The jazz world lost another of its important stewards this weekend. Dr. Herb Wong, a stalwart of the Bay Area jazz scene for over 65 years, died on Sunday at the age of 88. Wong earned a Ph.D. in zoology at Berkeley, where he spent many years on the faculty, but his avocation as a deejay, record producer, and concert presenter made him a household name in the groves of jazz.
Wong’s appreciation for jazz developed when a box of 78’s intended for the previous owner of his family’s home in Stockton, California, arrived in the mail. Herb and his brother opened it and discovered a trove of musical wonders. He told the San Jose Mercury News,“When we heard Art Tatum and all these other cats [of the mid-30’s], we said, ‘Wait a minute. This is fantastic music’.”
Herb enlisted in the army during World War II, was assigned to radio and communications, and became a deejay with the Armed Forces Radio Network in post-war Tokyo. A decade later, he began hosting a show at KJAZ and became affiliated with the Monterey Jazz Festival, where he long served as an emcee. He taught jazz history in a variety of settings and introduced jazz education into the Berkeley public schools. For a 1993 news story, he said, “Jazz is the most democratic music there is. Most people…don’t hold it in the esteem it should be held.” Pressed to name his favorites for this 1999 profile by the Palo Alto Jazz Alliance, he said, “That’s a hard one, but Lester Young, Bill Evans, and Woody Herman are ones I love.”
I’ve long prized a handful of Herb Wong’s productions for Black Hawk and Palo Alto Jazz, including Voyage, a 1986 masterpiece by the Stan Getz Quartet; Bill Evans-A Tribute, featuring a diverse array of pianists ranging from Marian McPartland, Dave McKenna, and Jimmy Rowles, to Herbie Hancock, Richie Bierach, and McCoy Tyner, reflected Herb’s wide-ranging tastes; and Life’s Magic, Steve Kuhn’s 1986 Village Vanguard appearance with Ron Carter and Al Foster. It was the pianist’s first trio release in over 15 years.
As memory serves, the first CD of new music I ever purchased was the session Herb and Al Evers produced on the Jim Hall Trio featuring Tom Harrell. These Rooms was released on Denon in 1988. Hall and Harrell were a natural pairing, both combining exquisite lyricism with harmonic edginess, but it wasn’t until Wong suggested it that they first recorded together. In the liner notes to These Rooms, Hall expressed “much gratitude to Herb Wong for his fresh and fruitful concept of my recording with Tom Harrell, and for his valuable counsel in the studio.”
Here’s Herb introducing Berkeley’s Longfellow Elementary School Jazz Band at the Reno Jazz Festival in 1970. As is evident, his advocacy for jazz education among grade-school children was groundbreaking and passionate. Herb Wong, R.I.P.