Dr. Herb Wong, R.I.P.

Bay Area Jazz Advocate

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.

Herb Wong; photo by John Spragens, Jr.

Herb Wong; photo by John Spragens, Jr.

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.”

Stan Getz's Voyage

Stan Getz’s Voyage

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.

Bill-Evans-A-Tribute

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.”

Jim-Hall-Trio-feauturing-Tom-Harrell-These-Rooms-1988-FLAC

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.

Comments

  1. Greg C. says

    Very sad to learn of Herb Wong’s passing. Growing up in the Bay Area, for years I listened to Dr. Herb Wong “spinning platters” on the radio.
    I eventually met him 5 or 6 years ago at the Jazz Museum (next to Oshi’s) on Fillmore St. in S.F. where he was speaking. I told him about meeting Anita O’Day on Polk St. in 1996 where she was performing. Because of his rich jazz experience he didn’t disappoint and told me a couple of O’Day stories from his DJ days. A great contributor to jazz, Herb Wong was an icon.

  2. says

    As a first year teacher at Washington Elementary School, Herb was also the new principal there….He would always make the rounds; because during those days, Washington was a UC Berkeley, Demonstration School….People would come from all over the country and parts of the world, (South Africa, even) to observe and learn….He came in my class this particular time to compliment the class on our beautiful mural that adorned the hall outside our classroom….That mural was selected to travel throughout California to give beginning teachers enrichment ideas for Social studies….Herb was a Great person….I enjoyed working with him….I hope I will be able to attend his memorial….to pay my respects and to share memories….

  3. says

    Sorry for the double posting. I made a mistake on the website http://www.betweentheyinyang.com
    in my haste that has a bit of Herb in the beginning.

    I am thankful for the time i spent with Herb, who shared his experiences with me for a Jazz documentary that I regretfully didn’t finish in time for him to see it. I was in awe of his life’s accomplishments. He had a grandmother who had a thriving business entertaining lonely men! He was an officer in WW II who had to wait in the cattle car when the train crossed Texas. He brought Oscar Peterson to perform at the magnet school where he was the principal. He was a jazz critic for Down Beat magazine and a DJ at KJAZ for more than 35 years. Duke Ellington would wake him up in the morning to chat. Woody Herman’s big band played at his wedding reception.

    I treasure the time I spent with Herb at his Jazz appreciation class as he lectured with enthusiasm about Stan Getz, another of his closest friends.

    He was one of a kind and I and so many of us will miss his ‘joie de vivre’ and Jazz.

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