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 hole.

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."

 

Bob Finch on string bassThe 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 believed it.

"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 nightclub.

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 plays occasionally.

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 Address.

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.

 

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Updated February 17, 2008