.East Side Dreams

New album by Ivan Flores connects San Jose musical legacies

The voice that opens East Side San Jose, the new album by Ivan Flores & Discos Resaca Collective, glows with a warmth as familiar as the sun rising over the Diablo Range.

“Hot day, hot day South Bay,” chimes Chuy Gomez, 20-year host of the 106.1 KMEL morning show.

In an intro track mimicking his days with KMEL, Gomez promises today’s broadcast is a very special one, a throwback dedicated to the part of town where so many live and dream: the East Side.

What follows is a kaleidoscopic journey through the sights and sounds of San Jose’s sprawling eastern half. Released this week, East Side San Jose is the newest by Flores, a San Jose accordionist and producer, with collaborations from many of the musicians on the record label he runs, Discos Resaca. Partially funded through a grant from downtown arts org/museum MACLA, the album reaches beyond genre to incorporate cumbia, freestyle, Chicano soul, hip hop, funk and lowrider classics.

But more than just a throwback to a bygone era, East Side San Jose is the spiritual successor to an earlier album, another kaleidoscopic record titled East Side San Jose, the 1970 album by the multitalented Clifford Coulter. Once considered the greatest musician in San Jose, Coulter was a lightning rod in the South Bay scene for decades.

Drummer Ron E. Beck remembers moving to San Jose from Nebraska in 1971, and Coulter’s album being the talk of the town.

“They were talking about East Side San Jose big time,” Beck says. “Everybody was really excited that he had made San Jose the focus of that record.”

Beck joined Coulter’s band shortly after and played on its follow-up, 1972’s Do It Now! (Worry About It Later).

Sadly, Coulter passed away last August after a long stretch of declining health. Though his records have since become collector’s items, the flow of music today has whisked his name nearly into obscurity. But with a new album carrying the torch for East Side San Jose, his is now the first in a local musical legacy stretching back more than half a century.

As Chuy Gomez says on the new album’s intro: “gather around them OGs, get that gang, because you’re about to get schooled.”

DO IT AGAIN

It was a Friday night in 1960s San Jose when a 16-year-old Jerry Perez turned the corner on Santa Clara Street and bumped right into a crowd of people. With no particular plans for the evening, he leaned up against a car to watch. 

The crowd was gathered outside a pizza place which had, for the evening, turned into a nightclub. A band was loading in gear. One of the members in particular was rolling an odd-looking contraption he’d never seen anywhere before: an amplifier wrapped in a mattress.

“I’m saying, damn, what the hell is that?” Perez recalls.

His curiosity piqued, he weaved through the crowd and found a spot inside. On stage was the guy with the weird amp, a tall Black guy with a tight afro that he soon found out was Clifford Coulter. Clifford was there doing the same thing he did most nights: playing around the Bay Area in his combo with drummer Billy Ingram.

“I just fell in love with what he was doing,” Perez says. “He sounded so good. I wasn’t even a musician yet, but that was what I wanted to do after I seen him play.”

Within a few short years, Perez would fulfill that goal, becoming a musician and playing right alongside the man he saw that Friday—his colorful guitar licks figure throughout the original East Side San Jose, doubling Coulter’s vocals on opener “Do It Again” and darting organ lines on the album’s title track.

“I had a Fatboy 75 [guitar] and I used a wah-wah pedal,” Perez recalls. “I was the only person using the wah-wah fluently, so I guess that was my niche.”

Mixing soul, jazz, R&B and blues, East Side San Jose avoided simple classifications. Instead of cohering to genre, it strove to capture the region’s distinct color and feel. Each song was inspired by a specific place or person, from the beneficent warmth of the “Prayer Garden” church on Sixth Street to funky little “Cliff’s Place,” a combination bail bonds agent/bar that once existed where Santa Clara crosses 101—the border of the East Side.

On the album’s cover, cars cruise past a row of fast-food joints at Story and King, the east hills riding the horizon alongside them. Coulter himself took the photo.

“There was a definite divide—racially, culturally and musically—between the east side and the west side,” says Jimi Calhoun, bass player on East Side San Jose. Simply put: the west side was richer and whiter. “I’m glad he took ownership and gave some credit to people on the east side.”

Calhoun was 9 years old when he first met Coulter. At the time, the two lived down the block from each other on North 11th Street. Originally a drummer, Calhoun first picked up the bass at a teenage nightclub that once thrived on First Street, when the bassist for the buzzy local rock group the Velveteens failed to show for the gig.

“They asked if anyone knew how to play bass and I raised my hand,” Calhoun recalls. “I started playing bass from that time on.”

Today, Calhoun is a pastor with Bridging Austin Interdenominational Church in Austin, Texas. Humbly, he describes his musician days by saying he “kind of had a reputation around the Bay Area as a pretty good bass player.” In reality, he played with legends of soul and R&B, laying the bass line for people like Wilson Pickett, the Four Tops and Lou Rawls.

But it was something else that brought him and Jerry Perez—along with John Turk, Mel Brown, Cornelius Bumpus, Billy Ingram, Joe Provost and Gino Landry—to play on East Side San Jose.

