Dick Vartanian, a trumpet player, was one of many San Francisco jazzmen who served in World War Two and returned home to see if they could make a living playing music. He and a clarinetist, Paul Breitenfeld, had become good friends at Polytechnic High School. The war behind them, the young Army veterans attended San Francisco State College, worked gigs in and around the city and played together for a time at the Feather River Inn, a resort in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. We see them pictured above at a 1949 jam session at San Francisco State. Breitenfeld changed his main instrument to alto saxophone, changed his last name to Desmond and hooked up with a pianist named Brubeck. Full disclosure: Mr. Vartanian was an invaluable source when I was writing Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond.
Vartanian switched to piano and worked for decades with his trio and as a soloist in a variety of Bay Area clubs and restaurants. Approaching his 90th birthday, he has published an account of his life. It is in a little book called Ivories and Brass. It tells of his early days jamming with Desmond and Jerome Richardson; travails and pleasures of life as an Army musician; encounters with Harry James, Jonathan Winters, Victor Borge, Vernon Alley and Frank Sinatra (among many others); the Chinatown club owner who insisted that he wear a turban; a wild horseback ride with the 11-year-old Natalie Wood; and songs that he wrote for a revue starring Johnny Mathis before Mathis became a pop star. The book is rough-hewn, readable and replete with wry reflections. It is short and priced accordingly.
To hear one of the Mathis songs from 1955 and see a picture of Vartanian and Mathis together, go here.