Dick Conte Quartet will play Sonoma
A: This Bay Area man has been a professional musician for over 60 years and has played more notes than there are grains of sand on Ipanema Beach.
Q. Who is Dick Conte?
This fictional response “Jeopardy” only tells part of the story of this Bay Area musical icon. An 85-year-old silver fox, Conte has been both an active jazz musician and jazz radio personality since 1962.
He was bitten by the music bug from an early age. “I started playing at 9 years old… I realized very quickly that classical music was not my thing. When I was 10, my uncle Vio was playing Charlie Parker records,” Conte said. Family ties can open doors. “But I really ran into Dave Brubeck, Errol Gardner, people like that.”
After a short stint in the military and looking for a musical fresh start in the Golden State, Conte moved to San Francisco from New York in 1961. He was able to find a new home in the Castro neighborhood. “In the early 1960s, California was truly the land of plenty. The rents were cheap, there was a lot going on…it was obviously the biggest move I’ve ever done.
Conte continued, “The rent was $75 for a one-bedroom apartment. It was a much better place than the $48 walk-up fourth floor in Greenwich Village, with cockroaches included at no extra cost.
Conte was able to play many gigs in North Beach upon his arrival. To supplement his income, Conte took an on-air spot at Berkeley’s KJAZ in 1962. He soon realized that he also really enjoyed radio gigs. Since then, Conte has signed on the air with many different sets of call letters. “Over the years I have gone from KJAZ to KMPX to KSFO to KKCY and KCSM.”
His hiring at KSFO received a big boost from one of their early stars. “Al ‘Jazzbo’ Collins recommended me to the management of KSFO. I was waiting for my interview when Collins walked in. He knew me from performing on his morning TV show with my trio. Jazzbo told the station manager, “You have to hire this guy, because when I go on vacation, I want him to do my show.” The guy said, ‘Can you start this Sunday?’ »
As for his longest tenure on radio, “I hired KCSM in 1987 and have been there ever since. I retired in 2000. I gave up my five days a week, moved here (Sonoma). But for the past 22 years, I’ve worked part-time on KCSM, Saturday afternoons, 2-6, and enjoyed being retired.
Conte added, with a smile in his voice, “I got a pension from CalPers. Who ever heard of a jazz DJ getting a pension? (KCSM is part of the College of San Mateo and employees are members of the CSEA union.)
Because Conte has also been a jazz pianist since Kennedy was president, he has played in every club in the area, some now closed, others still open and thriving. Conte still has a regular gig in North Bay. He keeps his chops sharp by playing Thursday nights with his trio at Murphy’s Irish Pub in Sonoma. The leader of the group said: “We are having a great time. It’s local, it’s down the street, we do what we want and nobody bothers us. What could be better?”
The early days weren’t so carefree. “When I came to (California) I was still learning how to play well. I started playing around North Beach, here and there. Over the years I played consistently. Over the years in the city, I had all these “tuxedo gigs”, mostly jazz in hotels, weddings, all that.
The first concerts in North Beach were followed by appearances on small stages in Europe and in Papeete, Tahiti. He could fill a piano bench with notes on the stories of his life and times in these exotic places.
Ben Fong-Torres, the famous journalist/radio and TV personality/townsman has known Conte since the late 60s. Conte said that he and Fong-Torres were “very good friends”. Fong-Torres was a bit more expansive about Conte, saying, “Dick Conte is a radio treasure. The breadth of his talent is incredible – jazz pianist, DJ, interviewer, host of a Latin jazz show – and, of course, one of the smoothest pipe ensembles on the air. And I love that as a morning host on KJAZ in 1969, he made $100 a week.
Conte knows that he had a long, rich and charming musical life. A little in disbelief, he remarked: “I woke up one day and realized I was 85. But I feel like I’m playing better than before, which I attribute to perseverance. “
The Sonoma Valley Jazz Society is hosting a show in its “Jazz in the Barn” series on August 20 with The Dick Conte Quartet. It will be an intimate show, held in a converted barn in a very rural setting surrounded by vineyards at 18500 Carriger Road from 6-9:30 p.m.
“The band for this show is my usual trio, Steve Webber on bass and Jimmy Hobson on drums. We’re adding Steve Heckman for the ‘Jazz in the Barn’ show,” Conte said.
The band will play selections from the latest CD, “Nuages”, and the public will have a rare chance to hear excellent jazz performed in a friendly venue. Tickets for this 6 p.m. show are available at sonomavalleyjazzsociety.org.
A. Ben Fong-Torres said this man should be elected to the Bay Area Radio Hall of Fame.
Q. Who is Sonoma jazz pianist and radio personality Dick Conte?