Bob Magnusson: Love of Music Was Learned in San Diego
Bob Magnusson grew up in San Diego, attended Point Loma High School, and played bass behind both Buddy Rich and Sarah Vaughan before returning to San Diego. He was in the house band at Elario’s nightclub in La Jolla for much of the late 1980s, backing national jazz luminaries who came to town, and was a part of the combo Road Work Ahead with guitarist Peter Sprague, pianist Bill Mays, and drummer Jim Plank. He has appeared on dozens of jazz recordings and is as renowned for his gorgeous bow playing as for his impeccable rhythm.
This interview was originally published in the monthly Ocean Beach OBserver in 1990:
You grew up in this area?
Yeah, I grew up in this house, in fact. My wife and I are buying it from my parents. We moved in to Point Loma when I was between second and third grades. I went to Loma Portal Elementary, the old Dana Junior High School, and then Point Loma High School. I didn’t do any college; I went out on the road. I joined the Buddy Rich band in ’68, played for a year with that. I was 21 when I joined. Then I lived in Las Vegas for a while.
What was your first exposure to music?
My dad, Daniel Magnusson, was the principal clarinetist with the San Diego Symphony, and my mother was a piano teacher. I was born in New York City while my dad was going to the Juilliard School of Music; he had won a scholarship there. So, it has always been part of my life. I studied the French horn; I started in second grade and studied it for 12 years.
When did you become interested in jazz?
After I got into playing electric bass—I was 16, 17, I guess—in a surfing rock ‘n’ roll band around here. Then I got into a very good rhythm and blues band here in San Diego called the Kingsmen. These guys turned me on to jazz records. They were listening to a kind of funkier jazz, R&B-ish, with blues-tinged things. Then I heard a record, Kind of Blue, by Miles Davis with [John] Coltrane and Cannonball [Adderley]. And that was the record for me. I said, “I have to try to play jazz.” Because it had the elements of classical music in that it had beautiful harmonies, and it had the rhythmic side that I liked from rhythm & blues and the rock element that I had played. It really kind of captured my imagination.
So, at that point, I decided that I would try to play jazz. Then I debated about instruments, because from the French horn I could play the trumpet. I had studied classical guitar, so I thought about the guitar. And the bass, which I thought about, too. I finally decided on playing the bass. Just being young and naive, I didn’t realize that the acoustic bass was such a different instrument from the electric bass. After the tuning, there’s no relationship from one to the other, because the electric bass is really a guitar instrument and the acoustic bass is another animal.
Were you listening to records and trying to pick it up that way?<
I was listening to records, and then there was a wonderful man—he had come to San Diego sort of semi-retired, had a little sailboat—named Frederick Hughart, and he lived on Coronado Street. He was playing principal bass in the San Diego Symphony with my father, so when my father realized I was interested in really pursuing the bass, he made contact with Fred, so I had about six to eight lessons with him.
How did you get the Buddy Rich job?
I was living in Las Vegas at the time. I had met some friends who had encouraged me to move up there. And right away, I got a show band job, because I’ve always been a good reader from my classical music experience, so I could read really fast. So, I got a job—it was at the old Thunderbird Hotel. I think it was the last Minsky show that they produced there.While I was in that band, I met Chuck Findley—a wonderful trumpet player who worked in the studios in L.A. Chuck had worked in the Buddy Rich Band, and Chuck recommended me. So, on his recommendation, I went in there and got the job. I ended up staying about a year playing in the band, traveling all over.
You must have learned a lot about rhythm from Rich.
Yeah, I did. He was really a tyrant: The way he ran the whole thing was an amazing experience for me. But I learned a lot. He made me aware of a lot of things. He made me really aware of the importance of playing rhythmically accurate and having a good-time feeling. So, I’ll always be indebted to him for those qualities he helped me with there.
Was the band backing Sinatra at that time?
No, I did nothing with Buddy Rich and Sinatra. With Sarah Vaughan, I did a tour with Sinatra and Count Basie.
How did you get the job with Sarah Vaughan?
I joined Sarah Vaughan in 1972; again, it was through a recommendation. For me, it was a wonderful experience, because Jimmy Cobb, the drummer on the record I mentioned earlier, Kind of Blue, was the drummer working for Sarah Vaughan when I joined her trio.
That was a great experience. Of all the jobs I’ve worked at, that was one of the most educational for me as far as learning about time. I worked two years there, then one of my daughters was born and I left. When I returned I joined her again in ’75 and ’76.
Where did you go after Sarah Vaughan?
Originally, I left in ’72 and moved back here to San Diego. That’s when [my wife] Janet and I got together. And I got a job with the San Diego Symphony. So, I did that for a while. At that time, I couldn’t really make enough money—we had two children—to take care of anything. So, I started working—playing jobs, casuals, and various jobs around town.
I actually got fed up with music at one point, because of the kind of music I was having to play to make a living, I dropped out of music altogether. I tried to be a gardener for a while. I bought some lawnmowers and went around here and mowed people’s lawns, which I enjoyed. It was a really nice contrast. I did it for about four months. I didn’t feel like I was selling out like I was with the music. And it also gave me a chance to see the trees through the forest, so to speak. Because I’d been so wrapped up in trying to play music, I hadn’t really thought about it objectively at all.
