Pete Douglas dies, unforgettable owner of jazz venue Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society
By Karen de Sá - firstname.lastname@example.org - July 21, 2014
HALF MOON BAY -- The bohemian Prentice "Pete" Douglas, an unforgettable character who brought the world's greatest jazz legends to his funky Coastside home and concert hall, died July 12 at age 85.
Douglas's longtime assistant, Linda Goetz, found the well-known music aficionado slumped over his desk overlooking a great swath of Pacific Ocean, after he suffered a massive stroke.
The Bay Area cultural icon was not a musician. He was often not even a very nice guy. But his remarkable transformation of a ramshackle beer joint into a premiere live-music venue that he ran as a nonprofit earned him countless admirers.
"Pete was one-of-a-kind. The place is one-of-a-kind," said Mitchel Forman, the acclaimed keyboard player. Forman, like other jazz greats, found a rare intimacy at Douglas' beach house, where guests bring picnics and lounge on seaside decks before shows.
Unplanned events landed Douglas as proprietor of the venue. Born in 1929 into an upper-middle-class Illinois family, Douglas' father, a newspaper editor, died in a pneumonia epidemic when his son was just 7. His mother remarried and moved to Southern California with her two sons in the 1940s. Douglas came to his love of jazz in the heady scene on Manhattan and Hermosa beaches.
Drafted as the Korean War ended, he served briefly in Japan before returning to complete a sociology degree at UC Santa Barbara. A shotgun marriage and the prospect of fatherhood moved Douglas north, where he took a job as a San Mateo County probation officer. More beatnik than beat cop, Douglas didn't conform with correctional life. He wrecked his county-issued Chevrolet -- and cracked gum in court. He was most comfortable wearing a Mediterranean fisherman's cap and smoking a pipe.
In 1957, Douglas bought a shack on Miramar Beach in Half Moon Bay with his then-wife Pat. But although the property had a rickety, makeshift fence, he was not much for the confines of domestic life. Douglas quickly opened the beach house doors to passersby -- even when the hitchhikers, starving artists and wayward teens crowded out his family, which had grown to include three daughters. While his marriage soon ended in divorce, others came streaming in to the sandy perch.
Music began at the beach house in 1958 with a teenage delinquent. His name was Pat Britt. At age 18, he had been accused of stealing baloney.
Reporting to Douglas, his probation officer, the teen lugged his saxophone into the meeting because his car wouldn't lock. Britt, now 74 and working as a jazz musician in Los Angeles, recalls Douglas telling him he was clearly not a criminal, so he should just come out to his beach house and play.
Sundays became jam sessions, which became outdoor concerts, and eventually admission-charging gigs. The club got its name one feverish, dance-filled night featuring Bach concertos. When an explosion from the beach interrupted the music, a reveler shouted out: "We are the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society!" And the name stuck.
Douglas topped his shack with a sturdy cedar-walled concert hall surrounded by outdoor decks -- a sprawling, disorderly but welcoming building that would soon become a must-stop for artists touring San Francisco's largest venues. With cozy seating for 160 people, Douglas still lured acts the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Etta James, Betty Carter, McCoy Tyner, Michel Petrucciani, Stan Getz, Count Basie and Duke Ellington.
"It just mushroomed beyond everyone's wildest dreams," Britt said.
Respected for his fierce devotion to the club, Douglas also had a reputation for being arrogant and cantankerous. Painfully honest and often intolerant, he was as salty as the sea around him, friends freely recalled.
Tom Morrison lived in a 40-foot tugboat on Douglas' beachfront in 1966 and would cook for Douglas and his girls, who he felt were often overlooked in the hubbub of a home that doubled as a crash pad and artists' colony. Morrison was a lifelong friend and admirer. But he noted: "Women throughout his life were very frustrated with Pete because they weren't able to change or influence him. He was stubborn, and that was frustrating for his children as well."
Douglas' daughter Barbara Riching agreed. "My dad was a very social creature; he brought in every stray person in the world," she said. "There were a lot of times he pissed us off, and we were jealous that he would spend more time with others than us."
But Riching, 55, who is the chief financial officer of the biotech firm OXiGENE, said as she got older she came to deeply appreciate her father, and all that he achieved. "What he did was absolutely unreal," she said. "He enjoyed it, but he did it at his own expense too -- he had no money, no cash whatsoever. He put all his money into the box."
It paid off for many of the beach bums Douglas reeled in, who went on to influential music careers. Tim Jackson, artistic director of the Monterey Jazz Festival and the Kuumbwa Jazz Center of Santa Cruz, was a 19-year-old flute-playing surfer living out of his Volkswagen van when he came to stay with Douglas in 1973. Jackson crashed in a sleeping bag in the concert hall, in exchange for working as the janitor and taking tickets. Musical greats were all around him. "It really was my start in the music business," Jackson said. "It was a great indoctrination."
Longtime admirers say it's hard to imagine the venue without Douglas around -- hollering from the front row when the music pleased him, making awkward introductions from the mike, or fiddling with the sound dials when he really needed to stay away.
His character, even when it ticked people off or amused them, kept them fiercely loyal. And although he slowed down after a quadruple-bypass surgery, Douglas' power to inspire remained.
Just three months ago, Forman had a first-ever epiphany at the venue: A cohesiveness of band, audience and club, he described, that he had never felt in his decades-long career. "The last time I played there was really life-changing," he said. "There was just such an energy in the club that boosted the level of musicianship -- it was kind of like a magical afternoon and the band was just lifted to a high place."
So, was it the funky spot by the beach, or the man behind it?
"I attribute the vibe of the place to Pete," Forman said. "His energy and his enthusiasm sort of invades the consciousness of that place."
Legendary vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson said he hopes the sought-after venue will remain open. And Goetz said she is more than willing to stay on and run the place. But the multi-million-dollar beach property belongs to Douglas' daughters now, and they have yet to decide the future.
All agree things will never be the same there without Douglas.
"We always thought of Pete as a Peter Pan," said longtime friend Sylvie Way, 65, of Atherton. "He was able to share the things he loved with thousands and thousands of people, and that's his legacy more than anything -- keeping the music going."
Born: Feb. 9, 1929 in Waukegan, Illinois