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Jim Plank: San Diego’s Steady Jazz Pulse

Drummer Jim Plank.

Leonard Feather, legendary jazz critic for the Los Angeles Times, was chatting with a local journalist between sets at Elario’s nightclub in La Jolla during a late 1980s engagement by trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison.

“I come down here to Elario’s as often as I can,” Feather said. “It’s better than anything currently going on in L.A.” He nodded first toward the floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows overlooking La Jolla Shores, then over to the three-man house band behind Edison.

“You can’t beat the view, and that’s as good a rhythm section as you’ll find anywhere.”

Pianist Mike Wofford, bassist Bob Magnusson, and drummer Jim Plank formed the house band that night—as they did for many of the out-of-town jazz stars who played at Elario’s in the late 1980s and early ’90s.

Looking at the lineup on paper, it might have seemed that Plank was out of place. After all, Wofford had backed both Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald and recorded with everyone from Shelly Manne and Kenny Burrell to Sonny Stitt. Magnusson had also backed Vaughan and toured with Buddy Rich before that as well as playing on albums by Benny Golson and Shorty Rogers among others. And both men had recorded multiple albums as leaders.

But Plank never left San Diego to live in Los Angeles or New York nor put out an album under his own name. He did tour with a handful of heavyweights but always kept San Diego as his base.

However, if he was not as well-known as Magnusson or Wofford outside of San Diego, those two—among many other musicians—place Plank as one of San Diego’s all-time jazz giants.

Road Work Ahead in the early days. Peter Sprague, Bill Mays, Jim Plank, Bob Magnusson.

A more recent photo of Road Work Ahead.

Magnusson, who was nurtured by Plank when just starting out, observed, “As my career grew, I was able to work with many of the great jazz drummers [Buddy Rich, Jimmy Cobb, Tootie Heath, Shelly Manne, Joey Baron, Roy McCurdy, to name a few]. In comparison, Jim is one of the greatest musicians I’ve had the opportunity to play with. Notice I said ‘musician,’ not just drummer. He has amazing ears. As a drummer, percussionist, pianist, and vibraphonist, his knowledge of the history of both jazz and classical music allows him to play authentically and musically in whatever style of music he’s performing.”

Wofford, who met Plank when they were high school students in the 1950s, said, “He was really just a natural. He always had a wonderful feel and a wonderful sense of dynamics. He knew when to really dig in and play hard, and he also knew how to play with brushes and very subtly. Not everybody can do that. Even good drummers are not necessarily always flexible. He was amazing.”

Pianist Bill Mays, who currently splits his time between New York City and Florida, pointed out that Plank’s decades playing percussion in the San Diego Symphony, as well as in the pit bands for traveling Broadway musicals that came to San Diego, gave him a broader background than many jazz drummers.

“He was and is such a musical drummer…. People ask me what qualities I look for in a sideman. The ability to listen and respond is the first thing I look for. That is generally an offshoot of how they are as people. Jim is a warm and compassionate guy; he’s also a great listener and a great conversationalist; most people aren’t. He has that quality of being in the moment and being present. When you’re having a conversation with him he’s not thinking about what he’s going to say next. He’s that way as a musician. He also has a wonderful sense of humor, and that comes through in his music.

“He’s a good composer—I wish he’d done more of that. We always enjoyed the things he brought in to the Road Work Ahead band.”

Fellow drummer Duncan Moore, who moved to San Diego from Des Moines, Iowa, in 1977, recalled that when he got to town, Plank immediately stood out to him.

“From when I first moved here, he was the guy I looked at, like ‘I want to be like him.’ There were great guys in town with great chops—some very good drummers. But Jim stood out as the consummate example to me. I think I first heard about Jim right after moving here. He was the guy, really, playing in every possible situation—and he was everybody’s favorite and first call.”

Moore added that in addition to classical, jazz, and Broadway, Plank was also the first-call drummer in a then-active studio scene in San Diego.

Drummer Barry Farrar Jr. first heard Plank in the late ’60s. “My dad had a commercial band here in town that was all great jazz players doing music kind of similar to the Tijuana Brass or the Baja Marimba Band, called the Bordermen. Jim Plank was the drummer…. He was very tasteful and subtle, but he wasn’t boring or too quiet. He was really heady—a very musical drummer.”

