Red Callender: A Very Quiet Giant

The late music writer and producer, Stanley Dance, shared the opinion, common in the East, that “Los Angeles was a wasteland dominated by the bad taste of the movie industry.” In his Foreword to Unfinished Dream: The Musical World of Red Callender, Stanley Dance praises the bassist for “the extent to which [Callender’s book] expanded upon the rather scanty existing picture of jazz in Los Angeles.”

The picture of jazz in Los Angeles—to those who bothered to look for it—was anything but “scanty.” During the middle third of the 20th century—while jazz also flourished in New Orleans, Chicago, Harlem, Kansas City, and New York’s 52nd Street—Los Angeles’s Central Avenue as vibrant and important a center of jazz music as any of those other places.

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Like the city that became his home, George “Red” Callender, for decades a mainstay on Central Avenue and the West Coast’s most-recorded bass and tuba player, performing alongside the brightest stars of jazz throughout his lengthy career, seems destined to remain a victim of the tired notion that geography is destiny. (We of the Left Coast are used to being Left Out—as witness the annual ritual of sportswriters bloviating over the Yankees and the Red Sox, with scant coverage of our Dodgers and Giants—until one of them {finally} wins a World Series.)

That East Coast Bias as articulated by Stanley Dance is echoed in the current era by Marc Meyers. In a 2020 JazzWax blog post, Meyers pays faint homage to his subject: “Callender may not be a top-of-mind jazz bassist today, but he was hardly a slouch.” Meyers even ascribes to Red a “phantom status,” though acknowledging that he “accompanied nearly every major jazz artist for over seven decades,” and admits that “when he did record as a leader in the 1950s, the results were superb.”

Describing a highly-respected artist as “no slouch” with “phantom status” does a disservice to the remarkable career of Mr. Callender. He should be celebrated alone for the fact he played alongside the creme-de-la-creme of jazz, including Louis Armstrong, Art Tatum, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Erroll Garner, Duke Ellington and countless others. (Oh—lest we forget: Count Basie, too. That’s Red in the desert with the Count’s band in that iconic scene in Blazing Saddles.) Also overlooked are his accomplishments as a band leader, composer and arranger, and the fact that he helped break the color barrier in the television industry. Moreover, few musicians in any genre could match his astonishingly productive career in the studios. (“When I got up to 5,000 [recorded] sides in the mid-50’s, I stopped counting.”)

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Last July, ISB hosted a Zoom session to honor the late Milt Hinton. Tributes and anecdotes flowed effusively from Rufus Reed, John Clayton, Barrie Kolstein, and others, all attesting to his rare combination of peerless musicianship and amiability. The program limned a portrait of “the Judge,” an artist with enviable qualities he seemed to possess in full and equal measure: virtuosity and generosity.

Red Callender on bass
Red Callender (author’s collection)

Like Milt, Red Callender stands out as both the consummate team player and, as a leader, a musical force-to-be-reckoned-with, from the early 1930s well into the 1980s. And like the Judge, Red, too, was universally beloved for his humility and his generous soul. The respect he earned among his peerless group of peers was equaled by the love he shared with colleagues and students alike.

What did his contemporaries think of him?

Fletcher Smith, a pianist who worked with Benny Carter, Lionel Hampton, and Billy Eckstine, met Red when the latter first arrived in Los Angeles in the in 1930s. In the voluminous oral history project, Central Avenue Sounds, Smith testifies: “I’ve never seen Red mad about nothing. He always had that beautiful smile on his face. And Red was a hell of a musician. He was another one of those guys who was glad to tell you something if he knew it.”

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Charles Owens, a still-active, multi-reed virtuoso and band leader who worked with Red in the ’70s and ’80s, says, “I have so many pleasant memories about Red—I could almost write a book about him myself. I was glad to know him. Red was a gentleman—a very quiet guy. He was not a bragger; he let his work speak for him. He had a way how he would act around other people. He’d get there first, let them see you so they could get used to it. Before you know it, you’re friends. He was a great tuba player. A whole school of bass. One of my heroes. A very quiet giant.”

