1985: The Bach Society: Story by John Whitinger

From the San Carlos Enquirer-Bulletin (May 1985)

Story by John Whitinger (Photo by Paul Fry)

“So you saw Mick Jagger at a Rolling Stones concert. You saw him through the binoculars, man. That’s about as close as you’re going to get.”–Pete Douglas

“The Bach Society: Every Sunday the Douglas Beach House Becomes an Intimate Setting For Jazz by the Seaâ€?

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“Reap this righteous riff:

“Nobody knew what was going to happen next. Joey Baron was hitting every surface of those drums. He was exploring the undersides of the cymbals, licking his fingers and moaning them across the skins, even hitting the metal stands. His eyes were closed tight, and his black curls shook with the eruptions of his jazz artist’s hands. The sound was like some weird, exciting Indian mystic dream. Even band-leaders Red Rodney and Ira Sullivan looked on in total awe.

“There was not an unspell-bound set of eyes at the Sunday afternoon session of the Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society as jazz drummer Joey Baron was doing his job—namely, tearing down and totally reassembling everybody’s concept of what his instrument could be. As the last of the sun’s rays were hitting the Douglas Beach House at Miramar on Half Moon Bay, Baron was playing jazz.

“A lot of people are intimidated by modern jazz. To paraphrase former down beat editor Grover Sales, jazz musicians have always pushed the technical frontiers of their instruments far beyond classical boundaries, doing things with brass, reeds, the string bass, and drums that symphony players said couldn’t—or shouldn’t—be done.

“But in the mind of Pete Douglas, jazz impresario of the beachfront Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, the spontaneity and avant-garde sound of bebop, as played by Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonius Monk, is nothing to be intimidated about.

“Why are we intimidated?â€? a reflective Douglas asks. “Jazz musicians of the modern period did not write their music to intimidate us. It’s part of us. Our musicians are a part of ourselves and when they’re at their best, we’re going to make discoveries about ourselves. It’s not a commercial product to appeal to our easiest emotions. It’s something that’s digging in and presenting in its different ways what we’re all about.

“’If we choose to hear the best of our culture, we’re going to enjoy life better, we’re going to know more about what we’re about, and we’re going to have a never- ending venture about life. And what the hell else is there?’

“Over the past two decades, this kind of dedication in the brillance of bebop has been the trademark of Douglas’ Oceanside jazz hangout. Pete Douglas’ ‘Bach Society’ is special because it’s one of the few small intimate jazz clubs left in the United States where the legends of jazz routinely play.

“Jazz greats who have ‘blown’ the Bach Society include such legends as reedmen Sonny Stitt, Pharoah Sanders, Lew Tabackin and Dexter Gordon; pianists Bill Evans, Hampton Hawes and Roland Hanna; drummers Art Blakey, Billy Cobham and Eddie Marshall; Milt Jackson and Cal Tjader on vibes; trombonist Julian Priester; and guitarists John Abercrombie, Herb Ellis and Charlie Byrd.

“He’s spent his adult life advocating jazz and today, at 57, Pete Douglas is like a patriach of the modern scene. With the hip, bohemian intellect of the 1950s, Douglas reflects, through a wreath of pipe smoke, on the scarcity of small jazz clubs like his own.

“’Since the early modern jazz scene things have changed in the whole entertainment world, man. In the pre-television era, people went out more. They went to clubs and followed their musicians. They singled them out in public, became personal with them. They compared them, man, like swapping baseball cards. It used to be that you hung out in jazz clubs and started picking upon the names and started following these people.

“’Well how can you do that now, when we don’t have hardly any small jazz clubs to go and heart great jazz in anymore? Record stores don’t let you play the records so you can learn about different bands or particular instrumentalists. And all that’s left over are these major concerts and festivals where you’re far removed from these musicians and the chance to even talk to them.

“’ So you saw Mick Jagger at a Rolling Stones concert. You saw him through the binoculars, man. That’s about as close as you’re going to get.’

“Jazz, Douglas reminds, is a personal and intimate music. It’s not a form, it’s a style. And you lose it if you can’t get a feel for the expressive individuality of these guys while they’re blowing. You just can’t emphasize it enough.

“’In my house, you have a personal identification with the musicians,’ Douglas says.

