Thursday, September 22, 2011

May 23, 1968 The Trident, Sausalito, CA: Merl Saunders Trio

Jazz critic Russ Wilson's review of Merl Saunders Trio's performance at The Trident in Sausalito, from the May 24, 1968 edition of the Oakland Tribune. The other members of the trio were Jimmy Daniels (guitar) and Eddie Moore (drums)
While doing newspaper research into some other matters, I came across a glowing review of the Merl Saunders Trio performing at The Trident Restaurant in Sausalito. The Trident, on the waterfront on the Marin side of the Golden Gate bridge, was a destination restaurant in the 60s and a prestigious jazz booking. In his May 24, 1968 review, Oakland Tribune jazz critic Russ Wilson speaks highly of the performance of Saunders and his band. For me personally, the interesting thing about this review is that Merl's music is considered on its own merits, with no mention of Jerry Garcia. Saunders was not a major local jazz figure at the time, but he was known well enough to Russ Wilson to get a nice review in the Tribune.  I myself had not realized how little I had read about Merl Saunders's music that did not dwell at least implicitly on his music with Jerry Garcia. Interested parties can read the entire review itself (above), but I thought I would put a few thoughts in context.

The Trident Restaurant, at 588 Bridgewater in Sausalito, CA, just across from San Francisco. Patrons and employees remember it fondly, to the extent they remember
The Trident, 558 Bridgewater, Sausalito
Sausalito was once a fishing village on the opposite side of the bay from San Francisco. Ultimately it became a Ferry terminus to the North Pacific Coast Railroad. However, when the Golden Gate Bridge was opened in 1937, Sausalito's waterfront declined rapidly. Sausalito had always had a colorful history, with bootleggers, rum runners and bordellos, and that aspect of the community was ascendant for some years. By the 1960s, however, the seedy history of Sausalito had made it a desirable bohemian enclave.

The Trident was owned by one Frank Werber, who had made a fair amount of money as the producer of The Kingston Trio. Under his Trident Productions banner, he produced a variety of other acts as well. In the mid-60s, he dipped his toes in the folk-rock waters, signing and producing Bay Area acts like Blackburn & Snow and The Sons Of Champlin.  In 1966, Werber and the Kingston Trio opened up The Trident Restaurant on the water, which also regularly featured jazz. It instantly became the in place for upscale downsiders and downscalers with an upside.

In 1967 Frank Werber gave up the record business, a rare man who took his money out of the biz before he lost it. He kept The Trident, however. As the San Francisco bohemian underground became rock and roll royalty, The Trident was a main hangout for record company people, Bill Graham, rock stars, film stars and other cool people. The Trident was famous for having spectacularly beautiful waitresses, all reputedly braless. The Trident also booked jazz five or six nights a week, an interesting paradox in a club that celebrated the rock and roll life. Nonetheless, the quality of jazz performers at The Trident was uniformly high, whether local performers or recruited from out of town.

Merl Saunders Trio At The Trident, May 21-June 9, 1968
According to Wilson's review, the Merl Saunders trio was engaged when, per Wilson, "oddly enough... pianist Vince Guaraldi sprained a finger Saturday night getting off an airplane, and notified the club he couldn't keep his booking for the following Tuesday, according to club manager Lou Ganapoler" (Vince Guaraldi scholars take note). The peculiar tone of Wilson's explanation suggests that there was more to Guaraldi's sprained finger than he is saying, but no matter: Merl and his trio were on board. Apparently Saunders had filled in for a few days the previous year (1967) when another headliner had been unable to make it, so they weren't a complete unknown to The Trident.

Saunders group was an organ trio on the classic model of Jimmy Smith, with drummer Eddie Moore and guitarist Jimmy Daniels. Moore, besides being Saunders's cousin, was a well known drummer in Bay Area jazz circles. Daniels was a Connecticutt native and had formerly played with the great organist Johnny "Hammond" Smith. Saunders would have kept up the bass with his feet. For Garcia fans, the Merl Saunders trio would have played music like "Expressway To Your Heart" or "My Funny Valentine," but without Garcia's trademark note bending, which he brought in from the rock side.

