JAM Stars: Al Molina
Photo by Jessica Levant
Al Molina, the putative founding father of jazz at the 7 Mile, showcases his brassy ensemble there on the first Tuesday of every month. But he’s also putatively the most omnipresent of the venue’s veterans, likely to be called up from his stool at the bar to play on any other Tuesday, or Sunday, or Monday. That’s just how much he’s loved by his fellow music-makers, and how much he loves to make music.
“Straight From the Heart”. That’s what is says on the big sign on the wall at Al Molina’s home, high on a hill above downtown Brisbane. Fortunately, his route from and to the many local gigs he’s played, after his career start more than five decades ago, has taken him straight up and down Bayshore Boulevard and right by the 7 Mile House. It was thus that he espied owner Vanessa Garcia, a decade ago, out in front of the venue, dismantling a sign which had announced Sunday jazz sessions which just hadn’t been good for either music or business. “I’d sat in a few times,” Al recounts, “and I told her I could probably get a following, if she’d give me a few weeks. I asked her, what’s your worst day, and she said Tuesdays, and I said, okay, I’ll take it.” Al wanted to keep Sundays free for the lively jazz jams still happening at that point at the Dogpatch Saloon, five-plus miles to the north.
He themed his 7 Mile Tuesdays on the music of legendary trumpeter Chet Baker, “one of my main influences”. Later Tuesdays featured the music of Horace Silver and other greats whose creations Al had painstakingly transcribed and arranged for sextet, with results that attracted not only serious jazz fans but also musicians “who hadn’t had a chance to hear what we were doing live, they’d only heard it on record. We also played tunes that weren’t ordinarily covered: Joe Henderson originals, McCoy Tyner originals, Cedar Walton originals.”
Music traditions in the Molina factory extended well beyond California and jazz, to Mexico, where Al’s paternal grandfather had led a military orchestra, until his affiliation with the rebel Pancho Villa had led him to usher his family and his Haynes gold-plated flute (presented to him by the Queen of Spain) across the border in 1914. The Molinas ultimately migrated further north to Pittsburg, California, and after Al’s pianist uncle Pablo got a position with a WPA orchestra in 1930, that generation, including Al’s drummer father (also named Alfonso, and Al Junior's first music teacher), relocated to San Francisco. Alfonso Sr. and his wife Marie welcomed Al into the world in 1935, at a home not far from where Pablo, Al’s first trumpet teacher (at age eight), would acquire the Castleview club, later renamed El Matador. Young Al reveled in his dad’s recordings of Harry James and performed Stan Kenton and Woody Herman material in the orchestras and bands of Denman Junior High and Balboa High. But Al also joined the older Molinas for ‘casuals’ in the Mexican community, including quinceañeras, lavish celebrations of girls’ fifteenth birthdays. Before graduating, Al signed up with the Army, where he got posted to Japan and Korea but ended up playing in a marching band and hanging out at jazz clubs (“I saw Toshiko Akiyoshi, she sounded like Horace Silver then”) rather than serving on the front lines.
Funded by the GI Bill after his discharge, Al attended San Mateo Junior College and played in a big band where his fellow trumpeters included Phil Lesh, later better-known as the bassist for the Grateful Dead. Beyond academia, “I cut my teeth playing bebop with Vince Lateano [another future 7 Miler], Vince Wallace [who introduced Al to a visiting Chet Baker], Billy Atwood, Kurt Glenn, and others”, gigging at local clubs in the evening and jamming at someone’s house during the day. Al first linked up with future 7 Mile rostermate Dave Bendigkeit on a gig for the Bohemian Club.
Al had already moved to Brisbane when he started playing at Sonny Buxton’s Milestones club, on Fifth Street in San Francisco, and leading jam sessions at Jazz at Pearl’s across town on Columbus Avenue, managed by Buxton and owned by Pearl Wong. When Pearl’s closed and a Sunday jam, led by Lateano and saxophonist Andrew Speight was started at the Dogpatch Saloon, Al and his Australian Kangol hat became a regular sight and sound. So after Dogpatch in turn went musically silent, Al suggested to Vanessa Garcia that the Sunday sessions join the schedule at the 7 Mile House, where they were rechristened as the ‘Doghouse Jam’. “It picked up like it was no loss at all,” Al beams, “and Mike [Apicelli, former Dogpatch owner] became a regular customer.” Al also convinced Garcia to book his former bandmate Bendigkeit to fill the Monday night slot, and “I suggested to him to not just do instrumentals, his Freddie Hubbard stuff and standards, because I knew he sang and did comedy material, from the times I’d worked with him in Pacifica,” as the Al & Dave Show, at Bendigkeit’s Shintaikido studio.
Unlike the 7 Mile’s Sundays and Mondays, Al’s own sextet sessions have depended exclusively on reading his charts, without which “you wouldn’t get the precision harmonies”. Singers and visiting instrumentalists are invited up, as long as they too can read. Al is very happy with how the jazz seeds he’s sown have blossomed at the 7 Mile. “It’s a perfect location, the gateway to the Peninsula and to San Francisco. The audiences are appreciative, very hip, they know when to applaud and not to, because they’re listening. And Vanessa, who was a musician herself, knows the value of musicians, how hard they work to get to where they are. She knows it’s ‘cause you love to do it, ‘cause you’re not gonna get rich doing it, unless you’re on tour with Stevie Wonder. The going scale for most musicians is fifty dollars, and if you’re downtown, that can be for four hours, no food, no drinks, and you’re gonna have to pay for your parking. Here at the 7 Mile, they make up the difference by offering a meal and drinks, and everybody treats us with respect. It’s a good thing when you have the whole staff snapping their fingers. It’s kind of a love fest.”
A recording of Al’s sextet is in the works, as are possible bookings at other venues, including the Sound Room, in Oakland. Al was a pioneer of new media promotion with his e-mailed Jazzer newsletter, originally created on a Commodore 64 and distributed in paper form to classic clubs such as Peta’s, Kimball’s, and the Viz. These days, “I’m not gonna do a whole lot of traveling. I work on the art and the craft.” The craft extends to wire sculptures which adorn the inside of his Brisbane studio and rock sculptures on the outside. There are also proclamations of appreciation from the Mayor of Brisbane. “There’s an art community in this town, they put on presentations, with music,” Al testifies. “But it’s also kind of a homey area. People are trustworthy. They’re kind of throwbacks, in a way. They even post names, when people pass away.” We all support Al’s every intention of sticking around for a while.