Ask alto saxophonist/producer/composer Pat Britt why he plays jazz and his face lights up.
"When everything's going right with a good rhythm section, there's nothing like it," he said. "You can kind of do what you want within a structure. It's like freedom."
Britt has played with more than a few bands in his 29-year career as a jazz musician. Sunday, the sextet he co-leads with saxman Wilbur Brown plays at the Cat and the Fiddle, and Monday, his 12-piece group, the Dirty Dozen, is at the Hyatt on Sunset,
But like many jazz musicians, Britt doesn't make his living doing what he loves best. "The only way to do it," he explained, "is to either have a monster hit or go out on the road. I'm not about to make a fusion record, and to go on the road with the kind of band I'd like would be financially prohibitive." Instead, Britt works, as he has off and on for the past 15 years, as a producer and tape editor for Vee Jay Records.
"As long as I'm around music, I'm happy," he said. "The idea when I fell in love with music was to be involved with it."
At Vee Jay, which was once a leading jazz, blues and R&B label, Britt does everything from licensing the use of such Vee Jay-owned R&B classics as Gene Chandler's "Duke of Earl" and the Spaniels' "Goodnight Sweetheart"--which have appeared on the soundtracks of such films as "American Graffiti" and "Diner"--to organizing packages of Vee Jay artists for release on compact discs, distributed by Suite Beat Music Group.
When he first arrived at Vee Jay in 1970, things were helter-skelter. "The company had just been bought out of bankruptcy by Betty Chiappetta and Randy Wood," he recalled, "and as I had been writing backgrounds for rock albums for Wood's Mirwood label, he asked me to listen to some of these Vee Jay tapes, many of which were unmarked. Since I could identify a lot of the players, I got a job, and spent the next year listening to tapes."
Through Britt's perseverance, long-out-of-print sessions by greats like trumpeter Lee Morgan and pianist Wynton Kelly were re-released. Then, with occasional assistance from outside experts, he revitalized the extensive Vee Jay R&B and gospel vaults. Though the latter weren't his favorite kinds of music, he said the experience "was good ear training."
Britt, a 46-year-old Pittsburgh, Pa., native who was raised in San Mateo, started late for a musician.
"I was 17 when I became entranced with music instead of baseball--I almost went with a St. Louis Cardinals farm team," he said. "My brother-in-law bought me a record by (altoist) Bud Shank and (guitarist) Laurindo Almeida. I listened to it about 10 times and thought, 'Anything that sounds this good must be fun to do.' "
So he went to a music shop to get a guitar, got a sax instead, and in about two months taught himself to play reasonably well. He soon became quite active in the San Francisco jazz scene.
Britt moved here in 1970, and after a few years at Vee Jay, started the Catalyst label, a jazz line that recorded such Frank Strazzeri, Don Menza and Sonny Stitt.