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Two Veterans Team Up To Make Music

October 27, 1987|THOMAS K. ARNOLD

LA JOLLA — People never know what to expect from a concert by Eddie (Cleanhead) Vinson until the music actually starts.

Some nights, Vinson, 70, will sing the blues in a voice that is at once as smooth as whiskey and as rough as kerosene. He'll mix old blues standards he learned while growing up in Houston during the Great Depression with originals like his trademark "Cleanhead," a humorous ode to his own bare noggin.

Other nights, Vinson will whip out his alto saxophone and invoke the improvisational spirit of the late Charlie Parker, the celebrated be-bop jazz pioneer with whom he frequently jammed during the late 1940s and early '50s.

"I never know what I'm going to do until I get up on stage," said Vinson, who performs here Wednesday through Sunday at Elario's nightclub atop the Summerhouse Inn.

"To me, singing the blues and playing jazz are not that far apart," he said. "Jazz is an extension of the blues, and my saxophone playing is kind of an extension of my singing.

"One complements the other, so I really don't think about it. It's just whatever comes out."

Vinson hasn't always straddled the musical fence between the blues and jazz. He started out playing Big Band music with the Milt Larkins Orchestra in 1936 and later toured with Cootie Williams before forming his own orchestra in 1945.

After scoring a pair of national hits with "Kidney Stew Blues" and "Juice Head Baby," Vinson's orchestra, like most other Big Bands around the country, fell upon hard times.

So in 1947, he pared his group from 16 to seven members and replaced his concert repertoire of Big Band instrumentals with alternating sets of gutsy blues and improvisational jazz.

Since then, Vinson has mastered both styles with such deftness that the Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz applauds him as "a marvelously potent combination of primitive bluesman and sophisticated jazzman."

"The blues and jazz are both the foundation of all American music," he said. "I like them both equally, so instead of doing just one or the other, I do 'em both."

Vinson's five shows at Elario's promise to be even more unpredictable than usual because he'll be playing with another veteran musician who defies categorization, Papa John Creach.

Creach, also 70, is a classically trained violinist who studied at the Conservatory of Music in Chicago and spent several years in the late 1930s with the Chicago Symphony.

Before long, Creach said, "I discovered I could make more money doing this jazz thing, so I quit the symphony and started playing jazz in nightclubs."

By the early 1950s, Creach said, he was also playing blues and rhythm-and-blues: "The more styles you knew, the more you worked," he recalled. "If you were just a one-style musician, you starved to death."

After nearly two decades of performing in nightclubs around the country, Creach added still another musical feather to his cap in 1970 when he was asked to join the acid-rock band Jefferson Airplane by the group's new drummer, an old friend.

"At first, I was only going to do one show with the Airplane up in San Francisco," Creach said. "But when they saw how well I went over--the kids were going crazy, seeing an old guy like me jamming with a rock band--they offered me a regular job.

"I wasn't going to do it, but the money was so great I thought, what the heck. It took me a month to make the money they made in two days, and it seemed like such an easy deal."

Creach ended up recording three albums apiece with the Airplane and its bluesy offshoot, Hot Tuna. He remained on board when the Airplane became the Jefferson Starship in 1974, but left a year later after the release of "Red Octopus," the Starship's second album and first million-seller.

"By just playing rock 'n' roll all the time, I was losing my technique," Creach recalled. "I couldn't do all the key and harmony and chord changes I had been doing in jazz.

"It was a good experience, and it was a good money thing, but I'm the type of guy who's more inquisitive, musically. So eventually I left to start up my own group again."

He's been on his own ever since. But like Vinson, Creach has never been able to stick with just one style of music. So for the last decade, his performances have offered a taste of everything he's done in the past, from straight jazz and blues to rhythm-and-blues and even some acid-rock.

"Some of what I do is old and some is new," Creach said. "But the way I see it, it's all popular music, and that's what I've been playing all my life."

Vinson and Creach first played together back in the early 1950s, when they shared the stage in a Denver nightclub for several days. Only this year, however, have they been reunited, first in a documentary on Creach produced by New Orleans film maker Stevenson J. Palfi and then in a series of concert dates in Los Angeles and San Diego.

"It's good to play with Papa John after all this time," Vinson said. "I saw him a few years ago in the Parisian Room in Los Angeles, and he's sounding better than ever.

"He's also one of the only musicians I know who likes to mix things up as much as I do."

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