Wilson names a few songs that the Saunders trio played, such as "Up, Up And Away," "You Better Love Me," "Little Bird" and "Sometimes I'm Happy." Wilson praises Saunders as "an organist who knows his stops as well as his keyboards, and who builds on this foundation with musicality, taste and a strong ability to swing..."[Saunders] perceptive use of these basics often makes his output superior to that of widely known jazz organists." The critic does add that "there are times when Saunders and his cohorts fall into a dismal swamp, as they did with the current pop tune "Up, Up And Away." These two points fairly sum up Saunders ability as a keyboard player: he is versatile, sticks to the basic and knows how to swing, while sometimes falling into unneeded noodling.

It is interesting also to read Wilson's comments about guitarist Jimmy Daniels. He says "on appropriate numbers he utilizes a blues vibrato that gets into the nitty-gritty and on ballads he plays with a full melodic sound that enhances the tune." A few years later, Saunders would play with another guitarist who would utilize even more blues vibrato and play with a full melodic sound, as well.  It is interesting to see that Merl Saunders's sound was well established prior to playing with Jerry Garcia and John Kahn in 1970. Since Saunders had logged three weeks at the Trident in 1968, he would not have been at all unknown to the music cognoscenti in 1970, even if he wasn't well known to the general public.

Russ Wilson and The Oakland Tribune
Oakland had been a worthy competitor to San Francisco since the time the Transcontinental Railroad terminated at the Port Of Oakland in 1869. However, once the Bay Bridge was opened in 1936, Oakland's status declined relative to San Francisco, as automotive travel made the City more accessible from the East Bay. Oakland continued to boom throughout World War 2, but afterwards the East Bay metropolis lagged farther and farther behind San Francisco in every respect. A general Post WW2 movement to the suburbs did not help Oakland's status.

Nonetheless, the Oakland Tribune, owned by the powerful Knowland family, continued to be an important newspaper up until the 1970s. Jazz critic Russ Wilson was a significant voice in the East Bay musical community. Wilson liked all styles of jazz, befitting a critic for a daily paper, but he liked soul, folk and blues as well. On occasion he commented on rock bands in his local column, and unlike some 60s jazz critics, he had positive feelings and a good ear for rock, despite having a different primary focus. Wilson's broad tastes were comparable to other music writers at Bay Area papers in the 1960s, including Ralph J Gleason at the San Francisco Chronicle and Phil Elwood at the San Francisco Examiner.

The Merl Saunders Trio made a two-month tour of the Far East later in 1968. In the next two years, Merl Saunders would be the musical director of a Broadway show and jam with Miles Davis in New York. He returned to the Bay Area in 1970, where he met Jerry Garcia at Wally Heider's studio. This led to an extensive and memorable career playing live with Jerry in the 1970s and beyond.

The Trident Restaurant was open from 1966-76, and it is remembered fondly by patrons and employees alike (one of those employees appears to have been Jerry Garcia Band singer Julie Stafford). Members of the Kingston Trio sold their interest in the restaurant in 1976, so Frank Werber did as well. The restaurant was called Horizons after 1976. I don't know the exact history of the building. It now appears to be called Events Ondine.

The Oakland Tribune had commenced publication in 1874. Like most newspapers, it declined in circulation throughout the 1970s. At some point, the excellent Larry Kelp became the primary music writer for the Tribune. I can not recall if he published alongside Russ Wilson or replaced him. The Tribune went through numerous ownership changes throughout the end of the century. For the moment it is part of BANG (The Bay Area Newspaper Group). The Oakland Tribune is scheduled to cease publication after November 1, 2011, when its circulation will merge with other papers under the name East Bay Tribune.


  1. Very, very nice. I agree it's great to get a clean read on Merl, one not contaminated by his connection to Garcia.

    I was also going through some Russ Wilson stuff in the Trib, and I found one column, at least, in which he is lambasting Gleason (not by name, but it's clearly him) for his San Francisco-centrism. Wilson also seems to have been a big fan of Merl's, as he mentioned him pretty frequently in his column. He frequently emphasizes that Merl spent some childhood in Berkeley, thus asserting his East Bay bona fides.

  2. Ralph Gleason really did believe the musical universe revolved around San Francisco and Berkeley, and he didn't even like to venture further West than Golden Gate Park (he once described the Family Dog on The Great Highway as "nearly in San Luis Obispo"). Nonetheless, Gleason did a great job of covering the scene as he saw it.

    In retrospect, since daily papers were one of the principal, if not only sources for information about newer music, the Bay Area was very well served by excellent music writers in the 60s: Gleason at the Chronicle, Russ Wilson at the Trib and Phil Elwood at the Examiner.