While the Judge was the undisputed heavyweight champ of both jazz and studio work in New York, Red Callender rose to—and stayed at—the top of the rankings Out West. For his having played and recorded alongside the aforementioned giants of jazz; waxed countless r & b sessions; contributed significantly to decades of rock and pop music as a charter member of the legendary Wrecking Crew; broken the color barrier at a major television network; composed a hit record; and written a symphony—Red Callender remains an artist deserving wider recognition.

[The richest and most engaging material about the life of George Sylvester “Red” Callender can be found in the aforementioned autobiography, Unfinished Dream: The Musical World of Red Callender (London, Quartet Books, 1985). Permission to cite material here from the book has been granted by my friend and the book’s co-author, Elaine Cohen. Unless otherwise indicated, events of Red’s life cited in this article are sourced from their book.]

Red did have roots in the East: he was born in Virginia in 1916, schooled in Atlantic City, and moved with his parents to New York upon graduation. From his father, a native of Barbados, he inherited the red hair, freckles, and light-brown eyes. From the age of three, he was mesmerized by music.

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Radio broadcasts of the bands of Coon-Sanders, Earl Hines, and Isham Jones inspired him. Bordentown (NJ) school’s music director was Professor Alexander Valentine, a veteran of the James Reese Europe band, the first Black jazz band to tour the Continent. There was rigorous instruction in music theory, harmony, and composition to compliment band practice. “I was one of the lucky ones,” Red recalls, “because Professor Valentine saw something in me and took me under his wing.” Red went from peck horn to tuba, and bought his first bass from a schoolmate for $15. He’d start practicing at 4 am and then applied himself to music classes for the first three hours of the school day. “The day I joined the dance orchestra with my bass and tuba,” Red writes, “my whole career began.”

During summer breaks he would play tuba with other high schoolers for Banjo Bernie, up and down the Jersey shore. “All summer long,” says Red, “he’d tell us he never made any money, lay a little change on us, give us a meal ticket and take care of our rooms. That was it, but he gave me a chance to see the road, to see how life was being lived, gave me that glimpse of what was ahead.”

His move to New York City happened in the depths of the Depression. For a time, Red sold newspapers. Prof. Valentine had given him a letter of introduction to W.C. Handy—though it turned out the composer of “St. Louis Blues” didn’t need a copyist. Red would sometimes accompany his mother to her catering jobs—once, to a party at the apartment of George Gershwin. “His place was all done up in white: walls, furniture, rugs, a fabulous white grand piano. So that’s how the composer of ‘I Got Rhythm’ lived.”

By night,his “post-secondary” music education swung into high gear. He’d hang out in front of the Rhythm Club on 7th Avenue in Harlem just to catch a glimpse of Chu Berry, Pops Foster, Jimmie Lunceford, Coleman Hawkins, Chick Webb. Standing 62, under-age Red had no problem being admitted to clubs where he’d hear bassist Wellman Braud with Duke Ellington’s band. “I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing and hearing,” he recalls. He befriended Roy Eldridge and Harry “Sweets” Edison. Occasionally, he’d bring his tuba to sit in with Art Tatum at Jimmy Owens’s.

His skill on the tuba as well as the bass came to the attention of bandleaders who began hiring him to tour Pennsylvania, Ohio, and the Upper Midwest. Blanch Thompson and the Brownskin Models toured all the way to California, where Red would jump off the band bus. No one then could have known that he would become, in the words of jazz archivist Steven Isoardi, “one of the most stalwart members of the jazz scene in Los Angeles, as well as being an international presence, for more than fifty years.”

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He immediately made his way to the “main stem” of jazz on the West Coast: Los Angeles’s Central Avenue. “Central Avenue,” Red recalls, “was a carnival of life, music and action.” Again—despite “scanty” national publicity—there was as much high-level jazz activity “out there” as anything seen and heard “back East.” Ironically, Red discovered a bit of a continental divide: no one in LA had yet heard of either Roy Eldridge or Art Tatum. Red was immediately in demand: Nat Cole came to town and formed a trio with Red on bass and Lee Young, brother of Lester Young, on drums. The three of them gigged together and also picked up work as movie extras, appearing in films that featured Bette Davis, Peter Lorre, and Jack Benny. Along the way, Red composed some tunes and did some arranging for Lionel Hampton and Duke Ellington.