East Side San Jose was a friendship album,” Perez says.

Calhoun emphatically agrees.

East Side San Jose was like playing with family.”

ACTING ON IMPULSE!

Ed Michel began producing records in 1958, after falling in with what he jokingly describes as “evil companions.”

“I was a kid guitarist, wannabe jazz but functionally a folkie crossed with frat-party gigs,” Michel recalls over email.

Through a family connection, Michel had landed and then aced an interview with LA label Pacific Jazz. He was put in charge of the label’s foreign records department. At each day’s end, he’d rush over to the Ash Grove, where the seeds of the ’60s counterculture were sown (and where he played bass in the house band). One day, his two worlds collided when the owners of Pacific Jazz offloaded some recording equipment onto him.

“My bosses loaded an Ampex tape deck and a couple of mics into the wagon and dropped them and me off at the club,” he says: “Trial by fire.”

In 1969, jazz giant Impulse! Records—home to John and Alice Coltrane, Art Blakey and Sonny Stitt (among many others)—relocated to LA and quickly hired Michel as a producer. For much of the ’70s, his work defined the label’s output. 

By Michel’s estimate, it was 15 minutes into his first day at Impulse! when he ran into blues guitarist Mel Brown. As recounted in Ashley Kahn’s book The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse! Records: “He says, ‘I want to record with this organ player,’ and pulled out a tape of a guy named Clifford Coulter.’ I said, ‘Great. What time do you want to hit?’”

Just like that, Coulter had a record deal.

In late 1969, Coulter and his band of San Joseans, along with Mel Brown and Ed Michel, took to Wally Heider Studios in San Francisco to record East Side San Jose. Across the album’s seven tracks, ideas spark from one to the next, gospel-inspired R&B flowing right into a loungey blues, straight into the haunting, waltzing soul of “Sal Si Puedes (Get Out if You Can),” in which a heartfelt Coulter intones: “poverty, ghetto, call it what you want it, but you get out if you can.”

Unfortunately, the album’s brisk spontaneity seems to have applied to its recording session as well, as no one remembers much about the experience. For Jimi Calhoun, details slip into a wash of his other recording dates from the ’70s with groups like Leon’s Creation and Dr. John. One of the few particulars he does recall is plugging his 1967 Fender Precision bass directly into the mixing board, rather than an amplifier.

Ed Michel, the album’s producer, says he can find no notes from the days spent at Wally Heider Studios, or the follow-up dates at Vault Recording Studio in LA. (A complete search through his archives, he says, would take “graduate-student energy and devotion.”)

“I’d say it was done in two or three 3-hour sessions and perhaps a single overdub session,” Michel estimates. “Clifford was comfortable in the studio. He pretty quickly realized that we were interested in getting the sound he wanted.”

Another way of looking at it: with a band of friends who all were in it for the music, things were bound to be easy.

“Friends first, with an affinity for the same style of music,” says Jimi Calhoun. “It was effortless to play together. That would be a good sentence.”

PON ME MUSICA

It’s been almost 20 years since Ivan Flores first thought about making a sequel to East Side San Jose.

“I grew up on the East Side and listened to a lot of everything,” he says. “Soul, jazz, a lot of Latin music.”

One commonality among all the music he listened to was a distinct sense of place, populated as they were with midnight trains to Georgia, smoke-filled New York jazz clubs and the hazy, dream-like persistence of LA boulevards. Then, sometime around the millennium, Flores began to catch wind of an album written about a place much closer to home: East Side San Jose.

“I remember the cover,” Flores says. “One of the songs [is called] ‘Alum Rock Park.’ I grew up right around the corner from Alum Rock Park. It always kind of tripped me out that this album was out there.”

Before long, Flores would be making his own music, playing in cumbia bands like Lado Oriente (“East Side”) and La Colectiva Tokeson, as well as his solo project as Ivan del Acordéon. In 2017, he started Discos Resaca to release the work of others, focusing on local and international cumbia and Latin hip hop and soul. All the while, he had an idea at the back of his mind: taking Clifford Coulter’s concept of East Side San Jose and updating it to his own time.

“Between 1970 and now a lot has happened,” Flores says.

In addition to the DJ career of Chuy Gomez, there has been freestyle, hip hop, the explosion and subsequent suppression of the lowrider movement, popping-and-locking, g-funk and the East Side Story compilation series, to name just a few. Flores builds his East Side from these touchpoints, just as Coulter built his around places and faces familiar to him. While Coulter’s East Side was a funky all-nighter inspired by misadventures in dives and jazz clubs, Flores’s East Side recalls barbecues, family get-togethers and la pulga.

Flores characterizes the early stages of the album as almost like a “research project.” 

“I talked to a lot of folks who were either DJs, musicians or in the cruising scene,” he says.

Over time, Flores, along with co-producer Xian Ballesteros, began recording the album at his home studio, building the songs out with the help of Grammy-winning drummer Javier Cabanillas, of Pacific Mambo Orchestra.

Then, in 2020, the project came into sharp focus when Flores won a $10,000 fellowship from MACLA’s “Cultura Power” project. The fellowship offered money with no strings attached to “Bay Area-based Latinx artists who are actively working to advance a more just and equitable society.”

