Herb Wong's Encyclopedic Knowledge of Jazz Distilled in New Book

Jun 17, 2016

The late journalist Herb Wong covered the Monterey Jazz Festival since its start in 1958.  Known for his encyclopedic knowledge of jazz, Wong was also a record producer, educator and radio DJ on the former KJAZ in San Francisco.   

Before he died in 2014, Wong co-authored a book with Paul Fingerote.   When the two met Fingerote was Marketing Director for the Monterey Jazz Festival.  He now works at KAZU.

Rick Kleffel talked with Fingerote to discover the story behind the book, Jazz on My Mind: Linear Notes, Anecdotes and Conversations from the 1940s to the 2000s

Rick Kleffel (RK): Talk about the creation of the structure of the book; how was this book put together?

Paul Fingerote (PF): Well, when we began the process, Herb and I agreed that we didn't want to have chapters in this book.  We thought that the book ought to be broken down in a different way because we were talking about jazz. But we still needed a structure, we still needed a foundation.  And so we came up with this idea that we would break this down by instruments and each of the instruments would be a chapter, or as we ended up calling it, a "track," in this album of Jazz on my Mind.

RK: This consists of conversations that Herb had, and also of liner notes, and Herb's enthusiasm for the artists he's writing about, combined with his encyclopedic knowledge make this a really engaging work to read.

PF: Herb was the most substantial writer and the most knowledgeable person about jazz that I have ever met.  And it was my privilege, and my honor and my pleasure, to add some of the delightful part of this by picking and choosing the words that Herb used.  Taking the content that Herb gave me and putting them into the order that they are in the book that invites, I think the reader to gain the knowledge, but have fun while gaining that knowledge.

RK: Paul, tell us the story of how Herb first heard jazz music.

PF: At the age of ten, a box arrived on the doorstep, and it was full of jazz LP's.  No not LP's, 78's in those days.  And he discovered these jazz albums and he turned to his little brother and he said to his little brother, "This is, this is the real music, this is my music."  And by the age of fourteen, he was, with his parents' permission, taking the train from Stockton California, up to the Bay Area, and hanging around outside jazz clubs listening to the music, because he couldn't get in.  He was underage.  He met the music and he met the artists.

RK: Not only did he himself start out young, but he also met, and identified several of these jazz artists in here when they were very young; one of the men he met, he identified as a kindergartner.

PF: Absolutely, Joshua Redmond, who's a Grammy-winning and top saxophonist.  Herb Wong was an administrator in the Berkeley Unified School District, and was called in to deal with a quote unquote "problem child."  Herb went and met with the child, and returned with Joshua Redmond, back to his kindergarten teacher, and said, "This is not a problem child; this is a genius-in-the-making, and you watch what this man's going to do."

RK: One of the great stories in this book is the time that Herb saw Billie Holliday with Lester Young at the age of fourteen.
 

PF: He apparently saw a poster promoting Lester Young and Billie Holiday at Gus's in Oakland, and he got a box from his grandma's house, which was nearby and put that box in front of the door and he was able to peek over the door and see them perform.  And Lester Young came out after the first set and found Herb standing there.  Now, he had seen Herb before at other shows, and he said, "What are you doing here?" And he [Herb] said, "Well, I wouldn't miss this!"  And so he invited him in and had him sit on a chair next to the bandstand and enjoy the music when Lady Day performed with Lester Young.  

About the Interviewer: Rick Kleffel has been reading for more than half a century. He lives in Aptos. He writes about books and podcasts interviews with authors at Narrative Species.