$ 3 gigs, Leopard skin tuxedos, Big Time…
…in Jersey and the Real Big Time with the Tijuana Brass
After entering Vibrato on an early Wednesday evening my companion and I were seated immediately. I was there to see and hear bassist Pat Senatore, who was accompanied by pianist Jeff Colella. My companion was Frank Collett, the esteemed pianist, who is now involved in photography. I would take notes and Frank would be taking some candid shots. Everything went well; we were promptly served our delicious meals and settled in to listen to the musicians.
The duo of Senatore and Colella was quite wonderful, so calming in this beautiful room. Both musicians were very relaxed and played with a quiet authority. People were coming in and were seated quickly by the excellent staff. A large party was seated in the center of the dining space. I noticed a striking painting on one wall and some sculptures high above the bar. This lovely, yet exciting room was created by trumpeter/producer/philanthropist Herb Albert. The art about the room is his work. Vibrato was created to be a welcoming place for patrons and musicians every night. It has hosted the best musicians from around the globe. With a few exceptions, there is no cover charge and this is another way that Alpert supports the jazz community.
Pat Senatore has played a pivotal role at Vibrato, as the person who is responsible for booking the talent. I wanted to find out more about Senatore and his long career. He seemed to be a low-key person, very personable and well mannered. He greeted his old friend, Frank Collett, warmly. They go way back to the days when Senatore was running the famous Pasquale’s Jazz Club in Malibu. During our dinner Frank told me that he had played piano at Pasquale’s for a long time. He made the drive over the Santa Monica mountains from his home in North Hollywood and back every night for many months. I was amazed at Frank’s dedication, his tenacity. What I learned about Senatore was quite surprising. His story is very interesting and I hope that he will write a book some day about his experiences as a traveling musician, club owner and now club booker. His story is about how our country has changed over decades. It’s about how a young kid got fascinated by jazz and followed through with some lucky breaks along the way. It all brought him here, to this beautiful jazz club.
L.A. Jazz: Tell me about your early life. Where and when were you born? Big family or small? Did you like school? What were your interests growing up?
Senatore: I was born in Newark, New Jersey. My immediate family was small -just me and my sister—but my extended family was very large. My father had only one brother, but my mom had four brothers and four sisters. I remember Thanksgiving dinners with no fewer than 30 people, including children, grandchildren, etc. It was an all-day eating affair. First, there were all the Italian dishes, followed by the traditional American turkey dinner with all the trimmings. After the football games, we’d start all over again with turkey sandwiches. I loved school and was an excellent student in grammar school. All A’s. I had the second highest IQ in the school. I was quite an actor, playing the lead in our weekly plays. We did a puppet show of Rip Van Winkle, in which all the students made the puppets and did the voices. I was Rip.
L.A. Jazz: When did music attract you? How old were you? What encouragement did you get, at school?
Senatore: My interests were art and music. Wayne Shorter, who lived a few blocks from me, and I were school mates and we shared an interest in art. Wayne was an exceptional artist, and we were both asked to take the test to go to Arts High School. As such, we were in competition with kids from all over the state of New Jersey. We were both accepted and were both art majors for our first two years, then we both were Art & Music majors in our Junior and Senior years.
Arts High produced some of the major music artists of our time: Sarah Vaughan, Connie Francis, Larry Young, Woody Shaw —to name a few.
There was always music in my house. My dad sang in Italian operettas in New York City, and there were always jam sessions at our house. The instrumentation was usually guitar, mandolin, sometimes accordion, and ocarina (sweet potato). Of course, it wasn’t jazz but I was exposed to this tradition at an early age and enjoyed being around the music. I can remember this as a tot.
When I was 5 years old, my dad thought it was time for me to start lessons. He picked the violin because he knew the concert master was always the first violinist, and the most important person in the orchestra. For six months, I studied solfeggio, just to make sure I had an aptitude for music. Then, my dad bought a half size violin and hired a teacher, a mean, old-school Italian who didn’t speak English. It was a very unpleasant experience. Practicing was a chore, and I didn’t like doing it. So after five years -much to my father’s disappointment-I said that I didn’t want to play the violin any longer. It wasn’t a complete waste because I was pretty good. I played all the Etudes and Studies well and got a good foundation.
