| By Andrew Gilbert
At 83, Ron Crotty is less than half the age of his Tyrolean bass, a beautifully crafted instrument with a rich, woody tone undaunted by the inevitable dents and dings acquired over two centuries of music making. Much like his ax, Crotty, today a regular performer at the Oakland Museum of California’s Blue Oak Café, has endured his fair share of knocks—mostly self-inflicted, he’s quick to note—and yet he persists, sounding as solid and persuasively swinging as ever.
Crotty’s autumnal creative resurgence would be heartening in any context, reminding us that it’s never too late to make a mark, but his lion-in-winter renaissance feels particularly inspiring given his precocious rise and numerous stumbles. In 1949, before turning 20, he had already seized a piece of musical immortality as a founding member of the Dave Brubeck Trio, a group that also featured drummer Cal Tjader. (Tjader, who died on the road in 1982, earned fame several years after leaving Brubeck as a vibraphonist and pioneering Latin jazz bandleader).
With a nightly gig at the Burma Lounge on Lakeshore Avenue in Oakland, Brubeck’s trio attracted the attention of San Francisco DJ Jimmy Lyons, who started featuring the ensemble on a weekly broadcast. Lyons, who launched the Monterey Jazz Festival a decade later with writer Ralph Gleason, helped turn Brubeck into a Bay Area sensation. By the time that Crotty left the group in 1954, the addition of Paul Desmond’s sparkling-dry alto sax had transformed the quartet into one of the most popular groups in jazz, with a series of celebrated live albums recorded on college campuses, released on Berkeley’s Fantasy label.
In a recent conversation in his studio apartment in Berkeley’s Redwood Gardens senior housing complex, a quintessential bachelor’s pad strewn with art books and CDs, Crotty recalls those heady days. “With the Jimmy Lyons broadcasts we needed five or six new tunes every week,” says Crotty, a compact man with rueful eyes and a gentle demeanor, who today lives alone after three shots at marriage. “It was a crash course. After a few months we had this lengthy repertoire, and the trio got popular right away. Then Fantasy got interested in us.”
Though increasingly scarce in recent decades due to the tenuous economics of presenting live music, regular gigs are a band’s lifeblood, providing opportunities for developing a sound and repertoire in front of an audience. For Crotty, who spent some three decades mostly on the losing end of a battle with booze, landing a six-day-a-week gig at the Oakland Museum’s cafe in 2002 provided a forum for rebuilding frayed chops and musical relationships.
After a three-year hiatus, he returned to the museum this October, performing Fridays with a regular rotation of pianists, including Terry Rodriguez, Brian Cooke, Laura Klein, and Bliss Rodriguez, and Sundays with Frank Phipps on marching trombone (a valve instrument that looks more like a flugelhorn).
Phipps met Crotty around 1957, when the bassist was a regular at Geary’s Cellar, one of San Francisco’s leading modern jazz joints. They played together intermittently over the years, but the museum gig allowed them to develop a deep musical bond. Joined by guitarist Tony Corman, they recorded together as Crotty Corman and Phipps, releasing a gorgeous session of standards in 2009, Jazz Trio.
“He’s got a beautiful tone, and usually plays without an amp,” Corman says. “He really gets a sound out of the bass, with a lot of pitch and weight. He’s a classic bass player, a very melodic soloist with a great bouncy feel. He knows tunes and is really invested in modern stuff, but he likes to learn new pieces, and he’s not stuck in the time period he came out of. Ron likes complex music. He goes home and listens to Alban Berg”—the visionary early 20th-century 12-tone composer—“for fun.”
Born into a middle-class Oakland family just months before the stock market crash of 1929 ushered in the Great Depression, Crotty studied violin as a child and sang in the choir at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. But it wasn’t until his senior year that he picked up the bass—the Oakland High School orchestra needed someone to fill the chair. He took to the instrument right away, and within months started playing neighborhood gigs with fellow students. The year was 1947, and a virtuosic new sound called bebop was roiling the jazz world, sparked by the high-velocity improvisation and jagged lines of trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, altoist Charlie “Bird” Parker, pianist Bud Powell, and drummer Kenny Clarke.
“When I first heard Charlie Parker, that was it,” Crotty says. “I’d learn his tunes and whistle them by ear. I’ve always been an ear player. I still am. I don’t read enough to get really good at it. Back in those days the records were 78 shellacs. I’d go down and wait for the newest Bird and Diz to come in. A little later on Miles Davis caught my attention with Bird.”
Eager to check out the scene across the Bay, Crotty enrolled in San Francisco State as a music major. Surrounded by accomplished musicians studying on the GI Bill, he found more stimulation jamming with his peers in the practice rooms than in advancing toward a teaching degree. He started performing in a bebop band with trumpeter Al Molina (who’s still active around the Bay Area), and spent a good deal of time with Cal Tjader and Tjader’s future wife, Pat Bandettini, “who was a really good pianist.” Says Crotty, “I played more with her than with Cal. We’d work out arrangements and she was great at reharmonizing tunes with really hip changes.”
