If music be the food of love, then the great genre of jazz is what feeds the soul—its melodies are rich, complex and not necessarily carried by technical perfection, but by the passion of the person playing.
No one in the North Bay understands this as well as jazz legend and Napa resident Larry Vuckovich, a man with six decades of experience traveling the world and playing the piano.
“One way I could describe my life is like a movie,” Vuckovich said.
Vuckovich, born in Yugoslavia in 1936, recalls, in his early years, listening to the phonograph and being utterly captured by the soulfulness he heard in multi-ethnic music influenced by Bosnia, Serbia, the Baltic states and the Romani. Then, in 1941, World War II began.
“I was watching the German and Italian troops marching—tanks, motorcycles, and the Italians would have chicken feathers on their helmets … these are the things I remember as a kid,” he said. “It was like a movie, in a way. The Germans took our home and took rooms. And so the war starts and, in the meantime, my father worked for the underground.”
It was during this time that Vuckovich picked up the piano, with an appreciation for the old European culture of opera houses and classical music. But, when he first heard jazz—on the net force radio—he knew he’d found his life’s passion.
“I heard those chords and music and I thought, ‘This is it for me,’” he said. “That exciting rhythm and the modern harmonies was something new and went through your system, and since there was nobody to show me, I learned myself.”
Vuckovich and his family left Europe for the Americas, where his father had citizenship. They first arrived in New York, having taken an Italian ship from Genoa across the Atlantic.
“You can imagine that moment, when I first knew the boat was approaching the Hudson Bay, with the bridge, and all those cars shining and the skyline,” he said. “To go from a town of five thousand to that …”
In 1951, the Vuckovich family moved to San Francisco, and the rest is history. Specifically, the history of the Golden Age of jazz—both in San Francisco and everywhere else.
“In ’51 in San Francisco on Market Street—oh, Market Street was class in those days; women in gloves and theaters all over the place,” Vuckovich said.
After high school, his passion for jazz was just as strong as when he’d first heard and fell in love with its soulful notes as a child. He took to the city’s jazz scene with gusto and immersed himself in the vibrant San Franciscan performances.
“When you play with people who are on a higher level than you are, you get inspired,” Vuckovich said.
One such high-level performer was Vincent Anthony Guaraldi, a jazz pianist best known for creating the music for the Peanuts “Charlie Brown” TV specials. Guaraldi was not only famous, but notorious for not taking on students or apprentices.
“Somehow, Vince liked me and took me as his only student,” Vuckovich said. “He always turned people away but he liked me and we became friends, and he sent me to sub for him. And 20 years later, he hired me to be his piano partner.”
Guaraldi isn’t the only jazz great Vuckovich worked with during his 60-plus years as a professional pianist. In traveling the world, from San Francisco to Paris to Munich to Copenhagen and a million-and-one places in between, he worked alongside legends including Cab Calloway, Red Norvo, Dexter Gordon, Tony Bennett, Mel Torme, Jon Hendricks, Philly Joe Jones, Elvin Jones, Clark Terry, Bobby Hutcherson, Pete Escovedo, Vince Guaraldi, Tom Harrell, Charlie Haden, Bobby McFerrin and many, many more.
“In one performance, I was the only non-African American on stage,” Vuckovich said. “And on the first night, Jon Hendricks, the poet laureate of jazz, looked at me and said to the audience, ‘If you wonder what this man is doing here, it’s because he comes from the part of Yugoslavia called Montenegro.’”
Vuckovich’s connection to, and bond with, minority groups began early, first with an appreciation for ethnically diverse music, and during his father’s underground operation to assist persecuted individuals in escaping the Nazi occupation.
“When Pete Peterson was shot down and heard about my father being an American, he found a way to our house, and they took a boat out and the Germans captured him … he escaped and came back to our house, and my father turned white,” he said. “We hid him in the attic, and somebody ratted on us.”
Vuckovich continued, “So, [the Nazis] knocked on the door and said they heard we had strangers here, and [my father] said, ‘Yes I have three, you three.’” They laughed and found no one. The person who ratted on us didn’t care if they shot us … I get very emotional, what they did to those people after the war, those racists.”
Vuckovich’s exposure to racism, unfortunately, was not contained to Nazi Germany.
“How did I find out about how America is?” he asked. “Well, I’m traveling with Jon Hendricks in New York, and one night the Black drummer and I went with two white ladies in a car to go to a restaurant, and a police car stops us. And they take us in, and the ladies get lectured about getting in a car with a Black man, and the police threatened to tell her father.”
But from these experiences, Vuckovich also learned that jazz is a language anyone can learn, but one he asserts is most fluently spoken by Black musicians.
“If you want to learn something, then you have to go to the source, and to learn jazz you listen to the originators of jazz, the highest level,” he said. “The smoothest piano touch, the most delicate, is by the Black players.”
Vuckovich still plays the piano, both in the privacy of his home and for audiences. His next performance will take place on Aug. 6 at the Community Church of Mill Valley.
“I used to play in Mill Valley in the old days, and people would come to listen,” he said. “Marin always had a pleasant atmosphere. Sausalito’s Trident was an unbelievable location with a view and the Bay; I used to play there, too.”
Those who attend the Aug. 6 performance will hear firsthand what six decades of practice and more than 80 years of lived experience sounds like when masterfully translated through music. If music really be the food of love, let’s hope that masters such as Vuckovich continue to play on, lest our souls starve.
Larry Vuckovich performs with Kai Lyons at 4pm, Sunday, Aug. 6 at the Community Church of Mill Valley, 8 Olive St. Tickets are $25 and available via bit.ly/jazz-mv.