“Essentially, we were in the middle of the pandemic and … hearing back from folks in the community about what was needed, and a lot of it just came down to money,” says Maryela Perez, program manager with MACLA. “Something that I think is really cool and really reflective of Ivan is that he has been asking for community input. It almost feels like it’s not just his project, but East Side San Jose’s project.”

In July of 2021, Flores held a community discussion about the album’s cover art at MACLA. The end result is something like a blend of Coulter’s original cover and the East Side Story album series, taking the green street sign design of the former and incorporating the latter’s dripping spray paint.

In addition to paying production costs, Flores’s fellowship money helped pay for musicians’ time, including some notable guests. Chicano soul pioneer Sunny Ozuna sings on the album’s first single, “Sometimes.” Hugely influential as a Tejano musician, Ozuna helped establish the lowrider aesthetic with his 1966 single “Smile Now, Cry Later.”

“I can’t tell you how many times I heard that growing up around the East Side cruising scene, lowriding. It’s just synonymous,” Flores says. “To have him participate in the project is a big deal.”

CLIFF’S PLACE

After East Side San Jose and its 1972 follow-up, Clifford Coulter released one more solo album in 1980, The Better Part of Me, produced by soul icon Bill Withers. By then, the two had become regular collaborators, Coulter played keys on Withers’s previous two records and wrote a track on 1977’s Menagerie.

Despite it all, Coulter’s solo music seemed stuck in obscurity. Maybe it was its strange fluidity, how it eluded easy categorization and, therefore, easy marketing. Regardless of his ranging musicianship and gift for pop songwriting, Coulter was often miscategorized as a blues artist.

“He was not a blues player,” says Ron E. Beck, drummer on Do It Now! “He played with blues inflections and with the emotion of the blues, but way more chops.”

Nonetheless, Beck notes, “marketing and promotion people always have to categorize things to do what they do.”

Maybe it also had to do the fact that it was a strangely fluid time for Impulse! Records. Having transitioned from the avant garde “House that Trane Built” in the 1960s, the label had become a smorgasbord of jazz, blues, international and folk, sometimes without a clear delineation between audiences. In the wake of ’70s rock, the label refocused to be more “like a pop company,” as the president of its parent company told Billboard in 1971. Albums that didn’t sell quickly got left behind for those that did.

Or maybe it’s the fact that Coulter himself could, at times, be a strange guy. Once, when Jerry Perez stopped by his apartment to pick up his roommate, he found a notable modification to the television.

“I walk in the door and there was an ax in the middle of the TV set,” Perez says. “I said, ‘what the fuck is that?’ He goes, ‘oh, Clifford did that. It was bothering his practice.’”

In the surprising and often humorous liner notes to East Side San Jose, Coulter describes his own temperament in the third person, saying he is “not the easiest cat to get along with, due to the fact that he is very moody.”

Despite his moods, it is clear that Coulter was loved by nearly everyone who crossed his path. 

“He was my best friend,” Perez says, “my best man at my wedding. I miss him dearly.”

Ron E. Beck echoes the sentiment almost exactly.

“I didn’t have a big brother because I was the oldest,” he says. “Clifford was like a big brother to me.”

PRAYER GARDEN

Toward the end of his life, Clifford Coulter had a regular gig in the church band at GLIDE Memorial Church in the Tenderloin, where longtime friend and bandmate John Turk (East Side San Jose’s trumpet player) had been acting as band director. Each Sunday, he’d drive up to the city, find parking and then set the mood for service.

“Clifford was a stellar person. I have great respect for him,” says Vernon Bush, current musical director of the Glide Ensemble. “Just a kind man and all about the music, 100%.”

Ever an innovator, Coulter kept experimenting to the very end. When Jerry Perez met him in the late ’60s, he was playing out of an amp modified by a mattress; when Bush got to know him in the early 2000s, he was carting around another unlikely object. He had “this thing he was working on,” Bush says, “with, oddly enough, a barbershop quartet.”

Sadly, many of the players on Coulter’s East Side San Jose have passed on. Not just Clifford, but saxophonist Cornelius Bumpus (sideman with the Doobie Brothers), trumpeter and friend John Turk, as well as Mel Brown, Clifford’s Virgil who led him to Impulse! Records.

The mark they left on the sound of San Jose, however, is permanent.

“From my generation, [Clifford] was a preeminent San Jose musician, especially on the east side,” says Jimi Calhoun. “He was like the focal point or the fulcrum. He was everybody’s big brother. All the people who went on to play with national acts, they all came out of Clifford or his influence.”

As for Flores, he hopes to see more albums in the East Side San Jose lineage.

“Hopefully someone down the road hears both of them and says, ok, now here’s my take on it,” he speculates, imagining ever more East Side San Joses in the future. “That’s kind of the hope, that there will be multiple chapters to this story.”

It could happen. In the words of Chuy Gomez on album closer, “Despedida a ESSJ:” “there’s still more to be written, deep in the pages of the barrios.”

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