One cool cat
Long career of local pianist Reggie Graham interweaves with Sacramento’s jazz scene
Reggie Graham admitted he sounds like a blues player sometimes, but he’s too jazzy to be considered a true blues pianist. It can be confusing, he acknowledged, but the two traditions often overlap. “I don’t know what to do but be me,” Graham told SN&R.
“When I was coming up and learning how to play, the old guys used to tell me, ’Jazz is blues and blues is jazz,’” he said. “I never quite understood that until I got older.”
Graham is highlighting the music of legendary jazz pianist Gene Harris on Sunday, April 8, as part of the Midtown Vanguard Jazz Series at CLARA. As players, Graham and Harris are cut out of the same cloth.
“I humbly agree that there’s a strong similarity,” Graham said. “We’re very close in a lot of ways. We’re both based in the blues, but don’t have any problem playing straight-ahead jazz. That’s where we’re connected. I’m looking forward to [the show], but it’s a challenge because he’s a really great pianist.”
Plenty of younger artists around the Sacramento area must feel the same way about Graham, who serves as an adjunct professor of music at Sacramento City College and runs his own music school, The Piano Lab. One of his students, 23-year-old Patrick Kiley, said that watching Graham pull up to the piano bench never gets old.
“He just instantly belts out something you’d hear on a record,” he said. “You can feel the passion for it coming out, in both the music and his approach to music.” And their relationship isn’t limited to lessons. “I talk to him about life and how things are going,” Kiley said, adding that Graham’s daughter, Reanna, is helping with his post-college job search.
Kiley is learning piano casually—purely for personal enrichment—but Graham has helped countless other players hone professional-grade chops and, in some cases, become masters of the craft.
“I’ve taught some of the best young cats in town,” Graham said. “I look at them sometimes and say, ’You guys are way better than I am.’ I mean, they’re doing stuff I would never think of, because my brain doesn’t work that way. But it’s all good. They had the spark of creativity and I showed them how to develop it; not to follow my footsteps, but to develop their own voice.”
Graham was born in San Antonio, Texas, but, as the son of a U.S. Air Force serviceman, his family moved every two or three years—to Montana, England, France, California. After a stop in Monterey, they moved to Sacramento in 1967, when Graham was 15 years old, and he went to Roseville High School for his freshman year.
He first got acquainted with the keyboard at age 13, which is fairly late for someone who became so musically fluent as an adult. After taking classical lessons for about a year, he immersed himself in a form of music that was, at the time, far more edgy.
“Back when I was in high school, jazz was a bad word,” he said. “There wasn’t a jazz department at all; it didn’t exist. We learned jazz from other musicians who gave you handwritten [sheet music], or by listening to records. I learned most of the stuff by ear.”
Having played at nearly every music venue in Sacramento since graduating high school in 1969, Graham has a panoramic perspective on how the local jazz scene has waxed and waned. For instance, in the late 1960s and early ’70s, a few jazz clubs emerged around town—but they were segregated.
“It was more of a black thing,” Graham said. “There weren’t any white clubs playing jazz in Sacramento.”
In his early 20s, as he started incorporating a mix of jazz and classical influences into his piano style, his playing took off. After moving to the Bay Area, he was handpicked as the keyboardist for the Latin-rock group Santa Esmeralda (best known for the four-to-the-floor disco arrangements of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” and “House of the Rising Sun”). They toured the world, playing for huge audiences from Kuwait to Brazil.
“It was pretty exhilarating, playing in front of 35,000 people, looking out and seeing all these cigarette lighters waving in the air,” he said. “It was like, wow. That’s a whole different feeling.”
In 1984, following his mother’s death, Graham returned to Sacramento, which had about five swinging jazz clubs by then. But he had quit playing music professionally. Tired of the music industry, he worked as a businessman for about eight years, and the finances were good for his family. And when he got back into gigging, he had a much sharper acumen when negotiating with club owners.
But then the audience for jazz fell off and long-running venues faltered. “All of the sudden, all of the jazz clubs started shutting down,” he said, “and the jazz art in Sacramento started to die.” They were completely gone by 1995.
It’s still nothing like it used to be, Graham said, but jazz has bounced back somewhat in Sacramento. These days, he credits venues like Off Broadway Blues and Jazz Cafe, Mangos, the Crocker Art Museum, The Brickhouse Gallery & Art Complex and a handful of restaurants with keeping the jazz scene alive. And he holds out hope for a broader resurgence: “Looking to the future, it’s possible that we have a rebirth of jazz clubs. I think Sacramento could support it.”
On a personal level, Graham’s thankful that people still want to hear him play after all these years. Amid the vast ocean of memories, he said he takes the most satisfaction in having made so many musical connections.
“It’s just been really good to groove with people,” he said. “It was really fun to watch the young cats to develop over the years and develop into really outstanding musicians. I started a jam session at Graciano’s that got really popular and lasted for about four years. Those young cats used to say, ’This is our school, playing here.’ I’d say, ’No, you need to go to school. This is just for fun.’”