7 Mile JAM Stars: Vince Lateano
“You have to play, you can’t stay home and so-called ‘practice’. It’s not worth it! You have to get it in the heat of the battle.”
But although he’s a wizened veteran of both the Bay Area jazz scene and the US Army, Vince Lateano’s declaration doesn’t mean he’ll be jointly commanding the Doghouse Jams at the 7 Mile House with a strut and a swagger stick, nor that the weekly Sunday sessions will be battles. Vince instead is the soul of affable relaxation, cracking jokes both verbal and musical. “I was having fun in the old days,” he assures, “and I’m still having fun.”
The old fun days began for Vince in Sacramento in the ‘50s, where he’d started making music on trumpet in elementary school but switched to the drums in high school. He tried a couple of months at Sacramento State College, but came to realize that “the music department was all classical”, and he left to learn his trade on the road. At age 18, Vince was referred by a bassist friend to Carmen Cavallaro, “a showie boogie pianist” and recording artist who took the teenaged trumpeter out on tour. “It wasn’t jazz, but it was very demanding, technically,” Vince recounts. “And Carmen was merciless. As soon as each show ended, we would split,” to avoid critical confrontations with the bandleader.
In 1963, aged 20, Vince was drafted. “A lot of guys joined the military so they’d be guaranteed a spot in a band,” he points out, “but when you get drafted, you don’t have any say in that, whether you’re gonna be a clerk-typist or a bullet-stopper. But I finagled the [Army] interviewer into giving me an audition, and it was a piece of cake, I could read well, so I was sent to a BTU (a band training unit) at Fort Leonard Wood, in Missouri. I ended up teaching there, and also playing in the band.” The performing repertoire was principally military marches, “but we found ways off-duty to play [jazz], and we had a whole rehearsal area.”
After his obligatory two years of service, Vince returned to Sacramento, gigging in local clubs among former schoolmates such as Mel Martin and Rufus Reid. Vince moved down Route 80 to San Francisco in 1966, where both jazz venues and ‘commercial’ gigs were more plentiful. “I played the Coffee Gallery, the El Matador, off-nights at the Jazz Workshop, and there were strip clubs on Broadway,” where drums were considered an essential accompaniment to ecdysiasts. “One of my first gigs was at a little club on Haight Street called the Jukebox, which I’m now playing a half-block from, at the Club Deluxe. As for the so-called commercial things, all the big hotels had ballrooms, and they all had a 12-man minimum, so if there were any kind of [private] affair in a ballroom, it was a big band. And I’d done a lot of that, I could read and play all of it, and the bread was better than in the clubs. But I still spent my days jamming,” in a jazz context.
Another way to better pay was shows, and for a year-and-a-half, Vince was in the pit orchestra at the Geary and the Orpheum theaters for the soi-disant American Tribal Love Rock Musical Hair. Between the show and the daytime jamming, Vince developed tendonitis, but that didn’t stop his seizing an opportunity for which he’d been recommended, to tour with Woody Herman. “I went out with him for about four months, and it was a very demanding job, I really aggravated [the tendonitis]. It got to the point where I couldn’t make a stroke without a spasm. So I quit, when the band came back out here. But Woody had been really a cool guy, and playing that music I’d grown up hearing was a thrill.”
Recovering from the condition, Vince received another recommendation, this time to Cal Tjader’s Bay Area-based ensemble. “I’d been hanging out with the Latin scene, my good friends were the Escovedo brothers (Pete and Coke), and I knew [bassist] Rob Fisher and [vibaphonist] Johnny Rae, who put my name in the hat. [Percussionist] Pancho Sanchez was also in the band, and he gave me tips on what Cal liked to do.” Vince fit in the Latin-tinged repertoire neatly, and both toured and recorded with Tjader.
Over the next several decades, Vince became a staple of the Bay Area jazz scene, adapting himself easily to different genres and situations and establishing an ear-friendly style. “I’m definitely connected to the melody (and to the rhythm of course), and I try to play the drums melodically,” he says. “I breathe, like a horn player. [As a drummer] you have to decide whether you want to be a super technician, who can’t wait to get to the drum solo, or the other guy, whom people want to play with.” Vince is the best sort of other guy you could find.
Vince also connected during this period with vocalist Madeline Eastman, now his spouse. “We both happened to be at liberty around the same time, and our first date was going to see Peggy Lee at the Fairmont Hotel. We were dancing, but we knew everybody in the band.” Musical differences didn’t bother the couple, who only occasionally worked together. “I’m a stone bebopper, and she knows something about that. But she’s also into another area, with a little more experimentation, and she’s good at that.”
A quarter-century after his initial forays in the North Beach jazz scene, Vince found a regular spot at Jazz at Pearl’s on Columbus Ave., under the ownership of Pearl Wong and the management of Sonny Buxton. “It was Bruce Forman, Al Obadinsky, and myself, and we’d already been playing together because we were neighbors.” When Wong sold out in 2003, Mike Apicelli, who’d been a regular at Pearl’s, invited Vince to try his own venue, the Dogpatch Saloon on Third Street. “I said to Mike, let’s do something on Sunday afternoon, because we can get the older jazz crowd, and we can turn it into an invitational jam.” When Apicelli in turn surrendered ownership, Vince migrated yet further south, to the 7 Mile House, bringing with him the Sunday jam and many of its patrons. He was delighted with the new setting.
“Starting with Vanessa, she’s a gem,” Vince testifies, noting that the 7 Mile owner had herself been a drummer in her native Philippines, and that he’ll keep trying to get her to show her chops on the instrument. “A lot of musicians, when they get food and drink at a venue, don’t take care of the help,” he continues. “But we all take care of the help, and they in turn like our crowd.”
Vince also finds himself in good musical company every Sunday at the Doghouse Jam. “Andrew [Speight] is a stone bebopper, I guess Charlie Parker is in his DNA, but he’s a virtuoso, and he’s inspired, you can’t phone it in with him. Regular keyboardist Ben Stolorow and bassist Michael Zisman, also holdovers from the Dogpatch, “are very flexible. Sometimes somebody will make a left turn, and they’ll go, let’s do that!”
Both Vince and his mate Madeline are mentors at jazz camps and schools --- Vince in Monterey and Madeline at Stanford and La Honda —, and Vince is overall convinced that, “the young guys and gals are better than we were, because there’s access to material and to jazz schools. It used to be that there was just a handful of schools — Berklee, North Texas State, Indiana, and a few others with jazz departments. Now, you can’t go two blocks without running into a jazz program.”
Over time, though, Vince has waxed skeptical about the younger generations’ dependence on fake books and, more recently, mobile devices. “Somebody will call the tune, and all the iPhones come out! Bur reading can be distracting, and it’s not a hundred per cent accurate. When I do master classes, I teach by ear, because reading, you’ll never memorize it, and by ear, you’ll learn it forever.”
At the 7 Mile, after the first set, Vince is ever ready to welcome up both new players and old friends, of which he has plenty.