by Alex Walsh
Terry Hilliard says he just wants to play his bass. He doesn’t want to be a bandleader; he doesn’t want to put together projects; he just wants to play.
Terry was born in Aurora, Illinois in 1936. A lifelong musician, and a life member of Local 6, Terry made his name in the 1960s with his influential performances on the Cal Tjader “Soul Sauce” and “Soul Bird” albums.
Growing up, there was always music in his house. His mother was a piano teacher, and his father loved jazz. When Terry was two years old, his father, who worked for the Sante Fe Railroad, was transferred to the West Coast. The family settled in Berkeley.
In grade school, Terry started on the trumpet, then baritone horn and guitar. In high school, Terry played folk guitar for Berkeley High School assemblies, and was asked to play bass with the band for assemblies, shows, and broadway musicals. He remembers making recordings with his brothers on their wire recorder, and even had them transferred to 78s.
On the weekends, Terry played guitar with a blues band. “I didn’t feel any racial discrimination when I was playing in high school,” says Terry,” but when I played professionally, I felt it. The only place I could find work was in black bands in black clubs.” The group ended up playing all the black clubs on Black Diamond St. in Pittsburg, which catered to the military installations in the area. “I used to carry my guitar and amp down a few blocks to Ashby and Sacramento, where the band would pick me up in a van,” he recalls. ”This was before the freeway, so we would drive out San Pablo Avenue until we got to Highway 4, which was two lanes at the time.”
Terry (bass) with the Berkeley High School Dance Band, 1954.
After high school, Terry went to San Francisco State, where he met Virgil Gonsalves, and in 1956 joined the Virgil Gonsalves Sextet (with Johnny Mathis on vocals). “We were an integrated band, but we still played mostly black clubs in the Fillmore, such as the Blue Mirror and the Booker T. Washington Hotel,” says Terry. “We could not play places like the Fairmont Hotel, which was still segregated.”
In 1957, Terry joined Local 669, the black musicians local, which comprised the same jurisdiction as Local 6. “At that time, you had to be 21 to join,” recalls Terry. “You also had to audition and have a sponsor. My sponsor was Thomas (Crow) Kahn.”
While in college, Terry attended jazz workshops at pianist Merrill Hoover’s studio in East Oakland. There, he studied with greats such as Ray Brown, Papa Gene Wright, and Skippy Warren. During the summer of ’57 the Virgil Gonzalves Sextet played the resorts in the Santa Cruz area, then travelled to L.A. for gigs on the Hollywood party scene. In the fall, Terry attended Monterey Peninsula College to study with legendary jazz instructor Jerry Coker. The band returned to San Francisco where they played all over the area. In the fall of 1958, they played the Monterey Jazz Festival’s Saturday afternoon stage with two other Bay Area favorites – the Rudy Salvini Orchestra and the Master Sounds.
In the spring of 1958, Terry was hired to play in the house band at the infamous Jimbo’s Bop City after hours club. There, he rubbed shoulders with all of the jazz greats that came through town. Federico Cervantes was on piano, and Smiley Winters played drums. “If Federico didn’t like the horn players,” laughs Terry, ”he would play faster and start changing keys. And that would run them off the bandstand because they couldn’t keep up with him.” That lasted for only a few months, as the club regularly changed the house band.
In late 1958, Terry was drafted into the Army. He avoided boot camp because an Army friend had him sent directly to the music department at Fort Lewis, Washington. In the Army, he played all kinds of shows throughout the United States, including one at the 1960 World’s Fair with Johnny Bassett – at the top of the Seattle Space Needle. After two years, he left the service, but was soon called back as the events of the Berlin crisis unfolded, and he continued to perform all over the country for various official functions. When his tour of duty ended, Terry returned to the Bay Area.
