Last month, San Jose lost its dedicated Ambassador of Jazz.
Eddie Gale, the celebrated musician Sun Ra once called “the first avant garde trumpeter,” succumbed to cancer on July 10. Friends and family will take part in an online musical tribute for Gale on Saturday, August 8 from 2-4pm.
In a recent column dedicated to Gale’s passing, Metro columnist Gary Singh wrote that “as a jazzman, Eddie was not a wine-and-cheese dude. He was old-school, seasoned, cosmic and gruff in all the best ways—the kind of authentic cat you didn’t see around here very much, and won’t ever see again.”
“Eddie was just a sweet guy,” says Jeff Paul, a longtime friend who first encountered Gale while heading up San Jose State’s Africana, Asian American, Chicano & Native American Studies Center (AAACNA), then the Cultural Heritage Center. “He had no air about being a professional musician. You’d think a person of his stature, who recorded on Blue Note, would be haughty or distant or difficult to approach. He was just a genuine human being who cared about inner peace and promoting peace.”
“It was really amazing to meet a teacher that was so positive and supportive of your own individual voice,” shares pianist Valerie Mih, who first encountered Gale 20 years ago at an improvisation workshop at the Black Dot in Oakland. He remained a mentor, and Mih was later invited to join his Inner Peace Orchestra, a spot she held for several years. “That was one of the best things about Eddie. He was always very positive, and that’s incredibly valuable for a person who’s trying to be creative. I think he inspired fearlessness in his students.”
“Eddie Gale’s passing is a huge loss for our community,” admits San Jose Jazz’s executive director, Brendan Rawson. “Gale proudly carried the mantle of Ambassador of Jazz for over 40 years in this city and used his title in service of developing future generations of jazz talent. His deep generosity honored a spirit of mentorship embedded in jazz’s very architecture. He embodied the music’s inclusive spirit and ensured its continued vitality.”
The Brooklyn-born horn player lived across the East River from jazz’s New York epicenter, which came with some distinct privileges. Growing up pianist Bud Powell, who lived nearby, would listen to him practice. He took lessons from Kenny Dorham. Jam sessions allowed him to hone his craft alongside the likes of Art Blakey, Sonny Stitt, Jackie McLean and Illinois Jacquet.
“I was fortunate, because in those days, the musicians were available to young people, if you were really into it,” Gale shared in a 2006 profile in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Gale first earned acclaim as a sideman on Cecil Taylor’s classic Blue Note debut, 1966’s Unit Structures. He recorded on organist Larry Young’s Of Love and Peace that same year. These performances caught the ear of Blue Note co-founder Francis Wolff, who decided to fund Gale’s own efforts as bandleader.
His disparate influences made for fascinating art. “Combining the bebop and hard bop of his early teachers, the avant-garde sensibilities acquired from [Cecil] Taylor and the soul-jazz fire of [Larry] Young, Gale’s music expertly bridged the gap between long-standing jazz traditions and the newer styles that attempted to shatter them,” shares Nathan Bush in Gale’s Blue Note artist bio. 50 years later, his two albums with the label, 1968’s Ghetto Music and 1969’s Black Rhythm Happening, still stand out as unique musical statements among Blue Note’s vast, celebrated catalog.
After a successful stint as an artist in residence at Stanford University in 1971, plans were soon engineered for him to remain on the West Coast by students he kept in contact with. He settled down in San Jose in 1972.
In 1974, Gale earned a title that would come to define his later musical trajectory. The city’s then mayor, Norman Mineta, named him “San Jose’s Ambassador of Jazz.” It’s a distinction he carried proudly, and his efforts in the years since have largely followed two motives: using music as a means to celebrate peace and unity, and utilizing his stature to give back to others, especially younger musicians.
“It was a fortuitous combination of elements that brought us together to be able to do that,” explains former Mayor Mineta when recalling the designation. “He wanted to know what it would entail – would he get reimbursements or any travel [expenses]. I said there’s nothing accompanying this except your integrity and good will, [and] he said sure. There was nothing really in it for him other than having the title of Ambassador of Jazz for the City of San Jose, so he took it upon himself to enhance what that meant.”
Eddie Gale Profile on KTEH Public TV, 2009
Gale appeared on Summer Fest’s Silicon Valley Stage in 2018, and continually lent his talents to various community fundraisers over the years. He organized the Evergreen Youth Adult Jazz Society to support arts in public schools, and the We’re Jazzed! Youth/Adult Jazz Festival to create performance opportunities for youth. His passion for healthcare led him to found the San Francisco Bay Area Jazz Musicians Self-Help Healthcare Project, which organized fundraisers for the California Jazz Foundation.
In 2017, Gale helped organize an event to give away dozens of trumpets free of charge to students in the San Jose community, telling NBC Bay Area “I think music is a wonderful gift from the heavens.”
His most lasting contribution to the San Jose community was his annual Concert for World Peace and Peace Poetry Contest, held during the Fall to coincide with World Peace Day, and his Concert for Inner Peace in America and the World, which honored the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. every January.
Initially hosted inside San Jose State’s music auditorium, Gale’s concert for World Peace and Poetry Contest eventually moved inside the Martin Luther King, Jr. Library, which fostered a 20-year partnership with the AAACNA. The event, which featured musical performances and readings from winning contest entries, drew hundreds to the library.
Kathryn Blackmer Reyes, who succeeded Jeff Paul as head of the AAACNA, remembers the crowds Gale’s free community events would attract. “It was really inter-generational,” she recalls. “Young people performing at the presentation would bring their parents. You had this very diverse attendance. I thought that spoke to what Eddie was trying to do with those concerts.”
That same diversity extended to where he musically lent his talents. In recent years, he earned a co-credit alongside San Francisco psychedelic jam band Mushroom on their 2007 album Joint Happening. He would also regularly sit in with Oakland hip-hop group the Coup.
“He was the embodiment of inclusivity,” notes Mih. “He didn’t have a compartmentalized view of music at all, but at the same time, he had a very strong purpose and drive for what he was doing with his energy.”
While a traditional memorial cannot currently take place, friends and family will honor Gale with an online musical tribute on Saturday, August 8 from 2–4pm on the Eddie Gale Memorial Space Facebook page. Hosted by Clifford Brown, Jr and live-streamed from Doug Ellington’s performance space in Oakland, the event will feature both pre-recorded and live performances from Faye Carol, Marcus Shelby, Destiny Muhammad, David Leikam and more.
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