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Soul Mate

Musician who took up saxophone after high school finds his niche.


Playing saxophone for a living is nobody's idea of an easy road to fat city. But once you've got it in your soul, there may be no escape.

There's the story in a nutshell of saxophonist Tom Buckner, one of Ventura's most versatile jazz musicians. He's an active and well-known teacher, a regular player with the Civic Light Opera pit band and can be found doing the "casual" circuit--weddings, bar mitzvahs and studio dates as they come up.

Tonight at 66 California, you can hear him in a more personal musical mode, leading a group that includes bassist Adam Cohen, drummer Kendall Kaye and pianist Stu Goldberg. Some will remember Goldberg, now an Angeleno, from past work with noted guitarist John McLaughlin and other jazz stints. Buckner met him while both played with the Oxnard-based group Equinox.

Buckner is at the 66 on a fairly regular basis, and he appreciates the fact that Ventura has a venue with jazz on its mind. "People show up there," he said. "They've got quite a clientele that they've built up over the years. You get in there on a weekend and you pretty much always play to a full house, at least for the first couple of sets. There are some avid listeners who always come in."

One of Buckner's virtues is his open-minded attitude toward the jazz spectrum, from straight-ahead to more avant-garde approaches. In Southern California, especially, jazz musicians often veer toward one stylistic pole or the other. The twain rarely meet, but Buckner is an exception.

"There aren't too many guys who are bipolar like that, who go both ways, who don't mind the out and don't mind the in, either," he laughed. "I do like both sides."


He traces his broad tastes back to his friend and comrade Dave Binney, a saxist who grew up in Ventura and moved to New York. Binney has carved out a respectable spot in the jazz scene, working with groups with more of a reputation on the East Coast and in Europe than on the West Coast.

While Buckner was initially drawn to the saxophone by listening to more commercial players, such as David Sanborn and Grover Washington Jr., Binney introduced him to less mainstream adventurers on the instrument, including Steve Coleman and Jan Garbarek, whose styles can be detected in Buckner's approach.

"Dave turned me on to a lot of things that I might not have otherwise heard," Buckner said.

Buckner is a musical product of Ventura. He started playing saxophone when he moved here in 1978 after high school. By 1980, his commitment to music was confirmed.

"I decided then that this was something I really wanted to do," he said.

"Looking back on it, for anybody to do that at that time of their life is out of their mind--at an age when most guys are really good already, to entertain those kinds of thoughts of being able to make a living doing it. It was a wacky decision."

But he has made a respectable go of the musical life.

"I've learned to accept where I'm at and accept that I'm living a comfortable life and it's all about music," he said. "I'm a professional musician."

All that's missing now is a forum for Buckner's own musical ideas, via writing, leading a band and putting those skills down on recordings.

"I'm reaching a point now where I've learned to live with the way I play," he said. "Before, I never really felt like what I did was worth me spending the money to go do a record. But now, I'm beginning to feel like I'm saying something and it's about time to get off my rear end and do it."

We're all ears.



Tom Buckner, tonight at 8:30 p.m. at 66 California, 66 California St. in Ventura; 648-2266.

Josef Woodard, who writes about art and music, can be reached by e-mail at

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