what to say. But I said, so here is what I’m going to say to you. And I told him I said I need this gig and you need me on this gig. He went fair enough. And kind of went from there. And I got on the Further festival. And did like you know it was like a trial period. And made it through that and then it was official.
I had never listened to Grateful Dead music. So I started by winging it on musical chops. I guess you use your ear and you play, it’s still the same thing. Jumping more into the Grateful Dead repertoire, you start realizing how much improvisation there was there. In jazz you’ve got a lot of tunes with a lot of chords and certain movement of chords that go certain ways. And man when it come comes down to one chord jams it’s, like what do you do? You’re pretty wide open. And that is leading back to where I had heard a lot of older jazz guys telling me, when I was younger like Grateful Dead, don’t bother getting into it, it’s like my God this isn’t easy. People might think it’s easy but it’s not.
And there are plenty of tunes that have chords too. But it was just finding, you know the balance and finding your own voice. I felt like I always put my own voice in everything I did. I didn’t take any different approach to being around Bob or into the Grateful Dead music, but you have to find out how your voice works within in it. Because there are ways of approaching it that are different. But all in all it comes down to open heart, open mind, open ears and you have got to love who you are playing with.
It’s been 26 years now with Bobby, which is amazing. I just see him as being in constant growth through the years, you know what I’m saying? He is constantly wanting to push the envelope, sometimes he comes up with ideas where you might think like, huh? But then the light bulb hits, so I never ever underestimate him in any way or anything like, but he is still growing and seems as youthful about it as ever. It’s inspiring.
Golden Gate Wingmen is an interesting configuration after Wolf Brothers, which is big band and even sometimes symphonies. But it’s the same thing — we are all approaching it the way we approach it whether it’s 4 piece or 10 piece or 15 piece as the numbers get bigger that curbs down your involvement a little bit, but the Wingmen is a very free group I mean, it’s no boundaries, you know, take chances and just things move, you know like just let’s try this tune tonight.
What, I don’t know that song, it’s like you know, Reed might say I want to do this Dylan tune tonight and he will jot it down. It’s okay. I won’t get a chance to listen to it or source it, its like we’ll just do it and see what comes up. You know what I’m saying, there is a lot of trust in that band. And you know everybody listening to one another playing hard and playing delicately. It was like a little family.
It started off by total accident. John K. was doing a solo gig at Phil’s club years ago. That would have been 2013 I think. He called me, Jay, and he called Reed. He said would you guys be into playing a set with me, second set? So it was, okay. So we did that, and it was like, wow, it was pretty cool and the next thing you know we started getting a couple gigs with it and started doing little mini tours and it’s a lot of fun, you know.
Photographs © Bob Minkin
See Jeff Chimenti and Golden gate Wingmen at Skull & Roses Festival