Dick Whittington. Photo courtesy of Berkeley Jazzschool

If Berkeley had a hall of fame for musicians, pianist Dick Whittington would be inducted as part of the inaugural class. As an educator, presenter, and ebulliently swinging player, he left an indelible mark on the city’s jazz before decamping for the Monterey Peninsula in the mid-1990s.

In an all-too-rare return to Berkeley, he performs Saturday at the Jazzschool with his trio featuring bassist Robb Fisher, drummer Vince Lateano and special guest Andrew Speight on alto saxophone.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Whittington made his first major contribution to the Bay Area scene in the late 1960s when he and trumpeter Phil Hardymon helped found the Berkeley public school system’s innovative music program. By the time he retired in 1991, he had helped initiate several generations of musical visionaries into the art of improvisation, including Peter Apfelbaum, Rodney Franklin, Steven Bernstein, Jessica Jones, Joshua Redman and Benny Green.

Whittington was also responsible for turning Maybeck into a watchword for world-class pianism. He and his wife Marilyn Roth, an architecture devotee, turned a cozy studio in a gorgeous Berkeley Hills house designed by Bernard Maybeck into one of the region’s best-loved venues, the Maybeck Recital Hall.

Originally built in 1914 (and quickly rebuilt after the devastating Berkeley Hills fire of 1923) the Kennedy-Nixon House was designed by Bernard Maybeck for the Nixon family with a live-in studio for Alma Kennedy, their daughter Milda Nixon’s piano teacher. Milda lived in the house until her death in 1981 at the age of 92, and several generations of Berkeley Hills children grew up taking piano lessons in the studio.

When Whittington and Roth first encountered the house it had been on the market for months and was about twice their budget. But they figured by giving regular recitals they could help cover the larger mortgage. “A lot of the neighbors had studied piano there when they were kids, and they couldn’t get in to the house for 20 years,” Whittington recalls. “People were excited that the studio was in use again.”

When pianist Joanne Brackeen decided to fulfill her Concord Records contract with a solo piano session recorded at Whittington’s, the label’s owner Carl Jefferson was so impressed with the sound that he decided to start the Maybeck Recital Hall Series. Between 1989-1995, Concord produced 42 CDs featuring solo piano recitals and 10 duo sessions showcasing jazz royalty such as Hank Jones, Kenny Barron, Jessica Williams, Cedar Walton and James Williams, who concluded the series with a commandingly soulful performance (Whittington has created a website focusing on the Recital Hall with interviews by musicians who played there).

The party came to an end when Whittington got tired of struggling to attract audiences. “We got kind of disillusioned,” he says. “After 10 years we still didn’t have consistent crowds. When Kenny Barron recorded we had 35 people. But I really miss it. It was a real mom and pop operation. We took the reservations over the phone, bought the wine, vacuumed the floor. We had so many wonderful people play there. Walter Norris, who gave me some lessons when I was 19, said it was the best sounding small hall in the world.”

While he never released a Maybeck session himself, he did record a beautiful 1992 Concord album, “The Dick Whittington Trio In New York”, that captures his exquisite touch, rhythmic fluency and deep understanding of the advanced harmonic vocabulary of Bill Evans. He learned from the best.

While still in college in the mid-1950s, he landed a regular gig at the Lighthouse when the Hermosa Beach club was an essential showcase for the burgeoning Southland jazz scene. By the end of the year, his band featured a startling array of rising stars, including saxophonist Charles Lloyd, trumpeter Don Cherry, drummer Billy Higgins and either bassist Scott LaFaro or Charlie Haden, all of whom went on to become some of the 1960’s most influential players.

The pianist grew tremendously from sharing the bandstand with leading innovators, but it was Sonny Criss, a blazing altoist who remained something of a cult figure throughout his career, who really took Whittington under his wing.

“An alto saxophonist friend of mine studied with Sonny, and we’d go down to the sessions in South Central to hear him play,” Whittington recalls. “That’s where I got to hear the great pianists Sonny Clark, Carl Perkins and Hampton Hawes. Criss always let us sit in for a couple of tunes. A few years later he hired me and I worked with him off and on for a year. He taught me a lot about people and life and leading a band.”

Whittington gained more wisdom accompanying Ernestine Anderson and Dinah Washington, a gig he took over from Joe Zawinul. He earned his jazz post-doc degree in the early 1960s when he spent a year working with tenor sax titan Dexter Gordon in a rhythm section with bassist Leroy Vinnegar and drummer Larance Marable.

“These guys were my heroes,” Whittington says. “I felt so honored to be able to play with them. To this day, every time I listen to Dexter I learn something. He’s a big influence on me, the way he phrases, and how he plays so laid back and melodic.”

Andrew Gilbert covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley. 

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Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....