After giving notice to the Brownskin Models organization, Red accepted an offer to join Buck Clayton’s band for a brief tour. One night one of the band’s singers “swished by and knocked the bass off the stand,” breaking the neck of the instrument. Soon Red acquired the first of his two Morelli basses. He was asked to spell an ailing Pops Foster in another band, this one performing at the Vogue Ballroom. “The salary was $85 a week. That was my entry into the big time.” Oh—and this band’s leader was Louis Armstrong.

Their shows were aired nightly on the radio. The night of the first broadcast, the new bass’s tailgate wire snapped—“…so I carefully laid down the bass and played tuba the rest of the night.” Red’s good fortune continued: his first-ever record date came just a few days later; on November 13, 1937, he waxed “Once in a While,” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” with Louis Armstrong. Red was 21 years old.

After Pops Foster returned to that band, Red resolved to go deeper with his study of the bass. He sought out Herman Reinshagen and later, Leon Ziporland, studying classical music and learning to navigate with first the German bow and then the French.

While immersed in the material from those lessons, he was approached for mentoring by a rather large, enthusiastic teenager named Charles Mingus. Red agreed to take him on. “In a way, I became, his father-confessor. He was always on an even keel with me, never in those well-documented dark and violent moods.” After each $2 lesson, teacher and student would go out for ice cream and hot dogs, and then take in the latest film at the Rosebud Theatre.

Lee Young asked Red to play bass in a new group that was to be the house band at Billy Berg’s Capri. Lester Young joined the group after leaving Count Basie. Billie Holiday and Joe Turner were the vocalists; Jimmy Rowles, the pianist. Charlie Christian and Jimmy Blanton would drop by and sit in, as did Lionel Hampton. Though there was no shortage of Hollywood glitterati in the house on any given night—including Mae West, Mickey Rooney, John Barrymore, John Steinbeck and Howard Hughes—the presence of the movie stars could not outshine the brilliance of the musicians at Billy Berg’s.

One of the more enterprising individuals to frequent the Capri, Red was a young impresario, Norman Granz. He asked Red to take part in Sunday-afternoon jam sessions—the precursor of what was to become the iconic series, Jazz at the Philharmonic. Red recorded the very first one, which also included Gene Krupa, Howard McGhee, Charlie Ventura and Willie Smith.

Red Callender and Hazel Scott
Red Callender and Hazel Scott (courtesy of Bill Douglass)

Red’s virtuosity, combined with his imposing height and winning smile, made him a natural for the movies. In 1943 he appeared in I Dood It, with Red Skelton and Eleanor Powell, wherein Red performs with Lena Horne and the Hazel Scott Trio. The following year he joined Lester Young, Jo Jones, Sid Catlett, Barney Kessel, John Simmons, Harry “Sweets” Edison and others in what is still regarded as one of the great jazz films, Jammin’ the Blues, directed by Gjon Mili. In 1946 Red was called to appear with Armstrong in a movie called New Orleans. (Check both his handsome visage and his original bass licks in the movie New Orleans [1947], with Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Kid Ory—on YouTube. Red’s solo break begins at 25:35.)

Despite the all-star cast of musicians, including Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, and Kid Ory, the drama behind the scenes nearly scuttled the production. Racism had been a stubborn fixture in the motion picture industry. “There was a general consensus,” Red writes, “that Black people should only be allowed to play subservient roles. The only acceptable alternative role for a Black person was as an entertainer.”

