By John Calu
“Do not fear mistakes. There are none.” – Miles Davis
I was at Monterey Jazz Festival in the early eighties when Miles held court backstage and I overheard Richie Cole say that no one else from Trenton had made it there that year. I corrected him. He may have been the only one from Trenton to steal the stage that year, but I had certainly made it to Monterey. That was the first time we met and a rising star can easily be forgiven for not remembering the assistant producer’s gopher who chauffeured Freddie Hubbard around and had the honor of giving Sarah Vaughan fresh flowers after a standing ovation. There were tears in my eyes even before she asked me with complete sincerity “was that okay?”
The next time I saw Richie was years later, blowing that beautiful alto sax at Joe’s Mill Hill Saloon in Trenton on a Tuesday night, sitting in with Tommy Passarella on his Hammond B3 and Cedric Jensen on the drums. I can’t remember who else sat in that night, but guitarist extraordinaire Dick Gratton always comes to mind when I think about Mill Hill since he and I played there a few wonderful times. I think we both actually sat in that night because I either played with Tom, Cedric, Dick and Richie or dreamed about it so vividly it’s become one of my favorite memories. Either way, I held my own by remembering if you repeat something long enough it stops sounding like a mistake and turns into a direction. That was the accepted corollary to what Miles had to say.
In between the first time I saw Richie in Monterey and the last time in Trenton, which was quite a few years ago, I got schooled in singing jazz by good tutors in interesting places. I did studio work at Santa Barbara Sound and I was Cal Tjader’s opening act at La Casa de la Raza. You could even say that Poncho Sanchez punched up my act. Chic Streetman gave me life and performance lessons I’ll never forget and the house band at Chico’s in Rio de Janeiro along with a vocal group called Cor e’ Canto made my songs sound better than I had ever imagined they could. Miami did some nice things for my sound and yet a small home studio in Yardville, NJ with a few good friends was one of the most prolific periods in my life. The engineer there had the biggest ears and heart I’ve ever known.
I haven’t played music for a living in years and I don’t miss it as a career choice. It only barely paid the bills when I was young and bohemian, but it took me to some breathtaking places in life and introduced me to some incredible people. Tuesday nights at Joe’s Mill Hill used to be a refresher course and gave me a sense of community of like-minded wordly wanderers. We paused for a moment to bend time to our will and let the music play. There was only one time there when I knew I had sung the very best I ever could but I’ll never forget Sarah Vaughan, after a standing ovation at Monterey, asking me if what she had done was okay.
–John Calu is a published author with years of experience in arts and entertainment as well as a successful corporate career in office technology sales. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his website. Calu also has reminisced about the night he jammed with Etta James. Above is “Tokyo Rose Sings the Rocky Mountain Blues” from a 2009 performance at KUVO in Denver. The session features Richie Cole (alto sax), Jeff Jenkins (piano), Ken Walker (bass) and Todd Reid (drums).