After that time, I spoke with Janet, and said, “We’ve got to go to some big media market, some metropolis, and move there. I’ve got to see if I can play.” I was still practicing the bass. I would play on my own, but I just didn’t play out in public or take any jobs. The longer time went by, the more I started playing the bass and enjoying it again, because I wasn’t being pressured to do it for some kind of financial reason.
We decided to move to Los Angeles. Right about that time, Sarah Vaughan had called me again; her bass player had left and she was wondering if I was interested in a job again. So, I told her we had decided to move up there. This was in 1975, and it helped us financially. I returned with her trio; that was when [pianist] Carl Schroeder was there. He had also been there at the end of when I had been there in ’72, the last six, eight months we played together.
When I moved to L.A., I started trying to work there. L.A.’s the kind of town where if you’re out of town, people don’t really call. So, I started gradually—when I’d have time off from playing with Sarah—playing jazz jobs here and there. My interest was to play creative music; I didn’t go to L.A. to be a studio musician. It was totally from a musical standpoint to get in there and really play and be creative.
After a time, I had enough connections there. The whole music business is word of mouth, so the more I played around, the more people knew of me. It finally got to the point where I was able to leave Sarah; not because I wasn’t enjoying the music, but because I had a family and wanted to be in town as much as I could.
We stayed a total of eight years in L.A.—from ’75 to ’83. And I played with Joe Farrell’s quartet up there as well asVictor Feldman. It really afforded me some wonderful opportunities; I got to do my own records. A record company, Discovery/Trend Records, became interested in my playing. It’s a small label up there. I did about four or five albums under my own name.
After a time living in L.A., I felt I had tested myself out. When you’re younger, you’re kind of hungry and want to see if you “can you do this, and can you do that?” So, that had been sort of the driving force behind going there. That was what finally brought us back here.
A NIGHT AT ELARIO’S
The following story happened about the same the above interview was conducted. It is published here for the first time.
It was the last night of Papa John Creach’s two-week stay at Elario’s, which took up the entire top floor of the Summerhouse Inn in La Jolla. Elario’s nightclub was the epitome of swank, elegant nightlife for San Diego in the 1980s and early ’90s. With postcard views of the La Jolla strand through the floor-to-ceiling windows lining the west wall, it was a setting like no other.
For a few years, Creach (best known for playing violin with Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna) came to town to share a week with longtime friend and collaborator Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson. Vinson played one week, then he and Creach would do a week together, then Creach did a week solo.
After packing the place Wednesday through Saturday, in his second week in April, 1990, the Sunday crowd was a bit lighter. While the usual house band at Elario’s was composed of pianist Mike Wofford and bassist Bob Magnusson—both of whom played for Sarah Vaughan—and drummer Jim Plank, Creach brought his own pianist (Duane Smith) and drummer/singer Maurice Miller.
Having dinner before the show that April night in 1990 were local stalwarts Jeannie and Jimmy Cheatham, whose long-standing Sunday night jams at the Bahia Hotel had ended a year or two earlier when the Bahia’s owner died, and his children decided to book rock acts in the room where they formerly held court.
Introductions were made during intermission, and as he headed up for the second set, Papa John asked Smith if he minded if Jeannie sat in for a few songs. Smith’s face lit up. “I get paid to listen to Jeannie?” Papa John laughed and pointed out that he was going to get paid for listening to her, too.
Jeannie took her seat at the piano on the left side of the stage, with Papa John on violin, center stage. Magnusson and his bass were between them, with Miller to the far right by the window.
The band opened with a crisp take on Ellington’s “Perdido,” then Papa John asked Jeannie if she wanted to sing. They settled on “Ain’t Nobody’s Business,” and now the quartet was really clicking—especially Jeannie and Papa John, who were furiously trading eights on piano and fiddle, just going back and forth, each one riffing on what the other just played.
Miller, on drums, had a huge smile on his face. He confessed during intermission that he’d heard of the Cheathams through mutual friends but had never heard them before. Now he got to play behind Jeannie! And Magnusson was utterly in the moment—eyes closed, plucking out beautiful bass notes behind Papa John and Jeannie.
After Jeannie and Papa John traded solos four or five times, Magnusson began a solo on bass—only Jeannie and Papa John were so into their duel they didn’t notice and played over him! Magnusson, ever the gentlemen, dropped back, but at the end of the next solo, again tried to take his own—and was again cut off!
Jimmy, sitting with Papa John’s wife, Gretchen, in the audience, was watching all this, and laughingly yelled out, “Don’t you let them do that to you, Bob! You take your solo!”
The next time Jeannie and Papa John came to the end of a bar, Magnusson picked up his acoustic bass, waddled two or three steps forward toward the front of the stage—where he couldn’t be so easily overlooked—plopped it down with a noticeable thud, looked at Jeannie, made eye contact with Papa John, broke out his bow, and played the most magnificent riff on “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” you ever heard. Took a second for good measure.
Jimmy loved it. “That’s right, Bob, that’s right!”
BOB MAGNUSSON DISCOGRAPHY
• Revelation, Discovery Records, 1979
• Road Work Ahead, Discover Records, 1980
• Two Generations of Music (with Daniel Magnusson), Trend Records, 1982
• Song for Janet Lett, Discovery Records, 1984
• Liquid Lines, SBE Records, 2006
• Road Work Ahead, Night & Day, Trend Records, 1983
• Road Work Ahead, On the Road Again, SBE Records, 2004
• Road Work Ahead, Intersection, SBE Records, 2012