When I got to high school, I got the bug again. From the time I quit taking lessons and high school, I was always tuned in to the American Song Book. It was the popular music of the day: Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Doris Day, Peggy Lee, etc. I wanted to play bass but my high school teacher thought I was too small for the bass, so he suggested I play baritone horn, because it was written in the bass clef and I could prepare for playing the bass. After about six months, I realized that I couldn’t play in dance bands or jazz bands with a baritone horn so I asked for a trombone. I took private lessons for about a year, but still wanted to play bass. Finally, in my senior year he gave me a bass and I started taking lessons.
L.A. Jazz: At what point did you understand that you could make a living as a musician? What did you give up to do that?
Senatore: During high school I would play some gigs on trombone (big bands) and then some gigs on bass. I could play C.Y.O. dances for about $3.00 a gig and then weddings and parties for anywhere from $7.00 to $15.00. During this time, I always had a place to jam — usually someone’s basement. I enjoyed thinking this was a great choice for a career.
There was a theater in Newark, Adams Theater, where you could listen to a big band and see a movie. On Saturday, I would catch the first set of the band, then the movie, followed by the second set of the band. It was an all-day affair. Sometimes singers were featured, as well. I loved the life style I imagined that these guys led and knew that’s what I wanted to do.
After graduating from high school, I started working with groups. One was “Bob Oakes and the Sultans.” I played trombone (all I could play was the blues in B flat), bass, and was the ballad and pop singer. The drummer, Bob Oakes, wasn’t much of a drummer but he could sing all the rock tunes. The tenor player, Big Bill (300 Ibs.), was a student at Julliard and the best musician in the group. The piano player, was a veteran who had been around and played really well. We worked at a club in Union City, N.J, next to a burlesque theater, and we packed the room once the burlesque show let out. It was owned by the Mafia. They loved us and brought us leopard skin and zebra skin tuxedo jackets. We were quite a hot band in N.J. It was happening. I bought my first new car, a 1956 Olds super “88”, a white convertible, for $3,150.00. I was making $125.00 a week. But my dad was disappointed in me. I’d come home at 5:00 am or later, just as he was going to work. This was not what he had in mind when he started me on the violin.
After two years at this club, we told Smiley, the owner, that we wanted to work some other clubs. His answer was, “you go when I tell you to go.” So, we stayed another six months. By then, they’d had enough of us. As the young, curly-haired Italian who sang all the ballads, I had an abundance of female companions –further confirmation that I made the right career choice.
During high school, I started getting into jazz. I would go to Birdland in Manhattan a couple of times a week. I wasn’t old enough but I used my brother-in-law’s draft card. It said I was 21, I was 16 and looked 14. The doorman laughed at me but he knew I was there for the music so he let me in anyway. I’d buy a coke and hear three different groups. I tried to imitate what I heard. No one taught jazz in those days, privately or in school. So, you were on your own.
One night I heard The Bill Evans Trio at the Vanguard with Scott LaFaro and almost gave up playing the bass. He scared the hell out of me and I thought I could never play like that. But it was really an inspiration. This was when I realized I needed to study much more to be competitive. I decided to go to school and auditioned for Julliard. I got accepted and also got a Hardship Scholarship. Jazz was a cuss word there and after two years, I left. Now Julliard has one of the best jazz departments in the U.S. Yet, one benefit was studying with Fred Zimmerman, the principal bassist with the New York Philharmonic.
L.A. Jazz: When did you get your first, important break? Tell me about that and what it meant to your career?
Senatore: My first break came when I was hired to perform with Phil Brito’s band (he was a prominent singer of the day) for a week-end, on the condition that I join the union, which at that time cost $70.00. The gig paid much more than $70.00. It was at Palisades Amusement Park, a place I frequented to see big bands. A little later, I was playing with a group called “AI and Jet and the Nitrons,” a husband and wife team somewhat like Louie Prima and Keely Smith. We got a gig in Las Vegas. This was the big time for a group from New Jersey. I was the envy of all my friends and we were very successful. It was the first time I was introduced to the West Coast since we also played in California and Lake Tahoe. I knew this was where I wanted to be.
After marrying my first wife in 1960, I moved to L.A. In those days the Union was pretty strict. You couldn’t come to town for a few weeks, take gigs from L.A. musicians and split, you had to establish residence for six months before you could work. So, I took a job at Wallach’s Music City as a sales clerk and became the Night Manager a few weeks later. Clyde Wallach, the owner of Capital Records, also owned Music City on Sunset and Vine. It was where everyone in the business shopped. There was a guy who came in once a week and bought sheet music of the top ten songs. I asked him if he was a musician and he said, “yes, I play the trumpet.” I gave him my number and said if you ever need a bass player, “give me a call.” His name was Herb Alpert.