The casting of Billie Holiday as a maid in “New Orleans” caused her consternation; but since the picture was being made at the beginning of the McCarthy era, Red recalls, the mere presence of so many Black musicians on the set amidst the white cast and crew was in itself unusual. Red recalls, “Eventually things became more and more uptight.” The writer and producer, Herbert Biberman and Jules Levey, were under scrutiny because they were so-called “liberals”; the former would eventually refuse to “name names” before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and was jailed. Despite the tension, between takes the musicians jammed and “had a ball.” After a day of shooting, Red could unwind on Central Avenue playing with drummer Doc West and pianist Erroll Garner.

Once the movie wrapped, Red returned to New York with the Lee and Lester Young band for a stint at the Cafe Society club in Greenwich Village. The hours were tough—8 pm to 4 am—and the pay was tougher. Red came down with pneumonia and upon recovering, created the Red Callender Trio, with Louis Gonzales on guitar and “Sir” Charles Thompson on piano. It was while that trio was touring Pennsylvania that the titans of bass, East and West, would meet: Red finally met Milt Hinton, who was in town at the time on tour with Cab Calloway’s band.

Soon after Red was back in California, Armstrong’s road manager called Red to go on tour with the Louis Armstrong All Stars. Red picks up the story: “Of course they wanted me for it; I had just worked with him. Frenchy, he road manager said, ‘Hey, kid—we’re gonna start to work in a couple of weeks. We want you.’

“I said, ‘What kind of money does it pay?’

“Frenchy says, ‘Well, what do you want?’

“I figure I’m worth at least $450 a week.

“‘WWHHHAAAAAT? For a bass player?’

“So I said, Well, you don’t need me…”

Red was doing just fine in the studios. Besides, he dreaded the thought of playing “Sleepy Time Down South” the same way, night after night. “I just didn’t see any progress there.” Union scale In the late ’40s and early ’50s for record dates was $33.33, eleven dollars an hour with a three-hour minimum—“a pathetic amount,” Red admits, but he “kept up the pace of recording, TV [e.g., Rosemary Clooney Show, You Asked for It, Richard Diamond, Danny Kaye Show], film work, composing, writing for other people’s record dates and generally getting as much work as was available.”

Red was also asked to join the Count Basie Band, an updated Nat Cole Trio and a new band being formed by Lester Young. He loved them all, and was not unmindful of the prestige-by-association they represented. On the other hand, being his own man and staying in town enabled him to maintain his freelancer freedom and accept record dates with the likes of André Previn, Benny Goodman, and Charlie Parker.

But when the recording ban was imposed on the industry in 1947, Red sensed it was time for a change of venue. He accepted a gig touring the Hawaiian Islands. Honolulu welcomed the entire band except the leader, Cee Pee Johnson, who was “detained” in L.A. on marijuana possession charges. Still, it was a formidable line-up (on the bandstand, that is), including Gerald Wilson, Dexter Gordon, Ralph Bledsoe, and Irving Ashby. Around Oahu Red would also enjoy several new bands, a new romance, and a position in the bass section of the Honolulu Symphony. Local groups began hiring Red to write arrangements. He worked briefly in a record store—the only “day job” he ever had—and wrote “Pastel Symphony,” a full 45 minutes of “legit” music that has only been performed once. After living for three busy years in Hawaii, he felt the onset of “island fever,” and headed back across the Pacific.

When he returned to the Mainland, the record ban had lifted, but the jazz scene on Central Avenue had all but vanished. Still, Red’s reputation was such that he hit the ground running, working right away with no less than Duke Ellington. Again, he was invited to join that band permanently; but, he said he “…had no desire to go anywhere, having just returned from a three-year sojourn. My independent streak was strong, too.”

Red Callender was, as usual, in the thick of things after his time in Hawaii The very word, “red,” was still an epithet. The “Red Scare” had not abated during his three years away. Nevertheless, he and woodwind virtuoso Buddy Collette became the first Blacks hired to perform on national television, a gutsy move by conductor Jerry Fielding at a time of ongoing, virulent segregation. For that gesture, the conductor would be subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee. When Fielding was blackballed by the studios and couldn’t work under his own name, Red was among the musicians who helped pay Fielding’s living expenses.

