By Dee Dee McNeil
June 1, 2021
Tomas Gargano – 2006 from Dee Dee’s personal photo collection.
It was so good to speak to my longtime friend and gifted bassist, Tomas Gargano last week. As we chatted, I discovered some little-known facts about his life and musical career. Always in celebration of the history and legacy of jazz, Tomas was inspired early-on by his father, a man who initially had aspirations to become a saxophone player.
“The first instrument in the family was the piano and my sister was taking piano lessons from an old Italian lady down the street in Detroit. We lived on the East side; Six Mile and Gratiot, when I started messing around with the piano. Then, my father bought me a cheap, eighteen-dollar guitar. I started playing that. My father also played Count Basie in the house, relentlessly, at a very high volume. (laughter) One of the things I remember most is holding my father’s big calloused hand, ‘cause he was a blue collar worker, and going to see the Count Basie band. I was seven years old. My father was a frustrated saxophone player. In fact, I started saxophone lessons when I was seven years old, same time he took me to see Count Basie’s band. It’s seared into my memory. I kept asking him, dad – what’s that big thing back there (pointing to the upright bass). He’d be saying; listen to the saxophone. So, I played saxophone until I was sixteen years old.”
From that seven-year-old moment, staring up in awe at Marshall Royal and the Count Basie Big Band, Tomas Gargano fell in love with the bass instrument. Even though he dabbled at piano and studied saxophone for several years, he was infatuated by the sound and application of the bass in a musical setting.
“There was a place on Gratiot Avenue, by my house, where I actually got to hear James Jamerson, the legendary, great, Motown bassist. He was playing upright at the time. I would walk up the alley to the back of this place, The Peppermint Twist Club, and listen to him play through the window. I was a little fourteen or fifteen-year-old kid. I’d stand there and listen to Jamerson play through that back window. They called him the Funk Machine even then and he was playing upright. He’s one of the most influential musicians in my life,” Tomas sang the praises of a man credited with helping create the Motown Sound.
It’s important to remember that the Motown Sound, for the most part, was played and created by jazz musicians. James Jamerson had deep roots in jazz, like many of the seasoned musical veterans around Detroit at that time. Tomas followed his dream of becoming a working musician. He sought out those elders who could inspire, teach and enhance his goal.
By that time, he had put down the saxophone and picked up the bass.
“My first bass teacher was Ed Pickens. He was playing bass with Stevie Wonder. Later, I was at Wayne State University; but then Oakland University started a Jazz Series Study Program. So, I started driving up there. It was about a 40-mile drive to Rochester, Michigan. The instructors were pianist and arranger, Harold McKinney, trumpeter and arranger, Marcus Belgrave and tenor saxophonist, Sam Sanders. Those masters were my teachers,” Tomas Gargano recalls his formative years in music.
When he was just nineteen years old, word spread about his talents on bass. He was called to play a church gig with none other than the queen of soul, Aretha Franklin and her sisters, Carolyn and Erma. It was a three-night fundraiser at New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit. There, Tomas met Herbie Williams, who played trumpet and drummer, George Davidson. By 1975, Tomas was gigging steadily around the Motor City. Out of the blue, he got a call to go to Japan and work at the Tokyo Playboy Club as part of their house band. He had planned a move to New York City and live with a cousin, but when this unexpected opportunity cropped up, he snatched it.
“I was the house bassist at the Playboy Club in Tokyo for almost a year. I was on a flight back from Japan and supposed to arrive in San Francisco and then return from there to an apartment in New York on East 24th street. But there was a bad storm that made the airline divert their flight. We landed in Los Angeles. I had a few friends in L.A.; so, I called them,” Tomas explained how he relocated to Los Angeles by accident.
“It was 1979. As for Los Angeles, I checked it out, but I was still determined to get back to big city life in New York. I love a big-city- feel like Detroit, Chicago and New York. But just before I was supposed to leave for NYC, I met Duke Burrell and George Reed. That became a thirteen-year relationship. Once I made peace that I was staying in Los Angeles, it made me think, maybe there was a deeper reason. I remember I was reading the Charles Mingus book, ‘Beneath the Underdog: His World as Composed by Mingus.’ Mingus mentioned Red Callender. So, I thought shit, if I’m here in L.A. I should look this man up. Studying with Red Callender was the greatest thing in my life! It was such a productive, warm relationship that I’ll never forget. He was so much more than a bass teacher. He was a friend and a mentor. He gave me life lessons,” Tomas sang the great bass players praises.