Guitarist Peter Sprague, who grew up in Del Mar, first played with Plank in the late pianist Butch Lacy’s group in the mid-’70s while Sprague was still in high school, and Plank was in his late 20s or early 30s.

“That was the first time I heard someone play live percussion! He had a trap set, but he had a lot of hand percussion that he knew how to play from the Symphony. Also, if we would get lost in the chord changes, he would yell out, ‘G minor 7!’ I had a lot of respect for that—he’s not only a rhythmic player, but he knows music theory as well.”

Mays added that in addition to everything else he was doing, Plank was the drummer for local TV weatherman Bob Dale when he had a live daily variety show for a couple-year run in the mid-1960s.

Magnusson said that even if Plank wasn’t a household name among jazz fans outside San Diego, within the community of musicians he has always been highly regarded.

“Jim is known throughout the world as one of the great percussionists and jazz drummers. Wherever I traveled, when musicians found out I was from San Diego they would often ask about Jim Plank.”

STRONG LOCAL ROOTS
“I had enough things going here that it just made sense to stay here,” Plank said in a recent interview by way of explaining why he stayed in San Diego.

“It’s close enough to L.A. that I could go there if there was something I might want to do or should be doing. But I never felt a draw to go other places in terms of getting established and relocating. My wife is a native, my sons were born here, my family has been here since the late 1860s—so there is a lot of family history here.

“My dad, Fred, played violin in the Symphony, and in the Broadway shows. He also played rhythm guitar in dance bands at the time. That was his orientation. My parents and Bob Magnusson’s parents knew one another, because they all went to San Diego High together in the 1920s, and Bob’s father and my father played in the Symphony together.

“There are all kinds of links from my dad being a musician in his early years. I was able to kind of tag along on his coattails when he was still working a little bit and see what the music business was like.

“I graduated from Hoover High and then attended San Diego State College, as it was at that time. Before that, I went to Franklin Elementary and Wilson Middle School—all still in business! I grew up in Kensington, which was a quiet little suburb at the time. My wife grew up in East San Diego, and we met in high school.”

In fourth grade, Plank followed in his dad’s footsteps, picking up the violin—which he would study for years. But a year or so later, his father brought home a snare drum from one of his teaching jobs, and Plank said that “something just kind of clicked.” Seeing his son’s obvious interest in drumming, his father arranged for lessons on drums as well as violin.

“There was a percussionist in the Symphony who taught at Roosevelt and he would come over to the school once a week and give me a lesson on timpani just because he knew my dad. His name was Leo Hamilton—he taught world geography and world history at Roosevelt Junior. High—but he’d drive over and spend an hour with me and show me how to play this overture, and that overture, and it was a wonderful opportunity.

“It was a small town, and people shared ideas, and I was just lucky to be in the right place at the right time to be able to sit and listen to these guys. That’s a special thing for a young person when you get that kind of special instruction.”

Plank said that San Diego High’s Russ Auditorium used to host major touring acts in concerts. “My dad would take me down to hear Duke Ellington’s band or the Jazz at the Philharmonic All Stars and watch Jo Jones or Buddy Rich from the wings. For a 12-year-old kid, nothing was better than that.”

His multi-faceted career path, in which he was a first-rate musician in classical, jazz, and popular music, was set early on, Plank said.

“I was interested in both jazz and classical—always had been. It just seemed what it was supposed to be for me. I got interested in jazz, and really got interested in orchestral right about the time of junior high school with Fritz Baker. There was lots of jazz going on—even jazz on the radio. Then I ran across [trumpeter] Don Sleet, [drummer] John Guerin, and Mike Wofford all in the mid- to late ’50s. I went and listened to them play and got a chance to play with them now and again when Guerin couldn’t make it.

“I learned to play the drum set just from going and hanging out with John Guerin as far as jazz drums were concerned. Don Sleet was really great about sharing ideas about how things work harmonically in jazz, as was Mike Wofford. Those guys were very, very special people—as young people.”

GETTING STARTED
Wofford said his and Plank’s early interactions were typical of teenagers with a shared interest in music.

“I was just jamming with other guys my age. That’s how I got to know Jim and Don Sleet. We were all more or less the same age within a couple years one way or the other. That was pretty much it, just listening a lot to recordings and trying to figure it out and jamming. As far as actual work, we were too young to be doing anything.”

Wofford said saxophonist Gary LeFebvre was also part of their group.

