Meet Jeff Tauber. We caught up with the windblown saxophonist on the rocky shore of the Berkeley Marina where he was playing for birds (mostly seagulls, he jokes), kiteboarders and sailors. He’s been playing for this esteemed marina audience for years. We first heard Tauber play at Birdland Jazz in Oakland where he performed a 3-hour-one-man-show chronicling classic Jazz of the last few decades. He plays a sort of bluesy, cool, often very danceable Jazz.
Tauber recounts that he finished law school and passed the BAR in the early 70s and then toured Africa and Asia for a year and a half. “It gave me a focus. One thing I wanted to do was to learn to play music.” And he did. His musical influences to this day have African and Blues roots.
At first he started playing guitar. “And then I had this epiphany,” he recalls. “I was in San Andrés- an island off of Nicaragua – and had a harmonica with me and it started to play itself.” He said he first started playing music he remembered from his childhood – like the choral movement from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. He improved slowly and started to play semi-seriously around the Bay area. While driving to work as a public defender, he shifted with one hand and played harmonica with the other.
At Berkeley Square he played with Lee Harris’ quartet with Lee on piano, English Pepper on Bass, Kenny Herera on Tenor Sax and Teddy Winston on drums. The group played 40s and 50s Blues & Swing. “They’d get up to six or seven horns on stage and I’d be jamming with them. Kenny, who played sax, one day said to me, ‘Jeff, why don’t you get rid of that toy and get yourself a real horn.’” So Tauber went down to the Marc Silber’s Music Store on Shattuck Ave. and bought an alto sax. And that’s how it began. “The best way to learn to play is to play. So I started playing the horn.”
He had the fortune to find a great studio on a creek near Claremont Ave. No one bothered him. He says he moved from alto to tenor sax pretty quickly. He was working for himself as an attorney then, trying cases and he said he needed the horn. “Being responsible for someone’s life was heavy and the horn was a way to escape it.”
The Blues scene was happening in the East Bay in the 80s with a dozen or so clubs dedicated to the Blues. “It was very open – that community – they let you play. These are folks whose family and friends really showed me a lot of love, tolerance and respect.”
And that’s when he met Ronnie Stewart, Founder of the West Coast Blues Society and leader of the West Coast Blues Band. He has played with Ronnie over the last 30 years. Haskel Cool Papa Sadler was their mentor in the beginning. These were the days when Mark Hummel was belting blues harmonica at Larry Blake’s in Berkeley, Johnny Nitro was jamming all over SF and JJ Malone and Troyce Keys were Kings of the Blues at Eli’s Mile High Club in Oakland.
“Popular then was the Deluxe Inn on Union St. in West Oakland. It was the real thing–Sonny Rhodes started playing at midnight and played until 6am. (Rhodes still plays at Biscuit & Blues in SF.) That’s where Jeff really learned about the Blues. “In West Oakland Slim Jenkins and a host of other Blues venues had been the center of the Bay Area Blues scene, but they were all destroyed when they built the Post Office.” That was the beginning of the decline of the East Bay Blues scene. Ever since then, Ronnie Stewart and the West Coast Blues Society have been striving to honor Oakland’s Blues roots and bring Blues back to West Oakland, starting with the Blues Walk of Fame.
In the mid 80s Tauber started to play African Music. In 1985 Tauber was recruited to play with a band called Hedzoleh Soundz, a major West African Band, then touring the US with Hugh Masakellah. “I moved from Blues to African and World Beat music and ended up also managing the band.” He played locally and would also drive down to Santa Cruz or up to Mendocino to play for African music starved fans. “Being in that community – the people were living by a different standard where they might make $20-30/night playing music – was a very important experience for me. It gave me a door or window into a different life.”
For the past twenty-five years Jeff has been a Criminal Courts Trial Judge, when not in Washington DC or traveling around the nation and the world as founding president and President Emeritus of National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP). His great passion has been the development of Community-Based court rehabilitation systems.
More recently, Jeff has been devoting his musical talents to recreating a unique jazz sound. “For the last year I have been playing with a Hammond organ player, Craig Browning, who is a marvel (and sometimes with a drummer). We play two to three gigs a month. We try to play the Great American Song Book, the soulful spirit of the original jazz interpreters, using soft melodic and lyrical arrangements, rather than more modern technical approaches.”
Even so, modern technology and multimedia have had a positive influence on him. Tauber says he can easily learn new songs with the iReal Pro app, which provides Jazz tunes that you can set the rhythm, key and style. “I can learn much more when I hear the chords.”
At a recent gig, Jeff Tauber packed the house with his one-man show, For the Birds at Birdland Jazzista Social Club in Oakland. About one hundred people listened and danced to jazz favorites from the last few decades over the course of a three-hour show. Tauber played tenor sax over his pre-recorded app– a last minute solution to his piano man’s cancellation. He introduced the tunes, ranging from the 1920’s to today, sharing some history of each song with his usual warmth and humor.
Behind him, projected on a screen, flew photos of the birds he plays to almost daily when he practices at the Berkeley or Richmond marinas. He told the crowd “…they seem to like it.” The birds like it and so did we.
You can also catch him playing at BIRDLAND JAZZISTA SOCIAL CLUB (4318 Martin Luther King Way in Oakland), on Sat., Oct. 15, from 8 to 11pm or to the birds on the Bay in Berkeley or Richmond.