Tomas Gargano’s affinity to surround himself with the elders of jazz and music continued with his long-term association as part of drummer, George Reed’s Trio. Tomas was the baby of their group and George Reed and pianist, Duke Burrell took him under their wise wings to nurture and support his talent. Reed grew up in Harlem and played with Charlie Parker, Red Allen, Marian McPartland and Buddy Tate, to list just a few. Born September 2, 1922, George Reed’s mentors had been Count Basie, Freddie Green and Jo Jones. So, the polished drummer had a wealth of knowledge to share. Duke Burrell was also historic. Born in July of 1920, his roots were in New Orleans, Louisiana. Duke had played with Louis Jordan, Fletcher Henderson, Johnny Otis, Barney Bigard and even Louie Armstrong. So once again, Tomas was surrounded by jazz elders and cultivated by their wisdom. He loved it!
“We worked seven nights a week for a couple of years at Mr. Robert’s Club,” Tomas reminded me. “I think I met you there.”
THE GEORGE REED TRIO
Drummer, George Reed, pianist Duke Burrell and bassist, Tomas Gargano.
Tomas continued his jazz legacy by working consistently with a long line of legendary Los Angeles Jazz cats. He spent several years being the bassist of choice for reedman, Teddy Edwards, vocalist, Ernie Andrews, the amazing Betty Bryant, Linda Hopkins and even myself. Like those iconic musicians, I love the way Tomas Gargano plays his bass!
“I was thinking about this last night; all the musicians you introduced me to,” Tomas Gargano surprised me with that comment. “Through you, I met Rickey Woodard, Charles Owens, Bobby Pierce, Dwight Dickerson, James Gadson, Mel Lee, George Bohanon, Quentin Dennard, Kenny Elliott, Lanny Hartley and so many more of the L.A. cats.
“I remember one gig with Teddy Edwards,” Tomas reminisced. “I think it was his 75th birthday and it was when they used to have those ‘live’ broadcasts from the Biltmore Hotel in downtown L.A. I didn’t know the pianist on the gig. So, we were sitting there at the bar, talking. I asked him casually where he’d been gigging. He told me he’d just came off the road with Wynton Marsalis. To my surprise, it was Eric Reed,” Tomas chuckled.
“Then there was Johnny Kirkland, the drummer, who would call me for gigs. He’d say, be on time. Oh, he was a task master. One day he said, Tomas, come on over to my house, have dinner with me and my wife and then we’ll go up in the attic so I can show you my train set. Those are the most memorable things I treasure about Los Angeles; those personable moments. Those friendships. Another time, I got a call from Bill Douglas to do a gig at this popular Country Club. It was with Gerry Wiggins, (the Wig) on piano, myself, Bill Douglas and Marshall Royal. He was the saxophone player I had heard when I was seven years old at that Count Basie concert with my father. I couldn’t believe I was playing with this man some thirty years later. I flashed back to when I asked my dad, what’s that big thing being played in the back of the stage. Even then, I wanted to play that bass. My father wanted me to choose the saxophone. So, I called my dad and Marshall Royal spoke to him. He was so gracious and such a gentleman to my father. I remember, he said to my dad; your son made the right choice, referring to my choice of instrument. That was a great moment.”
Tomas Gargano’s bass playing has been one of the favorite choices of vocalist, pianist, composer, Betty Bryant for years. He participated, as bassist, on almost every one of her album releases. In summer of 2018, he flew into Los Angeles to be a part of her 88th birthday studio session.
“I also recorded with Teddy Edwards. It was a small, small compact studio. Fritz Wise was on drums, Red Holloway on sax and Harry “Sweets” Edison. I was so proud and humbled to be with those incredible musicians. After the session, we all went out and had Chinese food,” Tomas laughs that joyful laugh that twinkles his eyes and brightens his face.
Adam Marino, James Gadson, Tony Guerro, Betty Bryant, Robert Kyle & Tomas Gargano – 2018
“When I first got to L.A., I remember going to an event called a Taste of L.A. in Santa Monica and I saw three people performing there. I said to myself, I’m going to work with them. It was Ernie Andrews, Poncho Sanchez and you. You were the three stand-outs to me that I wanted to work with and I accomplished that!”
Nine years ago, Tomas packed-up his Los Angeles home and he and his wife Jill relocated to New York City. Before he knew it, he was playing gigs and meeting more jazz royalty.
“Our upstairs neighbor, for two years, was Jon Hendricks of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross fame. He lived on the 31st floor. We live on the 27th floor. He saw me years ago rolling the bass to the gig. He said; Hey Mr. Bass man, bring that bass up to my place and let’s do something. I got to know him. Just being in his presence was inspiring. I’d go up and play, he would just sing and what it made me think about was, for me, the most beautiful work I’ve done is with singers, spoken word and poets. There’s something about the intimacy of the voice and the bass that’s always just moved me to be my best. He was the most dapper gentleman. Even in the last part of his life, when he was in a wheelchair, he was just so generous with his spirit.
