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Larry Vuckovich

When you first see his face on the cover of his latest CD release Street Scene, Larry Vuckovich looks like your grandfather; the grey hair sticking out from under the black beret, the trench coat tied at his waist, the knowing world weary look on his face. He sort of looks like one of those tough guys in the old nineteen forties movies, kind of like the guy Humphrey Bogart would run into, or maybe Cagney or maybe even George Raft. The album cover is straight out of the film noir period, which is good because that is his favorite kind of movie and it fits him just fine. But that is where any resemblance to anyone's grandfather ends. Larry Vuckovich is a very unique individual and his life is anything but dull and ordinary.

We live in a time of manufactured idols, those sound bite musicians who are all smoke and mirrors and as the famous movie line goes, "run the emotional gamut from A-to-B" when they perform. Such is not the case with this man. Larry Vuckovich is the real thing. He is from the old school and knows his way around the world and around the block, and it has been an amazing journey. From Nazi devastated, Communist dominated Yugoslavia, to the creative be bop scene of San Fransisco in the early 50's and beyond, Larry Vuckovich casts a very long shadow. If anyone claims to love good music in general and great jazz in particular, then this is someone that they should get to know and know well.

Starting out as a classically trained piano player in post World War II Yugoslavia, the young musician first heard jazz on Armed Forces Radio and the Voice of America, and got some small glimpses of life in America through some of the few Hollywood movies that played near his home. He practiced on the family piano that was located not at home, but at the town hall since it, along with his home, had been confiscated by the government. Both his father and brother had been thrown into prison and other relatives had been executed during both the Fascist and Communist regimes. "Jazz lifted my spirits and inspired me," says Vuckovich, "It also meant freedom and creativity in every possible way." In 1951, Larry and his family were given political asylum in the United States. "Besides finding my jazz base, I developed a passion for films and tried to catch up on all the ones I had missed before I came here. The films of the forties, and especially the music in them, had a haunting, sophisticated, bluesy quality, and it struck me as a good soundtrack for my life."

"When I play, I think of colors and when I select songs, I think of colors so that not everything has a similar flavor to it. It is a jazz. It is like when you look at paintings, it is nice to have different pallets to look at. They all contribute to the whole. I like variety in all things," he says.

When Vuckovich and his family came to this country, fate lent a hand. "I was lucky that my family settled in San Fransisco. That was then a cookin' scene for be bop. I come from straight ahead jazz," he says. Vuckovich lived in the golden age of jazz and San Fransisco was a place that just about everybody who was anybody played in, at some point. He also did not lack for teachers. Cal Tjader's wife Pat was the first. Then the great Vince Guaraldi took Vuckovich on as his only student, a relationship that lasted until the latter's death. It was Guaraldi who introduced Vuckovich to Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Hank Jones and many others, giving him even more fuel for his creative fire. "It's like eating different foods," says Vuckovich, "Hamburgers are great, but I like to mix it up. The same goes for music."

By the 1960's, Vuckovich was a staple on the West Coast jazz scene and his enormous talent made him a much sought after musician. He was the late, great Mel Torme's first call pianist whenever he played the Bay area. In 1965, he started a twenty-year association with the scat master Jon Hendricks, the kind of stuff legends are made of. A steady gig at the Domicille in Munich, as a member of the Jon Hendricks touring stage production of Evolution of the Blues, Vuckovich was the only non-black member of the troupe. He also had another long gig as part of the house trio at Todd Barkan's Keystone Korner in San Fransisco and numerous recordings on the Palto Alto Jazz label. The list goes on. Then in 1985, his next big move was from the West Coast to the East and the heartland of jazz, New York City. For the next five years, he played just about everywhere with just about everyone. Then in 1990, he returned to the more laid back atmosphere of San Fransisco and has called it home ever since. In the late 1990's, he was director of the Napa Valley Jazz Festival, which allowed him the chance to pay tribute to those musicians who had influenced him, with his deep abiding love for jazz.

It seems that Larry Vuckovich has been everywhere, played with just about everyone, and has left his mark on the world of jazz like few others. The good new is there is no sign that he will be stopping anytime soon. Like a fine wine, he ages gracefully and continues his quest for the perfect sound. His mission is to spread the love of jazz everywhere. This is someone you have to know, not just for his music (which is among the most sublime and elegantly played music on the planet), but for the man. You need to explore the depth of the soul and the passion of the heart that makes Larry Vuckovich tower over those around him. There are painfully few men of this caliber around anymore so do yourself a favor, listen! You will be a better person for the experience.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Larry Vuckovich
  • Interview Date: 8/1/2006
  • Subtitle: The Street Scene with Mr. V
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