Cal Tjader is so funny to talk with that it’s virtually impossible to get serious about anything, and that includes Cal himself. John Wendeborn, a critic for the Portland Oregonian, said recently: “The guy portrays a hyper sense of humor offstage that is a direct opposite from his quiet, yet active, demeanor when playing. Talking with Tjader for an interview with notes and all is difficult. He kept me in stitches most of the time with ad libs and imitations of other people, including his late friend Lenny Bruce.”
Perhaps Tjader’s personality encourages people to take the man and his music lightly. Even his primary instrument, the vibraphone, lends itself to thoughts of cocktail lounge chatter as opposed to serious jazz musicianship. Whatever the case, the San Francisco Chronicle’s John Wasserman wrote this about Cal:
“Cal Tjader is a classic case of the taken-for-granted jazz musician. He has played for 20 years in the shadow of Milt Jackson, and, more recently, been out-avant-garded by the likes of Gary Burton and Bobby Hutcherson.
“Well, fie on all of them. Cal plays the instrument more beautifully than anyone save Jackson, and can cook in a way Jackson can’t; or, at least, doesn’t. His music knows no boundaries—Afro-Cuban, jazz and pop are merely its elements—and combines commercial accessibility with the most pure musicianship.”
Tjader is a Swedish name; his mother bestowed her proper British affiliations on him with the middle name of Radcliffe. It’s more than ironic that their son grew up to be the most respected “gringo” Latinos have ever embraced.
Cal’s mother was a concert pianist, his father a vaudeville performer. He grew up with them on the road—tap-dancing his way through early childhood. Later, the family settled down in San Mateo on the San Francisco Peninsula, and his father opened a dancing school. “In those years, every kid on the block went to dancing classes on Saturday mornings.” After high school and a stint in the Navy, Cal ended up at San Francisco State College, where he first met up with Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond.
“The original Brubeck Octet was really a rehearsal group. That’s a fancy name for a bunch of guys who get together to play but don’t have any paying work!” Cal chuckles. Tjader graduated in 1950 with a B.A. in education and a minor in music. With Brubeck, Tjader hit the big time for the first time, and he liked it. The years between 1949 and 1951 were spent with Brubeck, and he fortunately realized that schoolteaching wasn’t for him.
Then, after a short stint as leader of his own group, Cal joined George Shearing’s Quintet as featured vibraphonist and percussionist. While with Shearing Cal made frequent trips to New York and began listening to the Latin New York bands of Tito Puente and Machito. “I always had an affection for Latin rhythms and I was looking for something different.”
When Tjader left Shearing (after winning all sorts of honors for himself as a vibraphonist), he formed his own group again and began to record prolifically for Fantasy. Between 1954 and 1962, Tjader cut a series of over 20 albums for Fantasy. (“It seemed like four or five LPs a year!”) The list of people who recorded with him during that time is truly impressive. Some are Vince Guaraldi, Mongo Santamaria, Willie Bobo, Stan Getz, Al McKibbon, Armando Peraza, Latin percussionist Johnnie Rae, and saxophonist Paul Horn. Many of those albums are still in the Fantasy catalog; they all sell steadily to a distinct and informed coterie of Latin-jazz/Afro-Cuban/salsa fans.
“Latin jazz?” asks Cal. “I thought it was called salsa today. It really doesn’t make a bit of difference. The same type of music was first called Afro-Cuban, then modern mambo, then Latin jazz, and now it’s salsa. Mambo-jombo. Tito [Puente] calls it ‘beans and rice music,’ others call it Latin soul. Actually, there’s no difference between a Latin soul and a Jewish soul! In fact, some of the most ardent fans of the music are Jewish (ask Bill Graham)!"
Tjader’s biggest-selling record was "Soul Sauce." Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo (a great conga drummer from Cuba who started with the Gillespie band in the late Forties) wrote an essentially jazz composition; Cal arranged it for his own style and retitled it ‘Soul Sauce.’ “I recorded that for MGM/ Verve in 1964. And it’s very strange, in a way, because I first started playing that tune in San Francisco clubs ten years earlier, in 1954. Then ten years later, it’s a hit in New York. You tell me! Willie Bobo played jawbone on that one, and Al McKibbon played congas. It was originally called ‘Guachi Guara’ but we knew that name wouldn’t make it, so we just called it ‘Soul Sauce.’”
Tjader continues: “It’s a strange feeling—even today. I was in New York City early in January  for a big ‘salsa’ gig. The audience always calls out for the old hits—‘Soul Sauce’ or ‘Cuban Fantasy’ or something like that. I guess every musician who has ever come up with an across-the-board hit gets that reaction."
Tjader re-signed with Fantasy Records in 1970. He has been producing a series of light, brisk, relaxed, easygoing albums—all of which have been imbued with Tjader’s special sense of control and lyricism. He swings, lightly or heavily, but he swings. One would be hard -put to find another white musician who has related so thoroughly to Latin rhythms. Beyond that, Tjader is the one who made those rhythms popular.
Some of Cal’s current and varied recordings for Fantasy include a collaborative effort with Charlie Byrd (Tambu), an all-ballads LP (Last Night When We Were Young), and an exciting live working-group performance (Puttin’ It Together). His much-acclaimed Amazonas, released last year, was produced by Airto, with arrangements from keyboard wizard George Duke. “Airto was a joy to work with,” says Tjader. “I’m very pleased with the way Amazonas turned out.”
Cal’s latest LP, At Grace Cathedral, is a live recording that decidedly captures the excitement and freshness of his music. Tjader performed at the “Concerts for the Hungry” benefit at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral as a short-notice replacement for his friend, the late pianist Vince Guaraldi, and he dedicated this album to Vince’s memory. Cal’s band on the LP includes Poncho Sanchez (congas), Lonnie Hewitt (electric piano), Rob Fisher (acoustic bass), and Pete Riso (drums).
Cal Tjader died May 5, 1982.