After the six months were up, I left and started working gigs. Soon after, I got a call from contractor Jules Chaiken, who asked if I was interested in going on the road with Stan Kenton. I said, “sure, do I have to audition?” “No,” he said, they heard about you and the gig is yours if you want it.” After nine months on the road, we came home and recorded three albums at Capital. My first son, whom I named Kenton (Kent), was six days old when I first saw him.
In 1964, as the bass player in Les Brown’s Band, I went to Vietnam, Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines to play for our troops with the Bob Hope Christmas Tour. Quite an experience! Our hotel in Saigon was bombed before we got there. We also did the Bob Hope Show and the Dean Martin Show. I spent 4 or 5 days a week at NBC in Burbank during that time. In 1965 a name from the past appeared — Herb Alpert called and said he was forming the Tijuana Brass. He already had several albums done with studio musicians that were very successful and he had to put a band together to tour. I got the gig and the rest is history. There were so many memorable experiences, such as playing the White House for President Johnson, a Command Performance for Queen Elizabeth, we were featured guests at the Indy 500, the Beatles gave us a party, and playing for thousands of people all over the world.
I finally redeemed myself with my dad, who had given up by this time and had no respect for my career choice. I was not a concert master in a symphony orchestra. After seeing us at Madison Square Garden, he called me “Mr. Brass.”
L.A. Jazz: What were some of the highlights for you? Was it traveling, meeting people, etc?
Senatore: By being a musician I was able to experience traveling to places all over the world that I would never have seen had I chosen another profession. I traveled to Europe, Asia, Australia, New Zealand and every major U.S. city. Meeting different people and experiencing different cultures was invaluable.
L.A. Jazz: What were some of the hardships that you had to overcome to continue your career? What did you “give up” to make progress?
Senatore: Some of the hardships I encountered are the same as any full time musician has to deal with: the time in between gigs when you wait for the phone to ring, the times you don’t have enough money to pay your bills; the times when everyone is celebrating, such as New Year’s Eve, and you have to work because you can make more money that night. I can’t remember one that I didn’t work in my whole career. Not seeing my son until he was six days old because I was on the road. The fact that most gigs pay less than the average worker makes. This seems especially unfair because we have to study much more to be able to do what we do. Some unskilled workers make much more money with hardly any training. Unfortunately that’s the price you must pay to be an artist. It seems unfair, but our rewards are not always measured in dollars. One time, when I was working at Wolfgang Puck’s Granita Restaurant in Malibu, I was complaining to someone at the bar about how the people took us for granted didn’t listen, didn’t tip. These were affluent people who could easily afford it. He agreed but said, “I bet less than 2% of them enjoy what they do as much as you do.” That was enlightening and true.
L.A. Jazz: Tell me about your club in Malibu. How and when did that come about? Who were some of the performers you hired? Why did it close?
Senatore: I used to take my kids to this little section of beach in Malibu called Carbon Beach when I noticed a little bar that had closed down. And, there was an apartment above it. I had always wanted to have a jazz club and I always wanted live on the beach. To realize these two life-long dreams, I pursued the landlord for over a year until he finally relented and wrote out a six year lease by hand on a lined legal pad. By this time, I had met Barbara, who would become my wife, and we worked for four months transforming this abandoned former biker’s dive into Pasquale’s. We opened in February, 1978. We designed it to look like someone’s living room — someone who just happened to have one of the best beachfront views in Malibu. There were love seats, marble top coffee tables. The bar was tucked away, out of the room. No blended drinks were made during a performance. You could hear a pin drop when the music was happening. Or, maybe just the sound of the surf. During one memorable performance, Bobby Hutcherson delighted the audience playing a duet with the waves.
All of the top performers in jazz appeared with my trio, which consisted
of pianists: Frank Collett, Roger Kellaway, George Cables, Alan Broadbent, Larry Willis, among others. Some of the drummers included: Roy McCurdy, Billy Higgins. Ralph Penland, John Guerin. Soloists were Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, Joe Pass, Joe Farrell, Frank Rosolino, Jack Sheldon, Carmen McRae, Anita O’Day, Art Pepper, Eddie Harris, John Abercrombie, Lenny Breau, Blue Mitchell, Harold Land, Thurman Green, Oscar Brashear, Moacir Santos…..and many more.