“Thank goodness for Jerry Fielding,” muses Sharron Callender, Red’s daughter. “He was the one who hired ‘colored people,’ as they were then called.” Even though Red’s home state of Virginia was “arguably the worst place of them all,” says Sharron, racism was very much alive in Southern California, too. She remembers that her father set up a publishing business in partnership with pianist/arranger Joe Rotondi, and that the office rental in Hollywood was only permitted because Rotondi, a Caucasian, signed the lease. That same racist business practice prevented John Dolphin, who was Black, from opening his record store on Sunset Boulevard. He settled for a space at the southern end of Central Avenue—some 12 miles south of Sunset—but with no little irony, he still named the store and its record label Dolphin’s of Hollywood.

Sharron remembers that her father and grandparents spoke little about race. Her mother was white, and Sharron believes her mother “didn’t pursue a career because she thought there would be blowback for being married to a Black man.” Even in what might appear to be a free-flowing jazz world, Red was mindful that he, along with Buddy Collette, were “the token Blacks in San Kenton’s Neophonic Orchestra.”

Decades later, while teaching Leslie Baker. Red asked himself, aloud, “Why am I telling you all my [bass-playing] secrets?” Baker was one of the few bass students he accepted at the Wind College, and one of the first female bassists to emerge in the early 1980s. “He answered himself,” she recalls. “‘Oh, because I was a token, and you will be one all your life…. I hate prejudice. I want you to play great—to drive those sexist players up the wall!’” Later, Baker remembers, he returned to that theme: “Leslie, play like you got nothin’ to prove. You’re not a lone wolf; whatever emotion you might be feeling, somebody else on this planet has felt that, too.’”

Red Callender Tuba AlbumBy the mid-’50s, Red’s cup of activity was overflowing. With Jerry Fielding recommending him all over town, he received calls from country-and-western groups like Chet Atkins and the Sons of the Pioneers. He played Gene Norman’s “Just Jazz” concerts at Normandy Hall. The varied menu was stimulating, but nothing compared to the experience of playing with drummer Bill Douglass in the Art Tatum Trio. “Playing with Tatum was one of the most joyous, challenging experiences of my life, a high point that went on for almost three years.” Having neglected the tuba for a time, Red picked it up and rekindled that love affair. He practiced in the wide-open spaces of the Hollywood Hills, wrote several originals and selected some standards—culminating with Callender Speaks Low, the first album to feature tuba as a solo jazz instrument.

The winds of change were blowing a new kind of sound across the land: rhythm-and-blues. Red began enjoying great success as an A & R man for John Dolphin’s record label, Dolphin’s of Hollywood. Thanks to his skill and speed as an arranger, he helped generate hit records in the new r & b genre, with the likes of Percy Mayfield, Jesse Belvin, Linda Hopkins, Fats Domino, and The Platters.

His years of experience, burnished musicianship and enviable versatility prepared Red for the brave new world of the 1960s. He became the first Black to join the staff for NBC, as well as a charter member of the fabled Wrecking Crew, making hundreds of pop records—sometimes two or three a day.

Typically, a young singer or guitarist would come into the studio with a sketch of a tune, at best, and the Crew would spin straw into gold. Red’s wife, singer Mary Lou Callender, remembers those busy days well. “I’d go to studio recordings with him. These guys would go in there, and they’d read the shit down once to find copy mistakes. The next time would be a take, and then it went out the window and they never saw it again. They could not only read great, but they all knew how to fix things without calling attention to anybody. They’d find a wrong note, make it right. Don’t stop the recording; it doesn’t matter, you’d know it was wrong. You could make them look good by just fixing it.”

As documented in the 2008 movie, The Wrecking Crew, many pop groups’ sound was created not by the faces on the album covers, but by those two dozen or so studio musicians, creative geniuses unknown to the record-buying public, who’d provide the musical identity for The Mamas and Papas, The Monkees, the Fifth Dimension, Sonny and Cher, and countless others. “I marvel at those wizards,” Mary Lou says. [The Wrecking Crew] could play anything authentically; they all knew exactly how to play, how to play what they needed—with all the ingredients to make it come alive—with authority and conviction. Then you get hired back; you don’t call attention to the mistakes in the writing; you don’t stop anything from happening. You just do what the guy wants. I used to sit there with my jaws open.”

