Phyllis Filiberti Butler
Author / Journalist / Editor
San Francisco Chronicle
Miramar's Bach makes magic with music, wine on coast

As waves crash on the beach below, the sweet sounds of a jazz vocalist float from the residence on the cliff above.

A gourmet meal awaits on a nearby table; a few folks have brought along bottles of an excellent Cabernet for an afternoon of good food, good drink and good music.

It's not your typical weekend barbecue, though. These weekly, weekend get- togethers at Pete Douglas' place are much more.

Douglas' home on Miramar Beach is the home of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, and on this sunny Sunday afternoon cabaret singer Karrin Allyson, a multitalented pianist and classical jazz singer charms the house with popular ballads from her vast repertoire.

Allyson opens with a scat rendition of "Let's Fall in Love" and follows with an homage to the Bach's shoreline location, "I Cover the Waterfront." Appearing with her are Bob Bowman on bass and Danny Embrey on guitar -- plus Bach regular Akira Tana on drums.

She maneuvers through everything from Bossa Nova to Cole Porter's "I Love Paris" and the haunting "If You Go Away" (French and English) before ending with a tribute to the Bach setting: "Let's Talk Magic."

"Coastside, jazz, music, style -- are you kidding? There's nothing like it."

Many others would agree. The week before the place was equally packed for the all-star electric jazz group called Sons of Bitches Brew, led by San Francisco saxophone player Mike Zilber, a self-described "loose, funky groove band made up of world-class players who explore jam-based, less formally involved music." In addition to the acclaimed saxophonist, the group includes Steve Smith and ex-Miles Davis alumnus Barry Finnerty.

"Pete Douglas is a patron saint of jazz, classical and other serious music, " according to Zilber. "He honors both musicians and the audience, creating a warm, welcoming space where the muse is nurtured and celebrated."

The Northern California musical institution is beginning its 36th year under the guidance of social-worker-turned-music-director Douglas. Eventually, most Bay Area jazz lovers hear about what regulars call "the Bach," the one-of- a-kind coastside venue.

Not a theater, more than a club, sort of a rustic chamber room, it's been home to some of the country's top musical talent since 1966, when Douglas decided to open his beach house to the masses.

It's one of those treasures you keep worrying about -- how long can it last?

The "Bach" name is in deference to the classical music they sometimes present, but jazz is its lifeblood. The dancing and dynamite? It's part of a somewhat apocryphal tale that goes like this: In the early '60s, Pete Douglas remodeled an old beer joint he'd bought on Miramar Beach (for the whopping sum of $8,500 in 1958) and turned it into a kind of club. He was still working as what he describes as "a creative adult probation officer for the county -- unhappy with everything.

"One Sunday we had a get-together, a bunch of us, including a musician who had gotten busted for stealing some bologna. It was the height of the antiwar youth culture, people came to the beach from all over the Bay Area.

"I'm playing jazz records, we're dancing -- then I put on Bach's Brandenburg concerto. Suddenly, something goes boom! It's dynamite out on the beach. Bob Swift, a school teacher friend of mine, says, 'So this is obviously the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society.' " Douglas incorporated the group as a nonprofit, and four years later the scheduled performances began.

Douglas may be a music fan, but he doesn't play a lick. "The building is my instrument."

And it resonates. The big, comfortable beach house has been added onto over the years to hold about 200 people for the three-hour Sunday afternoon shows.

Coming upon Douglas' place on tiny Miramar Beach, two miles north of Half Moon Bay, is a little like your first look at the Golden Gate Bridge. You know it's going to be there, but you're awed by the beauty nonetheless.

It might take a bit to get used to the routine. Shows start at 4:30 p.m., but as early as 2 p.m. people are lined up across the deck and down the stairs,

happily waiting for the doors to open.

Retired engineer Bill Mullins comes from Berkeley with his Menlo Park friend Donna Baxter to the Bach.

"There's nothing like this place," Mullins said.

"We like it even better than Yoshi's," Baxter said.

It draws an eclectic mix of Gen Xers, Baby Boomers and those from the "Greatest Generation," all milling about, rain or shine, to see the likes of Stan Getz, Cal Tjader, Bill Evans and, more recently, the best of Bay Area jazz stars like Ray Brown and trombone and vibraphonist Rex Allen.

Allen, along with Al Plank on piano and a sextet calling themselves the Grand Masters of Bay Area Jazz, blew away even Bach regulars when they performed in February.

"That was the best," raved Palo Alto writer Antoinette May when the show was over. "What a wonderful afternoon. I love this place." May, a "50ish" author of several biographies, said she and a group of friends come to the Bach every chance they get.

Like most regulars, they bring their own wine -- allowed because of the "society" status -- and then buy dinner from the catered buffet that opens at 3 p.m. and continues until the performance is over, usually around 7:30 p.m.

This Sunday, jazz vibraphonist Joe Locke plays with pianist Frank Kinbrough -- recently pianist and composer of the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra. Pete Douglas says Locke and Kinbrough will be playing more contemplative work than usual, from their new album "Saturn's Child."

"I think this may prove to be the jazz event of the year at the Bach."

Jazz by the sea Jazz vibraphonist Joe Locke and pianist Frank Kinbrough perform at 4:30 p.m. Sunday at the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society. Doors open at 3 p.m. $21. Miramar Beach, Half Moon Bay. (650) 726-4143.

Phyllis Butler is a freelance writer based in Menlo Park and the author of "Old Santa Clara Valley - A Guide to Historic Buildings."

©2001 San Francisco Chronicle   Page 3