“It would have been like ’54 and ’55. I finished high school in ’56. But all these guys were a year or two younger than me, so it was basically high school.”

Early paying gigs around town were mostly with Guerin on drums, Wofford remembered. But when Guerin moved to L.A., Plank was ready to take over as drummer for Wofford—and others.

“When John left, the obvious other great drummer was Jim. There was another drummer who was marvelous, too. He was an older guy—Leon Pettis. He was a wonderful, wonderful guy and a great drummer. He went on to work with Nat Cole.

“It’s no wonder that Jim was really the first-call guy in San Diego once he got out of high school and started college and began playing around town professionally, because he was the best. Leon Pettis would be the closest thing, but he had retired and was not active anymore.”

Sacramento native Mays was transferred by the Navy to a band stationed in Coronado in 1961, where he spent his off-duty hours looking for live jazz.

“I met Plank at the Club Shoji. They had a jazz policy. I used to hear Mike Wofford play there.” Mays said he and Plank hit it off, and they spent numerous hours together. “We would listen to Thad Jones and Mel Lewis records over at his house. He would come up to my place in San Marcos and we would have jam sessions. I had a nice Steinway. We’d listen to the trains go by and pick avocados.”

NURTURING YOUNGER PLAYERS
Moore said one of the first things he noticed about Plank upon moving to San Diego was that the older drummer was always willing to help other musicians.

“Jim has always been such a supportive person—I never sensed any kind of competitiveness. I’ve noticed over the years, when new drummers came to town or young guys are coming up, Jim is always super supportive and helpful. Certainly, for me—Jim started recommending me to sub for him on recording sessions, which is how I first got my foot in the door on commercial recording sessions.”

Magnusson also benefitted from Plank’s generosity.

“I officially met Jim Plank in 1966 at a jam session where he was playing,” Magnusson recalled. “I had just begun playing upright bass that year and didn’t sit in as I wasn’t good enough. Prior to that meeting, I knew of Jim through the San Diego Symphony. My father was the principal clarinetist in those years and Jim was a teenage prodigy in the Symphony’s percussion section. If I remember correctly, Jim joined the Symphony at 16 years of age. You couldn’t miss him: the percussionists are in the back on the highest riser and he was the tallest member of the orchestra.

“We began playing together around 1967. Jim was already a very advanced jazz drummer and I appreciated that he put up with me and always encouraged me to continue.”

THE STUDIO WORK
While never on the same level as Los Angeles or New York, San Diego did have an active recording studio scene at one time. Moore said when he moved to town there was a national firm headquartered here that specialized in pre-recorded background music: Network Music.

“It was generic music that was recorded and categorized by different styles and feels. When companies or film makers need music for their product, rather than having to spend the money to record custom [music], they could license it. When there’s a documentary and you hear music in the background, often it’s from a music library.

The first-call drummer? Jim Plank, of course.

But Moore said that when Plank was unable to make a studio session, he began recommending Moore, which Moore described as a bit of an intimidating experience.

“When I would come in to sub for him, I always got the sense that ‘you’ve got some big shoes to fill.’ Everybody spoke so highly of him in the studio environment—he was so, so highly respected.”

Drummer Cliff Almond, who grew up in San Diego but left town to gig with pianist Michel Camilo and has been based out of New York City ever since, said that when he was in high school in the 1980s, Plank was “kind of the king of town as far as drummers went. My parents were friends with most of the musicians in town. At that time, there was a pretty good scene there. Jim was doing a ton of session work…. You had to be able to play all the percussion—marimba and vibes, in addition to a drum set. Jim was able to do all that.”

ROAD WORK AHEAD
In 1979, Magnusson released his first album as leader, called Revelation. As Magnusson tells it, the owner of Donte’s nightclub in North Hollywood heard a couple tracks from the record on the jazz station up there and called Magnusson to bring his band in for a weekend gig.

“‘I said, ‘I don’t have a band.’ He said, ‘Just get a band. I want to put your name on the marquee.’ So, I got Jim Plank, and Peter, who drove up from San Diego together. And Bill Mays was a San Diego connection…. I put that group together, and we kept getting gigs. Bill would get a quartet gig—and we’d be the Bill Mays Quartet. Peter started booking gigs, and we were the Peter Sprague Quartet.

“For my second album in 1981, Road Work Ahead, I used that exact band. So then we formed the collective band and went on until Bill moved to New York. When Bill would come out on tour, he’d want to put the band together for two or three weeks of gigs and have a great time.”