Red Callender and drummer Earl Palmer played on so many hit records that the producers would say, ‘Let’s get the Hit Makers.’ One of their many hits was “Twisting’ the Night Away,” by Sam Cooke, from 1962. The list of pop artists’ recordings that included Red Callender on bass reads like a who’s-who of American culture of that era: the Everly Brothers, Duane Eddy, Donovan, Fats Domino, B.B. King, Pat Boone, The Beach Boys, Frankie Laine, Peggy Lee, Percy Mayfield, The Platters, Willie Nelson, Sandy Nelson, Randy Newman, James Taylor, Maria Muldaur, the Gregg Allman Band, Rickie Lee Jones…. Red’s own composition, “Primrose Lane,” first recorded by Jerry Wallace, attained the status of a hit in its own right, and gained new popularity when it was used as the theme of a television series, The Smith Family.

During the ’70s, though still involved in television work with The Flip Wilson Show, Gunsmoke, Police Woman, Hawaii Five-0, and Emergency, he finally began to burn out on recording—mainly because of how technology had taken over the process. “Recording just wasn’t fun anymore; the challenge was gone,” he noted. “Thirty-five, forty years ago, when we did it live and most of the time in one take, it was very exciting. Rather than have an honest feel, recording became mechanical. The search for separation in sound has its value I suppose, but the emotion, the feeling is gone. What was once a warm together experience became isolating and chilly. Everything is perfect, but it doesn’t swing most of the time. Where’s the fun?”

The answer came from woodwind player Charles Owens.“How would you like to pay tuba in James Newton’s Wind Quintet?” Owens and Red had met while working together for the first time for Stevie Wonder in 1979. James Newton, a Downbeat poll-winning flutist, was doing an album and was planning to fly a tuba player, Bob Stewart, in from New York. Owens remembers saying, “James, you won’t have to fly out Bob Stewart. You’ve got a guy here that makes the tuba sound like a French horn.”

The group rehearsed complex compositions by Newton and avant-garde clarinetist John Carter, and was complemented by oboe/English horn (Owens doubling), bassoon (John Nunez) and Red on tuba. Red was dazzled by the sound, exhilarated by the technical challenge of Newton’s classical-meets-jazz writing, and stimulated by the camaraderie and mutual respect. Even past age 70, “Red had an insatiable desire to keep learning; he was still learning music,” says Owens. “He just was glad to play tuba with James Newton’s Wind Quintet—that blew him away. He was soft and would blend—we realized what we had over there. My mouth was open every time I went over there. It was a great thing to be part of.”

After making a recording (The Mystery School), the Quintet enjoyed a highly successful European tour. Upon returning to Los Angeles, the group formed a co-op and in 1982, they opened The Wind College, where Red taught both tuba and upright bass… with characteristic humility: “[Teaching] keeps me on my toes, staying a few steps in front of my students.”

“Today I was practicing long tones with the bow and had to smile,” muses Tom Gargano, “and thought of Red. We used to practice those together [at the Wind College] and make bets who would finish first.” Gargano now enjoys a busy jazz career himself in New York. “I had read Beneath the Underdog, Mingus’s autobiography, so I sought out Mr. Mingus’s teacher. I remember very well coming in the first time, very nervous; I didn’t know if it was an audition to study or what. But that smile and grin, and he said, ‘Just play something.’ He was so cool, so supportive. He stopped me at one point and said, ‘What did you just do there, can you show me? I’m gonna steal that.’ And we were off.”

Gargano fondly recalls Red’s generous guidance, though those lessons took place nearly 40 years ago. “He would often say, ‘You are so much better than you think you are,’ always so solidly supportive. The ‘Claw,’ the scales, slow, slow scales. I brought in ‘Freedom Jazz Dance.’ I had written it out in bass clef. We worked on that for months (I still do; I have the copy where he had written correct fingering over every note). ‘Great exercise in fourths,’ said Red. He turned me on to Bach’s cello suites, and we would practice just the first eight bars over and over. ‘This is some shit you can work on the rest of your life.’ I think more than anything what I truly treasure about that time together, those lessons, was how comfortable he made me feel. Unafraid to make mistakes, to try something new, to get his advice.”

