Jazz tribute for Chicago
Sixer Finch on Feb. 17
Nearly 27 years have passed since Bob Finch
brought his fledgling Chicago Six jazz band into the
Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach for its first Friday
night session. Therefore, it's only fitting that a
celebration of the late bandleader's life is planned
for the afternoon of Feb. 17 at the same watering
It's equally appropriate that the present-day
Chicago Six will make with the jazz although other
musicians planning to attend the 1 to 4 p.m. event
are being encouraged to bring their instruments to
take part in jam sessions.
"I'm sure this is the way Bob would have wanted
it," said his widow, Natalia, a prominent painter in
her own right. "Good friends, good music, good time.
All meant so much to Bob."
jazz bassist died Jan. 12 at Tri-City Medical Center
from acute renal failure and complications from
pneumonia, although he had long dealt with other
debilitating health issues. A native of San Diego,
Finch and his wife had lived in Vista for about 20
years and Del Mar before that for about 10 years.
Natalia Finch said she had no idea who or how many
will show up for the tribute on Sunday because her
husband knew so many people, both in and outside the
world of music.
"I don't think he ever met a person he didn't like
or anyone who didn't like him. Anyone who knew Bob
realized he was highly intelligent, but those who
knew him only from his stage presence, his dry sense
of humor and light banter with bandsmen may have
been fooled into thinking he was somewhat of a court
jester, which he wasn't at all."
Instead, the lanky, bearded Abe Lincoln look-alike
had graduated from San Diego State with a degree in
music and held a master's degree in music from
Denver University. Finch also spoke French, Spanish
and Polish fluently and had retired as a teacher at
Sunset Continuation School in Encinitas.
Though his passion was jazz, Bob also had a keen
interest in world affairs, politics, the plight of
the poor, religion and nature. So it wasn't uncommon
for him to speak to my wife at great length about
the Northern San Diego County bird population and
then forget entirely he had called to chat with me.
Finch formed Chicago Six at the drop of an eighth
note in April 1981 because Dave Hodges, then owner
of the Belly Up, needed a Dixieland band to fill a
Friday night slot.
"We had exactly a week to get ready," Finch once
told me. "And that meant I had to line up the
musicians and rehearse them. As it turned out, we
didn't have time to rehearse and anyone who had been
on hand to hear us our first night would have
"We were a disaster and I never thought for a moment
that Dave would ask us back for a second session and
if he did, we wouldn't be given additional time to
build a following. But we were there for 10 or so
years before the Friday night gig ended."
Why the name Chicago Six? Bill Reinhart, the combo's
original clarinetist, had owned Jazz Ltd, a Chicago
Finch was the last of the original band members
still playing in Chicago Six at the time he bowed
out, although the band's co-founder and drummer John
Hall is now working with the High Society Jazz Band
in San Diego and trumpeter Frank Chaddock still
If Finch could be at the Belly Up Tavern on Sunday,
the Chicago Six tune list wouldn't include much if
any Dixieland. He never really cared for the genre
and after enduring the form for several years, he
converted his Dixieland sextet into a swing band.
And that it has remained over the years.
Faced with a myriad of health problems including
spending a month in a Boise, Idaho, hospital two
years ago fighting off double pneumonia, after a
jazz festival Finch turned the band over to Sixers'
reed player Bob McEwen and trumpeter Dick Hamilton.
Finch vowed he would return to the band. He did, but
only to play a couple of San Diego County gigs
before saying "no mas."
Finch's band, which toured Europe twice, was made up
mainly of older musicians who played during the
swing era with the likes of Woody Herman, Harry
James and Bob Crosby. Finch, himself, performed with
the super-sweet Anson Weeks Orchestra, a fact that
made him grimace when reminded of it.
"It was a Mickey Mouse band but the pay was pretty
good and if you could ignore the music, it wasn't a
bad job," he quipped in self-defense.
Despite the presence of his well-known sidemen, for
many, Finch was Chicago Six. As Ken Coulter,
co-director of the Mammoth Jazz Jubilee, put it,
"There are a lot of good bands but to be really
successful, they need a hook. And Bob was Chicago
Six's. They (jazz festival fans) just loved him."
So did actor/song and dance man Buddy Ebsen, so much
so that he appeared frequently with the band in the
late '80s, often insisting Finch wear a stovepipe
hat, while Ebsen recited Lincoln's Gettysburg
Finch often said, "I hated that shtick, but Buddy
gave the band exposure it never would have had
otherwise. So, I went along with whatever he wanted
because I knew it would help make us better known."
The Buddy and Bob friendship endured and Finch's
band played aboard Ebsen's yacht five years ago as
the late entertainer's ashes were strewn off the
Newport Beach coastline.
Finch often looked like an unmade bed, and his
disheveled appearance at gigs he had not played
previously occasionally caused him considerable
anguish. At a swanky St. Louis date, he was turned
away at the door and was told he wasn't welcome
because of his appearance. He received the same
reception when he tried to enter the rear door of a
Sun Valley hospital when he thought the building was
an adjacent jazz site.
"Heck, I thought I looked pretty good, but I guess
they were used to seeing people walking around in
white gowns and masks," Finch said in jest.
I spoke to Finch not long before he died and he was
dispirited. He had been placed on a feeding tube and
was grousing about it.
"This is a hell of a way to go," he said. "Here I am
6 foot, 4 (inches) and I'm down to 130 pounds."
But as always, Finch's sense of humor prevailed.
"You know, I am now the world's tallest jockey."
And, I might add, one of the sweetest guys you'd
ever want to meet.