Born and raised in Kotor, Montenegro, 14 year-old Larry Vuckovich migrated with his family to San Francisco in 1951. From the start, his talent and love of jazz piano have been complemented by timely and fortunate relationships with mentors and fellow performers who have elevated his growth as a musician.
Vuckovich will perform with his quartet plus famed percussionist Big Black this Sunday afternoon. The performance will be the Napa Valley Jazz Society’s first show at Blue Note Napa.
On the phone from his home in Calistoga last week, Vuckovich talked about his early musical experiences in Montenegro. “There was a small baby grand piano in our villa,” he said. “My mother and my brother played. All the small towns in Europe like Kotor had amazing culture — theater, opera, a music school. So I started off playing classical music and I enjoyed it.
“Two things I heard really influenced me early on. I loved ethnic folk music, gypsy influenced with those minor scales on the phonograph. That hit me immediately. The other thing was listening to the European stations and Armed Forces radio, hearing big band music. When I heard that, the swing and the beautiful sound, that was it.”
The teenager’s initial transition to America wasn’t easy. “I didn’t speak English and it took me six months to feel comfortable in San Francisco,” he said. “I went to a school in West Portal. There was the Parkside Theater at 19th and Taraval and I went to the movies all the time. That helped my English.”
From the start, he immersed himself in jazz. “There was a Columbia Records store near the Paramount Theater,” Vuckovich said. “They had listening booths. I bought a 45 Victrola player and I’d buy big band and other West Coast jazz and other things that I liked. At night I would listen before going to sleep.
“At the Paramount, they had a movie and a band. There was a guy with a double bass drum. That was Louie Bellson with Duke Ellington. I didn’t know who they were, but they were great. Next week, I go there and there’s another band. It’s Lionel Hampton.
“I would go to El Patio Ballroom on Market and Van Ness, listening to Harry James with Buddy Rich on drums. Then Woody Herman and Les Brown. The black bands were down on Market at the Downbeat Club and other places. Little by little, I’m listening and learning.”
Vuckovich described an important early mentor. “I was fortunate at Lincoln High School,” he said. “There was a progressive music teacher who played in a classical string quartet and loved jazz. He had us practice—piano, bass, drums, guitar, and vibes. We had a George Shearing Quintet sound. We performed at Lincoln in 1955, the first high school concert in San Francisco history. I have a CD of it. That’s really how it all started.”
The young pianist’s musical life took an important turn when he became a student of Vince Guaraldi, who was in the Cal Tjader band at the time and would go on to Grammy-winning fame. “I was a teenager when I started going to the Black Hawk night club,” Vuckovich said. “They had a special barbed wire section for teenagers, chicken wire. And sometimes we would buy fake IDs to get in. Vince was playing there with Cal Tjader.
“At first, I studied with Cal Tjader’s wife, who was really a wonderful pianist. But she became pregnant and she said, ‘why don’t you try Vince?’ I was fortunate because Vince turned down everybody. There was something about me that he liked. I went to his house almost once a week.”
“He was confident in my playing. Years later, when he went on the road with Stan Kenton’s singer June Christy, he felt confident that I could sub for him. Little by little, I would open shows for him. And then in ‘73 I was honored when he formed a two-keyboard quintet. We would play together and exchange ideas.”
Vuckovich talked about another important musical colleague, jazz singer Jon Hendricks, famed for his “vocalese’ as a member of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. “Jon moved to San Francisco in the early ‘60s,” he said. “His first pianist, Flip Nuñez, was excellent. When Flip wanted to do something with another band, he recommended me.”
“The first gig with Jon was in San Diego, and I guess he liked my feeling. We went on the road — Canada, the U.S., all the major clubs, major festivals. The more I got to know him, the more I realized, like his bass player would say, ‘this gig is a gold mine.’ Jon was doing all the songs from Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. He would do one part, then next part in succession, and then he would also scat on other tunes.”
Over five decades, Vuckovich has extensively toured North America and Europe, played countless premier jazz venues and has recorded 15 albums. His collaborators constitute a who’s who of American jazz. His most recent recording is 2013’s “A Pair of Pianos” with McCoy Tyner.
At Blue Note, Vuckovich’s quartet will be accompanied by percussionist Big Black (Daniel Ray). Vuckovich is in awe of Black. “He played with Dizzy Gillespie,” he said, “and boy, this cat, his congas and the rhythm, he can play.
“Black considers himself foremost a be-bop drummer, playing syncopated be-bop rhythms. He started off when he was young, hearing Cuban music, calypso music, and he got into that. Then little by little, more and more, he started joining great jazz musicians. It’s such a strong addition to the regular drums, that extra conga.”
Sunday, Dec.10, 4 p.m. Presented by the Napa Valley Jazz Society $45, $25 (NVJS members). Blue Note Napa at 1030 Main St., Napa. Call 707-224-5299 or visit nvjs.org for tickets.