BJ Papa as a pianist was singular, at a silver of hearing to many he sounded dissonant. Oft times people would ask me incredulously, "How as a vocalist could you sing with BJ?!" For me however, his sound exemplified the sound of jazz, his left hand plunking down two or three keys to create a unique almost Monk-like harmony, his right hand picking out the cascades of melodious bebop altered lines that belied his origins as a saxophonist. BJ told me the only reason he switched to piano when he couldn't get his horn out of hock and decided there was always a piano at the gig and reeds were too expensive so he was better off just switching.
After I was turned down for a gig at Pasands lounge because my repertoire was not large enough, I met BJ. I had placed a handwritten ad on Haight-Ashbury Music Center's bulletin board (pre-internet) looking for a jazz pianist to jam tunes from the Real Book with. He answered my ad, and arranged to meet in front of the music store. I awaited him in front of the music store shocked and pleasantly surprised to see an older gentleman that seemed to personify jazz itself introduce himself to me. He often spoke of this moment, saying that he saw me long before I saw him and that he could see in my eyes that hunger and spark. I was eighteen years old. We met every week on Saturday at noon at his apartment on Shotwell Street a broken-down creaky magnificent Victorian of single resident rooms and play tunes all afternoon and at time well into the evening on his piano in the foyer.. BJ would glance at the Real Book, but only to jog his memory to where the bridge went; I was the only one reading out of the Real Book. For him finding a singer that could sight sing was unusual and for me finding a pianist that knew many of these tunes from when they first burst onto the scene was spectacular. The train wrecks that often occur at the endings of tunes never occurred with BJ, he knew how to start tunes and how to end them and switching keys was no problem and the wrong chord changes in the Real Book were not an issue because BJ didn't really use them. At times we were joined by a sax player, such as Tony Gairo, or a bassist would show up such as Scott Chapek, but most times it was BJ and I. Sometimes he would glance at a tune and shake his head and say you are not old enough for that tune. I would protest and insist that I could sing it "Lush Life" and he would relent. I learned these tunes with BJ not through recordings, I would not hear Johnny Hartmann or Sarah or Dinah's version of the songs that I sang for many many years. In this way BJ is instrumental in developing my sound and my voice.
After a few months he started showing me around to the jam sessions, the first one was Bruno Pelletier's at the Wild West in Bernal Heights. "First you are gonna do a ballad because you're a vocalist and that is what you do, that is your special domain. Your going call the tune in C minor and that isn't you're key but you're gonna do it in C minor because that is the key that cats know it in and if that play it well you are going sound better. If you nail that tune they will ask you to sing another, you're a vocalist so you're only gonna get two tune at the most so don't fuck up and you'll get a second tune. then you are gonna do blues and call a key that is good for the horn players like Bb or Eb and do some of that scatting that you do and you will bring the house down and then leave the stage. always leave them wanting more," these are the fundamental lessons of jazz that BJ would whisper into my ear. How to count out a tune. How to pace a set. How to handle musicians that didn't like chick singers. These were the invaluable tools of the trade that BJ handed me.
One day he announced it was time for us to get a gig. He told me that with a vocalist, especially one like me, he could get gigs in venues that he previously could not tap into. One of our first big gigs was Asta's in the Rincon Center, a lush retro 40's supper club named after the dog in a Fred and Ginger movie. We auditioned as was the norm in those day before CD's or websites. The gig paid $350 for piano, bass and piano plus dinner and drinks. My rent was $195 in those days and I was very poor and a student to boot. This was grand sum for both BJ and myself. I am sad to say that twenty years later gigs don't pay more and many pay less. Later when the venue upped the wages in order to add a drummer, BJ paid the drummer more than us, explaining, "A good band is only as good as its drummer and they have a lot of equipment to move so always take care of them FIRST. Pay them more."
We played fundraisers with Moses Dixon, the vibraphonist that busked on Market Street, art collectives in the Western Addition, the newly opened Cafe DuNord and a host of other venues in the pre-dot com landscape of San Francisco. I met and jammed with John Handy, Sony Simmons and Merle Saunders through BJ. And then one day, I'm not sure when, I outgrew BJ musically. I was getting calls from other piano players and better and better gig offers. But BJ didn't mind, he told me point blank, "You are great baby girl, and you are destined to be greater than me. You remind me a Billie, you are even the same height and built, I always knew you would leave the nest some day. They all do and that is way it is supposed to be. Just don't forget about your Papa and come back and sit in with me from time to time." Over the years I would do so and there would be a new crop and younger crop of musicians with him each year.
Fortunately, I was able to try and give back to BJ through Jazz at Pearl's by hiring him at what he thought was the best venue in the Bay Area and trying to help give him the recognition he deserved and providing a listening environment for his music. He is the hidden factory of Jazz in the Bay Area churning out new musicians every year tirelessly, supportively with an encouraging smile for free. There are many of us that graduated from the University of BJ, we never paid tuition but we received the best jazz education that can be had, on the bandstand and at the jam session.
He will never die because he lives in the music.