After studying composition with Darius Milhaud at Mills College, Brubeck had created an experimental jazz octet featuring many of Crotty’s San Francisco State peers, including Tjader. The group didn’t work much, but when it played the Geary Cellar, Crotty was usually on hand.
“I never dreamed I’d play with Brubeck,” Crotty says. But when the pianist wanted to form a trio, Tjader recommended him. “It was just being in the right place at the right time,” Crotty says. “Right away Dave was really helpful. He liked the way I played, but also knew I needed some training harmonically. He introduced me to two minor, five-seven one [a key harmonic relationship in bebop] and a light went on. From there, I could start to understand the structure of song forms.”
A two-year stint in the Army interrupted Crotty’s service with Brubeck, but in 1951 he picked right back up with the quartet, then performing for months at a time at the Black Hawk in San Francisco. Looking to keep the band busy, Brubeck’s wife, Iola, started seeking out gigs on college campuses, on the hypothesis that the way to cultivate young audiences was to perform where they could be reliably found. (The Brubecks celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary in September.) Featuring Crotty, Desmond, and drummer Lloyd Davis, 1953’s Jazz at Oberlin became a sensation, catapulting Brubeck into national prominence. As Crotty recalls, “We were just exhausted when we did that. We’d been on the road for months without a break.”
Crotty’s tenure with Brubeck ended a year later when he came down with hepatitis during a run in Philadelphia; he stayed behind to convalesce when the band moved on to its next gig. Worn down after three years of relentless touring, and ready to start a family, he returned to San Francisco and stayed close to home, working with pianist Vince Guaraldi at North Beach strip joints, and with guitarist Eddie Duran at the hungry i.
As the West Coast mecca for Beats, North Beach drew poets and painters, and Crotty reveled in their company. A self-taught painter—his studio is festooned with his graceful watercolors—he befriended noted artists such as Farwell Taylor, whose Mill Valley restaurant, the Palette, attracted numerous musicians.
Like many of his peers, Crotty also took to chemical diversions, balancing the high of amphetamines with a steady flow of alcohol. Several years of this diet left his nerves shot and when he finally kicked the speed (but not the booze), “all of the sudden I was a drunk, and I started getting a bad reputation.”
Looking to salvage his first marriage, he dropped out of the scene and found a day gig as a gardener and arborist. Starting in the late 1950s, he worked a succession of jobs, including long stints in Oakland and Pacifica’s park departments, but eventually his drinking always forced him to move on. He never stopped playing the bass, but his musical career withered as he “went through a long period of alcoholism, moving from one area to another as a lost soul.”
In the 1970s, Crotty lived at various Synanon facilities around California, working as a gardener for the drug rehabilitation program and playing occasionally with other renowned musicians looking to stay sober, such as alto sax great Art Pepper and trombonist Frank Rehawk. When he became disillusioned with the group’s confrontational therapeutic techniques, he says, he fled Synanon without his beloved Tyrolean bass, which he had acquired decades earlier from a San Francisco State professor, former New York Philharmonic principal bassist Arthur Storch. He eventually ransomed it back for $2,000—money he earned over several years playing gigs for $10 or $15 a night while living in Santa Cruz.
By the mid-’90s, Crotty was ready to quit drinking for good. He spent three years in Solidarity Fellowship, a sober living facility in Fremont, and hasn’t had a drink since 1997. “I wasn’t able to stop until I was 67,” Crotty says. “A lot of people gave up on me, but I’ve done a lot of playing since then, and gone through some style changes.”
Crotty isn’t the kind of reformed drinker who revels in the bad old days, with a ready store of raucous tales. Focused on the future rather than the past, he’s down-to-earth, or more precisely, down in the earth—he continues to work as a gardener, and can often be found around the East Bay tending trees, for which he feels deep affection. Surveying the sylvan panorama from his third floor unit, he recalls first being shown the studio. “I took one look out that window and said, ‘I’ll take it.’”
Crotty looks remarkably fit and hearty considering the road he’s traveled, and when he picks up his bass, he radiates contentment. For trombonist Frank Phipps, who plays with Crotty at the Oakland Museum on Sundays, the bassist’s rededication to music is reason to celebrate.
“He’s a great guy,” Phipps says. “Ron has had his ups and downs, and people who love him are so happy with what he’s been able to do this last 15 years or so, stay on the straight and narrow and get back to his music.”
Ron Crotty appears Fridays and Sundays 12 to 2 p.m. through December at the Blue Oak Café at the Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak St., Oakland, (510) 318-8400 or museumca.org.
Andrew Gilbert is a Berkeley freelance writer who covers music for the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and Berkeleyside.com.
Rhythm rediscovered: Ron Crotty, a Dave Brubeck protégé, still performs regularly on his Tyrolean bass. Here the 83-year-old Berkeley resident plays at the Oakland Museum’s cafe. Photo by Lenny Gonzalez.
“I wasn’t able to stop [drinking] until I was 67. A lot of people gave up on me, but I’ve done a lot of playing since then, and gone through some style changes.” —Ron Crotty, bassist and founding member of the Dave Brubeck Trio. Photo by Lenny Gonzalez.