Bay Area musical legend is bringing his jazz band and singing standards from the Great American Song Book.
By Georgia Rowe
January 25, 2011
Dan Hicks has come a long way. The acclaimed Bay Area singer-songwriter, a veteran of the folk music heyday of the 1950s and psychedelic era of the 1960s, is currently putting his distinctive stamp on American jazz standards.
Not that Hicks, who makes his first appearance at Armando’s Sunday afternoon, has given up writing songs, or fronting his longtime band, Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks. He’s still doing that, as well as recording, performing and touring with others: when he called last week from his home in Marin County , he had just returned from a four-island tour of Hawaii with Maria Muldaur.
But Hicks says he’s drawn to standards: great American songs like “Pennies from Heaven” and “Stella by Starlight” – and having a great time playing them with the group he calls Bayside Jazz.
“I’ve always liked these songs – all that good writing and melodies and everything,” Hicks explained. “I started doing them about twenty years ago – singing standards off and on, with my guitar, throwing them into my act. I finally got a little combo together in the late 80s and got some friends, tried it out, and it was cool.”
With Bayside Jazz – Paul Robinson on guitar, Paul Smith on bass, Brian Cooke on piano and Brian Simpson on drums – it’s evolved into a steady thing, something very different, he says, than his work with the Hot Licks. Hicks has taken the jazz act into small clubs like Marin’s Sweetwater and big concerts for the San Francisco Jazz Festival, all the while building a list of repertoire that reaches back to the 1930s.
“I’ve got quite a few standards and songs, and other tunes that you might not quite call standards,” he says. “They’re classics, ballads, dance tunes, jazz numbers, some from the hit parade and some a little more esoteric.”
Hicks, who occasionally writes new lyrics and melodies for the songs, says he selects the material that moves him, regardless of its era or origins. “These songs just stand the test of time,” he says. “Good taste is good taste, and it doesn’t matter when it happened first.”
In this group, Hicks sings without playing guitar. “I like it,” he says. “I feel saddled by the guitar sometimes, sort of like I’ve gotta hold that thing and keep the rhythm going and sing on top of that. With this, I don’t have to do that. I can just sing."
The jazz format also gives him the opportunity to play intimate venues like Armando’s. “I like the club kind of atmosphere, the proximity of it,” he says. “Rather than standing on some concert hall stage, I like doing it in a smaller room. I’ve always thought that’s the kind of performer I am – more up close.”
Hicks started his musical career early on. Born in Little Rock , Arkansas , he moved to California with his family when he was five. They settled in Santa Rosa , where he played drums in his school marching band. By his teens, he was playing in dance bands, doing casual gigs in restaurants and hotels, and playing a lot of standards. “You’d play those kinds of tunes and people would dance, a little jitterbug, some kind of social dancing with a partner,” he says. “That’s where I started liking standards.”
In the 50s, he earned a degree in broadcasting at San Francisco State , and took up the guitar, joining the burgeoning folk-rock scene. In 1965, he returned to drums and joined the Charlatans, one of the formative bands of the now-legendary San Francisco sound.
Hicks created Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks as a Charlatans warm-up act; eventually, he left the Charlatans to play with the Hot Licks full time. After the Hot Licks broke up in 1973, Hicks pursued an acoustic career, but reformed the group in 1998. All along, he’s explored other forms. “I always aspired to sing more jazzy stuff, be a better singer and do more challenging things,” he says.
I ask Hicks if, at the start of his career, he ever thought he’d be playing jazz now.
“I don’t know,” he says. “If you go back that far, I might have had all kind of plans for myself. I mean, I was going to be a movie star. That hasn’t transpired yet.
“I didn’t really know if I was going to be a professional musician. I just kind of kept going. When you’re in your 20s, how do you know what you’re going to be doing in your late 60s? It sounds like it’s another century – and, in fact, it is. So I wasn’t thinking about what I’d be doing at 60. But I’m 69 now, and I’m still doing it. I still feel like I’m growing. Especially the jazz singing – it’s like taking up a new instrument. There’s a lot of good stuff left to do.”
Dan Hicks and Bayside Jazz play Armando’s January 30 from 4 to 7 p.m. Advance tickets are $25. Call Roy Jeans for advance tickets at 925-228-6985.