Guitarist Calvin Keys’ Kinder, Jam Sessions

Guitarist Calvin Keys. Photo by John Goyer.

By Lee Hildebrand There are two types of jazz jam sessions: the ones where the host calls out tunes in uncommon keys with difficult chord changes and tempos faster than a speeding bullet, the purpose being to discourage less-experienced players unable to rise to the challenge, and others where the host actually encourages newcomers. Guitarist Calvin Keys, who co-hosts a jam session of the second, kinder and gentler kind with alto saxophonist Melvin Butts every Monday evening from 7 to 11 p.m.  at the 57thStreet Gallery, located at the corner of Telegraph and 57nd in North Oakland, was fortunate as a teenager in his native Omaha to have cut his jazz teeth at jam sessions led by legendary saxophonist and singer Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson. “He played ‘Tune Up’ and called the changes out to me,” Keys, now 70, says of his first encounter with the late musician. “I would be scuffling a couple times around, but eventually I would grab it. Then I’d go home and practice my butt off. I’d go back down the next Sunday, and he’d say, ‘You been practicing?’ I said, ‘Yeah,’ and he’d get up on the bandstand and call a different tune.” Noted for his work with Ray Charles and Ahmad Jamal and for numerous recordings of his own, Keys first came to Oakland in 1961 with organist Frank Edwards and drummer James Gadson to play Don Barksdale’s Sportsman’s Club. He’s been an Oakland resident since 1974. Surrounded by white walls filled with realistic color portraits of Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Etta James, Whitney Houston and other jazz and soul greats, the Monday night house band played the first set at a recent jam. Keys, Butts , pianist Keith Saunders, bassist Michael Jones, and drummer Leon Joyce took turns soloing at length on such numbers as the standard “Sweet and Lovely” played over a “Killer Joe” groove and “Milestones,” the tune Davis recorded in 1947 with Charlie Parker on tenor, not the better-known 1958 Davis song of the same  title. “This is a watering hole,” Keys said to the 60 or so musicians and fans in attendance before Butts began calling names from a sign-up sheet to the bandstand. Among the many who sat in over the next two-and-a-half hours were saxophonist  Jim Grantham, flugelhornist Justin Smith, flutists Jane Lenor, Art Maxwell, and Nika Ritto, and vocalists Kozi Arrington, Jackie Gage and Daria Nile. Younger participants included 26-year-old guitarist Eni Pela and drummers Ayinde, 18, and Timothy Angulo, 15. The Bay Area jazz community may have lost such important contributors as drummer Eddie Marshall, trumpeter Khalil Shaheed and saxophonist Vince Wallace in recent times, but the arrival of pianist Saunders from New York and former Ramsey Lewis drummer Joyce from Chicago has helped replenish the scene, as have up-and-comers Pela, Ayinde and Angulo. “My intention is to expose the youngsters to this art form that we’ve created over the years,” Keys says. “We’re passing the torch on in a sense.”
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