California Report: Mandolinist and fiddler Tom Bekeny

Tom Bekeny is another in a pretty deep bench of great Bay Area mandolin players, most of whom aren’t as well known as they should be. Tom, an instructor, plays mandolin and fiddle, and is well versed in both jazz and bluegrass. He’s active in many bands, which he talks about below. You can read his full bio on his website.

Hey Tom, thanks for your time. Have you got any shows coming up that you’re looking forward to?

Yes! 

Missing Man Quartet (jazz) 

  • April 24 at Ocean View Brew Works in Albany
  • May 13 and 20 at Kensington Circus Pub

Kathy Kallick Band

  • April 29, Side Door, Sacramento
  • April 30, Pacifica Performances, Pacifica
  • May 1, Berkeley Bluegrass Festival, Freight, and Salvage
  • July 8-10, High Mountain Hay Fever Bluegrass Festival, Westcliffe CO

High Country

  • May 24, Freight and Salvage (multi-band tribute to Ray Edlund)

How about your jazz lineup, is that still active?

Yes—Greg Reginato guitar, Gerry Kennett drums, Craig Griffeath bass.

How does the average Joe go about moving from bluegrass to jazz?

The first step is realizing that if you play bluegrass mandolin, you already have some vocabulary that’s related to early jazz language (trad jazz). And, if you improvise, you already have something in common with the spirit of jazz. Moving forward from there, you have to approach it as learning another language—which requires the same thing that learning bluegrass does—lots of learning of the vocabulary that defines the style. Finding players that excite you can provide a lot of motivation to reverse engineer what you’re hearing, and it helps to have slow down software. In the old days, we used to slow things down by playing vinyl LPs at 16 instead of 33 rpm, which would also bring things down about an octave. I’d always had an interest in jazz but only dabbled in it for years. When I turned 50 it was “now or never”…a better way to handle my midlife crisis than others I guess.

Was there ever a point when you thought to yourself this just isn’t going to work? If so, how did you get past that?

Yes, I remember around age 18-19 when I switched from guitar to mandolin. I’d work hard on learning things. I lived in the dorms at Sonoma State and would go over to Mark Hogan’s dorm and tried to play what I’d been working on. But it felt like most of the time my fingers just wouldn’t cooperate. I had a moment of thinking, maybe there’s some kind of medical issue preventing me from playing. I now realize it was just nervousness, which still comes up from time to time, but in a much more manageable form. I got past it by just practicing more, which wasn’t hard because I’ve always enjoyed practicing.

I love your treatment of Ode to Billie Joe. How did that come about?

Thanks! In my first bluegrass band, the Coast Ridge Boys (Big Sur, 1974), we had a veteran musician playing bass with us by the name of Buddy (“Burger”) Jones. He’d retired from playing in the CBS Orchestra and moved to Carmel Valley to raise horses. He knew and played with everyone in jazz, and was Charlie Parker’s roommate in Kansas City before Parker rose to fame. One night he told me he was playing in a little club in Monterey with an alto player named Art Pepper, and that I should go hear his playing. I’d never heard of Art, went to a couple of those shows, recorded them on a little cassette recorder, and was blown away! Someone asked Art to play Caravan, but he said he was too incapacitated and that he’d rather play Ode to Billie Joe—a simpler tune with only three chords to keep track of. I never realized that song could be so cool until I heard Art. Like in Alice in Wonderland, those two nights and that tune made me feel like I went through some kind of door into another world. Initially, my jazz CD was just something I was fooling around with. At some point I realized maybe I could turn it into something.

What jazz mandolin cats do you dig?

Current guys like Don Stiernberg, Aaron Weinstein, and Jason Anick, and the pioneers like Tiny Moore, Jethro Burns, and Johnny Gimble—especially Tiny. But I tend to learn things more from sax players, trumpet players, pianists, and guitarists.

I’ve heard tell you’re the new pup in High Country. Does the band still treat you as such?

Nah, not anymore. We’re all a bunch of old guys now, and I was “new” late in the 20th century when I joined in 1988.

You play mostly fiddle in that band. Do you ever play mandolin duets with Butch Waller?

We haven’t done a lot of those in recent years, but we used to play Little Rabbit, Tennessee Blues, Redwood Country, and one of Butch’s called Saturday Matinee.

How would you say your mandolin style differs from Butch’s?

He’d have to weigh in on this, but to my ear the two biggest influences I hear in his playing are Bill Monroe and Bobby Osborne, who I think was the gateway to post-Monroe styles. I was influenced a lot by Monroe, Wakefield, and McReynolds. Because I came up a few years later than Butch, I was influenced by players who rose to prominence later than his influences—Sam Bush, David Grisman’s earlier bluegrass playing, and Buck White. Butch’s playing on the first two High Country records on Warner Brothers influenced me, and I put some effort into learning some of his stuff. He was nice enough to give me a free lesson when I was 18 and told me to “keep on pickin’.”

How would you describe your mandolin style?

It’s funny, I never used to think of myself as having a style. I was so aware of stealing everything from my favorite players. Then one day a friend said he heard music in the distance coming from the Grass Valley stage and said, “I recognized your style.” That was news to me! My bluegrass influences: Bill Monroe, Frank Wakefield, Jesse McReynolds, Buck White, Sam Bush, the earlier bluegrass of David Grisman, Ed Neff, Paul Shelasky, and Butch Waller. My jazz influences: Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt, Art Pepper, Bruce Forman, Django Reinhardt, and Tiny Moore.