By this time, the black and white locals had merged, and Terry was a Local 6 member. He played with many different bands, including Chick Freeman, Art Fletcher, and Lou Rawls. An excellent reader, he was hired for shows at the Circle Star Theater, Cow Palace, and Kabuki Theater. In 1963, through pianist Lonnie Hewitt, Terry was recommended to Cal Tjader, and joined the band. They went on to record two landmark albums, “Soul Sauce” and “Soul Bird”. “That was exciting,” recalls Terry. ”We were booked 80% of the year. We spent half our time on the West Coast and half on the East Coast.” The lineup included Cal Tjader, Lonnie Hewitt on piano, John Ray on drums, and Armando Peraza on percussion. “It was a great band to work with,” says Terry.
With the Cal Tjader Band. From left: John Ray, drums, Armando Peraza, percussion, Terry Hillard, bass, Cal Tjader, vibes.
On one memorable tour, Tjader’s band was hired to advertise the new Ford Mustang. “We were in a show they put together with the Cavanaugh twins out of Las Vegas,” recalls Terry. ”We spent four months traveling by bus to college campuses all over the country. On our breaks, we saw all of the national monuments.”
Terry says going to New York was a blast. “They would fly us in, and we would stay in nice hotels,” he recalls. “They had roadies, so when we got to the gig, our instruments were waiting for us. After the show we’d all go and hang out and see bands.” He remembers seeing Clark Terry, Bobby Brookmeyer, Mongo Santamaria, Hubert Laws, Lee Morgan, and many others.
In 1965, Terry got married and brought his wife on tour with him. After about a year, she became pregnant with their first child, so they decided to get off the road. They returned to the Bay Area to raise a family. Terry immersed himself in the local scene. He also went back to school and started a second career as a computer software developer. He’d had an interest in electronics and, after taking classes at Peralta Community College, was hired to do software development for the district. He also taught basic computer programming. Terry stayed with the district until 1985, and then worked for Pacific Bell as a software developer.
Pee Wee Craybrook, Terry Hilliard, & Eddie Alley in 1985.
In 1980, Terry began playing with jazz drummer, bandleader, and West Coast jazz great Eddie Alley and his Gentlemen of Rhythm, working with them until Eddie’s retirement in 2000. The band included jazz notables Thomas “Crow” Kahn on piano (Terry’s 669 sponsor) and Albert “Pee Wee” Claybrook on saxophone. “That was a great band,” says Terry. ”It was like playing with your buddies. We just had fun. Eddie was well connected, so we did all kinds of gigs. Every major player in the Bay Area played with Eddie Alley. He was also a contractor, so he put together all kinds of shows. That band was busy.”
Also during this time, Terry began performing with The Junius Courtney Big Band, and The Joel Dorham Latin Octet, both for which he still performs to this day. In 1994, he began playing at Bix Restaurant in San Francisco, a gig he inherited from jazz bass great Wyatt ‘Bull’ Ruther. In 2005, Terry was awarded the prestigious San Francisco Jazz Heritage Center’s Heritage Pioneer Award, which was presented by San Francisco mayors Gavin Newsom and Willie Brown.
About the future of jazz, Terry says, ”People are saying there’s less jazz. I find jazz everywhere. I know that not many people are making a living at it, and they have to do something else too, but that’s economics. That has nothing to do with the music. The music is still here.”
Today, with a full calendar, Terry is not slowing down. He is playing three and four nights a week with different groups (cutting back from six nights so his family won’t disown him). “All these different bands, all these different musicians that I play with,” says Terry, ”It’s a lot of fun. And fifty years into it, I’m still playing with really great musicians. I’m still playing really challenging music, so I’m always growing and learning. When I play, the adrenaline starts flowing, and I’m just into the music. And when I’m through, it’s the best therapy in the world. I feel great.”
Terry can be heard every Friday night at Bix Restaurant in San Francisco.
Merrill Hoover – piano, Benny Miller – saxophone, Ed McMahon, Terry Hilliard – Bass. Bix Restaurant, 1998.