We had big bands: Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin, Bill Holman, Joe Farrell. Latin bands: Willie Bobo, Poncho Sanchez, Clare Fischer, Baya. Groups: Pat Metheny/Charlie Haden/Billy Higgins. Chick Correa with Chuck Mangione.
We finally closed at the height of our success. The six year lease was up. The landlord would not renew the lease, except on a month-to-month basis. Besides, this landlord, who was a convicted felon, had run afoul of the City of Malibu because the septic system was leaking. The City of Malibu brought charges against him and me. It would cost $70,000 to repair and the landlord refused to fix it. Without a bona fide lease, I wasn’t going to fix it either. So, I asked the judge if I vacated the premises would the charges be dropped against me. He said, “Yes.” So after six beautiful years (except for the landlord), Pasquale’s closed. Ironically, ten years later, I got the chance to testify in court against the landlord. He lost the case and lost the property. Karma. It is now an Italian Restaurant. The property is owned by Larry Ellison, who purchased 200 million dollars worth of real estate on Carbon Beach.
L.A. Jazz: And yet, you’re still in the jazz club business with Vibrato, booking the talent there, performing yourself. What’s great about your job? What is the hardest part?
Senatore: Herb Alpert, in his generous support of jazz, opened Vibrato Grill Jazz in 2004. I was flattered that I was given the job as Artistic Director. I book all the talent and perform with a trio of rotating pianists and drummers, and a featured artist -mostly on the weekends. I book many different groups and singers usually on Tuesday and Wednesday. To name a few: Seth MacFarlane, Steve Tyrell, Robert Davi, Sherry Williams, Tony Galla, Annie Trousseau, Anna Mjoll, Frank Stallone, Sacha’s Bloc, the Gipsy All-Stars. The featured artists are some of the usual suspects: Chuck Manning, Bob Sheppard, Tom Peterson, Rob Lockhart, Gary Foster, Steve Huffsteter, Carl Saunders, Ron Stout, Bob McChesney, Andy Martin, Howie Shear, Danny Janklow. The rhythm section players often include such pianists as: Josh Nelson, Otmaro Ruiz, Tom Ranier, Theo Saunders, Jeff Colella, Stu Elster, Ed Czach; and such drummers as: Mark Ferber, Dick Weller, Jimmy Branly, Ramon Banda, Kendall Kay. We have had Toots Thielmans and Kenny Werner, Dave Brubeck, Chuck Mangione, Kenny Barron, Bobby Hutcherson, George Cables, Alan Broadbent, Gary Barton, Phil Woods, to name a few.
The great part of the gig is playing and giving the opportunity to so many great players to perform.
There is no real bad part, but I put in long days, often seven days a week, working in my office during the day, handling the booking, payroll and all the behind the scene details, and working at night in the club.
L.A. Jazz: You mentioned that you have achieved dual citizenship, with the U. S. and Italy. That’s very fascinating; why did you want to do this and how did you accomplish that?
Senatore: Yes, I am now a dual citizen of the U.S. and ltaly/EU. I was able to be recognized as an Italian citizen because my grandfather, whom I was named after, Pasquale Senatore, was born in Italy and was not naturalized when my father was born. As part of the process, we went to Nocera Superiore, a small town outside of Naples where my grandfather was born, and we were welcomed warmly at the City Hall and had photos taken with the Mayor. I learned that my favorite politician, Mario Cuomo, and CNBC’s “Closing Bell” newscaster, Maria Bartiromo, also trace their heritage to the same town.
Sometime in the future, I plan to spend time in Italy — playing, painting, exploring the culture of my ancestors, and living la dolce vita. My wife and I have traveled there several times and never get enough. I also will visit my many friends in Spain, France, Belgium, Holland, Sweden, Malta and Germany.
L.A. Jazz: Do you look back with satisfaction with all that you’ve accomplished. Any new projects or ideas coming up?
Senatore: Yes, I look back and realize how blessed I’ve been to be able to do what I love and have had so many great experiences along the way. Two people I must thank for all their love and support are Herb Alpert and Lani Hall. The new projects coming up are the release of my CD, Ascensione, with Josh Nelson and Mark Ferber on Fresh Sound Records. I also have a duo CD with Alan Broadbent and myself, Live at Vibrato. In addition, I’m particularly excited about a piano-less quartet that is in the works. Also, I hope to re-release a CD I did with Cedar Walton and Billy Higgins in 1990.
L.A. Jazz: What makes you happy right now?
Senatore: The fact that all through these adventures, I’ve had the love and support of my wife, Barbara. She’s always been there for me in every way.