My last week on the road in San Francisco began with a rehearsal for pianist David Udolph’s tribute to bassist Chuck Metcalf (1931-2012) at Chez Hanny. I consider it an honor to be playing this concert. As I write this, I’m studying for the date by listening to several recordings of his music.
I first met Metcalf in 1973 at a jam session he was throwing in the basement of his house. I don’t remember exactly which part of San Francisco he lived in, but I remember that he used an unorthodox amplifier that was in the shape of a tube. I also remember how intensely he involved himself in playing the bass and that he didn’t go searching for notes to play, but simply played the notes that would work. He was a pretty busy bassist around the Bay Area at the time, so I had plenty of opportunities to listen to him play with local artists like Mel Ellison, Mel Martin, Jim Nichols, and Smith Dobson. For a while he shared the role of standard-bearer for the local jazz scene’s bass playing with James Leary, Ray Drummond, Chris Amberger, Bob Maize, and Mel Graves. The young players like Michael Formaneck, Kirby Lowe, and myself studied how they played and tried to build our own sound from it.
I was glad to see him in New York in the 1980s, playing with the likes of Dexter Gordon and Fred Hersch. It was around this time that I found out that he was also an architect. Although I never had the chance to talk a lot with Chuck, other than about basic music stuff and what kind of strings he used, I got to see him play quite a bit and I always liked his gear (like his weird amplifier). One item that especially caught my attention was his bass case. It was made of parachute material, tough but extremely lightweight. It turned out that his wife, Leila, made it. When she set up shop as an instrument case maker, I bought one for my five-string Ferdinand-Joseph Seitz bass. I still have the bass (although now it has six strings), but the case is long gone.
The last time Chuck played at Chez Hanny, it was with the group Udolph has reassembled with Steve Heckman on saxophone and Ron Maributo on drums, except for the addition of a vibraphonist, Jim Zimmerman. The last time I heard Chuck play in person, though, was at a jam session in 1981. It was a loft in New York’s Greenwich Village where pianist Fred Hersch and bassist Ed Felson lived. My apartment was a few blocks away and I kept my amplifier there (a much more orthodox, but rather large Ampeg V-6B). He had just finished his stint as Dexter Gordon’s bassist and was testing the waters of The Apple’s free-lance scene. His playing was in top form and I was expecting him to take the city by storm. But as circumstance would have it, he was also breaking up with Leila and would soon leave New York for Holland. I stayed abreast of his career through a grapevine of common associations, but only heard his playing on the recordings he made with saxophonist Bert Wilson.
Metcalf’s playing is not as well documented as it could, and should, be—something that can probably be said of most musicians. Considering the amount of music he played and the respect he commanded by those who knew him, though, I find it odd that he is on less than twenty recordings. Still, Chuck took the initiative to record four albums as a leader: Live In Seattle (1987), Elsie Street (1990), Help Is Coming (1992), and Thinking of You (2004). Elsie Street inspired enough critical acclaim to help get Metcalf inducted into the Seattle Jazz Hall of Fame in 1991, but he gained little recognition outside of the Pacific Northwest and San Francisco. The last three albums serve as showcases for his compositions and reveal a reverence for the jazz tradition that principally informed his bass playing. In essence, Chuck Metcalf was a “bebopper” who was most comfortable playing over song-forms, although he also had an affinity for left-leaning political theories and was fond of playing free jazz and loved the music of Albert Ayler. But he was not the kind of bassist who felt at home playing in more popular dance-based genres like Latin music, funk, or rock ‘n’ roll, which could have been a contributing factor towards his not recording more often.
One aspect of Chuck Metcalf that made him stand out from his contemporaries was an egalitarian approach to music. He believed that what he played on the bass was as important to any musical situation he found himself in as what the people he accompanied were supplying. Although not everyone he played with concurred with his philosophy, it was understood by anyone who called on his services that Chuck would give his best effort on stage, that he would go the extra mile. Part of that effort included organizing sessions, gigs, and recording dates; in a word, Chuck was a leader. But he led from the back of the band, primarily as an accompanist, even if it meant that his considerable skills as a soloist might be overlooked. For this reason, his best work was done backing up great soloists, such as: Mark Murphy, Dexter Gordon, Mose Allison, Art Pepper, Anita O’Day, Bobby McFerrin, Joe Pass, Bob Dorough, Art Farmer, and lesser known masters like Mel Ellison, Mel Martin, and Smith Dobson. His behind-the-scenes attitude towards music making also expressed itself in an entrepreneurial bent that included co-founding the Seattle Jazz Society in 1966.
Metcalf was a contemporary of fellow Seattle-ites Ray Charles and Quincy Jones and his approach to making music harkens back to a time when jazz wasn’t as institutionalized as it is now. He was from an era when mega-venues like Jazz at Lincoln Center hadn’t begun supplanting jazz festivals, and jazz musicians came up with their own ideas about harmony and theory. Musicians like Metcalf mostly plied their trade in nightclubs that offered a much more intimate listening experience. Audiences that wanted to listen to this highly original American music had to do some homework and be willing to make almost as much of a commitment to the music as the artists who played it. While today’s large institutions can provide the opportunity to listen to jazz in a setting that rivals an ideal that listening to recordings provide, the level of disconnect between performer and listener they create might also foster a sense of indifference towards a tradition of aesthetic growth that was part of the jazz experience of the 20th century. It’s something to keep in mind as jazz nears its centenary in the second decade of the 21st.