“The Douglas Beach House is a comfortable two-story stained wood home in Miramar about two miles north of the city of Half Moon Bay. Adjoining it is as intimate concert room where jazz at the Bach Dynamite and Dancing Society comes alive.

“The cool combination of jazz improvisation and hanging-out on the beach goes back to the late 1950s, when a younger and crazier Douglas first found himself in Miramar.

“Douglas emerged from the L.A. beach culture of the late forties, then, in the mid-fifties put his U.C. Santa Barbara sociology degree to work in the unlikely profession of adult probation officer for San Mateo County in the mid-fifties. (‘You could see how long I was going to last with that.’)

“After noticing ‘a little tattered beer joint for sale on Miramar beach one day, Douglas ‘L.A. sense’ for beach property persuaded him to make some inquiries. Soon, he was furiously scraping his modest salary together and borrowing to make terms.

“’We (wife and three-year-old daughter) lived like paupers down there. I mean boxes for furniture. And then the storm came, man, and every thing leaked. Christ, what we went through down there.

“’But we’d have beach parties. We’d have 50 or 60 people show up on a Sunday afternoon, and it was just one wailin’ party around there. And, of course that’s how the dynamite came in.

“’One day we were all juiced and someone had some dynamite and said ‘well, we want to do the dynamite.’ It wasn’t going to hurt anybody, just attract a little attention. But I said I was interested in the music and dancing. So I’m dancing and I’m juiced and while I’m dancing I decide to put on the Bach Brandenburg Concerto for a little relief. I said, ‘Well, Bach’s straight ahead rhythmically, let’s dance to Bach. So we’re dancing to Bach. Meanwhile, the guys are out on the beach. We don’t know what they’re doing and suddenly the dynamite gets off.

“’Made quite a boom down in Half Moon Bay. Anyway, that’s how we got our name.’

“Live jazz jam sessions became a natural outcropping of the Douglas beach scene when one of Douglas’ charges from the probation officer, a crazy young shoplifter named Pat Britt, turned out to be a sax player.

“Douglas, whose jazz sensibilities had long since been awakened in the jazz clubs of L.A. invited his young ward to come by and jam at the beer joint. Soon after, when Britt came down with musician friends from the City, live jazz at the Bach Society was underway.

“’I was definitely a part of the beat scene on this beach,’ says Douglas, recalling the beat pads he frequented in Princeton Harbor just a mile north of Miramar. Neal Cassidy, model for protagonist Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s beat classic On the Road once showed up at one of Douglas’ wildest parties.

“In this sense once can begin to grasp Douglas’ affinity for the bebop sound.

“In the social undercurrent of the fifties, beats rejected the nine-to-five ‘gig’ of traditional gray-flannel-suit America in the same way that bebop jazzmen rejected the dance rhythms and commercialized sound of the big band era.

“As jazz experimented with avant-garde sounds, beats experimented with avant-garde lifestyles.

“’Beats aped the cool, disengaged stance and laconic speech of the original hipster (black saxophonist) Lester Young. They copied black speech and movement, while digging black music,’ wrote former down beat editor Grover Sales.

“And jazz was and always has been black music.

“Over the years, Douglas’ private jam sessions evolved into intimate concerts open to the public. In 1965, the two-story beach house was completed, and by 1966, ‘we were doing it right here in my living room

“’We had a little stage over in the corner and it was crazy. 200 of us in my home, which is a single-family dwelling’.

“As the reputation of beach jazz at the Bach Society grew among touring jazzmen, performance in the Douglas House became more prestigious.

“By 1972 Douglas had gotten up the high-roofed, open concert addition, which he called the concert room. For the first time since those early jam sessions, Douglas had made jazz more than an avocation.

“In addition to the jazz performers, Douglas regularly books some of the world’s greatest classical players.

“’In 1976 I came up with the concept of the candlelight dinner concert. I started doing classical on Friday, separating it from anything that happened on Sunday so that we could focus on and developed a real chamber music setting.’

“Douglas is able to get world class classical musicians like the incredible 22-year-old Paul Neubauer (already principal violist for the New York Philharmonic) because, like Neubauer, most upcoming virtuosos first get out on tour as unknown.

“’Our chamber music—small classical groupings playing anything from Bach to the present—is just as loose as the jazz,’ Douglas says.

………..story ends here…because I lost the remainder of the piece….sorry

To read the February 16 “Tribute for Pete,” click here