“Playing the Apollo Theater was really something. I was with Billy Kaye’s trio and a poet. You come out and you rub the stump, you know. To do that was really something. I’ve done a lot of gigs with poets here in New York. Actually, I’ve worked with the Dean of NYU, Robert Gibbons, who’s a prolific poet. One of my most memorable gigs was with former L.A. resident, Dwight Dickerson and Greg Bandy. Greg was the drummer with Pharoah Sanders and we were the house trio for quite a while, playing at Dwight’s Harlem jazz spot that he opened. Mr. Ron Carter walks into the club one night. I remember distinctly we were playing Jitterbug Waltz in B flat. This tall elegant man bows to the band, comes up to the stage while we’re playing the song and he says to me, may I? Ron Carter wants to sit-in and play my bass! Naturally, he proceeded to play the shit out of that song. After the set, he complimented my instrument and we talked bass talk. Before the pandemic, I also worked a lot at Paris Blues Club, on 123rd and Adam Clayton Powell Blvd. I worked there for years with several different groups. My favorite group was Melvin Vines’ Harlem Jazz Machine with Noriko Como on piano, Charles Davis Jr. and Elliot Pineiro on tenor saxophones, Jeremy Donson on alto sax and Malik Washington on drums. I toured Europe with them. The Paris Blues Club owner died early during the COVID pandemic; Sam Hartgris. One of the nicest men I’ve ever known in my life. I think he owned the whole block. He’s one of those guys who sponsored the local soft ball teams in the community. He never looked it, but he was in his eighties. This elegant black man, always in a three-piece suit and a Fedora hat, was the coolest cat in the neighborhood. He encouraged me to bring my own band into his club, but I never did it.
“One of my favorite places in New York City is a four-story brownstone. It’s 3-doors west of 130th and Lenox. It is the New Amsterdam Musical Association and it’s basically the Black Musicians Union, founded in 1903, incorporated in 1906. People think it’s the oldest Musician’s Union in the country. Just a joyous place, because everybody’s welcome. Don Byron, he’s a well-known saxophone player and clarinetist; his father is Don Byron Sr. and he’s 94. He was the house bassist at the New Amsterdam Musical Assoc. (NAMA). Monday nights were my favorite nights of the week, because I’d head up to the 802, that’s the local New York Musician’s Union, where the Jazz Foundation had jam sessions from 6pm to 10pm. Then, I’d jump on a train and go up to NAMA. They had a Monday Night Jam session. Finally, I’d come down here and finish out the night at my regular gig with Billy Kaye. I’d get home about four-o-clock in the morning. I believe NAMA is the heart of the Harlem community. Recently, Don Sr. said to me; Boy, it’s your turn. You’re next. Just like Duke Burrell said it to me. That’s when I became their house bassist at NAMA.”
Drummer, Billy Kaye & Tomas Gargano after the Monday Night Jam Session at Local 802.
“Currently, I sit on the jazz committee of the Union 802 in New York alongside people like Buster Williams, Jimmy Owens, Rachel Z. Hakim, Gene Perle and quite a few people. It’s something that I hold dear. There’s been no work over the last year, but it’s an organization where we’ve rallied, marched and protested for the benefit of the jazz community. I’m very grateful to be on that panel and proud of the work we do.
What’s the difference between the L.A. Jazz Scene and the New York Jazz Scene, I ask Tomas.
“Commuting!” he tells me. “I remember when I was living in Los Angeles, you have to leave 3 hours ahead of the gig to get there on time. Here, I spend about 20-minutes on the subway. In L.A. you’re stuck in your car on the 405 or the 91 freeways for hours. In New York, it’s person to person. There’s a people connection. Mass transit makes it more personal here.
Tomas Gargano has found, over his career, that ‘personal’ is the magic word. His relationships are personal, his music is personal and his love of the bass is personal. He’s performed worldwide and lived in the Midwest, moved to the East Coast and settled on the West Coast. He’s played his instrument throughout Europe and Japan. This busy bassist finds there are great musicians everywhere and he’s rubbed shoulders and stood on bandstands with some of the best in the business. Inspired by the jazz elders, Tomas recognized early on that you have to appreciate and respect music history in order to flourish in ‘the now’ and bring historic relevance to the present. When he’s not fighting for musician’s rights or organizing union groups, he’s working in clubs and concerts, building his own rich, bass legacy.