Not just a groupie, Will Wallace used his ‘backstage pass’ to invaluable historic purpose. As staff photographer for the Monterey Jazz Festival, Kuumbwa Jazz Center and, for 25 years until it folded, the Monterey Bay Blues Festival, Wallace captured the faces of jazz and blues. (Also the anointed hand, left, of legendary Miles Davis.)
Wallace’s work is included in bound editions that document the history of the MJF, now displayed in various Halls of Fame. Tall and trim, he is a familiar sight at local jazz venues. And that’s not all. He loves to dance. So much so that he wears out his shoes on the dance floor. “Music and dance go together,” he says nonchalantly. Retired from a long career with the US Postal Service, he doesn’t tote his camera a lot these days. But he can still stay up till four in the morning kicking up his heels.
That’s exactly what he did during the recent Swingfest at the Hyatt Hotel in Monterey. The annual event, which this month ended on Martin Luther King Day, draws in huge Central Coast talent. Workshops and contests are open to dancers of all ages. “I got into it ten or fifteen years ago, just because I like it,” says Wallace. “But I don’t compete like others do.” He goes out three times a week, to the Highlands Inn, Sly McFly in Monterey and other venues in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties, to dance to live music. He’ll partner with any lady who knows, or is willing to learn, the special moves of West Coast Swing, as occurred during last Sunday’s Jazz Jam at Seaside’s Embassy Suites, left. (The form, descended from Lindy Hop and Jitterbug, has developed its own rules, but favors improvisation within the “slotted” rectangle of floor space.) But he does have a steady partner in Christy Jacoby, a Carmel Valley horse riding instructor.
Wallace grew up in St. Louis during the era of the great legends of jazz. “I heard them all,” he says, ticking off such names as Ellington, Basie, Armstrong, Billy Eckstine, “all of the big bands.” Country and western music filled the airwaves for him at first, then jazz, including the earliest practitioners. He came to Monterey in the early ‘70s, transferring within the USPS from Claremont in Southern California (where on one fateful day in nearby Ontario he had a treasured personal encounter with Armstrong, “Pops” as he calls him.)
He began shooting images at the Monterey Jazz Festival. “Dizzy Gillespie got me started,” he says. “I kind of fell into it.” With camera in hand, he went to as many jazz and blues events and venues as possible around the Monterey Bay. He still remembers the early days of the Kuumbwa Jazz Center “with church pews and pillows on the floor.” His days were divided between photography and postal work then, adding his insatiable appetite for dance later.
Shooting images for Kuumbwa and the MJF, he added the Monterey Bay Blues Festival to his list of commitments, but this time as a board member who “did whatever needed to be done. I wore lots of hats.” One of his great disappointments was the failure of the Blues Festival in 2012. (Etta James, left.) He well-wishes the people who recently fired up the replacement Blues, Brews and Barbecue festival last year, but is cautious about its future. “I hope they’re on the right track.” (One of Wallace’s three daughters carries a large responsibility for the High Desert Music Festival in Victorville, with a similar theme.)
Wallace’s taste for performing arts is old news. “I like classical music, though jazz is my thing,” he says. And dancing for him is not only a contact sport. “I go to dance events here whenever possible, like Alvin Ailey and the Smuin Ballet.” He attended the SpectorDance holiday performance in Marina last December.
In ruminating on his careers, civil service always seems to come up. “I loved my job as a mailman.” And, with a wicked gleam in his eye, “I could write a book about my dealing with the public.”