In the midst of the Ken Burns’ film The Vietnam War (so far, sensational), I am reminded of my own experience with the war, which, as an 18-year- old in 1972, left me, fortunately, untouched physically but engaged in other ways. My big brother was in the very first draft lottery, and the image of our family sitting around our TV set, anxiously awaiting the results of the lottery and the impact it could have on my brother and so many of his friends, is burned in my memory. (Miraculously, he drew #355!)
Growing up in the San Francisco Bay area meant I had a front row seat during Cal’s Free Speech Movement, San Francisco State (where my brother attended and provided our family with daily reports about the turmoil there), Haight-Ashbury, Berkeley’s People’s Park, and ongoing events associated with the civil rights movement. It was a powder keg time with Vietnam at the centerpiece, and we all grew up pretty quickly.
Music, of course, was a key component of the Vietnam generation, and San Francisco was loaded with incredible, cutting edge rock bands whose art impacted the way we lived our lives, and whose soundtrack to the era was played on FM radio stations like KSAN (the “Jive 95!”), KJAZ and soul station — and home of the Oakland Raiders — KDIA. Venues like the Fillmore, Winterland, Keystone Berkeley (a.k.a. The New Monk), Great American Music Hall, and jazz clubs of North Beach (sprinkled among the topless joints of Broadway) presented some of the world’s greatest bands ever, their music — so much of it driven by the politics of the war — still a revered staple to many of us, now 50 years later.
It was during this time that I became more aware of jazz music. In record stores like Tower and Berkeley’s Leopold’s Records, where I shopped, among the stacks of new releases by the Beatles, Dylan, the Stones, Jefferson Airplane, Zeppelin, and Clapton were albums by McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Weather Report, Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, (and countless others), many suggesting an exuberant, emotional, and political experience for those of us with curious ears. The records of the free jazz movement — inspired, in part, by the social upheaval of the time — were often easily distinguished in the orange borders of Impulse record jackets, the likes of John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Pharaoh Sanders and Don Cherry challenging listeners to reach beyond their safest stars.
It was in this environment and during this time that jazz grabbed me and fed my enthusiasm for discovering the world of the counter-culture, and my love for music (ultimately leading to a career in the entertainment business).
The spirit for this important era and the meaning it held for me led me to reach out to two authors whose books on Vietnam are two of the best you will ever read — David Maraniss’ They Marched Into Sunlight, and Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn. (Marlantes is a frequent voice of the Burns film, and consulted on the film). Both writers saw the connection their work had with the political and cultural spirit of Jerry Jazz Musician, and were kind enough to allow me the opportunity to interview them when their books were released. Their reporting (in the case of Maraniss) and novelization (Marlantes) of the experience of fighting in and protesting of this ever-controversial war is worth a revisit.
I have interviewed over 150 people during the publication of this website, and these remain among the ones I remember the most…