“How are you gonna read this room?” That’s the question Dave Bendigkeit put to himself when he was first brought to the 7 Mile House by fellow trumpeter Al Molina.
On his very first gig, sitting in, “It was like a Fellini movie,” he recalls about the merry, magical, multi-functionality of the venue. “There were people there just for the jazz, just for the sports, just having a pop, the tv’s were going, there were eight things going on at once, so it was multi-tasking. After about two weeks, I went, just do what you want, and everybody will be happy.”
That was two years ago, and every Monday, with his Keepers of the Flame band, he proves himself right again. Though Dave should be crediting himself for helping the happiness. In addition to being a virtuosic horn player and an ingratiating band leader, he’s also an entertainer in the purest sense, inviting audiences to love the tunes and to laugh in between them.
Dave had come back to jazz a few years before his 7 Mile gig, after an extended hiatus from the scene. Long before that, after growing up on the Peninsula, he’d started his career while he was still in college, “because you could make a living from music back then. And I realized that how you learned was sitting next to [veteran hornsmen] like Alan Smith, Jack King, and Johnny Coppola.”
His first recording, Looking Out, was released in 1981. “I wrote things for that that were like Freddie Hubbard or Woody Shaw, pentatonic things. I transcribed and memorized a whole lot of Freddie, Woody, Chet Baker, and Al Hirt, so you’ll still hear that in my playing.”
Through the ‘80s and ‘90s, Dave proved himself an impressive polymath. In addition to playing hotel gigs at the Fairmont’s Venetian Room and the Hyatt Regency, backing jazz royalty such as Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Torme, and George Shearing as well as pop stars Jack Jones, James Brown, and bluesman B.B. King, and lots of recording work in local studios, Dave handled stage lighting and photographed commercial jobs and bands, contributing album covers to the Full Faith & Credit Big Band and pianist Smith Dobson.
Eventually, the “play-gig-get-check” routine began to wear on Dave. “It felt like ditch-digging,” he points out. “Also, they’d started getting the synthesizers up, including a device they called ‘the emulator’, which we called ‘the eliminator’. And that sort of shot the recording thing.”
Dave credits Al Molina with helping to jump-start him back into jazz. “I was doing concerts in Pacifica, where I lived, and then Al started really pumping for me, with [7 Mile owner] Vanessa. Al and I had been hanging out a lot, at Rasselas and Grant & Green, and even though horns can be a competitive thing, we really hit it off. We started working together, and we tried to complement each other, the swords didn’t come out, though we play very differently.”
The 7 Mile had begun its investment in jazz with Al’s thematic Tuesday nights, then adopted the Sunday jams which had started at the Dogpatch Saloon but were orphaned when Dogpatch changed hands. “Then what they wanted was a night with more vocals, which is what mine became,” notes Dave about his Monday slot. “I sing a little bit myself — I’d started in ‘72 or ‘73, with Lambert, Hendricks & Ross stuff —, and that breaks up the total instrumental thing. I’ll do one or two funny tunes, like ‘I’m Hip’ or ‘Cloudburst’, and then I can say, now here’s a real singer,” and bring up one of the many vocalists who drop by on Mondays.
Dave assembled his ensemble to record the album of their same name, Keepers of the Flame, “and I wrote our theme song [the title song] the night before the session!” The rest of the album tracks, and a significant part of their live performances, are also Bendigkeit originals. “But even if we do ‘Don’t Get Around Much Anymore’, it’ll be our version.” And the all-star players have no problem making every delivery different. “All of them came up sitting next to great players, as opposed to going to college, and to me that’s important,” states their leader. [Drummer] Akira [Tana] played with Art Farmer and had a band, Tana/Reid, with [bassist] Rufus Reid. [Keepers bassist] Chris [Amberger] was the house bass player at Keystone Korner [the legendary erstwhile San Francisco jazz club], and he went out with Art Blakey. [Keyboardist] David Udolf is a wonderful player.
“And everybody reads well,” Dave continues. “I can be fearless, throw anything at them. And we’re able to express ourselves. I don’t use the band like they’re backing me up, we’re a unit. Everybody brings music in. I’m not ruling with an iron fist, and the crowd seems to respond to that. I’m the one who calls the breaks and most of the tunes, but Michelle Obama said something about jazz being a democracy, and we’re a bit of democracy.”
This form of governance works particularly well at the 7 Mile, Dave believes. “The room is real supportive. They might ask, would you mind playing ‘Happy Birthday’, or could so-and-so sing with you. That [courtesy] allows musicians to open up, as opposed to them being the court jesters or just singing for their supper. And it’s nice that they don’t seem to think it’s our job to bring the drinkers and eaters in.” But as for his own 7 Mile suppers, “the food is great!”
At the end of the day — at least at the end of each Monday —, Dave feels the 7 Mile is the right place to be at this point in his still-bourgeoning career. He promotes his gigs there on Facebook perhaps better than any fellow artist, “and I have Facebook Friends who, if they’re in town, might come down.” A few months ago, the group hosted a visiting Branford Marsalis, and the 7 Mile’s own Andrew Speight is a more frequent guest participant, as is Al Molina.
From his Monday showcase, Dave has secured engagements at other venues such as San Francisco’s Bird & Beckett Bookstore. “I don’t have to give somebody a cd and a business card any more. I just say, come on down and check the band out. This is my business card.”
Almost as satisfying are the occasional 7 Mile customers who seem not to have come for the jazz but to leave with a love of it. “There’ll be somebody at the bar looking like a hoodlum, and they’re bopping their head and clapping for the solos,” Dave chuckles. “You just never know.”