Vibraphonist Cal Tjader was a pioneer of small group, Latin jazz. He combined Afro-Cuban and Brazilian rhythms with jazz harmonies and improvisation to forge an original, personal and highly influential sound. While his contributions to music loom large, Tjader never got the acclaim he deserved during his lifetime. Author S. Duncan Reid hopes to correct that with his new biography, “Cal Tjader: The Life and Recordings of the Man Who Revolutionized Latin Jazz.”
Originally from the Midwest, Cal Tjader became established in the San Francisco Bay Area as a member of the West Coast Jazz Scene of the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, alongside names like Dave Brubeck and Vince Guaraldi. Reid points out that Tjader was actually a member of Brubeck’s trio before he formed his own group, employing Guaraldi as his pianist. Of the three men, Reid says “they’re all connected in that burgeoning, West Coast jazz scene and I think that Cal’s importance is definitely on the same level.”
Tjader was stationed in the Philippines during World War II. That experience informed one of his most famous recordings, Soul Sauce. It includes the popular composition Leyte and showcases Tjader’s rich and nuanced harmonic sense and “right-on-the-money” sense of rhythm, says Reid.
Tjader won a Grammy award for his 1980 recording “La Onda Va Bien.” The album was released on the Concord Jazz label at the behest of label president and founder Carl Jefferson after Tjader lost his contract with Fantasy Records.
Less than 3 years later Tjader suffered a series of heart attacks that cut his life short at the age of 56.
“It’s just a shame that he died so young,” says biographer Reid. “Because there are some musicians that are doing things that are similar to what Cal did and they don’t even realize where they got it from. And it’s the history I think that’s really important. People need to know that.”