The collective Road Work Ahead recorded an album under Magnusson’s contract, titled Night & Day, in 1983 before Mays relocated. However, when Mays ventured west on tour, they not only did little mini-tours but also headed back into the studio for 2004’s On the Road Again and 2012’s Intersection.

Plank laughed and said when they were gigging in L.A., he and Sprague (Magnusson was living in L.A. at the time) would crash at Mays’ house—but there was a shortage of beds, so Sprague, as the youngest member of the band, had last call on where to sleep. As Plank recalled, Sprague was stuck “under the piano! They had a dog at the time, a wonderful Akita; she would stay in her place and we would stay around her in our sleeping bags! We always crashed at Bill’s, and the dog was part of the mix.”

It was after Mays moved to L.A. that Plank and Magnusson kind of fell into the (unofficial) role of House Band to the Stars.

Holly Hofmann, a San Diego-based flutist and booking agent, pointed out, “Some of the people didn’t want to come down unless they got (Mike Wofford), Mag, and Jim…. Because those were in the Elario’s days. [They] were like a house trio then.”

Hofmann, who is married to Wofford, said she later used that same trio as the house band when she was booking the Horton Grand. In addition, Paul Marshall often used them for taping his Club Date jazz performance series at KPBS-TV. (If a pianist was the featured guest—and the choice of guest usually coincided with whatever big-name jazz star was in town at Elario’s for the week—Marshall would pair Magnusson and Plank with the pianist.)

THE PERSON
In speaking with those who played with or were influenced by Plank, nearly every interview included a spontaneous aside on his decency.

Moore, for instance, said that while he admired Plank’s skills as a drummer, what he most tried to emulate wasn’t his techniques, but his kindness.

“He’s always been such a nice human being—probably more than anything else, he’s always been so giving. Almost every single time he’s come to a gig I was playing, and he was in the audience, I would get a phone call—a day later, a couple days later, just to say how much he appreciated the music. He always had something positive to say. That kind of stuff means a lot.”

Pianist and singer Sue Palmer says while she has appreciated Plank’s playing for decades, she was touched when he came to the funeral of the late Frank Fennimore, a local tax professional who played drums in local organ trios on the side. Palmer remembered that she found it particularly sweet that Plank took part in the jam session at the funeral at the El Cajon Elks Lodge.

Sprague credits Plank and Magnusson for one of his first big venue shows. Sprague’s Dance of the Universe Orchestra was hired to open for Lacy and Plank’s band, Stream, on the campus of the old United States International University near the Miramar air base—a concert that helped establish not only his career, but also that of his bandmates: brother Tripp on sax, Kevyn Lettau on vocals, John Leftwich on bass, and Kelly Jocoy on drums.

“That was a really a landmark gig for us. Because all of us—our whole Del Mar gang—we were all were taking lessons from the next level of guys: Butch Lacy, Steve O’Connor, and Bob Magnusson. So, we would go out all the time and hear these guys. Somehow they may have organized the concert at USIU. They—being Lacy, Plank, and Mag—probably said get this young band to do the opening act. So we played our set, then they came on and did their set.

“That was such a big deal for us. They selected one of my songs they liked—they played my song and I was honored to the galaxy of having these heavy cats thinking my song was worthy to play.

“Jim has been a real big part of my life, and really an important part.”

Mays pointed out that he and Plank have been friends since 1961, a friendship that endured through the years of Mays’ moving from L.A. to New York. (The day he was interviewed, Mays said that he’d just gotten an email from the Planks that morning.) In addition to the obvious affection, Mays says he’s always admired Plank’s balance.

“It’s important for musicians to have other interests. I worked with Phil Woods the last eight years of his life, and he used to tell young people who asked how to improve as a musician. He’d say, ‘Read a book, go to a museum, be interested in something other than music.’

“I remember Plank being very deeply into bicycling—he could tear a bike down, and he was up on all the Tour de France riders, and the brands. He was also a real foodophile and a wineophile, He loves animals, he’s a big dog person, especially retrievers.”

A few days after chatting by phone, Magnusson followed up with a note for this article. “As a human being he’s at the top of the heap. He’s brilliant and humble at the same time, kind and thoughtful. I’m blessed to count him as one of my dearest friends for over 50 years.”

This article is excerpted from an upcoming book on the history of jazz in San Diego.

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