Jazz royalty. A visionary, and a legend in the jazz world. Any musician would be thrilled to be characterized by those reverential labels. But would someone who didn't play jazz professionally qualify for such honorifics? Hard to imagine, unless you were lucky enough to know Herb Wong.
From the time serendipity introduced him to the art of jazz when he was a boy of 10 or 11, until the end of his life on April 20 at age 88, Herb ardently embraced the music and its creators as a writer, historian, producer and educator. He believed that jazz is "the ultimate in personal creative expression," he said in a 1995 interview with the Almanac.
Dr. Wong, as he was widely known in the jazz world, lived out a personal calling to keep the flame of jazz alive, hosting a radio program on the now-defunct KJAZ-FM for nearly 36 years, lecturing at major universities and conferences, teaching a popular jazz history course at Palo Alto Adult School for 25 years, creating the summer jazz concert series at Stanford Shopping Center, and co-founding the Palo Alto Jazz Alliance. As artistic director for the latter two projects, he brought to the stage players ranging in name recognition, from fledgling musicians with little performance history to some of the greats, many of whom he had established deep and lasting connections with through the years.
During that 1995 interview in his Menlo Park home, Herb buzzed with an energy that only deep passion can generate as he showed me walls covered with photos of musicians he knew, and shelves of record albums and tapes, which he said numbered about 30,000. He had written liner notes for many of those albums -- during his career he wrote notes for more than 600 jazz recordings, he said, and his widely admired articles about the music he loved were published nationally in major music publications.
A photo showing a very young Herb Wong and a beaming Duke Ellington surrounded by children and staff at Washington Elementary School in Berkeley accompanies a tribute by Sarah Cline at Berkeleyside.com about Dr. Wong's work in introducing jazz into the Berkeley Unified School District curriculum decades ago. At the time, Herb was the "visionary" principal of the school and "one of a very few people in the nation who believed in jazz education at the elementary school level -- as music education, as a part of the civil rights movement, and as a way of propagating a truly democratic and artistic spirit among those of us in the next generation," Ms. Cline writes.
In the 1995 Almanac interview, Dr. Wong recalled how he had phoned Mr. Ellington, whom he knew well, and convinced him that his long career was "only one step away from being complete." What he needed to do to fill the gap, he told his friend, was to participate in an event with kids, and he invited him to Washington School. In his determination to inspire kids with live music performances, Dr. Wong brought other jazz luminaries to the campus as well, including the brilliant pianist Oscar Peterson.
Herb's reputation as "jazz royalty" -- in the words of Menlo Park native Taylor Eigsti, whose own reputation as a composer and pianist is securing him a place, at age 29, in the jazz constellation -- is underscored by the handful of original jazz compositions written in his honor. These include "Dr. Wong's Bag," by Woody Herman and his arranger Nat Pierce; "Daddy Wong Legs" by vibraphonist Cal Tjader; "Herb's Herbs" by pianist Larry Vuckovich; and "Dr. Wong's Bird Song," by saxophonist Dayna Stephens.
Herb Wong's lifework constituted an elegant, symmetrical universe. The zeal he poured into spreading the word about jazz and its creators from decades past was matched by a deep commitment to the support of young, emerging players, such as Mr. Stephens, now 35, and Mr. Eigsti, who attended school at Woodside Priory and is now based in New York City. I can still hear the fire in Herb's voice from many years ago, after he heard a local boy named Taylor Eigsti perform. At the age of 12, Taylor sat in with pianist Dave Brubeck at an outdoor concert at the Mountain Winery. "You've got to hear this kid play," Dr. Wong told me, predicting that a brilliant career would be his if he wanted it.
"Ever since I was a kid, Dr. Wong really believed in me, and not only gave me an opportunity to perform, but introduced me to so many great musicians," Taylor said last week, taking a break from setting up for a Northern California performance. Dr. Wong, he added, "was one of the most important influences on my whole life, really. ... I wouldn't be anywhere today without his influence." In producing concerts, Herb "thought it was kind of cool" to bring musicians of all ages together, speaking the same language in a way that bridges the chronological years that separate them, Taylor said. "He understood there was a lot more in common" among the music makers than anything that might divide them.
With undoubtedly many more years of his own career before him, Taylor said he wants to emulate his mentor's support of talented young musicians. "If you're lucky enough to be able to play music, part of the responsibility is to be there for others," he said. He has worked with several promising young musicians, including Shane Turner of Portola Valley, a 13-year-old pianist and composer who didn't know Dr. Wong, according to his mother, Michele Turner, but now benefits, through Taylor, from the older man's legacy.
And so it goes: The torch passes from one generation to the next, the beat goes on. Many thanks to you, Dr. Wong. And flights of angels -- led by Ella and Abbey and Lady Day -- sing thee to thy rest.
A memorial service for Herb Wong is set for 2 p.m. Tuesday, May 13, at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, 950 Santa Cruz Ave. in Menlo Park.