What fiddle players do you love?

Chubby Wise, Bobby Hicks, Kenny Baker, Benny Martin, Vassar Clements. And among the people I’ve played with, Laurie Lewis, Brian Wicklund, Annie Staninec, Blaine Sprouse, Paul Shelasky, Chad Manning, and especially Ed Neff, who generally influenced my understanding of trad bluegrass.

Do you use alternate tunings?

Never tried…I have a hard enough time with standard tunings.

Have you played much jazz fiddle? Ever hear of Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong?

I’ve tried playing some swing-style fiddle but haven’t taken the time to practice it. I love swing and jazz fiddle. I’ve never heard of Armstrong, but you’ve made me curious. 

What was your first instrument?

Piano for a minute, but I took up guitar as a teenager. 

Did you grow up with music instruments in the house? 

I took pianos lessons for a short time, but that was it. Neither parent played music. The “decorative” mandolin that hung on the wall at my uncle’s house stoked my initial interest in playing mandolin.

What are some early musical moments?

Convincing my parents to get me piano lessons, and then convincing them to allow me to stop. When I took up the guitar I had a friend, Mark McCornack, who was already a fine guitar and banjo player in junior high. I remember holding him hostage for a couple of lessons before driving him to his home after school. Other moments that come to mind are the first times playing in bluegrass and jazz bands. I remember getting on stage at the old Station Inn in 1974 for jams after only playing for a couple of years. I thought I was really bad. I got so discouraged I vowed to not get on stage again until I got better…that feeling probably lasted only a few days. Also the jams at Paul’s Saloon with guys like Butch Waller and Larry Cohea. I remember thinking, “these guys get so much sound out of their instruments!”

What bands are you active in these days?

High Country, the Kathy Kallick Band, the Missing Man Quartet, and Hydromatic Drive.

How long have you been in the Kathy Kallick Band?

Since 1995 or ’96.

Where did you first meet her? I’d guess Paul’s Saloon.

Yes, Paul’s.

Have you done any twin fiddles with Annie Staninec?

We don’t do any twin fiddling. With one exception, it has never been anything the band has gravitated toward.

How is Annie’s playing different from yours?

She’s braver and can get around the neck better than I can. Stylistically she’s grounded in bluegrass like me, but unlike me she’s studied old-time fiddle intensively.

Is music your day job?

My day job is as a clinical psychologist in private practice.

What do you do for fun when not playing music? 

I’m obsessed with tennis. I keep thinking I’ll get better at it, but age is a great leveler. 

What band might you love to go back in time play with other than the Blue Grass Boys?

Maybe Red Allen. I’ve always loved his singing. 

Where did you grow up?

Cleveland Ohio, and then Mt. Vernon Ohio for a minute before moving to Monterey California at age 10.

What instrument make/brand do you play?

I play a Stan Miller mandolin that I bought from him in 1978 for $1K.

Other than Paul’s Saloon, was there any venue you played that you feel really helped you develop?

Generally, any bar/club-type atmosphere like Paul’s was a comfortable place to learn and try things. The Coast Ridge Boys played at the River Inn for about a year, and Done Gone played Red Vest pizza parlor (“#98, your pizza is ready”) and Paul’s. Kensington Circus Pub was amazing for Bangers and Grass, and the Missing Man Quartet plays there these days. The first two Freight and Salvages were introductions to playing in more nerve-wracking “concert” settings.

Have your parents seen you play much and how did that go?

My mom and stepfather have seen me play and they enjoyed it. My dad never saw me perform, but he was at a jam session once. I don’t think he knew what to make of it. 

To his credit, when I told him at age 20 that I wanted to quit college, he gave me a couple hundred dollars and suggested I go to Nashville. I got a job within days at the Country Music Hall of Fame and stayed for almost six months

What tunes are stuck in your brain right now?

Joy Spring and Round Midnight…just starting to learn those. Also, I’m thinking about some of the songs we’re working on in the studio for the next Kathy Kallick Band release.

Do you compose?

I wrote the words and music to only one song, and we performed it once with High Country. I don’t remember why, but we never did it again…I think I wasn’t happy with it. I’ve written a handful of instrumentals over the years: Old Red Mandolin, Edale, Metropolis Blues, Neon Chief, Fire in the East, #2 Express, and a yet-to-be-named tune for the new Kathy Kallick Band CD. Recently I was invited by folksinger/activist Nancy Schimmel to write a melody to words she’d written. That was a fun and interesting process. Most of the chords and melody came quickly and then I struggled with a small section for weeks. It seems that way when I write instrumentals too; I’ll come up with some of it quickly and have to work hard on the rest. Many aspiring tunes never make it to the finish line.

Have you ever performed at IBMA? 

Yes, a couple of times with the Kathy Kallick Band. 

Is Bangers and Grass gonna happen again?

We MIGHT have some Bangers shows in October of 2022…details to be revealed at Bill Evans’ website.

Thanks much Tom.

Copy editing by Jeanie Poling

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About the Author

Dave Berry

Dave Berry is a California based author, mandolin picker, and composer who writes the California Report column for Bluegrass Today. He grew up in the Ohio Valley right between where the Big Sandy and Big Scioto rivers dump into the Ohio. His articles, Morning Walk album, and video are available on streaming sites and his website at daveberrymusic.net.