Coastside promoter marks 50 years in music

By Julia Scott, Staff Writer

THE YEAR was 1982. Pete Douglas had booked Tito Puente and his six-piece band to come play at the Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society, a concert-room addition to his beach house north of Half Moon Bay.

"He came, and so did 1,000 people. This place looked like an anthill. There were people on the roof. Bongos in the front yard, bongos in the backyard," Douglas recalled.

Pete Douglas, founder of the Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society, poses for a portrait at his Miramar, Calif., venue on Monday, Feb.11, 2008. A tribute will be held for Douglas on Feb. 16 to comemorate the 50th anniversary of the jazz scene he has been promoting. (Mathew Sumner/San Mateo County Times)

Back then, in its halcyon days, the Bach was still operating fairly informally. Upcoming gigs were spread by word-of-mouth, and jazz fans packed Douglas' cedar-lined concert room with bottles of wine to hear the likes of Bill Evans, Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Getz. Then they tripped over each other to give standing ovations.

Musicians love playing the Bach and always have. Their satisfaction, and the joy of the crowds that have come to hear them play for 50 years, are Douglas' life's work.

"People are rooting for the music. They aren't a passive crowd that says, 'Show me, get me off,'" he said. "A real jazz program is one that catches fire. It's the music of surprise."

Jazz has changed over time, but the intimacy of shows at the Bach is one of its greatest hallmarks. Whether crowds these days number 75 or 200, guests in the front row are seated on straight-backed seats and modest, cafeteria-style tables no more than four feet from a trumpet's tip on the low riser where the musicians jam.

It doesn't look like much in the afternoon light on a weekday, a Steinway grand piano shrouded and pushedinto a corner. But that small stage has seen more jazz and be-bop action than Yoshi's, and even held 18-piece bands.

"We had Duke Ellington's band. We had Count Basie," said Douglas, now 79.

Douglas has also booked legions of local bands and vocalists, bringing them exposure and acclaim. Now a group of local musicians is returning the favor by organizing a tribute to him this Saturday at a sold-out show at San Carlos' Domenico Winery.

It's a happy coincidence that the tribute event, which features a catered meal and performances by several prominent Bay Area musicians, coincides with the 50-year anniversary of the first beachside "jam" session held in the sand in front of the converted beer joint bought by Douglas and his young family in 1958.

The beatniks, poets and artists who brought drums, saxophones, guitars, beer and other substances to the beach embodied the free-wheeling spirit of the future Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society, long before Douglas took himself for a serious music producer.

The society got its name when a group of music lovers began dancing to Bach on the beach while others set off sticks of dynamite.

Local musician Margie Baker, a blues, jazz and gospel singer who has performed at the Bach for two decades, says she decided to organize the tribute after hearing that Douglas had undergone heart surgery last year.

"I am very appreciative of the man and what he has done for the jazz community for all these many years — how wonderful he has been in presenting all of us," said Baker, a South San Francisco resident.

A lifelong teacher and school administrator, Baker started singing jazz 15 years ago. At first, she found it hard to break into the industry. Then she was invited to sing at the Bach.

"Many of the musicians walked off the stage, because they didn't know me and they didn't know I could sing," Baker recalled. "But after I got up there and sang my song, Pete came up to me and said, 'You can sing on my stage any day.'"

The success of the Bach — a nonprofit with a modest $200,000 annual budget — has, in a way, been as much a surprise as Douglas' career as a music promoter.

Making money was never Douglas' intent, and he only built the concert-hall addition to his home in 1971 after crowds of 200 regularly swarmed his family's green-carpeted living room.

Now the Sunday concerts start at 4 p.m., though many people come with picnics to spread out on the spacious outdoor or indoor decks and watch the sun set over the ocean.

"I didn't plan on running a club," said Douglas, who has never played an instrument. Instead, his appreciation of jazz developed during those early jam sessions.

At first, they were a rebel yell. Douglas remembers with amusement how his eldest daughter, aged 9 or 10 in the 1960s, would wake up at 6 a.m. and stumble, bleary-eyed, into crazy jam sessions that had gone on through sundown and sunup.

"And then I began to realize that jazz wasn't just yesterday's party music," Douglas said. He started offering regular jazz and classical music programs in 1964.

Now, the Bach is his life. Clad in jeans, a beatnik beanie and a stained flannel shirt, the excitable impresario still washes the windows, sets up the chairs for each performance, and controls the sound during each show from his director's chair at the foot of the stage.

His greatest pleasure is derived from being an audience member during that one moment of improvisation, the chord change that sets the whole band on fire.

Those moments will never happen without live music. Douglas says the U.S. audience for jazz has shrunk to a marginal status. "Your grandfather's music," he calls it. Most young people "have never even heard the damn music live," while their adult counterparts are now more likely to listen to albums at home or watch concerts on TV.

"We have a lot of music in this country, but nobody's listening. It's white noise. Adults drift away from music over time," said Douglas, shaking his head. "Adults are always running around controlling things. Jazz is a way for them to sit down, relax in front of other people in a communal way."
Financial considerations play little role in the Bach's future booking considerations. A full calendar of shows in March, April and May foretell a great variety of acts, from a swing sextet to several up-and-coming young jazz pianists and singers.

A statement on the Bach's Web site says Douglas would someday like to sell his beach house to the Bach nonprofit organization but needs donors to provide the money, as well as some equity for his survival. During an interview, however, he said he would never retire.

"You're like a musician. Musicians never retire — they just go from bar to bar. Why should I retire? It keeps you alive," he said.

For upcoming shows at the Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society, visit or call 650-726-4143.

Staff writer Julia Scott can be reached at 650-348-4340 or at