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Meet Calistoga's jazzman Larry Vuckovich

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Larry Vuckovich

Jazzman Larry Vuckovich has decades of memories from his career in music. 

“Jazz represented freedom to me,” said Larry Vuckovich, jazz pianist extraordinaire. “It represented the United States. As a boy, I lived under Nazi and then Tito’s repression in Yugoslavia but jazz, especially improvisation, was freedom.”

Vuckovich’s family was given refugee status and allowed to immigrate to the United States in 1951 when he was a teenager. They settled in San Francisco. He and his wife now live in Calistoga.

“San Francisco in those days had over 20 jazz clubs; it was hard to decide which to choose.”

Trained as a classical pianist, Vuckovich became mesmerized by all types of jazz: boogie-woogie, bebop, Big Band to Cuban Latin and beatnik poetic jazz. He listened to the greats including Miles Davis and John Coltrane as well as the Big Bands of the day. He was the only student Vince Guaraldi ever taught.

“Jazz music takes in all the world. It comes from African music, but it’s shared by all people,” Vuckovich said. “It’s always evolving. Jazz takes Latin and South American music and gives it a rhythm of its own. There’s Middle Eastern, gypsy, and romantic jazz.”

He’s happy to share the origins of jazz and has many stories of the legendary jazz performers he’s known and with whom he’s shared the stage. Sometimes solo and other times with invited artists, he plays jazz and tells anecdotes on his weekly Saturday night streaming presentations ( Past presentations are also archived on the site.

“Besides an opportunity to play my streaming programs, it also gives me a chance to share my experiences in jazz with listeners, and at the same time I give them some history about the great masters who created this music," he said.

Also, the wonderful composers are mentioned. What is so unique about America is that a number of great standards were written by people who came from other countries. Look at these tunes and how much more American can you get? “Autumn in New York,” “I Can’t Get Started,” “You Make Me Feel So Young.” These were written by Russians, immigrants of Russian descent. The famous song “Flamingo,” which Duke Ellington recorded, featuring wonderful vocalist Herb Jeffries, was written by a Romanian.”

“I am fortunate to have played with so many greats, learned so much from them and heard meaningful stories,” said Vuckovich in a follow-up email. “I think the Napa Valley audience will enjoy knowing some of experiences with (just to name a few) Tony Bennett, Jon Hendricks, Vince Guaraldi, Cab Calloway, Dexter Gordon, Bobby McFerrin and others.”

When Mel Tormé’s tours stopped in San Francisco, Vuckovich was his first-call pianist. He was the house pianist from 1974 to 1984 for KGO radio. He got to know Lenny Bruce and opened for him several times.

Vuckovich has received numerous accolades including being named a “Jazz Legend” at the Fillmore Jazz Heritage Center in San Francisco, having his birthday proclaimed “Larry Vuckovich Day” in San Francisco, receiving the Buddy Montgomery Jazz Legacy Jazz Pioneer Award and getting the Lifetime Achievement Award from his former country of Yugoslavia. He said of that award, “I’m the only cat from the old country living in the U.S. who has played with so many greats over a period of six decades.”

He’s also a composer and performed his original composition on albums and CDs for his production company Tetrachord Music. One of his favorite local memories was being commissioned by the late Richard Miami to write an accompanying piece for one the classic Saturday movie showings at Copia. The haunting composition, titled “View from Telegraph Hill,” fit the dark film noir tones for the 1951 film “House on Telegraph Hill,” and was later featured on Vuckovich’s album “High Wall.” The album placed in the Top 10 of the JazzWeek National Public Radio charts.

“I want to mention a historic jazz event that happened in Napa Valley in 2013,” Vuckovich said. “Bruce Hopewell presented a tribute to the highest-selling jazz recording of all time - 'Kind of Blue' by Miles Davis."

"At the time, the last living member on the recording, former Miles Davis drummer Jimmie Cobb, was the headliner. I was honored when presenter Bruce Hopewell asked me to organize the band and play in this production at the Lincoln theater in Yountville. This is only one of my many exciting jazz experiences, but at the same time one of the highlights of jazz events that Napa Valley ever had.”

If he had a chance to go back in time, what would he like to do?

“If I could take what I know now, I’d go back and play with the great (alto saxophonist) John Handy, who was my instructor at San Francisco State," he said. "I’d want to play also with (bebop tenor saxophonist) Dexter Gordon. It would be good to go back with the experience, knowledge and strengths I have today.”

He added, “I want to say when I started playing jazz, there was no racism, and we were all good with the brotherhood of the spirit and nature of the music. What we played was more than notes and music theory. The good ones talked the music. When you listen to (tenor saxophonist) Lester Young play 'Stardust,' it hits you, it talks to you.”

Vuckovich finds much of today’s music boring and unimaginative.

“Jazz is always evolving but with pop music, everything’s packaged,” he said.“I have been fortunate to have played with so many greats, learned so much from them and heard meaningful stories. I look at my performances as a way to pay back the masters of this great music, who dedicated their lives to living it and playing it."

"I want to spread the word of the music they produced; pass it on to the audiences whose spirits can be uplifted in these difficult times. The audiences, I believe, feel good about learning something new and getting inspiring musical messages.”

Barbara Tonsberg discusses the newly restored Pacific Union College Church organ

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