Larry Vuckovich is a legendary jazz pianist with a history as a regular performer at Bay Area venues such as Yoshi’s in Oakland, where he plays to sold-out crowds.
He’s also a Calistoga resident who wants to share his love of music, and his considerable piano playing talent, by bringing jazz music back to Napa Valley, and Calistoga in particular.
“We’ve got wine, food, why not music?” he says.
Vuchovich’s vast and versatile repertoire ranges from the music of bands like Count Basie and Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and John Coltrane.
Over the years, he’s played with many big names in the industry, including Tony Bennett.
Closer to home, Vuchovich used to play at Brannan’s Grill, with John Santos and drummer Harold Jones, also known to work with Bennett.
Vuckovich’s enthusiasm for the Jazz medium is clearly with him 24-hours a day.
When he’s not playing piano, he’s listening to jazz CD’s, sending out emails about upcoming concerts, and engaging anyone he can about future venues.
Lately, he’s been thinking about bringing jazz music back to Calistoga.
Recalling the Mustard Festival, with live jazz and blues music on the weekends, “The place was buzzing with action,” Vuckovich says.
Over the years, the festivals turned out not to be financially viable, but, Vuckovich is not deterred.
“When something doesn’t work, maybe there’s a way to fix it. I’m going to make some suggestions. Would the city rather have that idea go dark, and have nothing going on during the weekends? Or would it like to see a bunch of action, that could bring business to the merchants, hotels, and restaurants, that’s the idea,” he says.
Vuckovich also performs about once a year at Tucker Farm Center in Calistoga, bringing in other big names, like vocalist Kim Nalley last year. His ties in the industry could draw big names to the area.
“We are so fortunate in the Bay area to have such prominent musicians like John Santos on percussion, a five-time Grammy nominee, and musicians known internationally. And because they love the music, they would be willing to play for a modest sum,” he said. “Not peanuts, but something.”
Bill Hart, who grew up with the jazz scene in New York in the 1950s and ‘60s, is one of the founders and current president of the Napa Valley Jazz Society. He has known Vuckovich for more than 15 years.
“I’d love to have a place to go and have a drink before or after dinner to sit down and listen to some music. There really aren’t any good cocktail lounges,” he says, for lack of a better term.
But Hart is also not sure if there is enough of a market for one. He recalls that for a while Ted Hall, owner of Farmstead, in St. Helena, was bringing in musicians to play, like locally renowned jazz pianist, and St. Helenan, Mike Greensill.
Hart has also played in the summertime in Lyman Park, but the concerts only drew about 150 people.
Hart had hopes that the Blue Note, in Napa, could draw more crowds, but with a 450-seat hall to fill, only the likes of Wynton Marsalis can do that, he said. The venue has had to branch out to book a more eclectic variety of musicians.
“It’s been difficult. There are very few examples in the U.S. for jazz presentations outside of San Francisco or Los Angeles,” Hart said.
Napa Valley, meanwhile, has been very successful with Music in the Vineyards presented each spring, when vineyards up and down the valley host big name chamber ensembles in intimate settings.
“They’ve been consistent, staying within the genre and have built a reputation,” Hart said.
If the problem bringing jazz back to Napa Valley is money, Vuckovich says part of the revenue would come from ticket sales, and part could feasibly come from donations from vineyard and winery owners.
“It’s not a secret that wine is a multi-million dollar industry here. Wine and jazz, what a nice thing to pair them both together. Even as a tax write-off. This thing would not only be successful, but leftover money could also be given back to the city. It takes vision, and if you believe in the arts,” he said.
Hart said there are about 400 members in the Napa Valley Jazz Society.
“We’re supportive any time we think our members might be interested in something we’ll let them know,” he said about any future venues.
If there are some who say they don’t like jazz music, Vuckovich and Hart are sympathetic, because there are so many different styles.
After giving it a lot of thought, Hart said, “I’ve reached the conclusion that there is confusion about what jazz is. People do like it, but only certain kinds and when they listen to something that they can’t relate to they get turned off.”
Vuckovich says he doesn’t understand why people say they don’t like jazz music when “there is something for everybody.”
The veteran performer appreciates newcomers to the scene, like jazz fusion performers at the fourth annual Napa Valley Jazz Getaway festival which will take place June 5-8 in Yountville http://www.jazzgetaway.com/schedule/. The concerts feature Brian Culbertson, Sheila E, David Benoit, and more.
The true sense of jazz is the most sophisticated art form in America, Vuckovich says. It includes New Orleans, swing, modern jazz, bebop, Latin, Afro-Cuban, Bossa Nova, samba, “It’s so wide-ranging. What I’m talking about is beyond category, offering an unlimited variety. Make something positive out of the current void.”