Leslie Baker, an LA-based electric and acoustic bassist and vocalist, echoes Gargano’s impressions of him. “Red was kind, wise and generous. Our lessons stretched well beyond an hour. We played a duo gig, duets with him on Tuba, me on string bass. Red taught that if you can play in a duo you’ll be able to play in any size group. I liked his versatility musically and was encouraged to be a well-rounded musician. He invited me to his daughter April’s wedding after only studying with him a couple weeks. I was welcomed into the family.”

Karl Vincent was living with a family that knew Red Callender. “Unbeknownst to me, a neighbor of Red’s placed a note in his mailbox saying there was an aspiring young bass player that would love to meet him. An invitation shows up in the mail for dinner at his home which was a three minute walk. There were so many emotions racing through me changing every few seconds. And so off I went.”

Now a freelance bassist in the Hollywood Bowl, Pacific, New West and other Southern California symphonies, Vincent remembers their first meeting vividly. “He opened the door, the lovely Mary Lou (his lady) standing nearby. Red is tall like me, but with strength, grace, and an unimposing elegance.

“After all the introductions, my nervousness remained. And then Red asked, ‘So, young man, what do you do?’ (Me: Trying to be as impressive as possible, even though I was only a college sophomore with a part-time job as a stock clerk in the ladies apparel department of a major department store.) My proud response: ‘Well, right now I’m a student at the University. And I also work in women’s clothes!’ Red looked at me. His twinkling eyes really came to life: ‘Don’t they think you’re a little weird?’

“The three of us laughed for two or three minutes. All my stress was gone. And I all of a sudden became extraordinarily blessed to have this treasure of a human being as my mentor. The course of my life changed at that very moment. Serendipity.”

Towards the end of his active career, Red enjoyed tours and recordings with the Jimmy and Jeannie Cheathams’ Sweet Baby Blues band in the early ’80s. He plays a solo on tuba on their first record. Your correspondent heard that he was playing on Sunday evenings at the Money Tree in Toluca Lake, CA, with his long-time friend, pianist Gerry Wiggins. I approached him as they took a break and asked, sheepishly, “Didn’t you write ‘Primrose Lane’?” His low-key response was as ironic and disarming as his bass playing: “Don’t remind me.”

Soon after I began studying with Red at the Wind College, I would enjoy a favor similar to the one Red accorded Mingus: After a lesson and the tendering of cash, we’d go and scarf Cuban-styled food at Versailles—the lesson fee picking up the tab. As the lessons intensified, my phone started ringing with work calls from artists of a higher level than before. Essentially, he’d made it possible for me to work with over 30 of his former running mates. And, for good measure, he sold me that 1930s Morelli.

Red Callender
Red Callender

I visited him at his home after he’d been laid low by thyroid cancer. He asked Mary Lou to crank up the bed—and to bring him his tuba. She’d already put Callender Speaks Low on the stereo. Propped up against a pillow, with bedclothes on and with the breathing tube cast aside, damned if he didn’t play an impeccable harmony line against his recording of “In a Sentimental Mood.” Just days later, on March 8, 1992, he was gone.

Towards the end of his autobiography, Red had written, “My longevity has given me the respect I didn’t command years ago.”

“Red was a giant -a school of bass playing. What more can you say?”—Charles Owens

“He contributed brilliantly to jazz, r ‘n b, rock, and pop, as a bassist and, in some cases, as path-breaking tuba performer in jazz. The list of stellar performers in each of these genres who relied upon Red’s work, live and in studio, is pages long. He also took on private students; among the first was a young Charles Mingus in the 1930s. He was truly nonpareil, an artistic treasure and inspirational force.” Steve Isoardi—author, and editor of Central Avenue Sounds

No slouch, indeed.

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